At the time when I began to write this piece, I had no idea that it would turn out to be a symphony. I even had a quite detailed formal outline for something totally different, but during the rather long composing period this outline was thoroughly altered. What I had imagined to be results, is finally functioning as a starting point in the three developments, for which there was not supposed to be any place in the first formal sketches. As a matter of fact, it took me fairly long to get not only my subconscious but also my conscious thoughts to approve of the fact that the piece is a symphony, and that it, accordingly, has to be named so. Having done this, I eventually was able to accept my strong feeling of affinity with some earlier symphonists, a feeling that had annoyed me, as I thought I was aiming at something outside this field.
Symphony, op. 20 was commissioned by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, and I composed it between December 1980 and January 1985 – meanwhile I, however, wrote also other pieces. The symphony is scored for a large orchestra with partly quadruple woodwinds. The five percussionists play an important role, as does also the electric piano (or synthesizer) that adds to the colour and power of the orchestra, mainly in culmination points. The piece is played attacca, but there are easily distinguishable movements. The work starts with a slow introduction, and after a short transition the first movement begins. It is a combination of scherzando character and the kind of strictness that usually belongs to the main movements of symphonies. The form is ternary, with the middle section introducing the electric piano, almost as a concertante instrument. Both the outer sections contain a short development. Just before the final word of this movement, the second movement begins. This is the slow movement of the symphony, but it also includes the most thorough development of the piece. The movement runs in three big curves, of which the first concentrates in wide masses of string sound and the second in solos with colourfully orchestrated backgrounds. The “third wave” is the development, and it leads to the culminating section, where the rather violent world of the introduction returns, added with the electric piano. A couple of outbursts bring in the finale, which simplifies the main ideas of the symphony to plain and uncomplicated juxtapositions and, eventually, to monolithic final gestures.
Symphony, op. 20 is dedicated to Esa-Pekka Salonen, who conducted its premier with the Helsinki Philharmonic on March the 7th, 1985.