Thursday, July 21, 2011

What The Parasitic Hymenopter Tells Me: Aho's "Insect Symphony"

Finnish composer Kalevi Aho's Seventh Symphony  (Hyönteisinfonia, "Insect Symphony") may be the most high-minded work ever to depict the trials and travails of the dung beetle. The fourth movement, with the charming subtitle "The Dung Beetles (Grief over the Stolen Ball of Dung)", is an exercise in the effortful accumulation of orchestral volume and energy -- the ever-rising tessitura and chromatic scales turning over themselves bring to mind the adjective "rolling."

[All excerpts come from Osmo Vänskä's recording on the BIS label]

For what purpose is this energy expended, and what forces are behind the theft of its product? The answer lies in the source material for this symphony. In 1987, Aho (1949-) submitted his second opera, Hyönteiselämää ("Insect's Life") to a competition put on by the Savonlinna Opera Festival that would reward the winner with a performance to mark the 350th anniversary of the host town. Aho's submission was an adaptation of the popular post-war Czech play Pictures from an Insect's Life by Karel and Joseph Čapek. It is an at times viciously satirical piece of theater in which a drunken vagrant projects anthropomorphized traits onto the various insect species he encounters, and inserts himself into their petty lives. The dung beetles are portrayed as greedily industrious (spending their lives accumulating hard-earned "capital" in the form know what) and easily devastated by the theft of the material fruits of their labor. Kind of gives "Sisyphean" a different aroma, doesn't it?

The two other competitors in this festival were Paavo Heininen and Einojuhani Rautavaara, and the prize went to the former for his opera Veitsi (The Knife). Determined not to let his material from his insectoid opera go to waste, Aho turned to compositional tactic we've seen before from frustrated opera composers: turn it into a symphony! We've already featured two Unsung Symphonies that originate this way: Henze's Fourth, derived from his König Hirsch; and Rautavaara's Sixth, derived from his Vincent -- which, you guessed it, was the other losing entry from the Savonlinna competition! But don't worry, both Aho and Rautavaara's operas went on to have very successful premiers after the fact (why, the Insect Symphony had its Japanese premier in 2009!)[1]. You can hear the composer's own words on the process by following this link to YouTube.

Aho is one of the shining lights of Finland's post-Sibelius musical efflorescence. A student of Rautavaara, Aho has surpassed his mentor in symphonic output, 15 to the grand old man's 8. The first six establish the musical landscape Aho feels comfortable inhabiting, alternatively neo-Classical (with a penchant for fugues and distorted familiar forms) and rigorously modernist.[2] The cross-pollination of these idioms naturally suggests a post-modern outlook, but Aho is no slavish practitioner of any "ism". Indeed, that high-mindedness I mentioned in relation to the dung beetle episode is emblematic of the Insect Symphony as a whole -- it is both the product of and a sly criticism of post-modernism (perhaps a redundant claim for a post-modern work!). Aho, in his commentary on the symphony, emphasizes the flagrant stylistic and tonal (in emotional, not musical terms) discontinuities between its six movements, each of which sounds like a direct repudiation of the one that preceded it, but in his words "nowhere do we find a unifying synthesis of all the extremely disparate material that has been presented."[3] Stylistic allusions and disruptive "pseudo-quotations" run rampant, but at the same time there is a carefully managed emotional arc. Individual movements are cohesive (leading some to deem it more of a suite than a symphony) while at the same time only really resonating in relation to the work as a whole. In Aho's words, "The movements support each other because of their underlying opposite natures, and they cannot be performed in any other order. The symphony...accords with Mahler's conviction that the symphony must be like the world; it must contain everything."

Gustav Mahler probably didn't have bug larvae in mind when he made that all-encompassing claim for the genre, but considering the millions upon millions of species of insects that dwarf humankind in variety and biomass on this planet, perhaps Aho has it right. An accurate symphonic portrait of the world damn well better feature our six-legged overlords prominently!

Rather than attempt to capture or mimic the multitude of sounds that come from the insect world (try this instead), Aho extracts human-like character traits and renders them with orchestral magic. The symphony's first movement, "The Tramp, the Parasitic Hymenopter and its Larva," introduces us to the character of the drunken vagrant who hallucinates the personalities of the rest of the proceedings. With tuba and muted brass melodies tottering and tripping over themselves, we can glean how Aho adapted vocal lines from the source opera.[4]

You need only hear the first second of the next movement to understand what Aho meant by the "opposite natures" of these musical portraits. "Foxtrot and Tango of the Butterflies" introduces a wildly syncopated (and tonal!) dance set, with alto sax, trombone, and clarinet piping weirdly "off" two-step tunes. The scene from Čapek's play with the butterflies is like a soap-opera involving unrequited romance and lover's recriminations.  Aho's dense overscoring and chromatic skids and slips lends the movement a dizzy energy redolent of Ravel's similar choreographic disassembly in "La Valse." One isn't left with a particular desire to spend an evening with these social butterflies.

The Dung Beetle's ordeal comes on the heels of this manic dance scene, and is followed (should I say "negated") by a diaphanous scherzo depicting "The Grasshoppers." These sprightly creatures are depicted with quicksilver chord progressions garbed in flitting orchestral colors. Despite its surface impatience, there is more wholesale melodic repetition in this movement than elsewhere -- we get to know and love this light motif for the nervous creatures quite well by movement's end.

The symphony's concluding two movements are its most substantial. Number five gives us a glimpse into the musical culture of the insect world's implacable colonists -- "The Working Music of the Ants and War Marches I and II." The ceaselessly regular procession witnesses the orchestra carting away major seconds with grim determination towards an unknown goal. Streams of these intervals converge into a massive onslaught as the movement progresses, and Aho unleashes some particularly extravagant percussion instruments to keep the ants in line. By the time the it reaches a grotesque and Shostakovich-esque parody of a pompous military march, it seems Aho has in his sights an indictment of fascistic militarism, or at least, a bad experience involving fire ants.

With that fifth movement, Aho's Seventh symphony turns a corner -- in his words "Satire and comedy eventually give way to tragedy; the sensitivity and beauty of the ending are also combined with feelings of profound loneliness and alienation." And so we are provided the final portrait, "The Dayflies and Lullaby for the Dead Lullabies." Unvarnished triads and sweet textures are the norm now, and the lullaby, scored for two violins congenitally joined at the major third, sounds like an artificially-honeyed Richard Strauss confection. But there is deep pathos here too. Dayflies (a.k.a. mayflies) spend at most a day or two of their lives in their adult forms (some last barely 30 minutes) before expiring, hopefully having successfully mated during their brief taste of life. A shockingly brutal climax in the middle of this sweet movement gives way to an extended elegy for these entomological ephemera.

Considering their momentary lives, I find it poignant that Aho allots such a lengthy and slow meditation for the mayflies' expiry. The cello eulogy is one of the most haunting endings to a symphony I've heard from the 20th century.[5] It is a devastating conclusion to a work that up to this point has held the listener at arms' length with its sense of musical travesty and play. All traces of the symphony's satirical venom is drained by this stage.  Perhaps this is the critique of post-modernism Aho speaks of -- to be able to wring the deepest pathos from the death of a mayfly.

--Frank Lehman

[2]. See Kimmo Korhonen Inventing Finnish Music (2007, 156-160) for a nice contextualization of Aho in the vibrant Finish musical scene.
[3]. Kalevi Aho 1998 (From liner notes to BIS-CD-936)
[4].  Your guess is as good as mine as to the role played in all this by the "parasitic hymenopter", hymenoptera being the order that includes termites, bees, and ants.
[5]. There may be an element of Mahler 9 or Tchaikovsky 6 in this depressive ending, but what I hear most resoundingly is the strange and beautiful conclusion to Rautavaara's 5th (perhaps his boldest and most punch-to-the-gut powerful symphony).