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The Birth of Joonas Kokkonen

22nd February 2021

Composer Joonas Kokkonen was born
a hundred years ago among the lakes
of Finland (Iisalmi). He's sometimes called 
successor to Sibelius although
his colleague Eino Rautavaara claims
that too. His wikipedia entry says
he served with 'great distinction' in the war
but gives no details; maybe this is tact.
His country joined the Nazis after all
as Russia was the real enemy - 
they'd fought over Karelia for years -
and Germany's attack on Poland gave
the Russians an excuse to bomb the Finns. 
Consequently Hitler was a friend. 
Kokkonen was only nineteen in
The Winter War in which the armies fought 
in temperatures of minus forty. Ice 
is present in the first two symphonies 
of Kokkonen which I have on a disc
recorded by the Finnish Radio
Symphony Orchestra conducted by 
the Finn Sakari Oramo. The First
is cold, sharp-edged and based throughout its four 
crisp movements on a tone row which the sleeve 
notes quote and which I learned to hum. This was 
a willed fulfilment of the prophecy 
of Schoenberg who said one day even mail
delivery boys would sing atonal themes. 
They certainly should teach them in the schools:
the principal is pure equality -
all twelve notes without a hierarchy;
no key, no cadence, no tonality. 
Once I had internalised the row,
the arctic beauty of Kokkonen's score
revealed itself. The segments reappeared
transformed: the moderato's glacial wastes,
the allegretto's shiver and allegro's threat
and finally the slow cantabile,
a skater in a perfect lakewide arc.
Did Kokkonen ever visit us? 
I've yet to find out but his legacy
in Finnish education is profound
and Finnish music has an influence 
wherever there are orchestras. Oramo's
Chief Conductor of the B.B.C. 
Symphony Orchestra. I'd tune in if
Kokkonen's First were programmed at the Proms.