Northern Light: Outi Tarkiainen’s Midnight Sun Variations

Northern Light: Outi Tarkiainen’s Midnight Sun Variations

On January 17, 18, and 19, the Houston Symphony presents Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique,” a program of soulful works by Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, and contemporary Finnish composer Outi Tarkiainen. In this post, discover one of Tarkiainen’s latest works, Midnight Sun Variations, a luminous work inspired by nature and motherhood. 

Outi Tarkiainen, composer

Outi Tarkiainen was born in the small town of Rovaniemi, Finland, which lies just south of the Arctic Circle. After studying in Helsinki, Miami, and London, she came to prominence as a composer through the European jazz scene before turning to a more classical idiom. She has since become one of the leading lights of a new generation of Finnish composers. Like her forerunners Sibelius and Rautavaara, Tarkiainen frequently finds a kind of mystical inspiration in her native landscape. “‘I have a fundamental longing for the northernmost regions within me,” she has said, and indeed, she recently relocated to the village of Ivalo, located north of the 68th parallel in Lapland.

Ivalo experiences the famed “Midnight Sun” of northern latitudes for nearly two months each year, and this natural phenomenon provided inspiration for Tarkiainen’s new piece, Midnight Sun Variations. Commissioned by the BBC Philharmonic and The National Arts Centre Orchestra (based in Ottowa, Canada), Variations premiered at the BBC Proms this past August with conductor John Storgårds, to whom the piece is dedicated. These performances are the work’s first in the United States.


Sunset and sunrise during the midnight sun in Rovaniemi, Finland. Credit: Denis Despair

In a preface to the score, Tarkiainen describes the piece as “a set of variations on the light when the sun never sets in the arctic summer night. For the northern sky above the Arctic Circle in summer reflects a rich spectrum of infinitely-nuanced hues that, as autumn draws near, become veiled in shadow until darkness slowly descends and the sun ceases to rise above the horizon. My son was born on the night when the summer’s last warm day gave way to a dawn shrouded in autumnal mist. Midnight Sun Variations is also about giving birth to new life, when the woman and the child within her part, restoring her former self as the light fades into winter.”

The Music

Unlike variations pieces by Beethoven or Brahms, which subject a melody or harmonic progression to the variation process, Midnight Sun Variations cycles through a series of gestures that evolve with reach return. Often containing stylized versions of natural sounds, these cycles are reminiscent of the circles traced in the Arctic sky by the unsetting sun. Initially, each cycle clearly begins with a rush of downward scales in the woodwinds and strings:

With uncanny precision, the instruments evoke bird calls, the whistling wind, and other sounds of the tundra.

A pulsing motif emerges in the lower strings, and soon supplants the descending scales that start each variation cycle. At this moment, Tarkiainen included a quotation from Robert Crottet’s Of the Lands of the Skolt-Lapps: “It is not our fault, if in your country, dream and reality are so closely linked that one cannot differentiate well between the one and the other.” Here, rising scales proliferate as the cycles compress. A long crescendo begins, building to a powerful climax—perhaps symbolizing the synchronous birth of Tarkianen’s son and the changing of the seasons.

After this turning point, the strings introduce a more melodic figure into the cycles. As the piece fades away, this melodic idea morphs into a quotation from Sibelius’s final masterpiece, Tapiola, a tone poem inspired by the old Finnish god of the forests. —Calvin Dotsey

Don’t miss Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” on January 17, 18, and 19! Learn more & get tickets.

Header image: Five flying birds on a lake near Rovaniemi, Finland. Photo by Jaakko Kemppainen on Unsplash

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