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Oskar Merikanto

August 5, 1868 - February 17, 1924
born in Helsinki, Finland, composed during the Romantic period
Oskar Merikanto was undoubtedly overshadowed by his Finnish countryman and contemporary, Jean Sibelius. That said, Merikanto was an important musical figure in his sphere still, particularly for his work in opera, song, and church music. He was instrumental in bringing operatic performances to the stage in Finland, and his Pohjan neiti (Maiden of the North) was the first Finnish-language opera ever produced. In the realm of church music Merikanto was active both as an educator and composer. But he will probably be best remembered for his songs. A good many of them from his numerous collections (nearly 50 in all!) and from among various lone efforts scattered throughout his output without opus, are regularly heard in recitals and on recordings. Perusing Merikanto's works list, one is struck by its enormity: for chorus alone there are well over 100 entries (some representing sizable collections), and for piano over 80, a body of work that contains, however, not one sonata or concerto! Merikanto typically wrote short works for solo instruments and voice, but his operas and incidental scores for the theater broke with this miniature-like pattern.

Oskar Merikanto was born in Helsinki, Finland, on August 5, 1868. Like Sibelius, his parents were Swedish speakers. The family name, too, Mattsson, was Swedish, which the father changed to the more Finnish-sounding Merikanto. Young Oskar divulged musical talent early on, with exceptional skills on the organ and piano.

In the period 1887-1888, Merikanto studied music at the Leipzig Conservatory. Even by this time, though, he was already active as a composer, with numerous piano works to his credit, including the Fantasia, for four hands (1885) and Two Träumerei (1887), as well as pieces for organ and songs.

Merikanto concluded his studies in Berlin in 1890-1891. In 1893 his son Aarre was born. He would also become a noted composer, his father being his first teacher and a profound influence in his life. In 1898 the elder Merikanto wrote the aforementioned opera Pohjan neiti, but it was not staged until 1908. From the early twentieth century Merikanto worked to promote opera in Finland, conducting and arranging many major performances.

Merikanto remained quite active in composition throughout his life. Perhaps his most popular sacred work, the hymn Thank you, Lord! from 1924, was among his last. But it still showed his usual mastery and inspiration. Merikanto died in Hausjärvi-Oitti on February 17, 1924. ~ Robert Cummings, Rovi
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