in From the Archives

A hundred years of Finnish recordings

by Pekka Gronow

In 2001, it was a hundred years since the first Finnish records appeared on the market. Pekka Gronow, the then head of record archives at the Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle, wrote about this exciting story for FMQ.

A Russian artist, Mikhail Alexandrovich Goltison, who sang in broken Finnish, made the first recordings in spring 1901 in St. Petersburg. They were four single-sided 7-inch Berliner discs incorporating well-known Finnish songs such as "Suomen laulu" and "Suomen salossa". Not much is known about Goltison, who also recorded some Estonian songs at the same session. It appears likely that the record company had simply invited the first available person who could record a few songs in Finnish to the studio for demonstration purposes. More famous artists had to wait until the following year.

As with many other "firsts", this one is open to debate. Goltison's recordings are the first commercially issued discs containing music sung in Finnish. The very first Finnish recordings, undertaken for private purposes on wax cylinders, had probably been made back in the late 1890s. The first disc recordings made within the borders of the Grand Duchy of Finland were realised in Helsinki in 1904. They were pressed in Germany. Not until 1938 were any records actually pressed in Finland. The first Swedish records had already appeared in 1899.

Compared to larger countries such as the USA, UK, Germany and Russia, where hundreds or even thousands of records appeared every year soon after the turn of the century, Finland was a small market. Nevertheless between 1901 and 1920 nearly a thousand Finnish records were issued. We do not know much about the financial state of the early record business, but there is some evidence that annual record sales in Finland at this time barely exceeded a hundred thousand copies. This actually means that most recordings published sold only a few hundred copies (this assumption is supported by how extremely rare the records are today). However, early record producers showed a remarkable breadth of vision, and almost without exception all famous Finnish singers active between 1900 and 1910 were documented on disc.

The most renowned Finnish singer around 1900 was Alma Fohström (1856–1936), a pupil of the legendary Henrietta Nissen-Saloman. In 1904, when her only known recording was (probably) made, she was professor of singing at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and had just finished a ten-year engagement at the Bolshoy Theatre in Moscow. Since the 1880s she had appeared at the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden, the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires and numerous other opera houses. Her recording of Alyabyeb's Nightingale, a showpiece for coloratura voice, has been reissued in the EMI collection "A Record of Singers" and elsewhere.

Hjalmar Frey (1856–1913), a pupil of Lamperti, was a contemporary of Alma Fohström. He was engaged from 1885 to 1905 at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, where he participated in the first performances of The Queen of Spades and Yolanta. He made more than a hundred records, mostly Lieder and folksongs, but his only operatic recording was the Quartet from Rigoletto.

Aino Ackté (1876–1944) and Ida Ekman (1875–1942) represented a younger generation of singers. Aino Ackté had made her debut at the Paris Opera in 1897 as Marguerite in Faust, and the Jewel Aria from Faust was one of her first recordings. Ida Ekman was the favourite singer of Jean Sibelius, and the composer dedicated many of his songs to her. lt has even been said that Sibelius stopped writing songs when Ida Ekman retired from the concert stage. She recorded several Sibelius songs in 1904–08, giving us a unique insight into the performance tradition of these songs.

Other early Finnish recording artists were mainly known in their native country only. Abraham Ojanperä taught many younger singers at the Helsinki Music Institute. Wäinö Sola and Eino Rautavaara (father of the composer) were among the founders of the Finnish National Opera. Maikki Järnefelt-Palmgren, a Marchesi pupil who was married to two well-known composers in succession, made brief appearances at opera houses in Germany and Italy, but was mainly known as a teacher and recitalist.

Lost recordings

The recordings of Finnish singers from the period before the First World War give us a unique opportunity to study performance practices prevalent a hundred years ago. We can read what contemporary critics thought of their performances, but only by listening to the actual recordings can we hope to learn how they actually sounded.

The surface noise and the technical limitations of the early recording process often put modern listeners off when they hear historical recordings for the first time. However, the listener with some experience of historical voices, who is already familiar with the voices of Caruso, Melba and older singers of the golden era, quickly learns to adjust his ears and listen to the singer behind the surface noise. We can easily hear differences in the interpretations of various singers and distinguish between the singers of the Italian school such as Frey, Rautavaara and Sola and the French style of Ackté and Järnefelt-Palmgren. We hear Abraham Ojanperä taking such liberties with the songs of Oskar Merikanto that we are certain the composer would have been offended – until we learn that it is the composer himself sitting at the piano, accompanying his good friend.

A representative selection of the recordings of early Finnish singers is available on modern CD reissues, but there are many lost recordings which are listed in old catalogues, of which no known copies exist. We have long known, for instance, that Ida Ekman also recorded the Sibelius song Im Feld ein Mädchen singt, but the first copy ever found was at a flea market last year. It was discovered too late for inclusion on her CD. Her recording of Bollspelet vid Trianon still eludes us. Aino Ackté caused a sensation with her daring performance of Salome at Covent Garden in 1910, and she is also known to have made a recording of the final act for the Edison company, but it was never published. A large number of unissued Edison recordings are known to be stored in a warehouse in Michigan, but so far it has not been possible to find out whether the Ackté recordings lie there among the other ten thousand or so undocumented recordings. There is still hope that this and other lost recordings will turn up one day.

Gramophone fever

In the international record market, the twenties were good years. Paul Whiteman's orchestra sold a million copies of Whispering, and there was also an increasing demand for "serious" music. The invention of electrical recording in 1925 had considerably improved the quality of recordings, and it was now possible to record a full symphony orchestra with considerable fidelity. In 1927 the centenary of Beethoven's death inspired a flow of new releases from record companies, including complete sets of the composer's symphonies.

But in Finland record producers had discovered that the big money was in popular music. The rise of the "iskelmä", the Finnish language popular song in dance tempo practically overpowered all other styles. Cheap portable record players made recorded music accessible to a wider audience and record sales soared. More than a million records were sold in Finland in 1929, and the press wrote about “gramophone fever". Most Finnish records were still produced by international concerns such as the Gramophone Company (His Master's Voice) and the German Lindström company (Odeon, Parlophone). The big star of the time was Georg Malmstén, a former pupil of Aino Ackté, who had abandoned the opera stage to record literally hundreds of foxtrots, tangos and waltzes for his admirers. There were occasional releases by opera singers, but recordings by Finnish classical instrumentalists were practically non-existent. Why produce recordings of Chopin's etudes played by a Finnish pianist, when already there was a large number of recordings of such works available by internationally known artists, and they could readily be sold in Finland?

In the 1930s, the economic depression caused a sharp decline in record production, but the steady flow of foxtrots and tangos continued. Records allow us to follow the development of popular tastes. As there were no regular recording studios in Finland, artists were sent abroad to record, or technicians from international companies visited Finland with portable equipment.

In both cases the artists had to record a large number of songs in a single session to cut costs. This situation was hardly likely to encourage companies to experiment with new artists or unusual repertoire. Much of the production is run-of-the-mill, one recording sounding much like another, but we can follow trends, such as the gradual emergence of the Finnish tango, the appearance of jazz elements in popular music, and topical commentary in the lyrics of popular songs. The abdication of Edward VIII, the Berlin Olympics, and the introduction of bananas to Finland were all documented in popular song.

Somewhat surprisingly, it was the depression that first caused the Finnish government to pay attention to the possibilities of the new medium. Sibelius had by the 1920s become a national hero, but there were no recordings of his symphonies available anywhere and not much chance of new productions in the economic slump of the early thirties. In 1931, EMI Records had developed the idea of "Society" records, where classical recordings were produced for subscribers in limited editions. With 500 prepaid subscriptions, the "Hugo Wolf Society" was able to record and publish a series of the German composer's Lieder. The Society idea proved successful, and was soon expanded to other composers.

With the co-operation of EMl records, the Finnish government now sponsored a series of recordings of the symphonies of Jean Sibelius. In 1931, Robert Kajanus and a Finnish orchestra travelled to London to record the First and Second Symphonies, which were subsequently issued by the "Sibelius Society". By 1934 all the symphonies were recorded. Other companies became interested, and Stokowski conducted the Fourth Symphony for Victor in the USA. By the end of the thirties there were competing releases of most of the symphonies. Encouraged by the success of the Sibelius recordings, EMI also introduced the "Kilpinen Society" and recorded a series of Yrjö Kilpinen's songs performed by the German baritone Gerhard Hüsch. Preiser Records in Austria have recently reissued them on CD.

The recovery of record sales in the late 1930s also created new opportunities for Finnish artists internationally. The biggest success story of this period was the soprano Aulikki Rautawaara, who made her breakthrough at Glyndebourne in 1934 and subsequently signed a contract with Telefunken, recording both German and Finnish repertoire. Other Finnish singers who made careers in Germany and also recorded there include the sopranos Lea Piltti and Aune Antti.

A national industry

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, the record industry was immediately affected. Finnish records had normally been pressed abroad, in Germany or England, but this now proved difficult or impossible. There were attempts to start a local record industry that would handle the whole production process. After much trial and error, two new companies, Sointu and Rytmi, established themselves in the market.

Their products were technically inferior to anything that had been produced in the 1930s, however. Shellac, the main ingredient in the 78-rpm disc, was an imported product and strictly rationed, and in order to produce new records, record companies had to reclaim old records and grind them to a powder, which was then mixed with fresh shellac. Unless paper labels were carefully removed from the recycled discs, they would cause lumps in the new pressings, making records look and sound like crisp bread. The Sointu pressings of 1944 frequently sound worse than Goltison's pioneering efforts.

However, wartime recordings contain much which is historically unique. There are propaganda songs intended to boost the morale of the troops, some promising to bury Stalin and Molotov in a field of cabbage. Finland was also at war with the United Kingdom, and on another propaganda record, the Archbishop of Canterbury is accused of unchristian fraternisation with Russian communists. The emergence of Finnish swing bands can also be heard on wartime recordings, as can the first efforts of many popular composers and singers who were to dominate the post-war years.

After the war, record production continued on a more regular basis. As there were now studios and pressing plants to Finland, there was more freedom to experiment with artists and repertoire. But as annual record sales in the 1950s were lower than in 1929, the range of music was often narrower that during the pre-war years. If the Finnish Society of Composers had not sponsored a series of recordings of new Finnish music, the art music of the era would have gone completely unnoticed. ln fact, there seemed to be a tacit assumption that serious music was the responsibility of Finnish radio, while record companies would concentrate on popular music. Finnish music of the 1950s is well preserved in the archives of the Finnish Broadcasting Company, but only performers with international careers, such as the bass Kim Borg, could at the time hope to make commercial recordings.

It is interesting to note that Finnish jazz of the 1950s is quite well represented on recordings. This is not necessarily evidence of a large demand for jazz; it is proof, rather, of the fact that many record producers were themselves jazz enthusiasts or musicians, and jazz records were frequently made on a pro bono basis in small editions. The Finnish Jazz Archive has issued a series of historical jazz recordings on six CDs. But here, too, some of the most interesting performances come from the vaults of Finnish radio.

A new awakening

During the sixties, world record sales more than doubled. The stereophonic LP disc, with at least thirty minutes of playing time, had finally surpassed the 45-rpm single as the number one selling item in the recording sector. Recording artists replaced film stars as teenage idols, and the Beatles sold a hundred million records.

Not much of this was visible in Finland. The last 78-rpm records had been made in 1961, but annual record sales were stuck at a million copies, most of them singles. The home market was dominated by half a dozen companies, which routinely released a couple of hundred singles each year. Few Finnish homes had record players, and most people heard new recordings on jukeboxes or on the radio. This did not encourage experimentation or ambition in record production, and very few people outside the business thought that recorded music could have any cultural significance. Two seemingly contradictory developments gave the Finnish record industry the kick it needed to take it into the new era: the founding of Love Records and the introduction of the compact cassette.

Composer Otto Donner founded Love Records in 1966 with Christian Schwindt and Atte Blom. It was the first record company in Finland with a self-proclaimed cultural manifesto. The company was also the first to focus on albums instead of singles. Its first releases featured modern jazz, avant-garde concert music and songs protesting against the Vietnam War. Love Records discovered many of the most influential Finnish rock musicians of the 1970s, and was briefly the most successful record company in the country. It was a pioneer in the switch from the focus on hit singles to one on album-based production.

The compact cassette was developed by the Dutch Philips Company in the early 1960s in conjunction with the company's cheap portable cassette players. These could record music from the radio and play pre-recorded cassettes. The recording industry's attitude to the new invention was guarded. Although they rushed to issue most of their catalogue simultaneously in LP and cassette form, they also feared that ease of copying would eventually harm sales of recorded music. The cassette was, in this sense, a predecessor of today's controversial Napster.

There may well have been grounds for this fear. Eventually, many countries introduced levies on blank cassettes, which were used to compensate copyright owners for widespread copying. But in Finland at least, the cassette recorder saved the domestic record industry. The middle-aged working man who had never in his life bought a record was now regularly buying cassettes of his favourite songs. Between 1968 and 1979 ales of recorded music (records and cassettes) in Finland increased tenfold. Now there was a flourishing market for both old-time popular music, sold on cassettes in supermarkets and service stations, and for new, progressive, upmarket repertoire on LP, on a scale that had been undreamed of only a few years before.

Love Records went bankrupt in 1979 at a time when the growth in record sales was also slowing down. But there had now been a generation change in the business, and from both inside and out, the industry was being looked at afresh. In the daily papers, record reviews were moved from the entertainment to the arts section. The first record label specialising in classical music, Finlandia, was founded in 1979, and will be discussed elsewhere (see p. 22). New Finnish rock also had its specialised labels, and it did not matter if rockabilly and one-chord punk now overshadowed the progressive experiments of the 1970s: recorded music had now become established as an important medium of expression.

The CD era, and beyond ...

The record industry has always been an international business, and the same records can be found in record shops all around the world. Compared to most other European countries, the Finnish record market has always been heavily dependent on Finnish music, as it accounts for about one half of all records sold in Finland. Until the mid-1990s, the largest record company in Finland was Fazer Music, a Finnish company, which had over the years acquired many smaller Iocal companies. In 1993, Fazer was sold to Warner Music. All major international companies are now active in Finland, but to survive in the country they have to produce a fair amount of Finnish repertoire.

The transfer from LP to CD in Finland took place during a deep economic recession. As unemployment reached twenty per cent, record sales slumped. Some consolation to the record industry carne from royalties from radio plays, public performances, blank tape sales and other secondary sources. During the 1990s, the protection of recorded music was strengthened by a series of legislative steps that opened up new sources of income for record companies.

By 2000, both the national economy and the record business had recovered. For the first time in history, the Finnish record industry was seriously eyeing the world market. Previously only classical artists had had any wider success, and as Finnish conductors had achieved international renown, foreign record labels usually signed them. Finnish popular artists were seldom known outside the country, with the exception of occasional curiosities such as the Letkis fad of the 1960s (created by Finnish composer Rauno Lehtinen).

With rock groups such as Hanoi Rocks, Havana Black and Leningrad Cowboys, a modest start was made, but Finnish record producers could only dream of international success on the scale of Sweden's Abba. When Sandstorm, a dance hit created by Finnish DJ Darude, seemed to be selling more copies internationally than the combined sales of all records in Finland, there suddenly seemed to be a glimmer of hope.

Meanwhile, the record industry is considering the future transition from CDs to selling music on the web. As in the rest of the world, the situation in Finland is unclear, and the new media seem to be creating more work for lawyers than for musicians. The country's strict copyright law has prevented widespread web piracy, and there is no Finnish equivalent to Napster. The record industry has initiated a pilot project to develop legal sales of digital music over the web, with only modest success up till now. 

Featured photo: Record player (EMT 930) in the televison studio control room, 1958.

This article was first published in FMQ 3/2001, and republished online in August 2020 with the kind permission of the author.