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Usko Meriläinen (b. 1930) has, in his music, been closely involved in the development of post-war Finnish modernism. Neoclassicism, dodecaphony and post-serialism are all documented in his oeuvre, which does not, by contrast, show signs of the return to more traditional stylistic devices evident in the latter half the 1960s and the 1990s. Instead he has remained faithful to his intrinsic modernistic idiom, constantly polishing and refining it.
Whatever the style, the music of Meriläinen is always marked by its rhythmic richness. One of the great innovators of his early neoclassicism was Stravinsky, but the later rhythms of Meriläinen, too, have acquired great diversity, ranging from swift, fast-beating movement to a free, rubato-like, elastic pulse. The trend at expressive level seems to have been from the strong beat of the earlier works towards the poetry and daintiness of little gestures. The finely-tuned coloristic dimension of his music has also become increasingly noticeable.
Meriläinen is predominantly a composer of instrumental music, since his entire vocal output consists of one only song cycle and two choral works (admittedly sizeable ones). Meriläinen is a composer of symphonies, other orchestral works, concertos, chamber music and pieces for solo instrument, piano works occupying a focal position in the last of these categories. Instrumental brilliance and a concerto-like approach are in fact major elements of his music, and the word ‘concerto’ also appears in a few other works not scored for the conventional soloist and orchestra.
Meriläinen has also exploited the potential of electronic music. Indeed, his symphony no. 4 is not orchestral music at all, but an ‘electronic symphony’, a dance work performed under the name of Alasin (The Anvil, 1975). He also composed two other electronic dance works, Psyche (1973) and Ku-gu-ku (1979). The choreographies for all three are by his wife, Ruth Matso, herself a dancer.
Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was a major source of inspiration for Usko Meriläinen, as it was for many other young Finnish composers of the post-war period. Its influence can be detected in his neoclassical early works of the 1950s and is most pronounced in the Partita for Brass (1954) with which he won second prize in the American Thor Johnson composing competition, but it is also marked in the first symphony (1955) and first piano concerto (1955). Here the association with Stravinsky is inspired above all by the rhythms, with their dance-like ostinatos, changing time signatures and syncopation.
Meriläinen’s early neoclassical period culminated in the Concerto for Orchestra (1956), in which he also set a course in the direction of dodecaphony. The idiom is more chromatic, and the canon in the first movement, for example, is built on a 12-note theme. On the other hand the strikingly effective rhythms still create a strongly neoclassical impression. Meriläinen’s first ballet, Arius (1960), also dates from the time leading up to his dodecaphonic period proper.
Meriläinen first became acquainted with dodecaphony at the Darmstadt summer course in 1956, and more deeply two years later while studying with Wladimir Vogel in Switzerland. Not until his first piano sonata (1960) did he actually apply it, however, though the piano texture of this work for the most part has its roots in neoclassicism. Other works of Meriläinen’s brief dodecaphonic period include the Four Love Songs (1961), the Chamber Concerto (1962), the Four Bagatelles for string quartet (1962) compressed into tight, Webern-like figures, and the first string quartet (1965) that brought the period to an end.
The dodecaphonic period was to prove brief, producing only a few works, but it nevertheless had a liberating and invigorating effect on his career as a composer. And although he then abandoned row technique, his music continued to be richly chromatic. Even before writing the string quartet that ended the period Meriläinen had already arrived at a new technique that lead him away from dodecaphony. This began to take shape in the orchestral work Epyllion (1963) and the second symphony (1964) and was adopted as a conscious device in the second piano sonata (1966).
The name given by Meriläinen to the method applied in his second piano sonata is ‘character technique’. This technique comprises three main factors or ‘characters’: ‘tone fields’ manifest as blocks of sound or cascades of notes, melodic ‘lines’, and ‘points’ made up of individual or repeated notes. The details of these characters may change, but their overall shape remains consistent and recognisable. Thus character technique was for Meriläinen a means of giving the music cohesion once he had discarded row technique.
Although the first post-row period has often been called Meriläinen’s Epyllion period, its most weighty orchestral work is the second symphony. The rugged spans of the music have an expressive power that has sometimes caused Meriläinen to be described as a neoexpressionist, but his expressionism cannot really be said to continue in the footsteps of Alban Berg. In the third (1971) and fifth symphonies (1976) the characters begin creating bigger and clearer blocks of sound. A good example of Meriläinen’s way of analysing the development of his music is the third symphony, which is based on two initial motifs with varying development potential: the melodic line on the strings with which the symphony begins and the single-note crescendo that ruptures into dissonance. At the end of the fifth symphony he applies controlled aleatory, a device that occupies an important role in Mobile - ein Spiel für Orchester (1977).
The development of his character technique had a decisive effect on Meriläinen’s piano style, which burst into flower in his second piano sonata. This style was marked by translucent textures, often highlighting the clear upper register, and rich rhythms ranging from improvisational rubato playing to swift, virtuosic dexterity. Meriläinen’s piano style is at its most colourful in the fourth sonata, Epyllion II (1974), which also examines the potential of sounds produced inside the instrument. In addition to five sonatas Meriläinen has provided the instrument with two delicate sets of nocturnes, (Tre notturni, 1967 and Cinque notturni, 1978) and Sona (1997). Scored for two pianos is the divertimento-like Papillons (1969).
The orchestral and pianistic dimensions are combined in three fine soloistic works of this period, only one of which, the second piano concerto (1969) of energetic brilliance working up to an aggressive climax, goes by the traditional name of a concerto. Dialogeja (Dialogues, 1977) seeks to establish a balanced discussion between the soloist and the orchestra, while the very title of Kineettinen runo (Kinetic Poem, 1981) suggests the movement typical of Meriläinen’s work. In this case the kinetic aspect does, however, take the form of a kind of objectified movement rather than a dynamic source of energy proper, carrying the process forward.
Since the late 1970s the emphasis in Meriläinen’s music has been shifting more towards chamber music. At the same time he has more and more frequently been examining the subtlety of little meditative gestures and the fragile tones of silence. On the other hand there may be ominous forces smouldering beneath the surface of his quiet meditation that sometimes erupt in violent outbursts. The coloristic dimension has also become increasingly important. The rhythm is generally as rich as ever but is often more refined than it used to be. For example, the second string quartet, Kyma (1979), for the most part abandons conventional bar notation and the players no longer need always to be carefully synchronised.
Within a short period in the mid-1980s Meriläinen wrote three important flute works that looked back to the Suvisoitto (Summer Sounds) for flute and tape. One of the most captivating works ever written by Meriläinen in its musicianship and speed, Summer Sounds was completed in 1979. The works of the flute period proper include the clear, transparent study of timbre Huilu - veden peili (The Flute - Mirror of Water, 1984) for flute and piano, Mouvements circulaires en douceur (1985), a work scored for the unusual combination of four flutes and full of the poetry of silence, and the flute concerto Visions and Whispers (1985) in which the flute embroiders brilliant, nimble patterns against a quiet background of sound painted by the orchestra.
The change of direction towards the poetry of small movements is also manifest in the orchestral work "...mutta tämähän on maisema, monsieur Dali!" (...but this is a landscape, monsieur Dali!, 1986) and Aikaviiva (Timeline, 1989), the latter subtitled ‘concerto for orchestra no. 2’. The concerto-like dimensions of Timeline are most in evidence in the lively wind writing, for which the strings provide a static backcloth. In Kehrä (A Score for Orchestra, 1996), by contrast, the strings dominate and call to mind the crystallised gestures of Webern, especially in the opening section scored for strings alone.
In the guitar concerto (1991) the soft sound of the solo instrument was enough to mould the orchestration, stripping it of any grandeur in favour of a diaphanous texture. In describing his third string quartet (1992) Meriläinen speaks of ‘the wonder of sound’, an expression that could well be applied to many of his other works of the 1990s: "The work is a continuum on which the quick and at times violent substance of the opening is transformed into slow, gentle movement, immobility, doing full justice to the wonder of sound." This ‘wonder of sound’ is emphasised in the marking found in the the final section, "as slow as you feel possible".
Usko Meriläinen studied at the Sibelius Academy, orchestral conducting with Leo Funtek (diploma 1953) and composition with Aarre Merikanto (diploma 1955). He was conductor of the chorus of the Finnish Opera 1954-1956, the Kuopio Symphony Orchestra 1956-1957 and the orchestra of the TTT-Theatre of Tampere 1957-1961, and taught in the Department of Musicology at the University of Tampere 1966-1987. He was also Vice Chairman of the Society of Finnish Composers 1976-80 and Chairman 1981-1982, and Artistic Director of the Tampere Biennale new music festival 1986-2000.