Suggested Listening: “Berceuse” by Armas Järnefelt

I discovered this fantastic piece a long time ago but never put in the effort to research this obscure composer — until now!  Listen to this week’s SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC — Armas Järnefelt’s gorgeous Berceuse, performed below by cellist Seppo Laamanen with pianist Jouni Somero (FI).

About the Composer:

NPR’s Deceptive Cadence blog profiled today’s protagonist in their “Classical Lost and Found” feature (read it here) — and “lost and found” indeed is an apt description for Armas Järnefelt (1869-1958).  The son of a Finnish military general (Aleksander Järnefelt, who was also, randomly, one of Finland’s most important topographers), Armas grew up with eight other siblings — including brothers Arvid, a noted writer, and Eero, a renowned landscape painter.  The nine Järnefelt kids were raised with military strictness, but also instilled with a deep awareness of and admiration for Finnish culture.

Armas showed great musical aptitude at a very early age, but as a young adult decided to simultaneously enroll in both the Helsinki Institute of Music (today’s famous Sibelius Academyand the law program at the University of Helsinki.  Ultimately, he dedicated himself fully to music.  His teachers included Ferruccio Busoni (the Italian composer and pianist famous for his interpretive transcriptions of Bach keyboard works) as well as Jules Massenet (the great French opera composer), and years spent in Berlin and Paris exposed him to a vast array of musical styles and perspectives.  His first marriage, to Finnish opera star Maikki Pakarinen, opened him up to a love of opera, and his earlier encounters with the dramatic, bombastic operas of Richard Wagner while in Berlin led the couple to visit Wagner’s home base of Bayreuth on several occasions.  In fact, Armas Järnefelt was the first Finn to conduct Wagner’s operas in Finland.

As his success and fame grew, he received job offers at the Finnish National Theater, Stockholm Royal Theater, and even his alma mater, the Helsinki Institute of Music, where he served as Director from 1906-1907.  (Another Finnish favorite of mine, Leevi Madetoja, was a student there during Järnefelt’s tenure.)  Divorced in 1908, Järnefelt’s second marriage was to another opera singer, Olivia Edström of Sweden.  (Incidentally, Maikki Pakarinen’s second marriage was to another composer, Selim Palmgrem, known as “the Finnish Chopin” and who taught for several years at my own alma mater.)  The rest of Järnefelt’s career was spent in his new wife’s homeland, where he acquired Swedish citizenship and conducted the Stockholm Royal Opera until his death in 1958.

But let’s rewind several decades — back to 1889, when Armas was studying in Helsinki.  A good friend of his was a fellow student of music and law, a young man by the name of Jean Sibelius — who, of course, would become Finland’s single greatest composer and a national cultural icon.  One day, Armas brought his pal Jean home for a visit, and, within three years, Jean Sibelius was married to Armas’ younger sister Aino.

Unfortunately, Armas Järnefelt — like many Finnish composers of his generation — was lost in the shadow of his brother-in-law, Finland’s musical superstar.  As that NPR post puts it, “Armas Järnefelt…picked a bad time to be born.”  Nonetheless, his music is stunning — an extraordinary discovery, lost then found, but definitely worth the wait.

About the Piece:

The Berceuse is among the few works by Järnefelt still known today.  After hearing some of Sibelius’ large symphonic works — and perhaps discouraged by his friend’s obvious talent — Järnefelt turned to composing for smaller ensembles.  The Berceuse came about in 1904, scored for small orchestra and later arranged by the composer for solo violin or cello and piano.  At the time, his young daughter Eva had taken ill; to cheer her up, he wrote this kehtolaulu (lullaby), which NPR calls “a musical get-well card.”  A beautiful performance exists by Estonian baritone Georg Ots — take a listen here — but despite hours of research, I could not for the life of me find the text, in any language.  So, let’s just focus on the cello version.

Composed on the tail end of the Romantic era and into the twentieth century, the format of the piece hearkens back to a distant time, calling to mind the moody, undulant works for voice and piano (called Lieder) that dominated early-19th-century concert culture in Western Europe.  Such music was designed for intimate performance, as at intellectual gatherings known as salons.  With its deeply personal connection to the composer’s daughter, intimacy is the very lifeblood of this piece.  Rolling piano chords thrum and flutter beneath a cello that may as well be a singer — you can definitely hear Järnefelt’s operatic background shining through, in the dramatic, unexpected troughs that punctuate the soaring melody.  Simple and sing-able, yet tinged with the darkness of a father’s worry, the Berceuse — in my mind, at least — paints the image of a Nordic landscape at twilight: tranquil, nebulous, beautiful.

Shout out to the Historical Dictionary of the Music and Musicians of Finland for loads of helpful information!

If you enjoyed Berceuse, you might also like…

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