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“Utterly Finnish, peculiarly original”

by Olli Heikkinen

The concept of a national musical language made its way to Finland in the 1800s. One of the culminations of this new wave was the premiere performance of Sibelius’s Kullervo. The birth of this epic music historical tale was influenced by a number of endeavours, ideas and occurrences.

Nationalism and music share a long and interesting history. The essence of this relationship dates back to the 18th century when the origins of music became of interest: where does music come from? Music written by an individual composer was now considered art, equal to other art forms, yet the cultural nationalists were more interested in songs which were thought to have originated from a collective of people associated with a specific location. The main focus in Finland, as well as elsewhere in Europe, has been on melodies, although there has been occasional interest in the origins of instruments and playing styles as well.


Interest in folk melodies instead of singers

Why was the intelligentsia mostly intrigued by melodies? The reason is clear. The nationalist-minded intelligentsia was saturated with the prevailing literary ethos. In the 1800s, the concept of literature was not limited to fiction and non-fiction, and thus sheet music was also considered literature. New sheet music was often advertised in the newspapers under “New literature” or “New music literature”. In music reviews, a particularly successful composition could be described as a “new jewel to adorn our national music literature”.

Today, the term “music literature” primarily refers to books written about musicians or artists, for instance, where the amount of notated music is insignificant. The original meaning of the term “music literature”, however, has been preserved through certain musical genres. For example, the term “string quartet literature” refers to sheet music.

The literary ethos had a strong influence on the 19th-century intelligentsia’s notion of the music sung and played by the people, and its value. There was a need to notate this music for the sake of preserving folk tradition. Even Elias Lönnrot, who compiled the Kalevala, urged others to collect not only lyrics, but also melodies that were used when singing Kalevalaic poems. According to his view, a song could be divided into two categories: words, or the literary representation of the spoken language, and melody, or the literary representation of music.

Thus the music collectors of the time would set off interviewing people with the clear intention of notating their songs and getting them published down the line. The song collection movement was supported by, among others, the Finnish Literature Society, which viewed the publishing of melodies as a literary enterprise, similar to publishing poetry. The Society’s newspaper ad from 1886 calls for “folk songs, dance or poetry tunes carefully written down from people (in other words, notated music)”. There was no instruction to mention the singer or player.

It is remarkable how reluctant the 1800s intelligentsia was to listen to the common people sing. In 1893, Oskar Relander wrote a word of warning about the disappointment that follows hearing “a stooped old man with a trembling voice singing fragmented poetry snippets”. In addition to trembling voices, the song collectors seem to have been bothered by the ear-piercing shrillness of female voices. Relander was aware that more modern and sophisticated cultural forms would eventually replace the old singing styles, but this was something that he was not overly concerned about. The intelligentsia was only interested in accepting the common people’s melodies, not the way they were sung.


A composer as a national genius

The above-mentioned call for collectors by the Finnish Literature Society did not require that the name of the singer be mentioned; however, it was a requirement to note the name of the village where the song was collected. The melody belonged to the whole village rather than to an individual singer. An interest in the origins of melodies had gradually been awakened in the 18th century. The main impetus for this interest was the Herderian cultural nationalism of the late 1700s, which considered that the Volksgeist – the spirit of the people – was best represented through intellectual capital, especially poetry.

As folk poetry was often performed through singing, melodies collected from any particular village were given a national significance. For instance, songs collected from the village of Mäntyharju were sung by schoolchildren across the whole of Finland in the late 1800s – not as folk songs from Mäntyharju but as folk songs from Finland, something that belonged to the Finnish people. The songs of the common people had become nationalised.

The music of the people, however, was not the only type of music that the intelligentsia was busy nationalising. The intelligentsia also had its own pan-European music culture which was rooted first and foremost in Germany. Nationalising this music culture required a national composer, as the national originality was thought to be best manifested through the work of a national genius – they share the same origin: the national spirit. The originality of an individual composer could only stem from national originality.

However, these two processes of nationalisation lead to a paradox. In order to be original, a composer cannot simply copy existing melodies, yet without them it is difficult for people to recognise their own national character in the music. This paradox created a hurdle that the creator of the Finnish musical language would have to overcome.


The search for a Finnish musical language

One way of nationalising music is to attach it to a text or topic of national importance. This is what Fredrik Pacius did in 1848 when he composed our national poet J.L. Runeberg’s poem Vårt land (Our land), which was later established as the Finnish national anthem. Pacius also composed an opera entitled Kung Karls jakt (King Charles’ Hunt, 1852), based on the King’s visit to the Åland Islands, as well as a Singspiel called Prinsessan av Cypern (The Princess of Cyprus, 1860), partially based on Kalevalaic epic poetry. These two compositions, among others, guaranteed Pacius’s position as the “father of Finnish music”.

Using the Kalevala in one form or another has been the safest way of attracting national attention to a composition in Finland. Filip von Schantz composed an overture for the inauguration of a new theatre building and named his new work Kullervo after the Kalevala hero. Robert Kajanus consequently composed Kullervon surumarssi (Kullervo’s funeral march, 1881), as well as an overture titled Aino (1885) for the 50th anniversary of the Kalevala. It is notable that none of these works borrow any text from the Kalevala.

The other way of nationalising music is to use folk melodies, which were collected and published in significantly increasing numbers from the 1850s onwards. In his 1847 symphony, A.G. Ingelius had already used a 5/4 time signature, which is very common in Kalevalaic melody transcriptions, and Pacius used a folk melody in his above-mentioned Singspiel. He initially intended to compose music that was “Finnish by blood and spirit” but opted for a more “modern” musical language as requested by the librettist, Z. Topelius. Kajanus composed two “Finnish rhapsodies” (1881, 1886) inspired by the works of his Norwegian teacher, Johan Svendsen, based on Finnish folk melodies.

Despite all of these efforts, the music critics of the early 1890s still had doubts about the very existence of a Finnish musical language. The problem with most of the compositions, according to the critics, was that they bore too many references to the German masters. Kajanus, in particular, was often criticised for the Wagnerian influences in his composition Aino.


Sibelius hits the jackpot

But the search was on. In spring 1892, the author K.A. Tavaststjerna gave a lecture about the state of Finnish art and deemed it to be quite satisfactory, with the notable exception of music. However, he had high hopes for a few promising new composers, such as Ilmari Krohn, but above all Jean Sibelius.

The music critic Karl Flodin had already claimed to detect Finnish characteristics in Sibelius’s music in the early 1890s. The symphonic poem Kullervo, premiered on 28 April 1892, removed all existing doubts. Another critic, composer and musician, Oskar Merikanto, wrote unambiguously: “Here we have the first innately Finnish musical work,” and continued, “we recognise these tunes as our own, although we have never heard them quite like this before.” How did Sibelius manage where others had previously failed?

The most important reason must be a decision he made during his composition process. Instead of relying on Finnish folk melodies, which seems to have been his initial plan, he kept developing his own musical language in a more original direction. Above all, he strove to distance himself from the Wagnerian influences of his predecessors. This originality was recognised by the critics, and was deemed to originate from the same source as the Finnish national spirit. It is notable how differently the same critics had written about a concert of another new prospect, Ilmari Krohn, only a fortnight earlier. The main problem in Krohn’s works was considered to be his lack of originality.

Another reason for Sibelius’s success was the fact he was Finnish, which by the 1880s had increasing significance. An achievement of this magnitude was only possible for someone who had been born in Finland. The newspapers wrote that “growing up amongst his own people, he understands the fundamental notes of our nationality far better than foreign composers”. One of these foreign composers that the newspapers referred to was most likely the “father of Finnish music”, Fredrik Pacius, who had died the previous year. Although his obituaries emphasised the great importance of his services to Finnish music, they never failed to mention that even after living in Finland for half a century, his homeland was Germany. For this reason, he could not “break through to the source of original Finnish music”, as the newspaper Päivälehti put it.

But there was yet another reason that rarely gets a mention. In addition to the critics, the wider audience actually perceived Sibelius’s Kullervo as something Finnish. Often criticised as difficult, the music nevertheless managed to include familiar and national elements such as “the twittering of the birds on a summer day, the rustling of the leaves in the forest, the echo bouncing off the cliffs and the tooting of a shepherd’s horn”.

But how did the listeners know that the birds, forests, cliffs and shepherd’s horns were particularly Finnish? It is especially difficult to determine the nationality of migrating birds. The secret lies in effective publicity strategies practised by newspaper music critics. A good month before the premiere of Kullervo, Oskar Merikanto was already describing the work in the Päivälehti newspaper as “utterly Finnish” and “peculiarly original”, as well as predicting that the work would become “the most significant Finnish musical creation that ever existed”. And indeed, people then “recognised the tunes as their own”, as was written by Merikanto on the day of the premiere as a guideline to listeners, to support the full understanding of the work prior to hearing it.


Sibelius and folk music

Jean Sibelius and his music occupy a central position in the Finnish national narrative. A national narrative emerges when a nation’s people explain to themselves and to others who they are, what their past consists of, what their values are and where they are heading.

Sibelius gained national significance relatively early in his career, through his symphonic poem Kullervo in 1892. The key to the success of this work was the fact that its text was based on the national epic, the Kalevala, as well as its originality in comparison with earlier Kalevala-themed compositions. The Finnish musical language was born.

There is a significant gap in the narrative, however. There was no knowledge of Sibelius having had exposure to Kalevalaic runo (poem) singing before composing Kullervo, a fact that was emphasised and even marvelled at in his early biographies. This gap remained unbridged until the 1930s when Professor of Aesthetics Yrjö Hirn recalled how he and Sibelius travelled to Porvoo in 1891 to visit Larin Paraske, arguably the best-known runo singer of the time. According to subsequent research (by Erik Tawaststjerna, among others), this very encounter introduced the required Finnish archaic character into Sibelius’s music. This interpretation fits nicely into the narrative about the birth of the Finnish musical language, although there are no surviving sources to support it. According to Hirn, Sibelius took notes during Paraske’s performance, but no such notes have survived. Later, in the 1940s, Sibelius said he had paid attention to Paraske’s way of stretching the last syllable of each word. In Kullervo, however, Sibelius chose a different way of stressing words. In particular, the assumption that Paraske would have given Sibelius the idea of using a particular theme for the second movement of Kullervo is lacking in evidence.

Sibelius was a representative of the intelligentsia of his time. He, like many others, considered the most valuable part of folk music to be the melodies collected and notated from folk singers, and he was involved in arranging these melodies later on in his career. Before Kullervo, several such arrangements had already been published. Sibelius used one of these collections, titled Mäntyharjun kansanlauluja (Folk songs from Mäntyharju), when composing his Allegro for brass septet for a composition contest by the Finnish Lifelong Learning Foundation in 1889. According to Glenda Dawn Goss, one of the melodies Sibelius used, entitled “Tuomen juurella” (Underneath a bird cherry tree), later evolved into the theme for the first movement of Kullervo, albeit after extensive reworking.

Sibelius had no need to listen to folk songs in order to find a melody – he could simply look them up in a book.


Translation: Hanna-Mari Latham