Jaakko Kuusisto credit Petra Tiihonen

Jaakko Kuusisto: Symphony op. 39

The year 2020 taught the world that you cannot win a game of chance by planning. Jaakko Kuusisto discovered just how fragile life could be, in the worst possible way.

“Dear friends, this is something that I hoped I would never have to tell you.”

These were the words with which Jaakko Kuusisto – composer, violinist, conductor, father, husband and friend – began his Facebook post on Thursday, July 23, 2020. One day earlier he had received a diagnosis that looked bad.

Really bad.

Jaakko had spent the summer as usual. He had written new music and new arrangements, and above all he had spent time boating on Lake Saimaa, whose waters he loved just as much as those of the Gulf of Finland. Yet he did not feel normal. For a couple of months, he had been suffering from headaches, stumbling over words and becoming fatigued unusually quickly.

He had spent the first year of the coronavirus studying for a Master of Music degree at the Sibelius Academy, at the age of 46, and in the midst of the pandemic he had taught himself to use a completely new music notation software package.

He had even rescored his opera Ice, premiered in the previous year, for smaller orchestra to allow it to be revived in a Covid-safe formation in autumn 2020. The Symphony that he had been planning for a long time was also coming together – only certain more urgent commissions had delayed it from being completed well before its planned premiere in Minnesota in 2022.

What he was experiencing was no ordinary fatigue, as Jaakko was accustomed to shaking off tiredness and working at full speed in all circumstances. Perhaps it was an ennui brought on by the pandemic, or even an aftereffect of Covid itself. Jaakko was not worried, but his wife Maija could not ignore the symptoms. She saw that something was wrong, so much so that she felt a medical professional should be consulted.

Jaakko had become irritable. Every one of us is in a bad mood now and again, but for Jaakko this was completely out of character.

That was a red flag so huge that Jaakko finally did go see a doctor, and then another. Detailed examinations revealed the cause of the headaches: a brain tumor almost the size of a chicken egg, a tumor of the worst kind. The kind where the odds of survival are minimal. And while this tumor was in a location where a surgeon could access it – in the right frontal lobe – a complete recovery would be almost unprecedented, and in any case the process would involve years of radiation therapy and medication.

Jaakko had come face to face with almost certain death. The only questions were whether he had months or years left to live and what the quality of his life would be during that time. The doctors were reluctant to make predictions, but Jaakko was well aware that there was no longer any point in making retirement plans. Since getting better was not an option, the only thing to do was to make the best possible use of the time remaining.


Out of your hands

In the driver’s cab on every train there is a small pedal that looks like a gas pedal. The driver keeps a foot on that pedal whenever driving. As long as the pedal is moved at regular intervals, the train remains under the driver’s control. If the pedal is stuck in the down position for too long or is released completely, the train automatically applies the brakes and comes to a stop. This pedal is known as the ‘dead man’s switch’.

The diagnosis did not throw Jaakko off balance. For as long as his condition would not stop him from working, he would keep his foot on the pedal. He cancelled no commissions and refused no concert bookings. Making music kept his mind alert and his gaze firmly on the horizon, even if he was occasionally reminded of the uncertainty of the future.

Of course, uncertainty is a core feature of the future in any case.

“My first reaction to the diagnosis was that a part of my future had been taken away from me,” said Jaakko in his last interview, for a podcast in December 2021. “That was a false conclusion. After all, I could get hit by a car tomorrow. We can’t know. It was more like a warning sign: ‘Remember that these things are out of your hands’.”

The operation went well. Jaakko’s worst fears about losing his ability to speak or to play music did not come true. Still, the tumor was not completely gone: it could mount a new assault at any time. To all outward appearances, Jaakko was his usual self, with only a shaved spot around a four-inch scar on his temple as a reminder of the close call, when he conducted the second round of performances of his opera Ice at the Finnish National Opera in autumn 2020.

The opera, based on the eponymous novel by Ulla-Lena Lundberg, is the story of a young and somewhat naïve parish priest, Petter Kummel, who arrives at a small island community in Åland with his family after the war. What he finds is a parish divided into an eastern and a western island, so deeply entrenched that the parishioners have not managed to agree even to work together to build a bridge to the island where the church stands. The story focuses on the inner conflicts of the quarrelling villagers and the priest struggling with his faith, and above it all looms a threat – the harsh environment of the islands, particularly the treacherous nature of the ice when the sea freezes over in winter. Despite repeated warnings, the priest decides to take a short cut across the ice from one island to another one dark night. The ice breaks under his feet. Against all odds, he first manages to free himself from the grasp of the sea and the broken ice, but then he notices that he has lost hold of his briefcase, which contains valuable documents. Choosing to save the briefcase instead of himself, he succumbs to the icy waters. The death of the priest shocks the parishioners into burying the hatchet and finally building a bridge together to the church.

“There’s a lot of truth in that story,” Jaakko had mused in 2019, long before his fatal diagnosis. “The lives of individual humans are ultimately just blips in the big picture. Anyone’s story can end at any time, and when someone’s story ends, the big story goes on almost as if nothing had happened. When you look at the world and at life only from your own perspective, it’s easy to have big ideas about yourself. But ultimately we’re just small and insignificant.”

There is a lot of Jaakko himself in the main character of Ice and in its events, beginning with the ever-present seascape and the tragic fate of the priest. Like the priest, Jaakko was a bridge builder in society, a conciliator amidst cultural circles arguing about money, a firm but fair chairman on committees and in negotiations. For him, artistic creativity was not mutually exclusive with excellent political skills and intelligent conversation. He always kept his temper, even on social media, allowing space and presence and even understanding to opposing arguments, bringing a voice of reason to the chaotic shouting matches that public debate tends to descend to these days.


“The orchestra is my instrument”

Although Jaakko had written several operas, chamber works and solo works, what he had been really dreaming of for a long time was writing a symphony for large orchestra. Being an exceptional violinist, he was well acquainted with the potential of his own instrument. Because he never wrote music just for himself, he patiently waited for a commission that would allow him to realize his dream.

Commissions did keep coming. After his Violin Concerto, completed in 2012, it felt like instrumentalists were coming out of the woodwork to request a concerto in the Jaakko Kuusisto style. His catalogue rapidly grew with works featuring solo instruments: the Piano Concerto, the Trumpet Concerto, the Bassoon Concerto.

“Am I really a concerto composer?” Jaakko often wondered. “The large symphony orchestra is my own instrument.” Earlier in his career, he had been Leader of Sinfonia Lahti for no less than 14 years, raising the orchestra to world prominence with conductor Osmo Vänskä.

The longed-for opportunity finally came in 2017. The Minnesota Orchestra was to embark on a tour of South Africa celebrating Nelson Mandela in spring 2018 and needed orchestral arrangements of local songs. Jaakko was Vänskä’s first choice, as he had previously arranged dozens of songs by Abba, Queen and the Beatles for Sinfonia Lahti with great success.

This time, however, Jaakko demurred. He had only recently learned how to say no and to find space for things other than work in his calendar. He also had the opera Ice to complete, and cellist Arto Noras was waiting on a Cello Concerto. There simply were not enough hours in the day to accommodate a new commission. But Vänskä would not take ‘no’ for an answer. He would not accept anyone but the best, so he upped the ante.

“So how about we say that you arrange the songs for us, and then the Minnesota Orchestra will commission a symphony from you?” said Vänskä.

With that sentence, Osmo suddenly created more hours in the day for Jaakko.

The Symphony unfinished

For many composers, music is second nature. For Jaakko, it came first.

He had been holding a violin since the age of three. Keys, meters and tempos were his native language, and recordings by the old masters were its dialects. His surname identifies him to Finns as a member of a musical dynasty: his grandfather Taneli Kuusisto was a celebrated composer who wrote one of the most beloved Finnish songs of all time, Suomalainen rukous [Finnish prayer]. His father Ilkka Kuusisto is also a composer and was one of the most influential administrators in Finnish music in the 1970s and 1980s.

Jaakko and brother Pekka, two years his junior, delighted audiences in dozens of TV programs at a very early age, and the ‘Kuusisto brothers’ became a household name as violinist prodigies in the 1980s.

So music came easily. Although Jaakko’s ‘to do list’ seemed to grow exponentially, he never panicked. He was a seasoned artist who had found a way to complete the work at hand with such efficiency that not even his wife could understand it.

“He would just disappear into his study for a while, and when he came back, whatever thing it was would be finished,” Maija Kuusisto recalls. “He never worried about deadlines, because everything was so easy for him. He was like that at work and at play. But he did say that working on the Symphony was different from his previous projects.”

That was a sign that this composition was more important than the others. Jaakko had previously been used to writing music at the piano, trying out melodies, chords and motifs while staring at a blank piece of music paper. The sheet would gradually fill up with notes, which he would then enter into the computer. He never forced himself to create music. If he had sat for ten minutes without getting any new ideas, he might simply say out loud, “it’s not coming now”, and do something else. His working hours were dictated by inspiration.

Yet he never missed a deadline.

He had four years to write the Symphony. The first ideas emerged in 2019, and he wrote down some fragments in 2020, before the diagnosis. The work was of such importance for him that he thought long and hard about all his musical ideas before committing them to paper and then to computer.

After the operation, Jaakko was completely himself. He was able to conduct concerts as normal and even performed as a violinist, but his attitude to composing had changed. Perhaps he had noticed that the tumor had affected his handwriting, or perhaps he did not wish to leave indeterminate sketches behind if it should happen that he was unable to complete them. In any case, he no longer wrote anything down on paper; he simply formulated everything in his head and then entered his internal voice directly into the notation software.

Although you could not see Jaakko’s condition from the outside, it progressed inexorably. He regularly attended examinations, and the news was never good. Time was running short, but Jaakko would not let that affect his work ethic. Maija did note that Jaakko did not sit at the computer as often as before, instead allowing the Symphony to gestate of its own accord. He was still not in a hurry, and was not worried about the deadline in March.

As late as in December 2021, Jaakko was at full working capacity. He had even conducted performances of The Nutcracker with the energy of a young man. At Christmas, he played bits of his Symphony for Maija on the piano and mused out loud about how to fashion the overall shape of the piece. Would it be in two movements, or should it be cast in a single movement, like Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony?

He also played bits on the piano that he had not written down anywhere. “I tried to make him write down everything right away,” Maija recalls, “because I could see that he was running out of time.”

The Cello Sonata that he was supposed to deliver in early January was also going nowhere, even though Maija kept reminding Jaakko of that too.

“It’s already finished,” Jaakko said. And that was probably true, in his head, but not in score. Only a few bars of sketch now survive of that Sonata.

Immediately after Christmas, Jaakko’s health abruptly failed. In early January, he was admitted to hospital, and it was clear that he would not be coming home. Maija packed up a bundle of music paper in his things just in case his inspiration returned. But she realized deep down that the Symphony would remain unfinished.

It would be up to Maija to make Jaakko’s dream come true.

Where the music comes from

There are dozens of examples in the history of music of compositions left unfinished and completed by others, such as Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, Borodin’s Third Symphony and, most famously, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem.

When Mozart was commissioned by an unknown party to write a Mass for the Dead, he was in no hurry to complete the work. While waiting for inspiration, he wrote his Clarinet Concerto and the opera La clemenza di Tito. Yet the Requiem weighed on his mind and even haunted him.

It was as if Mozart was deliberately avoiding writing the Requiem. Perhaps he realized how important the work would be for him: a requiem would not be a throwaway occasional work for a courtly ceremony, nor a virtuoso piece or a comic opera. He was writing a monument to the memory of a young woman that would last forever. Despite his wife Constanze begging him to write the Requiem, Mozart kept putting it off – until it was too late. In the event, he only completed about one third of the Requiem before his death.

Immediately after her husband’s death, Constanze gathered up everything that she could find related to the Requiem on his desk: the incomplete score, loose sheets of music and scraps of sketches. The work had to be completed in one way or another, and with this in mind she sought out colleagues of Mozart who were the most familiar with his style and his works. She was determined that the commissioner of the Requiem would get value for money; the music was to be as authentically Mozart as possible. The Requiem was eventually completed by Mozart’s pupil and copyist Franz Xaver Süssmayr.

At the point when Jaakko was taken to the hospital, he had less than six months to complete the Symphony. The tumor had begun to encroach on the part of the brain that sorts and arranges memories, images and awareness of the present, and it now took Jaakko on a farewell tour larger than life, independent of time or place. Without leaving the hospital, Jaakko had become a touring musician again: rehearsing with his trio for a concert at Wigmore Hall in London, travelling around Finland conducting symphony orchestras, raising a glass at an afterparty after a successful concert, singing, playing music and cracking jokes with his colleagues.

For most of the time, he was at the Naantali Music Festival in high summer, where he had been a regular visitor for decades. The hospital morphed into Naantali Spa, and the hospital staff became the festival administrators. He was living the high life of an artist – but he was not writing any music.

Finally, on Wednesday, February 23, 2022, Jaakko peacefully sailed off to where the music comes from.

The Symphony completed

Maija assembled a two-man team. Jaakko’s younger brother Pekka was probably more familiar than anyone with his style, his thinking and his logic. Music engraver Jari Eskola had been preparing all of Jaakko’s compositions for print and creating orchestral parts for them for a decade. If these two could not manage to complete Jaakko’s unfinished Symphony, no one could. The first thing that Pekka did was to gather up all of Jaakko’s notes, computer folders and tablet files to assemble the disjointed pieces of the Symphony. He soon hit a dead end.

Pekka discovered that the sketches were useless. The material that Jaakko had completed was complete to the last detail. Every slur, accent and dynamic marking was in place. These bits were so well finalized that they could have been published as is. But beyond that, there was only about 40 measures’ worth of sketches.

Half of the symphony was missing. The work was planned in two movements: six minutes of the first movement and four minutes of the second were in existence. Pekka was now faced with the task of inventing music created by Jaakko of which Jaakko had not left the slightest clue.

In examining the Symphony, Pekka discovered that the music contained surprisingly many familiar themes, melodies and even extra-musical inspirations. This was exceptional, as Jaakko had not been in the habit of writing narratives in music or alluding to his earlier works. The Symphony, however, incorporated elements of his past life and reflected the somber turn that his present day had taken.

“Certainly these feelings influence what I put on paper,” Jaakko had said in the interview in December 2021.

This realization yielded the tools and the material needed to fill in the gaps in the Symphony. The main thing was to ensure that the bits written by Pekka sounded as if they could have been written by Jaakko.

Everyone who knew Jaakko marveled at how tenacious he was. His condition never eroded his sense of humor, which remained as sharp as ever. His eyes retained the familiar mischievous twinkle, as if he were about to launch into an ultra-pithy witticism – his specialty. If Jaakko had not told everyone about his condition, no one would have known.

Having said that, it is impossible not to notice the impact of Jaakko’s condition when listening to the Symphony. It has dark tones previously absent from his music, flashes of despair and reflections on the unpredictability of life. One of the central elements in the musical material is an ascending tritone, as in Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony – his darkest work, likewise overshadowed by a serious illness.

Over a period of eighteen months, Jaakko underwent innumerable MRI scans of his head to monitor the progress of the tumor. The metal tube of the device into which the patient is inserted is cramped and incredibly loud. The noise can be dampened with ear plugs and headphones but not completely blocked. Jaakko came to detest the machine from the bottom of his heart but learned to tolerate it with a method that says everything about his character. While the machine was mapping the pathways of the tumor in Jaakko’s brain, he was trying to analyze the rhythmic structure of the knocking sounds that it made.

“Jaakko often complained about not being able to take a recording device with him to the MRI scans,” Maija recalls.

Jaakko worked out a way to record the knocking sounds after all. He recorded them in his Symphony.

Pekka believes that there is also another hospital memory encoded into the Symphony. “Jaakko and I once talked about how the radiation therapy works,” explains Pekka. “When you have a tumor in your head that has to be irradiated, the device must be precisely focused. The focusing begins while the device is still quite far away and comes closer as the machine calculates the coordinates. It must not miss by even a fraction. I feel that Jaakko wrote out that moment at the beginning of the second movement. There’s a massive string pedal point that thins out and centers gradually on D.”

What about the orchestration: which instruments should play together and when, and in which key? First, Pekka drew a conductor’s-eye view of a large symphony orchestra on a huge sheet of paper. Then he studied the orchestration in Jaakko’s concertos and the opera Ice and drew lines between the instrument sections according to what Jaakko must have been hearing at which point. As Pekka completed each section of music, Jari Eskola entered it on the computer and produced pages of finished score. There is not a single theme or melody in the completed Symphony that is not derived from Jaakko’s existing compositions.

It was obvious that Jaakko had customized the symphony for the American sound ideal, flexible and opulent – precisely the sort of thing that the Minnesota Orchestra is so good at. He wanted Osmo Vänskä to end his 20-year tenure as Chief Conductor on a high.

There was a particular theme in the Symphony that recurred more often than any other. It appears on the piano at the very beginning so prominently that it must have been important for Jaakko. Pekka knew he had heard it before, but where? He could not find any hint of it in any other composition – concertos, operas, solo pieces or handwritten sketches. Yet he knew that it had been written by Jaakko and that it was familiar. Having exhausted all other possibilities, he played the theme for Maija on the chance that she could identify it.

Maija recognized it immediately. It is from a song which Jaakko had written for Maija much earlier and which was first performed at their wedding in summer 2019. It is titled Haave [Daydream].

A glimpse, of something

of which I knew nothing.

A weak and quiet daydream

beyond sleep...

The poem by Katja Sutela is of course about love, but by a happy coincidence the Finnish word haave [daydream] sounds similar to the Swedish word havet [the sea].

After months of work, Pekka and Jari succeeded in making Jaakko’s greatest dream come true. The Symphony clocks in at 20 minutes, consisting of two movements performed without a break. Pekka also provided a coda whose material harks back to Jaakko’s solo piano work Jurmo. Its title is the name of an island in the Turku archipelago, the region that is also the setting for the opera Ice. Perhaps the symphony was intended as an homage to the sea, Jaakko’s other great love?

“The rhythms in the coda are derived from the light signals flashed out by lighthouses, beacons and other navigation aids in the Gulf of Finland that are visible from a specific location,” explains Pekka. “Jaakko knew these waters well. This location is one where, following the lights, you emerge from the shelter of the islands and navigate out onto the open sea.”

Jaani Länsiö

This article is commissioned by Tactus Oy.