Martin Wegelius: Founder of The First Wagner Society in Finland (1846-1906).

A Summary of Prof. Matti Huttunen's Lecture during The Finnish Wagner Society's Meeting 8th March 1995.

Martin Wegelius is remembered in the history of Finnish music as the founder of The Helsinki Conservatory, now known as The Sibelius Academy. Wegelius was an enthusiastic Wagnerian who did not only appreciate Wagner's personality but also strived for analysing Wagner's works and philosophy in his lectures and writings. He greatly added to the knowledge of Wagner's works in Finland.

Wegelius' background was unusual. His father was working as an official at The Helsinki University. Being a cultured person he was well-read and shared with his university colleagues an interest for literature. One day he experienced a religious awakening and joined a sect, which gradually created a disciplined atmosphere in the family. This caused young Wegelius to live a double life labelled by religious ideas and pedantic thought but also by an interest for literature and wagnerism. Young Wegelius studied music and took piano lessons. He had one feature in common with Wagner, which was a remarkably bad voice for singing. He studied philosophy and literature in The Helsinki University. He made three trips abroad and became a Wagnerian. In 1870 he received a scholarship for music studies from the state. He went to Vienna and studied music under a well-known organist Rudolf Bibl. In Vienna Wegelius saw Lohengrin. He was afraid of going to see it, because he was obsessed with the thought that the performance could spoil the first impression he had had when studying the score of the opera. This did not happen. He left Vienna and entered the Leipzig Conservatory. There he became a friend of the Norwegian composer Johan Svendsen who encouraged him to continue his studies of music. One of the teachers was Carl Reinecke whose compositions were influenced by Wagner. Wegelius participated in the battles between the Brahmsians and the Wagnerians and was present on many occasions that were arranged for the celebration of Wagner. Personally Wegelius' favourite was The Mastersingers which in his opinion reflected a striving for genuine art.

In 1877-78 Wegelius travelled to Munich. On returning to Finland he achieved through his knowledge of music an indisputable position in the Finnish cultural life. Wegelius composed several orchestral and choral pieces, arranged concerts, taught music in different schools and became a known figure in Helsinki, although he never became a star. This role belonged to his rival, Robert Kajanus, the conductor of The Helsinki Philharmonia. Their admiration of Wagner was the only link between them. Clashes of divergent interests made them enemies. Wegelius' students were not allowed to attend concerts directed by Kajanus.

As a teacher in The Helsinki Conservatory Wegelius was unbelievably strict. Even absence from the lectures because of illness was seen by him as truancy. He demanded much from his students and from himself, although he allowed minor liberties for himself and so he sometimes retired to the window during the work to enjoy a sip of cognac.

Ardent worship of Wagner was characteristic of all that Wegelius did, but two special things should be mentioned. The first was his visit to the inauguration of the Bayreuth theatre and the other was the establishment of the first Wagner society in Finland. Wegelius travelled to Bayreuth with two other Wagnerians, Dr. Salzman, dosentiate of surgery at the university of Helsinki and Richard Faltin a teacher of music. During the trip Wegelius wrote letters which were published in The Helsingfors Dagblad. In these letters he describes Wagner's Ring and the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. His detailed description of the stage is extremely illustrative. What he wrote shows that he was after all not enthusiastic about all that he saw. Wegelius

documents the opening of the festival in a vivid way. The audience was full of famous German people. When the Kaiser arrived a special signal was played, which silenced everyone. What followed then was complete darkness. One could not even distinguish the silhouette of the person sitting next to one. Then music could be heard to come from darkness. The impression was overpoweringly strong. New modern stage effects were used in the performance. Some of the techniques failed. According to Wegelius the audience was dissatisfied with the performance but unanimously convinced of the greatness of Wagner.

The most interesting letter deals with a banquet arranged in the Festspielhaus restaurant. Many speeches concerning the opening performance were made during the occasion. Wegelius tells how in his speech Wagner stressed the idea of creating German national opera; the French and the Italians had their own opera and now it was time for Germany to rid itself of the influence of those two musical nations. After this Wagner changed the topic and turned to Liszt. The most moving moment of the evening was, when he said:" If this man had not been standing beside me, you would never have heard a note from me." Liszt answered in a few words and said:" I will always be loyal to the creative spirit of this great man."

This incident greatly impressed Wegelius and he refers to Liszt and writes:"There are not very many great men, who have self-knowledge and greatness of soul to decrown themselves and to lay the crown at another man's feet." Wegelius then describes the continuation of the evening:" When the confusion among the audience had calmed down Wagner quickly like a small boy jumped in front of the audience and shouted:" And after this none are allowed to speak a single meaningful word". Wegelius' letters give a clear picture of his admiration of Wagner, which also was not lacking in childish features. Wegelius was shocked at Wagner's love letters to Mathilde Wesendonk, which were published by Finsk Musikrevy. These letters conflicted with the Platonic character of their love that was emphasised in the Wagner literature of the time.

Wegelius founded with his friends a Wagner society in the winter 1898-99, The society existed for only a couple of years. Unfortunately the society's papers and other property have been lost to posterity. The membership consisted mainly of young music lovers and people who where connected with the conservatory. Wegelius was a kind of the father figure in the society. The purpose of the society meetings was to aquaint the members with Wagner's works, which they hoped to see later in Bayreuth. In the meetings Wegelius lectured in a free way, and Karl Ekman, one of the top-class pianist of the time played fragments of Wagner's operas, sometimes with four hands assisted by a young master of arts named Westerlund. Wegelius wrote to Faltin 1899 to say that he had been investigating The Mastersingers the work he admired so much when young to be able to lecture on it during the society's meeting.

In the archives of the Sibelius Academy there is a 323 page biography of Wagner written by Wegelius. The work also includes a survey of the general history of opera. According to Veikko Helasvuo the work goes back to the turns of the 1880's-1890's. The biography is a very thoroughgoing but colourless description of Wagner's life. Many pages of the manuscript are missing, but the surviving fragments are still worth publishing. There are also many other unpublished books on Wagner in Finland. For instance Arvo Laitinen has catalogued all the leitmotifs from Wagner's works and them Finnish names. Analyses of Wagner's works made by Ilmari Krohn also exist. The most significant of Wegelius' works is The History of Music (1893). In this book Wegelius tries to analyse the history of western music in the light of Wagner's theories. More often the question is of his own interpretations of Wagner's theories.

Much more interesting than this is Wegelius opinion of the essentials of the leitmotifs of the Ring. Wegelius emphasises the fact that the leitmotifs were not originated by means of rational thinking but the whole web of leitmotifs was created as a result of sub-conscious inventiveness. As stated by Wegelius the grouping and multiple employment of the variations of leitmotifs is so complex that a person's lifetime would have been too short for the fulfilment of the task on the rational level. Wagner's creative mind, however, was able to do this on the level of unconsciousness. Wegelius had a long-time effect on the teaching of music in Finland, and his book Bass Continuo is still used in some schools, which unfortunately reflects the old-fashioned features of the present Finnish music pedagogy. Wegelius created The Sibelius Academy which enjoys a world-wide reputation. As a founder and principal of the conservatory Wegelius proved to have energy and self-discipline ( sometimes also discipline). His Wagner society, however, did not live long. In a way, the rebirth of Wegelius' society took place, when the present Finnish Wagner Society came into being in Turku in the year 1992.


Translated from Finnish by Uolevi Karrakoski.


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