A Refined Primitive

Interview with Finnish composer Erik Bergman

By Anders Beyer

The first item on the programme when you visit Erik Bergman in his home in Helsinki is a guided tour of his instrument collection. Quite naturally, almost like a ritual, everyone who visits has to see the collection before embarking on the topic of the composer’s music. Titicaca, Uzbekistan, Turkey, Macedonia, Africa, Peru—you name it—he’s been there. And he’s not been there for nothing: an impressive treasure trove of instruments from across the globe hangs from the walls as well as covering the top of everything in the apartment.

Erik Bergman and his wife, Solveig von Schoultz, began to travel around the world at the beginning of the 1970s gathering instruments. Their collection has become exceptional—so rare and comprehensive that it is the subject of a musicological dissertation (Anne Bergman, ‘Bergman’s Instrumental Collection’, Åbo Academy, 1979). These strange instruments from so-called primitive cultures don’t just lie around and gather dust—they are used in numerous instrumental works and have inspired musical rarities like micro-intervals or new tuning systems. And this is not a recent development either. The composer’s interest in the sound world of the Orient can be traced back to the ground-breaking work, Rubaiyat for baritone, male choir and orchestra, from 1953.


Meeting Finland’s senior composer (b. 1911) is fascinating because, by virtue of his age, he is a unique reservoir of historic knowledge and practical experience of his country and its development (Bergman died in 2006, editorial note 2020). When Bergman was born, Finland was a grand duchy of Russia, thus he has witnessed from the start Finland’s development into a modern independent country, which, from a Scandinavian perspective, has emerged as a powerful cultural force.

As early as 1931 Bergman began to study composition, piano, violin, organ and voice at the Sibelius Academy, and soon after that he went to study composition abroad. Bergman describes what it was like to be a composer in the 1930s and 1940s, about the climate for new Finnish music and about his first trip abroad:

“My Suite for String Orchestra and my Passacaglia for Organ (Op. 1 and 2) were part of my diploma work at the Sibelius Academy. The works were written in the spirit of Nordic, national romanticism. You had to write in the approved style of the conservatory—nothing with parallel fifths or anything like that. This inspired me to break the rules and I composed a little piece, a choral work, Arkaisk Bild (Archaic Picture, Op. 35c), to a text by Johannes Edfelt, that contained everything that was forbidden. To be able to protest and to write the way I wanted felt like a great release.

At that time I was made director of the Academic Choral Society. I was chosen because the chorus wanted to update its repertoire and I was asked to compose something. There were six premieres of my works at the first concert.

Later I began to compose works for speaking choir. No-one knew how to react; it wasn’t music at all. I used texts by Christian Morgenstern, notably in the last movement, ‘Das grosse Lalula’, from Vier Galgenlieder (Four Gallow Songs, 1960) for mixed choir, which had counterpoint and everything. When the piece was finished the audience didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Since then it has become something of a hit.”

Later in the 1930s Bergman came to a compositional dead end. He had no-one he could really talk to in Finland and sought contact with the musical scene in Central Europe in order to meet composers and musicians. In 1937, Bergman began to study with Heinz Tiessen in Berlin:

“Celibidache and I were students at the same time. A lot was happening in the Berlin of the 1930s and 1940s. Karajan began the Sunday matinées in the Berlin Staatsoper and competed with Fürtwängler’s Berlin Philharmonic. The climate was tense with ‘degenerate’ art. Hindemith had to leave the country, and so on. My professor, Heinz Tiessen, couldn’t get performances of his work at the large German music festivals because he had a Jewish publisher. It was hard for advanced art to even exist under the ‘aryan’ laws. Eventually when the war was over, Germany became home to the European avantgarde with the summer courses in Darmstadt, and so on.

In the 1940s I reached a point as a composer, where I was unable to continue in the traditional style, so I had to seek out new areas. This led to compositional techniques that were close to the twelve-tone method. For example, if I had a note that was going to be important as a point of culmination, then I couldn’t use it before that point. These experiments didn’t come easily—for years I had resisted serialism. When I studied in Berlin in the 1930s, I thought it was too artificial and constructivist. Not until the end of the 1940s when I studied with Wladimir Vogel in Switzerland, did the twelve-tone method become essential for me. It became the means for me to break free from the cult of Sibelius that didn’t just dominate Finland, but the whole of Scandinavia.

Then later I left the orthodox twelve-tone technique behind and sought my own expressive means, in the way that all composers of necessity have to do. A technique should not only benefit art. No matter what technique you use, as a composer you have to delve down to the deepest parts of yourself and ask what it is that you really want to achieve. I have tried to keep away from all the ‘isms’ and go my own way, but it hasn’t always been easy.

These days, pluralism provides a solution for many, and that’s OK, but I consider it very important to develop new expressive means. You have to renew yourself all the time, create new solutions to problems when you compose.”

Electronic music

Due to this basic approach to compositional practice, Bergman always begins a new work from scratch:

“I always start from point zero and each time I ask what it is that I want to do with this new work. Then I set out accordingly, just as you have to do in the case of electronic music where you face a thousand possibilities. For each work you have to make a set of decisions and you have to eliminate things so that the idea of the individual work becomes something specific.

With respect to electronic music, I was very taken with it when it came out, so to speak, in Europe. I was in the Italian radio’s electronic music studio in Milan at the end of the 1950s where I became very familiar with the ideas of Bruno Maderna and Luciano Berio. Both composers were there at that time and built the studio into a powerful centre. Since then, Cologne and Stockhausen and others have come along. It was interesting to be there, but it was a one-time phenomenon for me; electronic music hasn’t left a noticeable trace in my output. It should be said, however, that I gave a series of electronic music seminars as Professor of Composition at the Sibelius Academy. For an entire Spring term, electronic music was a theme, with experts in the field coming in. It is important for young students to have the chance to take a stand with respect to every aspect of composition. I always say, ‘Nothing is forbidden, long live freedom’!

Speaking of teaching, there was once a young man who wanted to study with me. I asked him to show me what he had composed. He really wanted to compose modern music. What he had with him was not actually modern, and it was very simple. I had to tell him that he had a very long way to go. You can’t just hop from something banal to something highly complicated; there has to be an inner process where you become aware of what you are doing. I told him that once he had gathered all the external stimuli then it was important for him to go into his study and decide what he actually wanted. After that he could come to see me again and formulate his goals in words. That’s tough! But in that way you may reach an understanding of how each individual person thinks. It means that you can’t teach all students in the same way, but must teach them according to their own specific personalities. When students had problems with composition, I shared their problems, sometimes even at night! I found teaching terribly demanding; it is very difficult to guide young composers. When I retired from the Sibelius Academy, I didn’t want to have private students, but wanted to concentrate on composing.”

Jean Sibelius

In Denmark there were a number of composers who had difficulty freeing themselves from the legacy of Carl Nielsen who dominated musical life and thought for many years. Apparently something similar happened to Bergman, only it wasn’t with Carl Nielsen, but with Sibelius.

“Yes, all of Sibelius’s contemporaries and the generation that followed lived in his shadow. After my second composition recital at the end of the 1940s, I was invited by Jean Sibelius to visit him. He had heard some of my music on the radio and wanted to talk with me. During the visit he encouraged me and inspired me to continue. He made a point of saying that he was happy to find young people who dared to do something different and new. On this occasion Sibelius also said that he was considered by the public to be someone who stood in the way of all other composers, forcing them to live in his shadow. He said, ‘That’s not my fault; I have done nothing to create this situation’. He made it clear that he admired new ideas and he was actually not at all as conventional and old-fashioned as you would think. He declared that at the beginning of the century he was very interested in Schoenberg’s music. I don’t know if his biographer, Tawatstjerna, knows this and has written about it, but Sibelius was actually very interested in these things. In his Fourth Symphony he extended tonality, but in the Fifth Symphony he fell back and didn’t have the strength to continue in that direction.

It’s natural that a strong personality—like, for example, Nielsen in Denmark—will dominate. Lately in Denmark, new directions, and good composers who demonstrate completely new approaches, have emerged. That’s natural, but the plight of those who are excluded because of certain strong personalities who dominate musical life is also understandable.

Later I received some calls from Sibelius’s son-in-law, Jussi Jalas, who was principal conductor of the opera. Jussi phoned and said, ‘Now Jean has heard your music again and he particularly likes this and this . . . . He asked me to call you’. The last communication from the family came when Sibelius died. His wife, Aino Sibelius, asked me to come to the graveside and to conduct the two university choruses in ‘Mitt hjärtas sång’ (Sibelius’s op. 18). When the coffin was put into the earth, I conducted that little song as his last farewell.”

Right from the beginning, the human voice has been an important resource for Bergman. Over a period of more than 50 years he conducted and composed choral music—it represents the greatest part of his output. These works have been significant in terms of stylistic development and, even if they are not key works, they are still very important within the context of post-war European choral music. What is it about the medium that so attracts him?

“I was interested in the human voice from my earliest years; as a young student I sang tenor in the Academic Choral Society. But an important inspirational source was my work with the Chamber Speaking Choir from Zurich, the foremost speaking chorus at that time. To celebrate their tenth anniversary they commissioned a piece entitled Vier Galgenlieder (Four Gallows Songs). That was how I became familiar with the possibilities inherent in speaking choruses. I cultivated everything that lies between bel canto, whispering, and Sprechgesang, the expressive means that lies between speech and song, and so on.”

Bergman has also used this technique in his new opera, Det Sjungande Trädet (The Singing Tree) to a libretto by Bo Karpelan. It was commissioned for the new opera house in Helsinki in 1991. Here he uses Sprechgesang in one of the most important roles, that of the fool.

“This fool sees everything and knows beforehand how things are going to turn out. Taking the role of the jester, he voices uncomfortable truths about the king. In order to distinguish his role from all the others, he uses Sprechgesang; he neither sings nor speaks. He must perfect a technique similar to that of Schoenberg in Pierrot Lunaire. It is used deliberately throughout the opera.”

In Bergman’s choral music there is an unfailing instinct for the practical. As in the works of the renaissance masters, you feel that the composer himself is a singer. There is an awareness of the possibilities of the voice—the choral writing is completely idiomatic.

“You have to have a very clear idea about what the human voice can and cannot do. You should not—as has Heinz Holliger for example—compose as if the choir were an instrument. You should penetrate the mystery of the song and also explore the purely physical aspects. Consider a work like Lament and Incantation (for soprano and cello) written for Dorothy Dorow. Here in Finland when old women mourn their dead there are long lamentations. The same thing happens in the first part of the work; the singer should almost weep. In the second part, the Incantation, the singer should invoke the evil spirits. This is a song without words that cultivates the suggestive, and expresses rage using highly-charged dynamics.”

New Paths

If you look at today’s young generation of composers in Finland, you find a wealth of talent that has even attracted international attention: Saariaho, Lindberg, Kaipainen, to name but a few. What do you think of the latest developments in Finnish composition and how do you stand in relation to it?

“I have to relate it to the situation in which I found myself when I began to compose for speaking chorus, serial music and God knows what else, and found very little understanding. It was terribly hard to fight for something that was completely new here. We founded a society, Contemporary Music, that later became Finland’s representative at the ISCM. We produced concerts of new music, held lectures, made analyses. We tried to cultivate a green field. Hardly anyone came to the concerts; no-one understood a single thing about the music. But in response to the information we provided, steadily more people became interested. This entire development—the rise of new music from an ‘embryonic stage’ to today’s responsive audiences—is there for the benefit of our young composers. The line I stood for has now been continued and I like to say, somewhat roguishly, that now that I can see the positive development of new music, I can die in peace! The new music scene here seethes and bubbles with life with so many young gifted composers like the ones you have named. But let us not forget one who has had a truly great influence in this process: Paavo Heininen. He teaches composition at the Sibelius Academy and gathers youth around him. Through his work as teacher and through his compositions he has been a key figure in the development of new music in Finland.

Another reason for the blossoming new music scene here is the number of gifted conductors who are now becoming internationally-known: Esa-Pekka Salonen, Leif Segerstam, Okku Kamu, Jukka-Pekka Saraste. They are also helping to pave the way for the performance of new music. And a wealth of new music is being composed in Finland as a result of the completely unique grant-system we have. (Twenty to twenty-five Finnish composers receive stipends lasting from one to fifteen years.) These government grants make it possible for composers to completely and utterly concentrate on composition. I know of no other country in the world that has a comparable system of support. Finally, we also have musicologists who have gained recognition: Erik Tawaststjerna, Eero Tarasti and Mikko Heiniö, all researchers who teach at the university in Åbo. In addition they have also begun a programme of research at the Sibelius Academy.”

Erik Bergman continues to comment happily on his many years of experience as a central musical personality in Finland and his glowing enthusiasm burns its

way into the consciousness of all who meet him. He provides the background and historical roots to the growth in new Finnish music. Bergman is not just a legendary figure, a nostalgic source of anecdotes. Today he is the same listening, searching, innovative person he always has been, as can be heard in his final salvo which is more impatient than resigned:

“There is so much to do on earth, one man’s life is too short and insignificant. I don’t think that I have done enough in life yet. There is so much I haven’t been able to achieve!”

© Anders Beyer 2000

The interview was published in Anders Beyer, The Voice of Music. Conversations with composers of our time, Ashgate Publishing, London 2000. The interview was also published in Danish, ‘Bergman – en forfinet primitivist. Et møde med den finske komponist Erik Bergman’, Musikhøst 1989 (programme book for the new music festival Music Harvest 1989).