in Articles

Discords in the national melody

by Hanna Isolammi

Independent Finland is 100 years old and has a classical music scene that is diverse, pluralist and multicultural. A century ago, the situation was very different: just as the nation was heavily polarised after the bitter Civil War, musical life was similarly divided. It is not too much of a simplification to identify two musical camps: official national neo-Romanticism and “left-wing” modernism.

With the national awakening of Finland and consequent independence aspirations towards the end of the 19th century, Finnish artists began to explore Finnish history, nature, language and culture for subjects. Musicians sought to discover the sound of Finland. Almost all composers active in Finland around the turn of the 20th century drew on Karelian folk tunes, the Kalevala or the Finnish natural environment for inspiration, mostly by embedding these elements into the established structures of the Classical-Romantic tradition.

The roots of Finnish classical music go back to the “universal super-culture” of central Europe, often referred to as “German” for convenience, even though it was widely cosmopolitan in nature. Before the First World War, the majority of professional musicians performing in Finland were German by birth; composers principally went to Germany to study; and Martin Wegelius, founder of the Helsinki Music Institute, focused his teaching on the Classical-Romantic tradition that had emerged in the German language sphere.

Finland’s love of German culture not only persisted but grew during the First World War, even though the war cut off all connections with central Europe. After Finland became independent following the October Revolution in Russia, it was to Germany that the fledgling nation turned, not only for material and military aid but also for cultural influences. Official speeches declared that Finland needed Germany’s assistance and cultural support. The Civil War that flared up between the Reds (the Socialism-favouring working class) and the Whites (the upper classes and bourgeoisie) immediately after independence in 1918 also had an impact on the arts. The Whites won the war with German help, and this reinforced the relationship between national art and the bourgeois establishment.


Official art in White Finland

After the Civil War, official art – i.e. art financially supported by the government – was rooted in a right-wing patriotic-nationalist ethos. The function of art was to foster the unity of the nation: the aim was to keep healthy, idealist and sober Finnish culture free of the decadent tendencies that began to emerge in central Europe after the First World War. In music, this meant focusing on Finnish national subjects cast in the German musical tradition, and of course on the figure above all others on the Finnish musical scene, Sibelius.

Jean Sibelius was of the generation of writers and other creative artists during whose active period Finland’s ‘awakening’ occurred. His music came to be regarded as quintessentially Finnish, and he was raised up as a figurehead of Finnishness – not entirely willingly on his part.

It is almost impossible to identify nationality or national characteristics in music, but indications of the Volksgeist can always be found in a motto, a title or the text in the case of a vocal work. Failing this, a conventional style serves the same function – the tonal tradition of the universal super-culture. In the first two decades of the 20th century, music critics typically assigned adjectives such as “manly”, “original” and “solemn” to Finnish music.


International Bolshevik music

In this atmosphere of national idealism, we also find odd composers such as Ernest Pingoud, who came to Finland fleeing the Russian Revolution.

The ideal of internationalism was part and parcel of modernist tendencies in music in the early 20th century, as indeed it was a facet of left-wing ideology. This approach began to emerge in Finland in the early 1920s. Modernists Ernest Pingoud, Väinö Raitio and Aarre Merikanto were the first Finnish composers who did not base their music on national subjects, at least not before the 1930s. None of them were politically left-leaning, however: Pingoud had fled from the Bolshevik regime, Merikanto fought with the Whites in the Civil War, and Raitio wasn’t particularly interested in politics.

Music critics commonly employed terms such as “left-wing music” or even “Bolshevik music”. This was used as an essentially neutral term and referred not to the composer’s political opinions but to a radical and modern style. However, it is difficult to believe that in the deeply divided post-Civil-War Finnish society the term could have been entirely neutral, considering that the art accepted and patronised by polite society was nationally tinted and the left wing was viewed with suspicion.

What contemporary critics particularly spurned in the music of Pingoud, Merikanto and Raitio was an excess of foreign influences, particularly French. Merikanto and Raitio, being Finnish-born, were treated with somewhat more understanding than Pingoud, who was never really accepted as a Finnish composer.


What if?

In 1920s Finland, there were two musical camps: “official” nationalist music and the opposition, Modernist “Bolshevik” music. Could modernism have gained a stronger foothold in Finland if the Civil War had never occurred, spawning an aversion towards the political left? Maybe not: the global depression that began in the late 1920s and the related new rise of nationalist ideologies began to close up international windows again, all over Europe.


This article is based on the author’s article “‘Natsionalismi ja internatsionalismi’ nuoren Suomen musiikkielämässä” published in Rondo magazine in January 2017.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi


In this centenary year of Finnish independence, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra is showcasing early modernists. The videos of Ernest Pingoud’s La face d’une grand ville, performed on 1 March, and Väinö Raitio’s Kuutamo Jupiterissa, performed on 10 March, are available on Yle Areena; Aarre Merikanto’s Pan will be performed on 23 April. 

Main picture: Hugo Simberg: Halla [Frost] 1895.