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Finnish composers inspired by folk music

by Kimmo Korhonen

Although serious music is often looked upon as a clearly defined genre of its own, it has by no means remained immune to the influence of its surroundings. Composers have from time immemorial been spicing their works with ingredients borrowed from popular and folk music, and the Finns have been no exception in this respect. Folk music really blossomed in the music of the National Romantics of the 19th century, but it was also a major source of inspiration for many of the 20th century modernists.

Composers of ‘serious music’ do not necessarily regard folk music as a particularly topical issue, yet many contemporary Finnish composers have drawn on it in their works. And in doing so, they have more than proved that it is still possible, even today, to discover a fresh and innovative angle.

Of the Finnish composers of the National Romantic period, Jean Sibelius did not make direct quotations from folk music, but its presence can nevertheless be sensed in his early works. By contrast, many of his contemporaries, such as Robert Kajanus, Erkki Melartin, Selim Palmgren, Toivo Kuula and Leevi Madetoja, would occasionally borrow genuine folk melodies. The matter was not quite so simple for the Finnish modernists of the 20th century, but even so, Aarre Merikanto and Uuno Klami did apply elements of folk music in a few of their works and thus subscribed to a brand of national modernism such as that represented by Stravinsky in his Russian period.

Despite (or maybe precisely because of) the strong tradition, it is surprising to see the enthusiasm and openness with which many of our present-day Finnish composers have tapped the sources of folk music. It is a phenomenon that has in fact been baffling scholars for some time, and was already the topic of an article by Finland’s leading music historian, Erkki Salmenhaara, back in 1978. In an article on the use of folk music in Finnish serious music (Musiikki 4/1978), he examines the works of Pehr Henrik Nordgren, Aulis Sallinen, Joonas Kokkonen (The Last Temptations) and Erik Bergman, and even, behind a screen of anonymity, mentions a work of his own. For Nordgren in particular, folk music has proved to be a lasting source of inspiration, as further reflected in the fact that his home since 1973 has been the little town of Kaustinen, the leading centre of Finnish folk music. Since Salmenhaara wrote that article a number of new composers have emerged who have in some way or another been stimulated by folk music. Maybe this is not so very unexpected in the case of composers adopting a more traditional, free-tonal style, but surprisingly enough, there are also signs of it in the music of many composers committed to modernism. Folk music seems, once again, to be a topical issue for Finnish composers, and there is every indication that it is set to gain rather than to lose in significance.

The many faces of Finnish folk music

Anyone delving into Finnish folk music will discover many temporal strata, local trends and genres. It would at this point perhaps be advisable to make a rough distinction between the two main categories of tradition: one consists of the older laments and poetry in the archaic Kalevala metre inherited from the east, and the other the more recent tradition dating from the 18th century and often reflecting Western influence, one manifestation being the instrumental pelimanni music.

It is interesting to note that the older layer of folk music appealed more to Sibelius, who had heard it sung by the legendary rune singer Larin Paraske. Although he did not use folk music as such in his own works, he was undoubtedly influenced by it. By contrast, the majority of the other Finnish composers of the National Romantic period borrowed specifically from the later and, in a way, more sophisticated brand. Paradoxically, the impact is, despite the closer temporal proximity, often less fresh.

Contemporary composers have on the whole drawn on ancient and more modern alike, though the older tradition seems to have produced some more exciting results. For it has, as it were, become timeless, while the more recent tradition may be weighed down by the legacy of the National Romantic school.

Having said that: Pehr Henrik Nordgren (b. 1944) has revealed an interest in both the older and the more recent stratum of folk music. His most popular work displaying folk music influences, Pelimannimuotokuvia (Portraits of Country Fiddlers, 1976), is a series of lively arrangements of relatively recent fiddle tunes. Also representing the more recent tradition are folk chorales, the apotheosis of which is, according to Mikko Heiniö, Nordgren’s second cello concerto (1984). But then in the fourth (1997) and fifth (1998) symphonies Nordgren has turned specifically to archaic laments and shepherd tunes.

The biggest work by Nordgren making use of folk music is Taivaanvalot (The Lights of Heaven, 1984) lasting about 50 minutes. This is a setting of ancient pagan folk poetry. Alongside its modern material it uses old Ingrian rune melodies, both genuine and imitation, and it is scored not only for a wide selection of soloists, children’s and mixed choir and normal orchestral instruments but also for a host of ancient Finnish folk instruments.

Like Nordgren, Pekka Kostiainen (b. 1944) has explored the ancient Finno-Ugrian tradition in many of his choral works. The devices (such as melodic motifs spanning a narrow range, the frequent repetition of motifs, rhythms underlining the redundancy in the Finnish text, and static harmony in archaic vein) he uses in many of his choral works based on texts either from the national epic, the Kalevala, or from other early sources call to mind the music of another composer drawing inspiration from the same source: Veljo Tormis. Indeed, Tormis has possibly been Kostiainen’s closest model. Among the main works by Kostiainen inspired by folk music are Tuli on tuima tie’ettävä (Do Not Play With Fire, 1984), Joukahaisen runoVäinämöisen Tuonelanmatka (Väinämöinen’s Journey To Tuonela, 1989). (Joukahainen, 1985) and

A third composer greatly influenced by folk music is Pekka Jalkanen (b. 1945). Like Kostiainen, he has focused specifically on archaic rune melodies. In the orchestral work Viron orja (The Serf of Viro, 1980) he constructs a minimalist texture from an ancient Ingrian rune melody. He also uses early folk music in the choral works Vägehens otetut neidizet (The Abduction, 1982), Piika Pikkarainen (The Little Lass, 1985) and Muaemo (Mother Earth, 1999).

Whereas Kostiainen and Jalkanen combine the old rune-singing tradition with free tonality, Erik Bergman (b. 1911) has woven the archaic Kalevalaic-shamanistic tradition into his own richly-coloured modernism. It is rare to find a direct quotation from folk music in his works (though he has indeed made a number of folk melody arrangements), for he is more concerned with creating a magic mood and atmosphere through a high degree of stylisation or by ultra-modern means. This is certainly the case in Lemminkäinen, Loitsuja (Incantations) and Lament and Incantation, all composed in 1984.

Not only Finnish folk music

In seeking inspiration, Finnish composers have not confined themselves solely to the music of their homeland. It is indeed possible to discern a bridging of spiritual gaps in a world where cultures can meet and mingle in a way that is quite new. The phenomenon acquires a different manifestation when a composer settling in Finland brings along the folk music heritage of his or her own native country, as has been the case with Jovanka Trbojevic, a composer of Yugoslav descent who came to Finland in 1986.

An example of Trbojevic’s straightforward yet touching folk music arrangements is to be found in her Self-Portrait With A Song of 1993 for solo violin and folk music ensemble, in which a modernistic violin solo is followed by a beautiful arrangement of the rocking but melancholy Macedonian folk melody Jovano, Jovanke in lively 7/8 time. In the string quartet ORO (1994) she builds a Balkan folk dance into the rhythmic frame. Trbojevic is, however, also interested in the Finno-Ugrian tradition. The text of Osh for female voice, tape and live electronics is in Cheremis, and various folk singing techniques are used in creating the modernistic material.

Meanwhile Mikko Heiniö (b. 1948) has been using elements of Latin-American music in some of his works. The most notable of these is the large vocal Vuole del alambre (1983), the texts of which are anonymous poems from a 1970s prison camp in Chile. Musically the work is built on a 12-note row incorporating two overlapping Latin American pentatonic scales. These scales gradually grow out of the texture, bringing with them Latin American rhythms. The last of the six movements uses genuine tunes from the Andes.

The world music movement gaining momentum since the 1980s has made composers and listeners far more aware of non-European cultures. Examples of the way this has been reflected in the serious music of Finland are the fairly extensive fragment of Mongolian folk music in the middle of the otherwise modernistic soundscapes of the duo Capriole (1991) for bass clarinet and cello by Kimmo Hakola (b. 1958), or the more distanced exotic material in the orchestral work Coyote Blues (1993) by Magnus Lindberg (b. 1958), a work he humorously terms “amateur Arab music”, the variation theme in the orchestral work L.A. Variations by Esa-Pekka Salonen (b. 1958), and the modernistic re-interpretation of the sound produced by the didgeridoo of the Australian aborigines in the work (1997) for tuba and piano simply called Didgeridoo by Harri Vuori (b. 1957).

Music from outside Europe was, however, casting a spell over Finnish composers well before the present vogue for world music. Erik Bergman was first using aspects of Asian music back in the 1950s (Rubaiyat, 1954). The borderline between art and folk music is, however, sometimes difficult to draw in non-European music, or it may not necessarily run quite where the European listener who readily lumps everything in the least exotic in the same category imagines. Thus, for example, the plunge made by Eero Hämeenniemi (b. 1951) into Indian music led him specifically to the local classical tradition. The same applies to the elements of Arabic music in some of the recent works by Herman Rechberger (b. 1947): they are founded on the local classical culture.

Other new applications of folk music

Folk music is also an important element of the works of many a composer of the younger middle generation. I have already mentioned Jovanka Trbojevic and Kimmo Hakola, who have turned to non-Finnish folk music. In addition to the Mongolian folk music appearing in Capriole, Hakola has also evoked Klezmer moods (clarinet quintet, 1997) or imitated Oriental folk music (loco for solo clarinet, 1995; piano concerto, 1997).

Looking now at composers of the same generation who have favoured Finnish folk music: Jyrki Linjama (b. 1962) begins his second violin concerto (1991/96), which comes closest to expressionism in style, with a loan from a Finnish folk melody. The opera Äidit ja tyttäret (Mothers and Daughters, 1999) by Tapio Tuomela (b. 1958) on a theme from the Kalevala likewise begins in Finnish folk mode with a powerful re-interpretation of the old Finnish rune-singing tradition, and it also returns to this mode later in the work. The folk-music dimension is further enhanced by the fact that these passages are sung by a group of three folk singers.

It is, perhaps, most surprising to find elements of folk music in the works of Veli-Matti Puumala (b. 1965). When he first started to make a name for himself in the early 1990s, it was expressly as a representative of the young modernist generation, and folk music was just about the last thing anyone would have expected to hear. On reflection, however, the fact that elements of folk music appear in a few of his works is perhaps not quite so astonishing, considering that he was born in Kaustinen, the number one centre of Finnish folk music.

Puumala’s Chains of camenae (1996) for chamber orchestra begins in the flowing, modernist mode that has come to be associated with this composer. Towards the end a dance-like stylisation of folk music does, however, make itself heard amid the rich texture. In Soira for accordion and chamber ensemble he actually uses a Kaustinen folk song on which, he says, all the pitch material, both modal and dodecaphonic, is to a great extent based. This organic treatment of the material explains why the folk dimension does not sound superimposed in Puumala’s music but merges seamlessly with his modernistic style.

Many ways of using folk music

Finnish composers have exploited folk music in the most varied of ways. The simplest is just to arrange it, in which case the melody is what matters most. This is the case in, for example, Nordgren’s Portraits of Country Fiddlers, and in the little Pohjalainen polska (Ostrobothnian Polska, 1993) for string orchestra by Einojuhani Rautavaara (b. 1928), which inhabits a very similar world and is a younger relative of the early Pelimannit (Fiddlers, 1952) suite. Paavo Heininen (b. 1938) goes one step further in Tyttöjen kävely ruusulehdossa (Floral View With Maidens Singing, 1982) for string orchestra. The material is a folk song by the same name from which Heininen constructs, in his own words, “harmonic-contrapuntal variations”. The song clearly occupies the leading role but is already more deeply embedded in Heininen’s idiom.

Folk music material is, in the works of contemporary Finnish composers, to be found most frequently as one component of the material, as a supplement enriching the work rather than as the star performer. Whether the composer has used authentic folk music or composed his own in a similar style is thus of little relevance.

In opera, folk music is often used to create local colour or a particular epoch. The classical example in Finnish music is Madetoja’s Pohjalaisia (The Ostrobothnians, 1924), which has virtually come to be looked upon as Finland’s national opera and is full of folk melodies. The same device is used in a number of contemporary operas, such as many of those by Jorma Panula (b. 1930), Sota valosta (The ++ , 1980) by Ilkka Kuusisto (b. 1933), Punainen Viiva (The Red Line, 1978) by Aulis Sallinen (b. 1935), Aleksis Kivi (1996) by Einojuhani Rautavaara and Äidit ja Tyttäret (Mothers and Daughters, 1999) by Tapio Tuomela, all of which use snatches, some long, some short, of folk music as part of the events on stage.

Then again, folk music may provide a basis for an even higher degree of stylisation. Some mode of expression typical of the folk idiom may be picked out and processed until it becomes a truly modernistic motif. Examples of this are to be found in Bergman’s Lament and Incantation and Trbojevic’s Osh. Harri Vuori’s Didgeridoo does precisely this in instrumental music.

Interest in folk music has also caused composers to turn to the old instruments on which it has traditionally been performed. Nordgren scored his Taivaanvalot (The Lights of Heaven) for such instruments as goat’s horn, reed pipe, herdsman’s flute, bull-roarer, percussion plaque, shaman’s drum, bowed harp and five 5- and three 36-stringed kanteles. Taivaanvalot includes some folk music material, but both Nordgren himself and many other Finnish composers have subsequently used folk instruments, such as the kantele – often said to be Finland’s national instrument – as a modern concert instrument. The kantele work Manaus (Ghost Sonata, 1988) by Jukka Tiensuu (b. 1948) is a good example in this respect, since the material no longer bears any suggestion of folk music. And indeed, the kantele seems to have taken on a completely new lease of life often totally estranged from folk tradition in the music of Finland.

What does the use of folk music tell us?

I have here quoted only a handful of Finnish composers and works that have in some way or another drawn inspiration from folk music, but its use is in fact so widespread and stylistically so varied that it does not as such necessarily say anything much about a composer. Whereas Erkki Salmenhaara, in the article I mentioned at the beginning, associated the 1970s rediscovery of folk music with the more traditional stylistic environment prevailing in Finland at that time, this interpretation no longer applies to the music of the 1980s and 1990s.

At one level the use of folk music is certainly proof that the dividing lines between different genres of music are vanishing. Composers are increasingly likely to seek inspiration outside the Western classical music tradition, and folk music has, along with popular music, acquired growing interest value in this respect. It is, however, interesting to note that while crossover and the stylistic liberty it affords are usually looked upon as a characteristic of postmodernism, there are many composers in Finland whose use of folk music does not necessarily give the impression of being postmodernist. Elements of folk music may be so deeply embedded in the composer’s style, be it traditional or modernistic, that there is no sense of crossover.

Secondly, the use of folk elements in ‘serious’ music is a reflection of the vast upsurge of folk music in Finland in the past few decades. It is now possible to receive advanced training in folk music, and there is a steady stream of new, ever more popular folk music ensembles, including many that draw on tradition in new and innovative ways. Meanwhile folk music has also been revealing its true face in an increasingly authentic way now that the shroud of mystery cast upon it by the National Romantic generation is finally being drawn aside. The Finnish folk music revival may perhaps be viewed from a broader perspective: it has shed more light on folk music not only in Finland and has helped to create the school commonly known as “world music”.

Thirdly, the use of folk music may reflect a new manifestation of national identity and awareness. This is not, however, necessarily a repugnant display of nationalist feeling such as has been only too much in evidence in Europe over the past century, but rather a subconscious desire to keep the national cultural identity alive. It may be that the economic integration in Europe has resulted in a desire for cultural dis-integration, be this conscious or not. The fact that Finnish composers are also eager to tap the sources of folk music from other countries and continents is not undermining the Finnish national dimension; rather, it is a reminder of the existence and importance of the international community.


Translation: Susan Sinisalo
Featured photo: Soile Tirilä / Museovirasto

From Finnish Music Quarterly magazine 2/2000

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