Aulis Sallinen : Symphony No. 8 (Autumnal Fragments)
The Eighth Symphony, composed mainly in 2001, was completed in October that year.
I have sought to combine two contrasting elements in this work: one that is fragmentary and sketchy, and one that maintains a symphonic discipline and coherence.
Whenever I have had the chance, I have always enjoyed being in an artist’s studio, looking at sketches. The fascination of a sketch lies in the fact that it conveys a strong, quickly realised inspiration and vision, at the same time leaving scope for many possible alterations and developments. All paths to completion are open, no possibilities have been excluded, and so the sketch is the foundation of a multi-faceted whole.
In one passage I have quoted the “Theme of the Dead” from my opera “Kullervo”, and it finally emerges as a five-part canon. The “Bell Theme” of the finale is a salute to the Concertgebouw Orchestra who commissioned this work. The theme is built up from certain notes from the name of the Orchestra and its home city: ConCErtGEBouw
The title “Autumnal Fragments” refers not only to the age of the composer, but also the tragic events of September 11. That is why the finale turned out to be different from my original design.
© Aulis Sallinen
Sallinen's Eighth, completed in 2001, does exhibit many excellent Sibelian virtues: it is restrained in orchestration, unflashy, economically using limited thematic materials that reappear within a one-movement structure largely consistent in tone and accessible even on first listening to its 22-minute length. The work's sub-title Autumnal Fragments is not particularly helpful. The overall mood is, if anything, sparse and wintry; 'fragments' implies disparate, perhaps unfinished paragraphs loosely assembled, where this is hardly the case. In fact one particularly noticeable aspect is the work's taut and restrained frustration, the tendency of its themes to be stopped dead by silence.
In some ways the new symphony inhabits the same landscape as Sallinen's First of 30 years previously. His orchestral textures are still light, high woodwind and metal percussion still play characteristic short motifs against pedal-points or brief melodies in the strings. Just like Sibelius, however, the journey from first to [latest] symphonies has been one of gradual stripping away. In fact the Eighth is much nearer in its childlike spirit to his Second Symphony, with its hesitant string melodies interrupted by menacing high-pitched trumpet fanfares that only succeed in thwarting the waltz-like progressions. In the opening section of the No. 8, a sinuous two-and-a-half-bar string melody, pregnant with the possibility of hope and expansion, is tried out over and over again but always halted - either by silence or the dull mechanical clicking of wood blocks or guiro. A nascent woodwind melody fares no better. In the quicker central section, running figures in the woodwind are held up by sharp reports on side and snare drums. The percussion vs. woodwind and strings, starkness vs. lyricism strategy is reminiscent of Nielsen or Shostakovich, but there's something in Sallinen's language here - soft, slow punctuating string chords, the percussion never getting out of hand - that is a little safe, a little polite. Characteristically, Sallinen's snare and side drummers duet in a variety of 'varied rim shots', as the score suggests, without getting too loud or unpredictable.
The ending originally planned, as the composer writes, was going to be a positive one. You can hear what might have been in a skittish string and marimba tune. Instead '9/11 intervened' and a tolling bass drum and duly mournful strings make for a subdued coda. The Symphony then is finally autumnal; but for the remainder of its length Sallinen's trademark tremolando strings and sudden dashes of energy are anything but calm or resigned. Sallinen's strength, here as elsewhere, is that something interesting is always happening and his familiar technique of taking a short motif and using it to build an episode communicates as clearly as ever.
Robert Stein, Tempo, 01/07/2005
The radical element of this compact, 20-minute symphony is suggested by its subtitle, "Autumnal Fragments." The music is like a string of boldly disconnected rhythmic riffs, melodic motives and aborted attempts at development.
It begins with a nonchalant rhythmic pattern for wood blocks, as if the percussionist is trying to get the piece going. Soon, strangely haunting things happen: whistling figurations from the violins, minimalistic repetitions in the lower strings, pungent brass chorales that suddenly stop. A middle section, like a nervous scherzo, gains in impetus and density. But the work subsides into a slow, funereal ending, the composer's response, as he has written, to the horrors of 9/11.
Mr. Sallinen takes you on a journey so wondrous you are sorry when it ends. Mr. Jarvi and his players gave an involving and impressive account of this intriguing work.
Anthony Tommasini, New York Times, 26/01/2005