Kalevi Aho, one of Finland’s leading composers of today, was born in Forssa in southern Finland on 9th March 1949. He studied at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki under Einojuhani Rautavaara and in West Berlin in Boris Blacher’s composition class. In the years 1974-1988 he was a lecturer in musicology at Helsinki University; from 1988 until 1993 he was professor of composition at the Sibelius Academy and since the autumn of 1993 he has been a freelance composer.
In the works which marked his breakthrough (the First Symphony, 1969, and Third String Quartet, 1971) Aho continues in the tradition of Shostakovich; even in these pieces, however, he arrived at a very original formal/dramatic decision. Thus, in the four-movement First Symphony, we are gradually drawn ever further away from the “existing reality” of the beginning, ultimately reaching the third movement’s strange, pseudo-baroque style, and finally, in the last movement, we can meet the problems of the “true reality” head on. The structural starting-point for the single-movement Second Symphony (1970/95) is a triple fugue. In the four-movement Third Symphony (1971-73) the dramatic tension is different; it is a conflict between an individual (a solo violin) and the sound blocks of the orchestra; there is a similar conflict in the pessimistic Cello Concerto (1983-84). The culmination of Aho’s first period (approx. 1969-74) is the three-movement Fourth Symphony (1972-73) with videly varied emotional contrasts.
The Fifth Symphony (1975-76) marks a turning point in Aho’s output. From a structural point of view this massive work is extremely complicated; in this multi-layered symphony, instead of polyphony between various individual instrumental voices, we hear a polyphony of different, independent musical strands. The virtuoso and colourful Sixth Symphony (1979-80) concludes a sequential line of development in Aho’s symphonic work; after this, the composer concentrated for a while on concertos and operas.
Aho’s first opera, Avain (The Key, 1978, with a libretto by Juha Mannerkorpi) tells of the paranoid alienation of an inhabitant of a big modern city in the estranging social climate of today. In 1982 and 1984 The Key was also performed by the Hamburg State Opera. In the years 1985-87 Aho wrote his sharply satirical second opera Hyönteiselämää (Insect Life), which combines elements both of comedy and of tragedy (the libretto, by the composer himself, is based on a play of the same name by Josef and Karel Capek) and contains numerous stylistic parodies as well as pointed social criticism. The work was premiered with great success by the Finnish National Opera on 27 September 1996. Drawing on material from the Insect Life, Aho composed his Seventh Symphony in 1988: a six-movement, cheerful work, the “Insect Symphony” has been described as a post-modern, tragicomic anti-symphony. Two years later Aho composed Pergamon for four narrators, four orchestral groups and organ; the text, which is in four languages, is based on Peter Weiss’s novel Die Ästhetik des Widerstands. In the intense Chamber Symphony No. 2 for strings (1991-92) we hear, in a sense, the music of the composer’s inner voices.
In 1992 the Lahti Symphony Orchestra appointed Aho as its composer in residence, and he has written all of his more recent orchestral works for these musicians. The bright, single-movement Symphony No. 8 (1993) for organ and orchestra is Aho’s most expansive instrumental work; this musically wide-ranging piece is one of the fundamental cornerstones of Aho’s entire output. The lighter Symphony No. 9 (1993-94) is also a concertante symphony: in this work, which contains many different time strata, the solo instrument is the trombone. The large-scale, dramatic Tenth Symphony (1996) is like a tribute to the great Romantic tradition of symphonic music, and is quite different from the Eleventh Symphony for six percussionists and orchestra (1997-98), which is dominated by strong, hypnotic rhythms and by subtle tonal colours.
The song cycle Kiinalaisia lauluja (Chinese Songs, 1997) for soprano and orchestra is a setting of ancient Chinese love poetry. Soloistic virtuosity is a hallmark of Aho’s large-scale, symphonic concertos for violin (1981), cello (1983-84) and piano (1989), of his three chamber symphonies (in the last of these the solo instrument is the alto saxophone) and of many chamber pieces (e.g. the Oboe Quintet, Bassoon Quintet, Oboe Sonata, Quintet for Alto Saxophone, Bassoon, Viola, Cello and Double Bass, Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet, Epilogue for trombone and organ, Seven Inventions and Postlude for oboe and cello and Quintet for Flute, Violin, Two Violas and Cello).
Aho’s other operas include the one-act Salaisuuksien kirja (The Book of Secrets, 1998) to a libretto by Paavo Rintala and the two-act Ennen kuin me kaikki olemme hukkuneet (Before We All Have Drowned, 1995/1999), the libretto of which is based on a radio play by Juha Mannerkorpi. In 2013 Aho wrote his fifth opera Frida y Diego to the libretto by Maritza Núñez. The opera was commissioned by the Sibelius Academy and premiered on 17 October 2014 in Helsinki. It tells, in Spanish, about turning points in the lives of Frida Kahlo, her husband Diego Rivera, and Lev Trotsky, an exile in Mexico. In the opera the atmosphere varies from dreamy to wild carnival moods and there is also some heated argument and sharp political parody.
Kalevi Aho has composed 17 symphonies in all. They include Symphony No. 12, “Luosto” (2002-03), designed for outdoor purposes, Symphony No. 13 subtitled “Symphonic Characterizations” (2003), Symphony No. 14 “Rituals” for darabuka, djembe, gongs and chamber orchestra (2007), Symphony No. 15 (2009-10) commissioned by the BBC Philharmonic and the Lahti Symphony, and Symphony No. 16 commissioned by YLE and premiered by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra in 2015.
Symphony No. 17 was premiered in 2019 by the Sinfonia Lahti, under the direction of the Aho expert Osmo Vänskä. Subtitled Symphonic Frescoes, with its 63 minutes, it is s Aho´s longest, and the movements – From the Depth, Scherzo macabre and Distant Songs – can also be performed separately as independent tone poems. Among Aho’s many orchestral works are Minea (2008, commissined by the Minnesota Orchestra) and Gejia – Chinese Images for Orchestra (2012, commissioned by the National Centre of Performing Arts in Beijing, China).
During the 90s Aho concentrated primarily on opera, symphonies, chamber music as well as instrumental solo pieces, and his concerto production was not resumed until the beginning of the new millennium with the elegiac and cantabile Tuba Concerto (2000-01). It was also at this time that the absolutely unique idea of composing a series of concertos for every instrument in the symphony orchestra was born – a project that is nearly completed. In 2002 followed one of the key works in Aho’s production, the lyrical and melodious Flute Concerto written for Sharon Bezaly; it one of his most often performed works. After that followed concertos for double bass, clarinet, bassoon, viola, trumpet, trombone and French horn.
Kalevi Aho has also composed concertos for such solo instruments as the tuba, the contrabassoon, the soprano saxophone, the tenor saxophone (listen to Esa Pietilä’s insights about the concerto), the timpani, the accordeon and the harp. His most performed concerto is Sieidi (Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra, 2010) commissioned by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Luosto Classic Festival and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and performed by Colin Currie and Martin Grubinger (listen to the LPO/Colin Currie podcast about the concerto). The Theremin Concerto Eight Seasons (2011) was commissioned by the Lapland Chamber Orchestra and premiered in 2012 by Carolina Eyck. The recording of Aho’s theremin and horn concertos won the prestigious ECHO Classic Award in 2015 for the best concerto disc of the year. Aho’s oeuvre also includes two double concertos: for two cellos (commissioned by the BBC and premiered in Manchester in 2004) and for French horn and harp (commissioned by the Royal Flemish Philharmonic in 2015).
Aho has also completed J. S. Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge, Contrapunctus XIV which exists in versions for string orchestra, organ or saxophone quartet. The Symphonic Dances (Hommage à Uuno Klami) was composed in 2001 as the third act of Uuno Klami’s ballet Pyörteitä (Whirls) and the recording by BIS has scored great international success. Among Kalevi Aho’s numerous arrangements are Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death for bass and orchestra and the first act of Klami’s ballet Whirls. In 1995 Aho composed the lost second violin parts of all six string quartets by the first Finnish composer of importance, Erik Tulindberg (1761-1814), and in 1997 he completed Sibelius’s complete Karelia score in preparation both for performance and for recording (BIS-CD-915). Foremost among Aho’s many writings are the treatises Finnish Music and the Kalevala and Einojuhani Rautavaara as a Symphonist, the collection of essays The Tasks of an Artist in a Post-Modern Society, Art and Reality as well as the books Music of Finland (in collaboration with E. Salmenhaara, P. Jalkanen and K. Virtamo) and Uuno Klami – Life and Works (in collaboration with Marjo Valkonen, 2000).