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A blank page in the history of music

by Matti Huttunen

The 1930s was a time of nationalism, politics and ideology in Finnish music. Yet the period was one of such pluralism that no unified and unifying zeitgeist can be identified; instead, the parallel existence of various ideological and aesthetic trends caused even individuals to contradict themselves.

The 1930s is one of the most challenging periods for a scholar of the history of Finnish music. In political history, this decade is seen as one of nationalism, extreme right-wing ideals, cultural isolation and close relations with Germany. Social phenomena of the era include the extreme right-wing Lapua Movement active at the turn of the 1930s and its successor, Isänmaallinen Kansanliike (Patriotic People’s Movement, IKL), and the Academic Karelia Society founded in the early 1920s. Finnish politics was virtually all about opposing Communism and the Soviet Union, incorporating dreams of ‘Greater Finland’. Even today, a person with a narrow-minded nationalist outlook may be described as “belonging to the 1930s”. 

In music too, the 1930s and particularly the first half of the decade is commonly described with the expression ‘windows shut’, as opposed to the ‘windows open to Europe’ mindset that was common in the 1920s. Erkki Salmenhaara wrote about this contrast in Uuden musiikin kynnyksellä (On the threshold of new music, 1995), part of the multi-volume history of Finnish music, Suomen musiikin historia; his account remains the most thorough general discussion of this era in Finnish music.  

After Finland gained independence in 1917, certain composers (above all Aarre Merikanto, Väinö Raitio and Ernest Pingoud) developed an interest in Modernist music. However, their works were little understood in Finland at the time. Then, in the 1930s, culture began to acquire a political dimension. National subjects came to prominence in music, and there are clear examples of right-wing sympathies in musical circles.  

There were several major conflicts on the Finnish music scene in the 1930s. It is impossible to give a thorough exposition within the confines of a brief article, so the following is simply a sketch of the cultural tangle formed by diverse and antagonistic ideological and artistic aspirations. We should note that ‘politics’ in this context means not just party politics but also more general trends such as the new prominence of national musical values after the liberal 1920s.  

Strata of national music  

Impulses for creating national music came not only from the general political and cultural trends of the 1930s but also from events such as the centenary of the publication of the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, in 1935 and the related Sortavala Song Festival, which became a national event of considerable importance. Even though an interest in national topics was a dominant feature of Finnish music in the 1930s, the era was anything but homogeneous. Several generations met in a decade characterised by – to quote Carl Dahlhaus – “a confluence of phenomena from different eras”.  

Robert Kajanus (1856–1933), who had founded the Helsinki Orchestra Society (now the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra) in 1882 and who in his youth had met such prominent personalities as Norwegian nationalist composer Johan Svendsen, was an active figure on the Finnish musical scene almost up to the day he died. He was a significant champion of the music of Jean Sibelius in his youth, and his Sibelius recordings made in London in the early 1930s remain impressive even to the modern listener.  

Slightly younger than Kajanus, Jean Sibelius (1865– 1957) wrote no new major works in the 1930s, but his 70th birthday in 1935 was a huge musical, political and national event: the political elite of Finland assembled at the newly completed Messuhalli (now the Töölö Sports Hall) to celebrate a composer who was described in press accolades as a “world champion” (Tauno Karila).  

Of the composers in the generation after Sibelius, Leevi Madetoja (1887–1947) actively pursued Finnish subjects in the 1930s, for example the opera Juha, premiered in 1935, and the Kalevala centenary cantata Väinämöisen soitto (Väinämöinen’s music), 1935. Aarre Merikanto (1893–1958), a Modernist during the 1920s, also wrote a Kalevala-based work in 1935, Kyllikin ryöstö (The abduction of Kyllikki), in which he turned towards a more conventional style. Uuno Klami (1900–1961), who made his breakthrough in the late 1920s, wrote in a neoclassical style but also used national subjects, especially in the Kalevala Suite which he completed after many phases in 1943. Naturally, his historical perspective was completely different from that of Kajanus or Sibelius.  

Old nationalism vs. new composers  

Articles on music from the 1930s show that the ideological foundation of national music remained much the same as it had been in the youth of Kajanus and Sibelius at the turn of the 20th century. Nationalism in music in Finland dates back to the mid-19th century, and the premiere of Sibelius’s Kullervo in 1892 launched a huge enthusiasm for musical nationalism. It was hailed as the birth of independent Finnish music, and subsequent writing on music was dominated by nationalist feeling. Musical nationalism quickly acquired political connections in the early years of the 20th century: the large-scale song and music festivals that were both nationally and regionally significant events now acquired a nationalist tone, and Finnish music in general and Sibelius in particular were linked to the language issue (the dispute between Finnish-speakers and Swedishspeakers).  

The historical strata of national music and the nationalist ideology of the turn of the 20th century were not entirely compatible with each other. Sometimes even a single individual might act in apparently contradictory ways. One of the most prominent musical personalities of the 1930s was Toivo Haapanen (1889–1950), chief conductor of the Radio Orchestra (1929–1950), head of the music department at the Finnish Broadcasting Company (1929–1946) and a respected musicologist at the University of Helsinki (docent 1925–1946, professor 1946–1950). As a scholar, Haapanen was above all interested in Finland’s medieval music, but he also published a great deal of writing about the general history of Finnish music. His major achievement in this field was a book entitled Suomen säveltaide (The music of Finland, 1940). Haapanen’s conception of history was derived from the 19th-century notion of the national spirit that had gradually evolved through the history of Finnish music and finally erupted in the strikingly original youthful works of Sibelius, particularly Kullervo.  

As a writer on music, Haapanen was grounded in the same basic ideals that had dominated Finnish thinking since the turn of the century, and we may well ask whether the new generations in the 1930s agreed with these old ideas about the national spirit and the creation of an original, national brand of music. As a conductor, on the other hand, Haapanen was anything but conservative: he frequently conducted works by young composers, some of them very progressive. The Finnish Broadcasting Company, founded in 1926, assiduously supported new Finnish music.  

Haapanen thus seems to pose a dilemma: he appears at once a supporter of the old conception of nationality on the one hand and a champion of young, progressive composers on the other. This actually encapsulates rather well the sort of conflict that was characteristic of the 1930s, and we will return to this at the end of the article.  

Politico-musical phenomena Right-wing sympathies and extremism, anti-Semitism, anti-Soviet sentiments, fear of Bolshevism, admiration of Germany and visits to Germany after the Nazis took power: all of these general political phenomena of the 1930s found an expression in music too. Some examples are rather disturbing from today’s perspective, and some consider it offensive even to bring them up. Like the national music of the 1930s, the politico-musical phenomena of the same era are rife with contradictions. The best-known case of the idealisation of Germany in musical circles in the 1930s is probably that of Yrjö Kilpinen (1892– 1959), who was a hugely successful composer in Germany in the 1930s and during the Second World War. Kilpinen, like poet and academic V.A. Koskenniemi, was a prominent Finnish cultural personality who was openly sympathetic towards Nazi Germany. But on the other hand, it would be a mistake to brand Kilpinen purely a political composer: his works, the majority of which are solo songs setting texts in Finnish and German, were well received elsewhere too, and a Kilpinen Society was founded in London in the mid-1930s.  

Väinö Raitio (1891–1945), one of the 1920s Modernists, wrote a right-wing rallying song entitled Mustapaitojen marssi (March of the Blackshirts) in 1933, and when his opera Prinsessa Cecilia was premiered in Helsinki in 1936, there were several German critics in the audience. Raitio was an introvert, and his personality remains something of a mystery; but what is clear is that he had visionary and, one might say, purely artistic ambitions to which all politics were alien, and that these were the source of his Modernist orchestral works of the 1920s and his more traditional operas of the 1930s and 1940s.  

Arvo Laitinen (1893–1966) is an even more enigmatic character than Raitio. His contemporaries described him as an overt Nazi sympathiser. The majority of his compositions, including the cantata Nuori sankarimarttyyri (The young hero martyr) on which he was still working in the 1960s, have been forgotten or were never performed. However, when discussing Laitinen we must remember that he was also profoundly well versed in philosophy and poetry, and spent years analysing the musical structures of the operas of Wagner.  

Relationships with anti-Semitism and Soviet music  

The history of anti-Semitism in Finnish music would merit a scholarly study of its own. There are many examples of negative attitudes to Jews in the 1930s, extending from mild prejudice to actual discrimination and hatred. Sulho Ranta (1901–1960) wrote in his book Musiikin historia pääpiirteittäin (Outline of the history of music, 1933) that Darius Milhaud, because of his Jewish birth, was “prone to plagiarism”. This is surprising in view of the fact that Ranta is generally remembered as a broad-minded and civilised composer and musical historian.  

The terms ‘Bolshevism’ and ‘Bolshevik’ made occasional appearances in Finnish writings on music in the 1930s. In 1930, the periodical Suomen Musiikkilehti published an article entitled ‘Uusi musiikki’ (New music), probably written by the editor-in-chief Heikki Klemetti (1876–1953) – a musical personality often described, unfairly restrictively, as an ultra-conservative and an ultra-nationalist. Among the composers referred to in the article is Dmitri Shostakovich, dismissed by the author in unambiguously negative terms as a “Bolshevik”.  

But here yet another paradox emerges. Scarcely any Soviet music was performed in Helsinki in the 1930s, and by all accounts people in Finland knew very little about Soviet music at all. A rare exception may be found in the concerts during the early 1930s in which the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra under Georg Schnéevoigt performed Steel Foundry by Alexander Mosolov (billed as ‘Machine Symphony’) in 1932 and the First Symphony of Shostakovich in 1934.  

Considering how anti-Soviet we imagine the 1930s to have been, it is remarkable to see how positively Mosolov and Shostakovich were received in the press. Klemetti wrote that Steel Foundry “might even be described as beautiful” and praised Shostakovich’s brilliant “sensibility for sonorities”. He also expressed a wish to hear more of Shostakovich in the future. Mosolov’s work even inspired Klemetti to exhort a stepping-up of mining operations in Lapland: “Take the lazy people to Lapland!”  

These are merely examples of the myriad political phenomena that may be discovered in Finnish music in the 1930s. Indeed, recently there has even been talk of Sibelius’s political connections at the time. Just as the pluralist national music of the 1930s and the older conception of nationality constituted a complex and partly contradictory structure, the relationships between Finnish musical circles and Germany, the Soviet Union, Jews and the extreme right also come across as ambivalent. People who in certain contexts appeared impartial sometimes wrote political works or uttered extreme opinions that seemed completely at variance with their otherwise broad-minded and tolerant outlook.  

Art, politics and nationality validating one another  

The music of the 1930s cannot be ascribed to any overarching, uniform zeitgeist. This was a decade that was perhaps the most pluralist and most productive in Finnish music up until that time. Amid the diversity of everything that was going on, the same individuals might embrace various extreme ideals in turn. Haapanen underwrote the conservative nationalist ideology in his writings yet championed new music as a conductor. Klemetti might disparage the Bolsheviks yet praise Soviet music. Ranta, a notably civilised and liberal individual, surprises today’s reader with a minor yet unquestionably anti-Semitic slur against Darius Milhaud.  

These contradictions of the 1930s may be considered structurally and psychologically. From the perspective of cultural structures in society at large, there was indeed a confluence of many different ideological strata, and accordingly conflicts were inevitable. The various generations advocating national music, from Kajanus to Klami, rose from completely different backgrounds yet relied in one way or another on the foundation of ideas that had been laid down back when Sibelius and Kajanus were starting their careers. The emergence of new political trends was a fact of life, and these new ideas attracted their fair share of musical personalities; yet at the same time there were aesthetic principles in play which made it possible to praise the music of Shostakovich while denouncing him as a ‘Bolshevik’ in another context.  

Psychologically, the conflicts and contradictions of the 1930s manifested a search for justification and acceptance. The political and cultural climate in Finland changed rapidly in the 1930s, and emerging situations had to be responded to. The old nationalist ideology (as it appeared in Haapanen’s writings, for instance) was taken as justification for the nationalist aspirations of the era, even though there were several generations active in the area of national music working on different principles. New political trends generated enthusiasm but also confusion and uncertainty. To be a prominent musical figure in the 1930s was to be conflicted and lonely.  

After the Second World War, the political nature of Finnish music changed. Finland’s attitude to the Soviet Union received a wholesale makeover, and Shostakovich became one of the most popular composers. Urho Kekkonen, who was later to become Finland’s longestserving president, publicly opposed the appointment of Kilpinen to the Academy of Finland in 1948, and creating a career in post-war Finland was also difficult for those performers who had been successful in Germany in the 1930s and during the war.  

The national musical ideology, as framed for instance in Haapanen’s Suomen säveltaide, no longer inspired the post-war young generation, who instead turned to dodecaphony, serialism and aleatory. The 1930s remained a blank page in Finnish music. We now understand that this was a necessary transitional phase in the development of Finnish music and an era involving phenomena which are not always easy to understand but whose historical importance cannot be ignored.  

Matti Huttunen, PhD, is an emeritus professor of the Sibelius Academy.  

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo: Robert Kajanus represents the older generation of composers active in the 1930s. Photo: Sibelius Museum, Turku.