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By the metre

by Amanda Kauranne

"The Kalevala, which has since been translated into 61 languages, has harnessed this metre into something particularly Finnish, as well as stifling it into a literary form over the course of time. Every single Finn has sat at school bored stupid while reading a book that was meant to be sung. Even so, Kalevalaic runo singing metre is still alive in our culture – it can even be found in today’s singing. At least in contemporary folk music."

It is small and simple. Large and complex. Forgotten and living. It was born through singing, but remembered through writing. Its fascination comes from the swaying order balanced on a tilted surface of variations. It is the runo singing metre a universe expanding in crystallisations of eight syllables.

One of the cornerstones of Finnish culture, the 1849 Kalevala, is a national epic bursting with stories of ancient heroes romping around from one exploit to another, compiled out of folklore – or, more precisely, folk songs – by Elias Lönnrot. The book gave a name to the metre that had transported stories from mouth to mouth for thousands of years, not only in Finland but in the whole Baltic-Finnic area.

The Kalevala, which has since been translated into 61 languages, has harnessed this metre into something particularly Finnish, as well as stifling it into a literary form over the course of time. Every single Finn has sat at school bored stupid while reading a book that was meant to be sung. Even so, Kalevalaic runo singing metre is still alive in our culture – it can even be found in today’s singing. At least in contemporary folk music.


“Nothing can exist without a past”

Heidi Haapoja is a graduate from the Master’s Degree programme of the Sibelius Academy’s Folk Music Department, as well as a researcher in Folklore Studies at the University of Helsinki. She is currently working on her PhD, researching the Kalevalaic runo singing performed and produced within the contemporary folk-music genre, as well as the specific mannerisms in speech associated with it. She is the first researcher to delve into this subject in such a comprehensive way. Due to her personal history, Haapoja is also able to examine the phenomenon from within.

“Kalevalaic poetry has played quite a big part in contemporary folk music. One of the reasons may be that these texts have been used by Värttinä, a group that has made contemporary folk music better known to larger audiences,” Haapoja reflects. “The past is always interesting, but contemporary culture has a lot to offer, too – and the research subjects are alive!”  

“When examining written notes about runo singing from 200 years ago, it is easy to unintentionally place them on a pedestal. I don’t wish to belittle my own research subject, but I do view it in a relatively neutral or honest light. I won’t start trembling when I hear archival recordings, or weep about all this beauty that is gone forever! I can only state that this is what’s happening now and something interesting is bound to happen in the future as well.”


A national epic in its context

The four main categories of Haapoja’s study delve into talk about Finnishness, authenticity, singing and tradition. Her data consists of interviews and various literary sources.

“It has been extremely interesting to notice that there is such a strong myth about the Finnishness of the Kalevala. In fact, that is not correct! The Kalevala poems come largely from the Viena region which has never been part of Finland. In the context of contemporary folk music, this is very interesting, given that the people involved with contemporary folk music are often transnational in the sense that they have relationships with people from different countries, they are liberal and Europe-friendly – in general, people who are not associated with extremely rigid nationalism.”

“Nevertheless, the Kalevalaic poetry is entangled in a web of talk about Finnishness, something that goes back centuries. One of my research findings is that the media tends to emphasise the Romantic approach, whereas musicians have the ability to see runo singing in a context that is more accurate. It is not a phenomenon tied to the national state of Finland, but rather a way of using language which is similar throughout the whole Baltic-Finnic linguistic area.”


 Why is the runo singing metre so fascinating?

“It is a metre that is extremely symmetric in nature. Verses and melody lines meet in a way that is simply mathematical in structure!” Haapoja enthuses. “Laments, for example, do not have a similar structural element because they meander emotionally. A metre, however, provides a certain framework and seems to be important to people. In a way, it replicates life and the workings of the human mind by striving towards logic, yet leaving space for randomness at the same time.”

The runo singing metre has often been explored through the Kalevala and its classic eight-syllable verse, but Haapoja sees this as just one possible truth – when sung, the form changes and verses can become longer or shorter.

“Each verse is divided into four parts, where certain size restrictions apply to the syllables. It includes just enough boundaries to provide a starting point, but it is also easy to come back to. It is possible to stick to the metre, although some Ingrian verses, for example, drop the last syllable, and the partial repeats of the soloists and the chorus blur the picture further. A limited space allows creativity to flourish.”


Musician does research, researcher makes music

Runo singing has been a significant form of expression and self expression for thousands of years.

“It has provided – and from my own perspective as a singer, it still does – a tool for expressing things through a form so beautiful that I doubt it could be matched in speech,” says Haapoja.

“Many folklorists have, at least traditionally, been wary of the idea of self-expression, having felt that the whole concept was invented in the modern, individualistic 21st century. I believe that runo singing includes simultaneous levels of collective and individual expression. Having sung runo songs myself, I find it hard to believe that people wouldn’t have felt things equally deeply a hundred years ago…”

“What makes runo songs fascinating is that they reflect and resonate a worldview that now belongs to the past: skills, knowledge, beliefs and religion. The power of the word previously had a significance that is almost impossible for a modern person to comprehend. It was thought that by saying something out loud it would really happen. We, too, believe in the power of words but more likely in relation to things such as our systems of government.”

Through her dissertation, Haapoja is mapping out what words mean to a contemporary folk singer whose worldview does not give a similar power to the words of a poem. “Even a century ago, people still believed that saying the right words guaranteed more prosperity when fishing. When someone says the same words today, they may still have a meaningful experience even without having any knowledge of the methods of traditional fishing. In my mind, this experience should not be downplayed.”


Runo singing seen through a modern filter

According to Haapoja, contemporary folk music tends to avoid runo songs that are associated with Christianity, even though there would be a wealth of material available, for instance in the 34-volume collection titled Suomen kansan vanhat runot (Ancient poems of Finnish people), which contains over 100,000 runo texts.

Today, most people would find a runo text about Ukko Ylijumala (Ukko Overgod) inherently more mystical, exciting and interesting. Our modern perspective also makes it hard to understand how different cultures used to coexist in such a way that Ukko and Christian saints could all occupy their own place within the same paradigm.”

The degree of integration of the runo metre into the cultures of the past societies may be hard for the modern mind to fathom. It was almost like a second mother tongue. Today the tradition of singing is something else entirely, and the verses that sound inside us are different. Or are they?

“I tried to think what a modern verse could be and I came to think of the Finnish tango classic Aavan meren tuolla puolen – it is very close to the Kalevala metre,” Haapoja reflects. “You can come across these sentences that sit in the Kalevala metre in many different contexts, especially in advertising – there might be a minor mistake in the metre but nothing is radically wrong. I don’t believe in the romantic view that the metre would exist somewhere in our subconscious or on a cellular level, but it does exist in the structures of our language. Children inherit language from their parents and it contains echoes from past centuries and people. Anyone can learn the Kalevala metre if they set about studying it. And it is certainly not essential to be a native Finn,” Haapoja states.

This year, the Kalevala Jewelry Cultural Foundation awarded Pirkko Uitto for her project of teaching immigrants Finnish through the runo singing metre.

According to Haapoja, the runo metre is still alive, but in a different form – it may manifest itself in a literary form, or in the way Kalevala metre texts are combined with pop music. “And it is no less valuable than traditional runo singing! I believe that the runo singing metre will survive through academic and artistic work. Even from an international perspective, we have an enormous amount of material preserved in our archives. It will never completely disappear. Not to mention the fact that even young parents still pass on the runo singing metre to their children through the iconic lullaby Tuu tuu tupakkarulla.


Translation: Hanna-Mari Latham