Robert Kajanus


Born: December 2, 1856; Helsinki, Finland   Died: July 6, 1933; Helsinki, Finland  
When Robert Kajanus appeared on the Finnish music scene during the 1880s, he was considered -- and he considered himself -- a composer/conductor. But even before his death some 50 years later, he had become, for most musicians and biographers, a conductor/composer. That kind of distinction is often rather small and can in fact be entirely meaningless for some musicians who both composed and conducted: Was Leonard Bernstein a composer/conductor or Read more a conductor/composer? Does it matter? In Kajanus' case, however, that little change in the order of two words really does mean something. He was a brilliant musician whose potential as a composer was extinguished by his own steadfast devotion to another Finnish composer of the day: Jean Sibelius. Kajanus was the first major champion of Sibelius' music, doing more than any other single person to encourage the late-blooming composer and then tirelessly bringing the fruits of Sibelius' labors to a European audience. Kajanus' own urge to write music seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle.

Kajanus was born in Helsinki in early December 1856 and died there during the summer of 1933. He was a student at the Helsinki Conservatory and then went south to Leipzig to study for two years (1877 - 1879) with composer Carl Reinecke and conductor Hans Richter at the Conservatory there. He traveled around the continent for a few years and then in 1882 returned to the land of his birth and founded the Helsinki Orchestral Society and its affiliate, the Helsinki Philharmonic, the first professional Finnish orchestra of real merit (though it took many seasons of toil for Kajanus to whip the group into respectability). He led the front rank of Finnish composers during the 1880s and his deployment of Finnish lore in such works as the tone poems Kullervo and Aino (1881 and 1885, respectively) made a big impact on the young student Sibelius, who would himself take up the Kullervo and Kalevala myth-bundles for musical inspiration. During the 1890s, Kajanus -- always a big supporter of Finnish composers -- began performing Sibelius' works; after the advent of recording, Kajanus put his interpretations of the Sibelius symphonies and tone poems on records that were considered definitive for a generation and more.

In 1897, Kajanus was named director of music at the University of Helsinki, a post he maintained for the next 30 years. In 1900, he took his Helsinki Philharmonic (whose directorship he maintained until his death) down to Paris for the World Exposition, exclusively performing Finnish music. Kajanus was among the most ardent Finnish nationalists and his own music reflects these leanings. In the orchestral realm, there are the two tone poems named above and also a pair of Finnish Rhapsodies (1882 and 1889). He composed several cantatas to Finnish subjects and also a variety of chamber and instrumental pieces, including some volumes of Finnish folk-influenced piano miniatures. He wrote less and less as his life went along, however, and there is precious little indeed from the post-World War I years. Read less

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