On the Last Frontier (1997)

By Robert Layton, Author of books on Sibelius, Grieg and Berwald

Written for the concert Tales of Edgar Allen Poe, performed on Oct 15, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The most recent addition to the repertory inspired by Edgar Allan Poe comes from this end of the century — and from Finland. On the Last Frontier, a fantasy for chorus and orchestra, is hot off the presses, being composed as recently as 1997. Its text draws on the evocative closing paragraphs of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which the composer read as a boy translated as “The Secret of the Deep” Einojuhani Rautavaara celebrated his seventieth birthday last year and belongs to the same generation as Aulis Sallinen. He was eleven at the outbreak of the winter war when Stalin launched his attack on Finland, and spent his student years first in post-war Helsinki where he studied with Aarre Merikanto. Later on with the aid of the grant Sibelius himself had received from the Koussevitzky Foundation on his ninetieth birthday, he continued his studies at the Juilliard School and at Tanglewood where his teachers included Persichetti, Copland and Sessions. His breakthrough had come a little earlier in 1953 with A Requiem for Our Time for thirteen brass and percussion, which won the Thor Johnson Competition in Cincinnati.

Of course Sibelius cast a long shadow and one which successive generations of Finnish composers could not escape. Writing in his immediate wake as did the generation of Leevi Madetoja and Erkki Melartin, his fingerprints are invariably visible though one composer, Aarre Merikanto who had studied with Reger and Scriabin was an exception, and it was no doubt his example that fostered Rautavaara’s exploratory outlook. (One parallel with Samuel Barber whose aunt was Louise Homer may be worth mentioning in that he, too, had a celebrated singer in the family, the soprano Aulikki Rautavaara who appeared in Glyndebourne’s early seasons and made 78 r.p.m records of Sibelius songs.)

On his return to Europe, feeling the need to broaden his musical horizons still further, Rautavaara took lessons from one of the then leading figures in the central European avant-garde, Wladimir Vogel. But while he embraced dodecaphony with works like Praevariata (1957) and the Second String Quartet (1958), his was no slavish adoption of serial techniques and the Third Symphony (1961), for example, uses it with great expressive freedom.

Throughout his creative career Rautavaara has remained open to new ideas. His most popular work, the Cantus Arcticus, a concerto for birds and orchestra (1972) uses tape, aleotoric elements and modal harmonies that have reminded some commentators of Ravel and Sibelius, while in the opera-musical, Apollo contra Marsyas, jazz is an important component. Yet for all his eclecticism, Rautavaara retains a distinctive voice of his own, and it is his musical imagination that reigns supreme rather than any self-conscious pre-occupation with style or effect. Like Sibelius, there is a strong affinity with the vision and sounds of the natural world. His music is (to use an overworn expression) accessible, in that he does not erect unnecessary barriers to communication. Indeed he enjoys much the same popular appeal as his slightly older contemporary, Aulis Sallinen. His output is no less extensive though his seven operas have not enjoyed quite the same exposure. Writing about his Violin Concerto (1977), Rautavaara cited Kundera describing symphonic music as “a journey through a world without borders,” and in the finest of his works, his ideas unfold as do the seemless events of a journey.

On the Last Frontier goes back to childhood inspiration before he would have known how to organize musical ideas on paper. He recalls (in his liner notes for its premier recording) that he read in his father’s library a story by Edgar Allan Poe. By the end of the book, he writes, the realistic narrative had taken on an altogether different character and the closing paragraphs of Pym’s narrative assume an almost mystical character. Its description of the voyage towards the Antarctic pole, resonated in his memory all those years and when he came across a set of Poe’s collected works in English he naturally looked for it. Finding himself on the threshold of his seventies, and feeling that he, too, was approaching the mysterious last frontier, he adapted the final paragraphs for his “fantasy for chorus and orchestra.” The evocation of this landscape became in his own words, “the core and frame of a longer narrative, around and in between which the orchestra weaves its own rich colorful texture…The orchestra’s role is to tell the tale in a way that is beyond the scope of words — but perhaps expresses it better than words can.”