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Eduard Tubin: Symphonist

Eduard Tubin: Symphonist

Despite the advocacy of conductor and countryman Neeme Järvi and the determination of record-producer Robert von Bahr (founder of the BIS label) in the 1980s and early 90s, the work of the Estonian-Swedish composer Eduard Tubin (1905 – 1982) remains largely unknown beyond a small coterie of aficionados with an interest in Baltic and Scandinavian music.  Humphrey Searle and Robert Layton in their survey of Twentieth Century Composers: Britain, Scandinavia and the Netherlands (1970) omit to mention Tubin although they devote discussion to a number of his contemporaries in mid-century Sweden such as Hilding Rosenberg (1892 – 1985), Karl-Birger Blomdahl (1916 – 1968), and Allan Pettersson (1911 – 1980).  Tubin’s obscurity is a pity because he composed at a level at least as high as that achieved by Rosenberg, Blomdahl, and Pettersson.  Indeed, Tubin wrote in an idiom more accessible than any of theirs, being, as one supposes, much less worried than they about his “modern” bona fides.  What explains Tubin’s obscurity?  It might have something to do with his refugee-expatriate status: He fled Estonia for Sweden after the Soviet invasion in 1944; and while he remained an Estonian nationalist – by reflex, anti-Soviet and anti-Communist – his adoptive country became increasingly accommodationist.

Again while postwar Swedish composition embraced all the usual “isms,” Tubin remained steadfastly a tonal composer dedicated to traditional forms like the symphony; Swedish musical society appears to have regarded Tubin as a “foreigner” and in his native country he had become a classic “unperson.”  Tubin’s primary artistic accomplishment consists in his sequence of eleven symphonies; beyond the symphonies there are a several large-scale concertos and beyond those a good deal of choral music, much of which however sets inaccessible Estonian-language texts.  Rosenberg, Blomdahl, and Pettersson likewise made their main mark in the symphony, but whereas they self-consciously rejected the national-romantic style of their elders and precursors (Hugo Alfvén, Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, Kurt Atterberg), Tubin, for his part, worked in continuity with the late-Nineteenth Century Estonian national-romantic style, whose main instigator, Heino Eller (1887 – 1970), taught Tubin his craft.  Tubin’s music belongs nevertheless to its time; despite its self-evident roots, no one would mistake it for an artifact of any previous era.  Tubin’s music shows a kinship to that of Jean Sibelius (1865 – 1957) in his late phase; and now and again to that of Béla Bartók, especially in its ability first to synthesize and then to develop folksong-like motifs.  The closest kindred phenomena in the domain of the symphony might be the seven idiosyncratic symphonies of Sir Arnold Bax (1883 – 1953).  Tubin was younger than Bax by a generation but the first part of his symphonic catalogue overlaps the last part of Bax’s.  Both composers take their orientation from myth and legend – and here once more we perceive a relation to Sibelius.

Tubin’s symphonies fall into four groups.  The first group comprises Symphonies Nos. 1 through 3 (1934, 1937, and 1940); the second comprises Symphonies Nos. 4 through 6 (1943, 1946, and 1954).  Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8 (1958 and 1966) make a pair.  The final trio, from 1969, 1973, and 1982 (unfinished), constitute the fourth group.  Now in fairness to Layton, when he re-surveyed the symphony in his symposiastic Guide (1993), he acknowledged Tubin in two rather laudatory pages, contrasting him advantageously with Pettersson, whose style he characterized as tedious.  In addition to Bax and Sibelius, Layton invokes Prokofiev and Shostakovich as “occasional affinities” that help the uninitiated to place Tubin’s “strong atmosphere,” “wide vistas,” and “powerful logic.”  Layton adds, however, that “Tubin is very much his own man with distinctive musical fingerprints, whose spiritual landscape is unlike any other.”  Layton’s diction-choice of “landscape” seems particularly appropriate for the discussion of Tubin’s first three symphonies.  Estonia’s cities are Baltic ports, remnants of the old Hanseatic League; and Estonia’s interior is fen and forest.  The Livonian sagas unsurprisingly present cognates with their Fennic counterparts, Finland lying across the Gulf from Estonia, and Estonian being the closest kindred-tongue to Finnish; the Ests have their version of the Kalevala, Kalevipoeg (“Kalevi’s Son”).  Estonia nowhere rises higher than fifty meters above sea level; the land lies low and it is aqueous.  Tubin’s idiom reflects the elemental background of Kalevipoeg: The sea – or more basically, water; also the sweet-water environment of the polders; the coastal dunes; the reed-lands and birch forests; village life; and the ancient customs, pagan and Christian.  Tubin’s melos, like that of Sibelius, conforms itself to the tonal patterns and rhythms of the accompanying language; Tubin, like Sibelius, rarely quotes actual folk-tunes, but his own melodies arise out of the folk-tune pattern.

That Tubin’s “instrument” was the orchestra is attested by the mastery of Symphony No. 1 in C-Minor, which, while not bearing any explicit program, nevertheless suggests one in its powerful sweep and clearly-outlined, organic development, in each movement, of its basic, folksong-inflected material.  The First Movement (Adagio – Allegro Feroce) begins like dawn or the parting of the mists; or perhaps one might invoke the Finno-Ugric creation-myth, according to which everything that exists emerges from a primordial egg.  Listeners hear a slow-moving undulant figure in the low strings over which the woodwinds unfold pithy motifs.  The textures of the movement, and indeed of the symphony taken whole, are consistently contrapuntal, with Tubin deftly combining no less than six themes and their variants during the course of the movement.  At the climax, the full orchestra plays a striding march-like theme, ending on a dissonant chord.  Opening with Sibelius-like “scherzo” music, the Second Movement (Allegro Moderato) produces, wave-like, a series of crescendi, and once again reaches a climax on a dissonant chord.  A martial trumpet-theme opens and dominates the Third Movement (Sostenuto Assai), during the course of which Tubin reintegrates thematic material from the two foregoing movements.  The finale comes in the form of a glorious C-Major chord – the harmonic trajectory of Tubin’s First parallels that of Beethoven’s Fifth.

Regrettably, Symphony No. 1 has no Internet presence, but this lack is made up for in the case of Symphony No. 2 in B-Minor, “The Legendary.”  Tubin’s second essay in symphonic form bears a subtitle, indicating perhaps that the composer himself saw his work as more than an abstract exercise in form; the adjective “legendary” implies something like a program.  The sound-world of No. 1 carries over into No. 2.  In No. 1 already Tubin had exhibited his penchant for concertante effects, giving solo passages to violin, viola, cello, oboe, and horn.  Symphony No. 2 integrates the concertante principle even more thoroughly: In the Bax-like Epilogue of the Third Movement (Tempestoso – ma non troppo allegro), for example, Tubin reduces his large orchestra to a chamber ensemble, dominated by piano and violin, and sounding as if from an increasing distance.  Like No. 1, No. 2 is in three movements.  The First Movement (Légendaire) opens once again in musical gestures that sound like the emergence of familiar forms from the fog of chaos; the atmosphere remains magical even as the themes present themselves in sequence and combine and develop in colorful ways.  Annotator Harri Kiisk calls the Second Movement (Sostenuto Assai – Grave e Funebre) “a mystical funeral march.”  The movement is in “arch-form” – a gradual crescendo followed after the climax by a decrescendo – which concludes with a duo for violin and piano, more like Victorian salon music than chamber music in the classical style and more than a little unsettling.  The Third-Movement Finale has two parts, as good an orchestral Tempest, with skirling woodwinds and string-band zephyrs, as one might wish, and the Epilogue, already mentioned, with its “dispelling of dreams,” as it might be put, with reference to the end of Shakespeare’s drama.

There is some disagreement concerning Symphony No. 3 in D-Minor, to which the BIS recording under Järvi allots no subtitle.  Elsewhere, however, the description “Heroic” ekes out the purely numerical designation.  The description “heroic” befits the first three symphonies taken as a group, all three being musical exercises in heroic assertion and, one supposes, national assertion.  The situation was urgent.  By December 1940 when Tubin began No. 3, Stalin’s army had been in occupation of the country for half a year; by the time he put the last note to the score in August 1942, the Wehrmacht had been there already for a twelvemonth.  The three-movement form, with its Sibelian pedigree in the Third and Fifth Symphonies of that composer, again serves Tubin well.  The two outer movements – Largo – Energico and Largo, Maestoso – are full of march-like ostinato and impressive fanfares in the brass; the music approaches a cinematic, or even a newsreel, idiom, with the rally for massed horns at the beginning of the Finale being especially memorable.  The middle movement (Molto Allegro e Tempestoso) while agitated in its outer sections finds rest in a mid-movement episode, with a predominant solo violin, of nocturnal ecstasy.  Motifs from the First Movement migrate to Second and Third Movements, making the three panels thematically unified.  Tubin’s “Eroica” resembles other wartime symphonies – Sergei Prokofiev’s Fifth and Sixth and George Antheil’s Fourth coming to mind immediately.

When the Red Army returned to Tallinn in September 1944, Tubin fled with his family to Sweden.  He brought with him into exile at least one score that he had completed, and whose premiere he had overseen, in his native land, his Symphony No. 4 in A, also called “Sinfonia Lirica,” which he would revise thirty-three years later.  Symphony No. 4 inaugurates the second phase of Tubin’s symphonic authorship, showing a marked contrast with No. 3 in its quietness and in its invocation of a landscape untroubled by war.  Tubin’s “Lirica” bears the same relation to his storm-tossed No. 3 as Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony does to his Fourth.  Where in Tubin’s “Eroica” the brasses do most of the heavy lifting, in his “Lirica” the strings bear the burden of exposition and development although the constitution of the orchestral forces remains nearly the same.  The opening of the First Movement (Molto Moderato) is arresting in its serenity; Tubin exposes the main theme, which generates most of the other themes throughout the four-movement sequence, right away.  Although it is hardly more than an ascending scale, with a second voice moving in parallel, it is striking and memorable.  The opening of the Third Movement (Andante Moderato) echoes it and the closing bars of the Fourth Movement repeat it.

Symphony No. 5 in B-Minor returns to the triptych-pattern of Nos. 1 – 3, but it inherits the simplified textures of No. 4.  In a 1974 study of what he called The Nordic Sound, John H. Yoell argued that a unifying characteristic of Scandinavian art-music was its attempt to capture the play of light and darkness in the boreal climes, in instrumental textures.  Yoell’s thesis might be widened to embrace Baltic music, in which case it would include Tubin, putting him in affiliation with certain of his Scandinavian contemporaries like Vagn Holmboe in Denmark (1909 – 1996) and Geir Tveitt (1908 – 1981) in Norway.  Tubin’s 1938 ballet Kratt ends with a “Dance of the Northern Lights.”  The Piano Sonata No. 2 (1950), which followed Symphony No. 5 four years later, is subtitled “The Northern Lights.” And after all – he settled in a suburb of Stockholm, where he wrote No. 5Symphony No. 5 is a score without one unnecessary note, perfectly balanced, ending with a peroration (26.50 into the clip) in which the tympani play a thematic role.  Symphony No. 6, without key-signature, belongs to the mid-1950s; the composer revised it in 1966, some eleven years after its premiere.  The First Movement (Andante Sostenuto) adopts the scheme of Maurice Ravel’s Bolero, to powerful effect even while being grim in character next to its model.  The Third-Movement Finale (Festoso) is a vehement chaconne, dominated by the brasses, that concludes quietly and forlornly.  One must marvel at Tubin’s fortitude and persistence, hewing to a fundamentally diatonic language at the height of postwar academic serialism.

Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8 although appearing eight years apart (1958, 1966) form a pair.  Symphony No. 7, again without key-signature, will impress the systematic explorer of Tubin’s symphonic catalogue as an instance of deliberate understatement following on the extravagance of No. 6.  Tubin has pared down his orchestra; the strings do most of the work; and the idiom has become terse.  The central slow movement is noteworthy in that it interpolates a scherzo and then interpolates itself in the scherzo, as the slower trio section.  Symphony No. 8, again without key signature, follows No. 4 in reverting to the standard four-movement pattern; the language is even more “distanced” than in No. 7 – remoter, more fragmented, a real symphony of Cold-War anxiety and of the modern soul alienated from its spiritually evacuated world.  Tubin called his Symphony No. 9 “Sinfonia Semplice.”  It is in two movements.  Symphony No. 10 is in one movement but analyzable as having the four sections somewhat resembling the standard symphony, but extremely fluid and continuous in design.  If Nos. 7 and 8 represented the attempt to salvage what of beauty might be left in “this stony rubbish,” this “heap of broken images,” then Nos. 9 and 10 would represent the soul turning its back on this world to heed the call of a supernal order.  Symphony No. 10 unfolds like a slow rondo, the recurrent element being a simple yet enigmatic horn-signal that seems to beckon from beyond and above.  Tubin began an eleventh symphony, which remained incomplete at his death.  Something of Tubin’s attitude in his late, abstract works is indicated by his choice texts for a score contemporary with the last two symphonies – his Requiem langendud Sôduriteli (Requiem for Fallen Soldiers), for soli, choir, organ, trumpet, and tympani (1979).

And the unit charged ahead,

So hot was the battle.

One fell, another, who knows when.

            Who could see in the tempest.

(Henrik Visnapuu)

The ten symphonies, powerful, often grave, as they are, stand out as bold statements in a resolutely traditional musical language in their century, their beleaguered century.  Their commonality consists in their seriousness and gravity, but in truth Tubin’s art had other aspects.  The most commonly performed of his scores, his Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra (1948), shows a more genial side of his creativity, as does the lovely and thoroughly romantic Ballade for Violin and Orchestra (1938).  The adjective “romantic” is deliberate: As the two Violin Concertos (1942, 1945) attest, Tubin’s musical art drew on Nineteenth-Century, national-romantic wellsprings; his ideal is the accord of Man with Nature, as expressed in folksong, a trait that links him to Beethoven, Dvorak, and the Russian “Five.”  A biography of Tubin appeared a about a decade, in Swedish, written by his son.  Monographs and articles on his work, or on his individual works, must exist, but except for limited discussion on a website dedicated to him, my search has turned up very little – mostly in the way of Estonian-language publications un-translated hence inaccessible to non-speakers of that language.  One would think that the Swedes would be interested to celebrate the life and achievement of an adopted son, but this too seems a vain hope.  The most important testament is Neeme Järvi’s recorded survey of the orchestral works, including the symphonies, on BIS, a project that was already completed at the end of the 1980s, nearly twenty-five years ago.  Perhaps it is simply the case that Tubin was an artist too forthright, too plain-spoken, too little concerned with novelty and “effects” to fit into his time and place and to be recognized openly by his nervous contemporaries.

Online Links for Works by Eduard Tubin

Symphony No. 2 First Movement

Symphony No. 2 Second Movement

Symphony No. 2 Third Movement – Tempest

Symphony No. 2 Third Movement – Epilogue

Symphony No. 3 First Movement (Largo – Energico)

Symphony No. 3 Second Movement (Molto Allegro e Tempestoso)

Symphony No. 3 Third Movement (Largo, Maestoso)

Symphony No. 4 in A

Symphony No. 5 in B-Minor


Piano Sonata No. 2

Symphony No. 7

Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra

Ballade for Violin and Orchestra

Thomas BertonneauThomas Bertonneau

Thomas Bertonneau

Thomas F. Bertonneau is an intellectual and professor and has been a member of the English Faculty at SUNY Oswego since 2001. His articles and essays have appeared in a diverse array of scholarly journals, including William Carlos Williams Review, Wallace Stevens Journal, Studies in American Jewish Literature, North Dakota Quarterly, Michigan Academician, Paroles Gelées: UCLA French Studies, and Profils Americains.

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