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Facts about Finnish music life

by Kai Amberla

Finnish arts policy attracts attention and interest internationally because of its remarkable results. Per capita, Finland has produced an astounding number of world-class conductors, composers and instrumentalists. Why is this? What is the secret behind this success?

In the Scandinavian countries, the Government has traditionally had a strong role in guiding and controlling social development. According to the Scandinavian concept, it is the duty of the State to provide a sufficient level of ‘basic services’ available to all citizens regardless of age or income. These services originally included education, health care, pensions, etc., but from the late 1960s onwards the arts have also come to be understood as a basic public service. One important result of this is the development of public libraries, particularly their music departments. Music, literature and information of all descriptions is available free of charge throughout the country.

Because Finland is a fairly large country geographically, the regional aspect has always been important in all kinds of Government policy. A point has been made of providing cultural and other services everywhere in Finland, not just in the major cities. Consequently, the numbers are impressive: per capita, Finland probably has more orchestras, music institutes, theatres, museums and festivals than any other country in the world. Volume has never been an aim in itself, though; these numbers are simply due to the sheer size of the country.

We might easily conclude that the nationwide network of arts institutions is the result of a skilful arts policy and a master plan coordinated from the capital city. This, however, is not true. On the contrary, the initiative always comes from the local level. All orchestras, music institutes, theatres, museums and festivals have without exception been founded at the instigation of local cultural activists. Over a period of years or decades, orchestras originally founded as amateur ensembles have evolved into professional orchestras and gained the support of the community, leading to public subsidies granted by local politicians. Only then has the State stepped in.

It is thus important to remember that though the Government plays a central role in arts policy, arts institutions are not created under centralized State control. All Finnish arts institutions have been founded locally and later gained State support. Without exception, public money has not been committed until it has become clear that the institution in question is a force to be reckoned with and seriously intends to improve itself.

The basic concept in Finnish arts policy, including music, is that the State will subsidize a given activity if its home town or city is willing to invest in it and commit itself to it. The local authority continues to bear the major responsibility for financing; for instance, in the case of orchestras, municipal funding accounts for about 60% of the budget, with the State contributing 26%. (Incidentally, this principle is the same as in EU-subsidized projects: EU funding is not granted until the Member State in question has provided a sufficient level of commitment.)

In practice, this means that the State only provides part of the money — it does not interfere in the day-to-day operation of orchestras or other arts institutions. The State guarantees continuity and provides financial security but leaves the decision-making powers to the local authority and the institution itself. The State does not concern itself with content.

This means that the State liberates the arts instead of restricting them.


Did you know that:

  • The Finnish Government’s funding for the arts is 300 million euros per year on average (this figure does not include education, only direct subsidies to arts institutions), or 50% more per capita than France, for instance;

  • Finland’s only university-level music institution, the Sibelius Academy, is the third largest music academy in Europe; professional musicians are also trained by eleven conservatories all over the country;

  • Finland has about 150 music institutes, almost 100 of which receive a regular Government subsidy; over 50,000 children study at these institutes, usually paying only a fraction of the actual costs (this means that one per cent of Finland’s total population of five million is receiving professional tuition in playing an instrument or in music in general, and that over the years Finland has built up a sizeable population of people who have studied music, played an instrument, sung in a choir, etc., and thus also constitute a receptive and unprejudiced musical audience);

  • The civic colleges and workers’ institutes dotting the country reach thousands of amateurs in the field of music and the arts through their affordable courses and clubs;

  • Music is a compulsory subject in school for the first seven years, after which it is an option;

  • There are over 30 professional orchestras in Finland (fourteen symphony orchestras, eight chamber orchestras and semi-professional orchestras, and a dozen freelance orchestras of various kinds), with 908 full-time posts and employing a further few hundred freelance musicians, and with a combined turnover of about 44 million euros (the Orchestra Act, which came into force in 1993, guarantees an annual Government subsidy to 22 orchestras, covering an average of 26% of their budgets); orchestras’ audiences number about one million a year, or 20% of Finland’s population, yet another leading figure worldwide;

  • Finnish conductors conduct not only most Finnish orchestras but numerous orchestras abroad; Scandinavia can no longer manage without the Finns, since 70% of all Scandinavian orchestras have a Finnish conductor;

  • The professional composer enjoys a high status in Finland, since the generation of composers following Sibelius is in demand worldwide and has an extensive audience in Finland, the Government grant system is excellent, and there is a reasonable number of commissions available (part of this is due to Finnish record companies and publishers that have become integrated into the international music business in the 1990s);

  • Finland has one professional opera company, the Finnish National Opera, which has about 250,000 visitors annually; however, there are also a dozen regional opera companies, which usually put on one production a year each, almost always to full houses;

  • There are about 60 music festivals organized all over Finland, covering all genres of music; festivals attract some 1.5 million visitors every year;

  • Finland is a land of choral singing, at least measured by the number of choirs; the Finnish Amateur Musicians’ Association (SULASOL) alone has about 400 member choirs in addition to a great many wind bands and other ensembles, and there are hundreds if not thousands of choirs outside its auspices, since even the tiniest village traditionally has at least one amateur choir (there are only two actual professional choirs in Finland, and only one of them, the Choir of the Finnish National Opera, has full-time posts);

  • There is a large volume in other sectors of the arts as well: Finland has about 60 professional theatres and an enormous number of amateur theatre companies, the professional theatres having over three million visitors per year;

  • There are also innumerable museums, with over five million visitors per year.

If the Guinness Book of World Records had a category for records in arts policy, I could claim that Finland would win hands down on all counts in per capita comparison. But no one would actually make such a claim, Finns being renowned for their humility and modesty.


Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi