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Erik Tawaststjerna

Born October 10, 1916, Mikkeli. Died January 22, 1993, Helsinki.

Master of Arts, 1958, Licentiate of Philosophy, 1959, Doctor of Philosophy, 1960, University of Helsinki.

Professor of Musicology 1960-83, University of Helsinki
Writings and critical music reviews for various newspapers incl. Helsingin Sanomat, Huvudstadsbladet, SNS-Kansan Sanomat, 1943-89
Chairman of the board, 1970-80, Sibelius Academy
Tieto-Finlandia Prize (for best work of non-fiction), 1989

Written by Tero Juutilainen
Translated by John Calton
Photo: Department of Musicology, University of Helsinki

Needs must - From Pianist to Academic

Erik Tawaststjerna is best known for his biography of Jean Sibelius, but in the 1930s he showed promise as a young scientific, even a mathematician. At the last his studies in mathematics gave way to the young student’s career as a concert pianist. It was not for at least another decade before the University was to become relevant again, this time the humanities.

The transition from concert pianist to academic was furthered by the knowledge that a position, that of professor of musicology, was about to become vacant, but also an urge to write. One problem with Tawaststjerna’s plans for a change of career was the lack of a first degree. He had completed his advanced studies in mathematics in the 1930s but the actual degree certificate had eluded him. Nor had he published a single piece of academic research, which would have been enough to demonstrate his academic competence.

The only logical thing to do was get down to study. Erik Tawaststjerna did just that, completing his Master’s degree in an extremely short time (1958) and his doctorate soon after in 1960. Applicants for the professorship needed to produce a second academic study, which he did forthwith. The appointments procedure was swift and before the year was out Erik Tawaststjerna was the new professor of Musicology at the University of Helsinki.

Tawaststjerna’s life’s work is usually assessed with reference to his five-volume life of Sibelius. The writing and publication took him 24 years and in 1989 brought him the first ever Tieto-Finlandia Prize for non-fiction writing. The exceptionally high quality biography was helped by the fact that Sibelius’ family granted Tawaststjerna permission to go through Jean Sibelius’ personal correspondence and diaries. Of interest too is that both writer and subject had similar backgrounds in terms of language and culture.

Tawaststjerna had already achieved an international reputation for his piano playing, but the biography established him as a scholar. Meanwhile knowledge about Sibelius spread abroad and prompted a new wave of Sibelius studies.

The academic attention did not end with Sibelius: his interests were in Soviet music as well as piano music, opera and the art of conducting. He published a monograph on Sergei Prokoviev’s opera War and Peace but plans to write a biography of Dmitri Shostakovitsh were never realized. Erik Tawaststjerna died in 1993. His son, Erik T. Tawaststjerna has continued in his father’s footsteps and is nowadays a professor in the Sibelius Academy.

Photo: Department of Musicology, University of Helsinki.​
Photo: Department of Musicology, University of Helsinki.​



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