Sounds From The North: Tonality And Nordic Composers

Owen Burton on the use of tonality in symphonies by Sibelius, Nielsen and Rautavaara.

Repovesi National Park in early morning summer sun, in Kouvola, Finland
Repovesi National Park in early morning summer sun, in Kouvola, Finland, by  M. Passinen.  Shared under Creative Commons License. Cropped from source.
screen-shot-2016-12-04-at-12-21-23         By Owen Burton

There is something intriguing and exciting about music that is ambiguous. Often, what makes music stimulating is the difficulty in labelling the musical processes that are going on. This was part of what attracted me to the symphonies of the monumental Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) when I was first introduced to studying his works as a second year undergraduate. I have been studying and writing about Nordic music since then and continue to be drawn to the challenge of understanding the subtle and complex processes of composers from this region. The somewhat grandiose title of this article might be in danger of over-simplifying the geographical and cultural influence on the repertoire, but Fenno-Scandinavia has produced a number of composers who demonstrated an alluring complexity which often comes down to their treatment and advancement of that old chestnut: tonality.

Traditionally, tonality established a musical hierarchy that became familiar. A seven-note scale would establish one important note (the tonic). This ‘functional tonality’ revolved around a resolute harmonic relationship between the fifth chord of a scale and the tonic chord. Later tonally-driven works by certain twentieth-century composers moved away from this functional harmonic relationship, but still extracted and developed other tonal characteristics.

One of the reasons for this change in tonal practice was that, around the turn of the twentieth century, very different views on composition were being put into practice. The uses of tonality itself, and the question of whether composers should still incorporate it, were central to this musical disparity. Tonality, however residual, continued in some shape or form after the First World War. But, in order for tonality to survive, composers had to do something new with it. This desire for change was perhaps only natural. Following the massive social and technological upheaval of the First World War, there was perhaps a feeling among some that late-Romanticism, and its increasingly diluted tonality, had run its course. It was time for something different. Really different.

The fascinating thing about 20th/21st-century music (the times of modernism, post-modernism, and as many clever-sounding ‘isms’ that take your fancy) is the number of wildly varied musical approaches that were explored. Between the late 19th-century and the mid-20th century, classical music became less of a neat, linear, progression as an excitingly multifarious mess of compositional possibilities.

Whilst tonal language was continuing, the new twelve-tone technique was being developed by Arnold Schoenberg, as a ‘post-tonal’ response. Schoenberg wished to develop a new, highly-ordered system – one based on a democratic use of all the twelve notes of the chromatic scale, to replace the tonal system. And here is a fundamental point: many composers who chose to take on board tonal aspects managed to prove that tonality was not a spent force, that change need not be so extreme.

One of the ways in which Sibelius expanded tonality was to combine it with an even earlier musical resource: modes. A mode, like a tonal scale, is a pattern of intervals in a particular combination, yielding a unique ‘quality’ or sound from which a composer can then draw both melody and harmony. The combination of tonality and modality opened a door to whole new possibilities.

Sibelius, both during his lifetime and even today, has been labelled as ‘conservative’ in his use of tonality – a potentially damaging view that can lead to missing the subtlety of Sibelius’s sonorities. Sibelius might not have been so radical as to disregard tonality, but there seemed little need to be radical when he could see with apparent clarity how to develop a ‘traditional’ musical aspect further.

Sibelius’s Symphony No. 6 in D minor (1923) is his most well-known orchestral work that incorporates modes within an otherwise tonal sound world. As musicologist Tim Howell has discussed in detail, this later symphony uses an old church mode which predates tonality: the Dorian mode on D. This mode is similar to the more recent tonal minor scale, but with one note changed (it uses B natural instead of B flat).  Because the Dorian mode has many notes in common with not just the D minor scale, but also major scales such as F major and C major, its combination with these tonal scales opens the door to ambiguity. Sibelius takes advantage of this harmonic uncertainty in order to expand his tonal language beyond the confines and expectations of a single scale. This fusion of multiple scale types makes for a richer palette to draw from. And yet, the music does not sound alien. It is not far removed from traditional tonality, but is more difficult to put under one convenient label.

Sibelius puts this ‘same-but-different’ effect into practice in the very opening of the sixth symphony. The key is not clear: a few seconds into the music, the keen ear might latch onto the note D as a pitch centre, but this is tantalisingly indirect. In reality, Sibelius really avoids any sense of a key centre in these opening bars.

Listening to the sixth symphony in full, in a darkened room, and with good headphones, is an experience I would recommend to anyone. The tension between the D Dorian mode and tonal scales, creating exquisite ambiguity (and therefore an expanded and richer musical vocabulary), runs right through the symphony. The synthesis of tonal and modal is paramount to the work’s chilly and fastidiously economic being.

The retention of select tonal aspects, combined with modes may have seemed strangely retrospective to some. But Sibelius seemingly recognised a durable compositional principle, which indiscriminately incorporated and welcomed the developments of the past. The influence that this standpoint had on other composers from England and America, such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, suggests that Sibelius must have been doing something right.

Sibelius’s free tonality manifested itself in another way. Playing around with time is an intriguing aspect of Sibelius’s orchestral modus operandi. There are numerous highly sonorous passages orientated around stasis. In such cases, Sibelius avoids chord progressions as such, and instead emphasises sonority itself by exploring the notes within a key in a static, non-directional way. Such sonority is often centred on a chord or pedal note, but notes from the scale based on that chord move around over the top.  This tonal stasis is heard in Sibelius’s last symphony, Symphony No. 7 in C major (1924), during the trombone solo early into the piece.

Such a method explored tonality with such freshness, and with such personality. This sense of a single, prolonged and intricate soundscape (built over pedal tones deep in the orchestral texture) has undoubtedly helped fuel the notion that Sibelius’s music is evocative of Finnish landscape – a phenomenon that has been explored in depth by musicologist Daniel Grimley. It is all too easy to get carried away, when listening, with wide-shot images of Finnish forests and lakes, but there is something in the shimmering qualities of Sibelius’s static tonality that makes chilly landscape images come back again and again.

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931), from Denmark, is often put together with Sibelius – a habit no doubt explained by Nielsen’s reputation as the ‘other’ Nordic symphonist of the early twentieth century, born in the same year as the Finnish composer. In Nielsen’s Symphony No. 5 (1922), he too carved out ways to build on the tonal language. Again, there is the fusion of tonal and non-tonal forces; the exciting potential of tonal suggestiveness and ambiguity.

In the opening of Nielsen’s fifth symphony, two bassoons begin a melody that sounds diatonic (i.e. it makes the listener think of some kind of tonal scale or mode), but this melody is not bound by a seven-note scale pattern. And yet, residual features of diatonicism remain, such as the consistent use of ‘tonal’ sounding intervals like thirds, and the movement between whole tones and semitones. This melody takes place over a deliberately ambiguous pedal in the violas on two notes: A-C.

As with Sibelius, Nielsen expands his melodic/harmonic resources by breaking down traditional seven-note tonality, whilst taking forward tonal principles and developing them in new, complex contexts.

In this two-movement symphony, Nielsen also impressively intensifies the traditional process of tonal resolution. A Mozart symphony will begin in one key and, after moving through other harmonic regions, will return home to that key. In certain late-Romantic works such as Mahler’s Second Symphony (1888-94) the music begins in one key and progresses to end in a different key – so called ‘progressive’ or ‘directional’ tonality. But with Nielsen’s fifth symphony, the progression is not from one key to another, it is from the absence of a key (i.e. tonal ambiguity and non-tonality) to a single, unambiguous key. When the symphony reaches the climactic finish, an E flat major chord catches the listener unawares. And yet the long-term, organic tonal struggle built over the whole work makes it seem that there could be no other musical conclusion. Nielsen, in short, took a governing principle of tonality (tension followed by resolution) and expanded it tenfold.

In 1954, Sibelius – now the grand old man of Finnish music – was asked to recommend a composer of his choice for a Koussevitzky Foundation Scholarship to study at Julliard School of Music. Sibelius chose the young Finn, Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928-2016), after being deeply impressed by the young composer’s early brass work, A Requiem in Our Time (1953).

Rautavaara’s early contact with Sibelius unsurprisingly prompted the Finnish musical world to view him as something of a successor to the Finnish musical cause. The mantle had been passed on.

However, from around the 1950s onwards, the expectation to write in a more outwardly modern style had escalated further still. It would have been tremendously difficult, and unwise, for the young Rautavaara to avoid the plethora of compositional views and approaches that, in Finland, had developed over a startlingly concentrated period.

Charting the development of Rautavaara’s music is therefore fascinating. Here was a composer who experimented with Neo-Classicism; all-out twelve-tone music; electronic music, and Neo-Romanticism. Rautavaara’s later style saw a return to tonal-sounding sonorities – a decision that has drawn criticism from those who felt this to be a regressive step. But within these more ‘tonal’ works are also some of the most recognisable and original Rautavaarian sounds, which take what they need from tonality to effectuate a confident musical independence.

In Rautavaara’s Symphony No. 8, ‘The Journey’ (1999), can be heard the amalgamation of: temporary, constantly shifting harmonic centres, underscored by deep pedal tones; wide-spanning harmonies often using the interval of a fourth; and cluster chords which colour otherwise tonal-sounding melodies. All within a purposeful and spacious work which charts the symphonic ‘journey’ of melodic material from beginning to end.

Fewer pieces than we might think abandoned tonality completely. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (1913) did not use an unrecognisable musical language. Many parts of this ‘radical’ work incorporate aspects of bi-tonality, diatonicism, and modality which grow out of Stravinsky’s two previous ballets, The Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911).

So much inspiring and important music has been written through creative and independent incorporations of select tonal aspects, and these three Nordic composers have taken this skill into their works in a way that is particularly their own. The richness, depth and complexity of this music make listening to it, and understanding it, all the more rewarding.

Read more about Nordic music on Corymbus:

Shakespeare in Scandinavia

Owen Burton is a first year PhD candidate in Musicology at the University of York. He gained both his BMus (Hons) and MA from Bangor University. Owen also writes concert programme notes for the North Wales-based Ensemble Cymru and hosts pre-concert talks at the Llandudno arts centre, Venue Cymru. He is also the conductor and tutor with the Lifelong Learning Orchestra at Bangor University. He tweets as @OwenBurton_1.