More than just Sibelius

A brief history of Finnish music

Finland lake view

A national musical scene emerged in Finland in the middle of the nineteenth century. The first Finnish national composer was Sibelius with his symphonies and his tone poem Finlandia, making him the father figure of Finnish music. More recently, Finnish musicians such as Einojuhani Rautavaara, Kaija Saariaho and Esa-Pekka Salonen have broken free from Sibelius’s shadow and proved internationally successful with their own distinctive musical idiolects.

To a certain extent Finland is an artificial construct. Although the Finnish language is believed to have existed even before the North was Christianized, there could be no question at that time of a Finnish nation or of a Finnish state. Only a few thousand fishermen and farmers used an autochthonous language, while the upper echelons of society spoke Swedish until well into the twentieth century. This is also true of Finland’s national poet, Johan Ludvig Runeberg, who wrote the words of the Finnish national anthem, Vårt Land, which was set to music by the Hamburg-born composer Fredrik Pacius – it was Pacius, too, who wrote the first Finnish opera, Kung Karls jakt, in 1852.

The formative influence of Sweden, of which Finland was a part for six hundred years, tends nowadays to be marginalized. It is still recognizable in part as many artists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries gave themselves Swedish names: Aleksis Kivi, who wrote the epic novel Seitsemän veljestä (The Seven Brothers) and is widely regarded as the father of modern Finnish literature, was born Alexis Stenvall; Juhani Aho, the first modern novelist, was originally called Brofeldt; and Axel Waldemar Gallén, Finland’s most notable painter, added the typically Finnish “Kallela” to his surname.

The early champions of national self-determination in a country that was ruled by Russia from 1809 until 1917 were often dependent on foreign support. The constitution and educational system, for example, were taken over from Germany, while the Berlin architect Carl Ludwig Engel designed the neoclassical city of Helsingfors, now Helsinki. And in 1918 the civil war that followed independence was decided in favour of the counterrevolution by a German expeditionary force.

It scarcely needs adding that the Helsingfors Stadsorkester that was founded in 1882 – the same year as the Berlin Philharmonic – was made up almost entirely of Germans and Austrians. Its principal conductor was Robert Kajanus, a Swedish Finn who in his day was Finland’s first composer of any significance and Sibelius’s greatest champion.

Songs known as “joiks” and a 5/4-metre are typical of Finnish music.

Was there no authentic Finnish music before Kajanus? There was Bernhard Crusell, a clarinet virtuoso and composer famous throughout Europe, and there was Axel Gabriel Ingelius, who wrote the first Finnish symphony in 1847 and four years later the first gothic novel, Det gråa slottet (The Grey Castle). But the most interesting figure was Erik Tulindberg, an accountant from Vähäkyrö in western Finland, who left a violin concerto and six string quartets that were not discovered until 1925 and not recorded until 2005.

Tulindberg’s importance lies in the fact that he is believed to have been the first educated Westerner to study the music of the Sámi, the indigenous people of the extreme North. At that date the nomadic Sámi were regarded as the last pagan tribe in Europe and demonized by the Swedish botanist Carl von Linné (Linnaeus), among others, on account of the shaman drums that they traditionally played.

Tulindberg drew the attention of the Italian researcher Giuseppe Acerbi, who was also a passionate clarinettist, to this wealth of material. Acerbi had already undertaken an expedition to North Cape in 1799, when he had stumbled upon the unusual 5/4-metre that is widespread throughout rural Scandinavia and Russia but rarely found in more "civilized" regions. It was made up of a duple and a triple metre, leaving observers struggling to decide where the main beat should fall. Acerbi wrote a clarinet quartet and solved the problem of the rhythm by adding a crotchet rest to the “Runa finnoise” that the piece contains.

The characteristic music of the Sámi and especially the traditional songs known as “joiks” found their way into a handful of works by Finnish and Swedish composers. Sibelius, on the other hand, deliberately avoided these and other borrowings from folk music. None the less, he took over a typical Sámi form of melody comprising a long sustained note abruptly followed by a triplet motion. The first recordings of his symphonies were already released in England in 1930 conducted by Kajanus. Both in Britain and in the United States of America Sibelius long enjoyed the aura of the most important contemporary composer – much to the dismay of Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

As Finland’s first national composer, Sibelius was also a father figure for later generations.

In Finland, on the other hand, Sibelius had enemies as well as friends. His reputation overshadowed the careers of almost all of his compatriots, preventing composers such as Erkki Melartin and the French-orientated Leevi Madetoja from making a name for themselves as symphonists.

But Sibelius wrote only one opera – the one-act Jungfrun i tornet (The Maiden in the Tower), and it was as an opera composer that Medatoja scored an unprecedented success with Pohjalaisia (The Ostrobothnians) in 1924. At the same time, Aarre Merikanto’s more modern-sounding Juha encountered such malicious opposition that its composer destroyed the autograph score, and it was not until 1981 that Paavo Heininen reconstructed the work.

Hailed as a miracle of Finnish opera, this work became closely associated with the Savonlinna Festival and helped to revive interest in Merikanto and in older Finnish music dramatists.

New operas by Aulis Sallinen (Ratsumies [The Horseman], 1975), Joonas Kokkonen (Viimeiset kiusaukset [The Last Temptations], 1975) and Einojuhani Rautavaara (Thomas, 1985) proved trail-blazingly successful, enjoying even wider exposure as a result of foreign tours.

Jean Sibelius spielt Klavier
(Photo: Jean Sibelius soittaa pianoa von Bonney, Thérèse - Finland - CC BY.

Finnish composers once again turned in increasing numbers to the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, which Elias Lönnrot had compiled in the middle of the nineteenth century on the basis of a selection of folktales that he had researched and written down. Conversely, Erik Bergman chose a Swedish fairytale for his highly expressive avant-garde opera Det sjungande trädet (The Singing Tree) in 1988.

During the Second World War Finland had maintained its independence in the face of overwhelming Soviet aggression but had been forced to relinquish the province of East Karelia. In the wake of the war the symphony enjoyed a new golden age in Finland. Einar Englund wrote his Second Symphony following his return from the front and it was not long before it had become the most frequently performed Finnish symphony from the recent past – not that this prevented Englund from using his autobiography, I skuggan av Sibelius (In the Shadow of Sibelius), to complain about the lack of recognition that the work had ostensibly received.

Pehr Henrik Nordgren wrote eight symphonies, some of which have recourse to archaic instruments and rune songs. Aulis Sallinen, too, contributed just as often to the medium of the symphony, his darkly glowing musical language setting him apart from the morphological method that typifies the style of a composer such as Sibelius. For his part, Joonas Kokkonen comes closest to the introvert world of Sibelius’s Fourth in his own symphonies. The most successful Finnish composer on the international stage, above all in the United States, is Einojuhani Rautavaara, who followed in the wake of the majestically gliding largamente passages that characterize the final movements of Sibelius’s Second and Fifth Symphonies.

The Finnish composers who are active today have long since emerged from Sibelius’s shadow.

Adopting the motto “Korvat auki!” (Open your ears), the younger generation of Finnish composers has rebelled against those of its forebears whose music drew for its inspiration on a world of mystical depths. Suffice it to mention Esa-Pekka Salonen, Magnus Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho, all of whom have adopted very different compositional concepts. Arguably Finland’s most prolific living composer is the brilliant Kalevi Aho, who was born in 1949. A pupil of Rautavaara and Boris Blacher, he has so far written five operas, seventeen symphonies and forty concertos.

The emergence of so many original modern composers as well as the impressive roster of distinguished conductors and the formation of orchestras even in such remote corners of the country as Lahti and Rovaniemi are all interconnected. Finland’s school system has been regarded as one of the leading systems in Europe since the PISA Study of 2000. Since then it has been overtaken only by Estonia. Even before the Second World War the literacy rate in what was once a backward country was more than 99 percent. What began with Lönnrot’s Kalevala and with Jean Sibelius was to lead within only a few decades to the birth of an advanced national culture which in the field of music in particular has been able to combine tradition and innovation in highly effective ways.

Volker Tarnow

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