This is a remarkable large-scale symphony with so much diversity of style that it could serve as an illustration of twentieth-century postmodern styles.
Aho (born in 1949) had written six symphonies by the time he was 30, but then concluded he had exhausted his development in that form and turned to vocal music, writing a successful opera, Avain (The Key). Then he wrote Hyönteiselämää (Insect Life) in 1985 - 1987 as an entry for the 350th Anniversary celebration of the city of Savonlinna. The opera was a satire based on a play by the Czech authors Josef and Karel Capek relating various human "types" and activities to those of insects.
Einojuhani Rautavaara's excellent opera Vincent won the Savonlinna contest instead. Looking for other prospects Aho concluded that the market for new Finnish operas was saturated, as the new Finnish National Opera House building already had two more new works in line. He concluded, correctly, that it would take ten years before Insect Life reached the stage. (in fact, it did appear on stage in September 1996).
Meanwhile, seeking to use its musical material, he adapted its music into this symphony in April 1988. He discovered in writing his first symphony in eight years that in using the opera's diverse material he had "...opened up a wholly new, uninhibited direction in symphonic form," a direction he took, writing three more symphonies by 1996.
The 46-minute symphony is in six movements and, in Aho's judgment satisfies Mahler's famous dictum that a symphony must be "a world" and contain everything. The six movements are designed so that one is in maximum opposition to the style of the prior movement. They are:
I. "The Tramp, the Parasitic Hymenopter and its Larva." The only human character in Insect Life is a tramp who observes all the goings-on in the insect world. This music starts up in a severe atonal style and seems to consider various types of dissonant texture, including an edgy use of very high woodwind.
II. "The Butterflies (The Foxtrot and Tango of the Butterflies)." This movement traverses a few styles of "symphonic" jazz, with echoes both from the '20s and Leonard Bernstein. It is predominantly tonal.
III. "The Dung Beetles (Grief over the Stolen Ball of Dung)" is plodding, earthbound music.
IV. "The Grasshoppers." More tonal music, with airy, vaulting use of chiming percussion. Their flighty and unpredictable leaps use in non-repetitive, irregular rhythms. The style is somewhat like early Stravinsky pieces such as Fireworks or the Scherzo fantasque.
V. "The Ants (The Working Music of the Ants and War Marches I and II)." The music is machine-like, with the same inexorable march rhythm then taking on a vicious, overwhelming quality. This music is a stunning exercise in growing orchestral power. The music is devoid of any sense of humanity.
VI. The Daylilies and Lullaby for the Dead Dayflies. The music here is Impressionistic, and the symphony closes, affectingly, with its only human feeling, a sense of tragedy.