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Finnish music – music in Finland?

by Tove Djupsjöbacka, Riikka Hiltunen

Transnationality has been a big thing in international cultural studies for the past decade. At the moment, there are several major research projects in the pipeline in Finnish music studies addressing issues across national borders.
In February this year, Finns in the social media eagerly shared a video conceived and produced by journalist Pekka Mykkänen, where the popular song Olen suomalainen (I am a Finn; originally L’italiano, by Toto Cutugno) is performed by a number of Finnish citizens whose roots lie anywhere from Peru to Tatarstan. The point of the video was to challenge the viewer to think about what it means in this day and age to be Finnish and who actually are Finns. This is a not insignificant question in music studies too.

Issues of the Finnishness of music are addressed in two major research projects funded by the Academy of Finland. Antti-Ville Kärjä, Academy Research Fellow with the Academy of Finland, is heading a project at the Finnish Jazz & Pop Archive (JAPA) on music and multiculturalism, while Professor Vesa Kurkela of the Sibelius Academy and his team are attempting a reinterpretation of the history of ‘Finnish’ music.


Part of a bigger narrative

The project headed by Professor Vesa Kurkela has been receiving funding from the Academy of Finland since autumn 2011 and will continue until the end of 2015. The research team are focusing on the turn of the 20th century, a time when many of the foundation stones were laid for the Finnish musical establishment. International influences, especially from Germany, were of immense importance.

“In historical research, each generation of scholars challenges the previous one,” says Kurkela. “However, in the history of Finnish music, the basic assumptions have never been questioned until now. The same errors and misconceptions get repeated.”

“In many cases, people tend to describe actions in the past with reference to the present day, as if aiming towards a specific goal. Then they cherry-pick the historical facts that conform to that scenario.”

Vesa Kurkela refers to a ‘nationalist perspective’ that has had a powerful presence in the musical history of Finland, coloured by the fervent nationalism known in its day as ‘Fennomania’.

“The Finnish musical scene was actually really cosmopolitan,” Kurkela notes. “People went abroad to study, and everything was based on foreign models. Virtually the first thing that the first Finnish musicologists did was to attend international conferences.”

There are three researchers working on Vesa Kurkela’s project besides Kurkela himself. Olli Heikkinen is studying the emergence of the Finnish musical language, Markus Mantere is studying the birth of musicology in Finland, and Saijaleena Rantanen’s topic is the great song and music festivals. Kurkela himself is looking at concert repertoire and the development of the public musical taste.


The music of multicultural Finland

Antti-Ville Kärjä, Academy Research Fellow with the Academy of Finland, launched his research project ‘Music, Multiculturality and Finland’ at the beginning of this year; it will continue until late 2018. He is assisted in the project by Jouni Eerola.

The project focuses on how the musical practices of immigrants in Finland challenge and expand the concept of what Finnish music is. The study is divided into three sections. The first of these is about history, with an approach very similar to that of Kurkela’s project.

“The historical section of the study is about how nationality is built up in historiography – even the most recent writing: what is defined as Finnish music and what the key criteria of Finnishness in making such a definition might be. It is mostly about questioning the big narrative, as in Vesa’s project.”

Alongside historical research, there are two ethnographic sections in the project.

“The first of these is about the music of immigrants in Finland. We are trying to get at the everyday practices of music-making: what kind of music there is in the various communities, which music the members of those communities feel is their own, and how this relates to the historiographical concept of Finnishness,” explains Kärjä.

The second ethnographic section is also about musical practices among immigrants, but on the opposite side of the world: in Finnish communities in Australia and New Zealand. This addresses the same questions of how music is used to shape a Finnish identity, which elements in the music the people feel are their own, and how Finnish musical practices fit into the local community context.


Us and them

The theoretical basis for Kärjä’s research is the relationship and dynamics of the popular and the sacred.

“The nationality issue is a rather convenient starting point. Nationality is a sort of belief system: it is taken for granted in the current world order that every person must have a nationality,” says Kärjä.

“Nationality often involves emotional commitment, and in the public debate on immigration this easily escalates into a sharp division between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Because of this emotional charge, nationality tends to get infused with elements usually associated with the sacred: nationality is held harmless and protected against outside and ‘alien’ elements.”

One of Kärjä’s subjects is the multicultural Ourvision singing contest held in Helsinki; he mentions it as an interesting channel for examining the potential for identification allowed by music.

In the history of music, nationality is by no means a clear issue. Composer Thomas Byström, born and raised in Finland, created his entire career in Sweden at a time when Finland was part of Sweden, yet he is consistently referred to as a Finnish composer.

“By that logic, Fredrik Pacius was a German composer, not a Finnish one,” says Vesa Kurkela.

Much has been omitted from the narrative of the history of Finnish music that did not fit into the ‘Fennomanic’ frame of reference. Kurkela gives an example: the case of forgotten composer Theodor Sörensen, who was of Danish origin. Archive sources reveal that he wrote two ‘domestic symphonies’ (i.e. symphonies written in Finland) in the 1870s and 1880s, but his career ended in scandal as he was exposed as a plagiarist.

“And he was an unfortunate Dane, who only associated with Swedish-speaking society! How could such a story fit into the grand narrative of Finnish music?”


Transnationality is now

It is no coincidence that the transnational perspective occupies a key position in several projects in music studies at this particular time.

“It has been a trend in all cultural studies for the past ten years. It’s the sort of thing that gets grants,” says Kurkela drily.

Transnational studies are common elsewhere too, for instance in Britain. Kärjä agrees with his colleague:

“In central Europe, these issues emerged in the 1960s. Migration raises questions about nationality and statehood. Finland experienced a major social change when the Soviet Union collapsed; the projects we are seeing now have to do with changes that have happened over the past 20 years.”

“By contrast, people in Eastern Europe are not yet interested in this sort of thing,” says Kurkela. “They are only just beginning to write their national history in the post-Communist era.”

Kurkela also points to a practical answer to the question of “why now”:

“Ten years ago, this would have been much harder to do,” he says. “Now we have the digital newspaper archive of the National Library to draw on! Finland is a true pioneer in this field.”


Forgotten plurality

Many things have been neglected in the writing of the history of music, and some such omissions have actually served to recalibrate musical values. Kurkela mentions ‘pops concerts’ by symphony orchestras as an example; his mission is to rewrite history in this respect.

“The orchestra conducted by Robert Kajanus only gave one symphony concert per month. But they played popular concerts three times a week in the great hall of Hotel Seurahuone up until the 1910s! And they did not play popular music as we would understand it; in fact, they played pretty much the same repertoire as they did at their symphony concerts except for actual symphonies. There was a lot of new French orchestral music, for instance.”

“Many historians have simply glossed over this or have felt embarrassment – ‘how dreadful for them to have to play such trivial music’. But these concerts were taken seriously and regularly reviewed! They were favoured by very serious musical gentlemen such as Ilmari Krohn and the critic known as ‘Bis’. I want to rehabilitate these concerts and to give a more accurate impression of what their role was, based on contemporary newspaper articles and reminiscences.”

Antti-Ville Kärjä also believes that historical practices will prove to be more diverse and multicultural than we tend to believe today. He hopes that many of his preconceptions of the musical practices of today will prove to be wrong.

“I admit that there is a sort of anti-racist agenda underlying this project. I hope it will help advance the argument for preserving pluralism and for questioning the relevance of fundamentalist nationalism. Historical examples have shown that a society always works best when it is based on pluralism.”


Opera beyond national borders

BY Tove Djupsjöbacka

‘Opera on the Move’ is a Nordic research project in which a transnational aspect may also be found.

“We study opera, but our interest does not stop at the Finnish border,” say Anne Sivuoja-Kauppala and Ulla-Britta Broman-Kananen, the Finnish members of the four-member project that was launched last year. The other two members are Owe Ander from Sweden and Jens Hesselager from Denmark. The four-year project is financed by the Joint Committee for Nordic research councils for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Contacts across borders were of vital importance in the opera world of the 19th century. Singers went to Paris and Italy to study, and they largely created their careers around northern Europe. Opera offered many working opportunities also in the Nordic countries, even in Helsinki. Yet histories of opera tend to be written with nationalist undertones and seen through a nationalist perspective that stops at the border.

The research project focuses above all on networks and mobility between countries. Detailed points of study include grand opera, for instance La Juive by Fromental Halévy and its appearances in the Nordic countries, and the careers of conductors and female opera singers.

This project succeeds another, recently completed research project where the focus was on the Finnish Opera company (1873–1879), also led by Sivuoja-Kauppala at the Sibelius Academy. In addition to Finnish-language opera performances at the Arcadia Theatre, opera was sung in Swedish at the Swedish Theatre (Nya Teatern) – a point that is often overlooked in the history of Finnish opera. In addition to the nationalist ‘Fennomanic’ underpinnings of the Finnish Opera of the 1870s, it served the purpose of introducing European culture to Finland.

“Opera was a powerful weapon in the struggle for a national language and cultural prestige,” explains Ulla-Britta Broman-Kananen. “Grand opera was a particularly impressive tool in this struggle. In the end, both opera companies died away by the end of 1870s. On the other hand, the Russian Alexandre Theatre opened its doors in 1879 and offered opera performances by visiting companies,” continues Anne Sivuoja-Kauppala.

“Opera is in fact an enormously transnational undertaking, yet it is often used for nationalistic purposes,” says Sivuoja-Kauppala. “Opera is also incredibly expensive,” both scholars note, “and it is worthwhile to understand who undertakes to fund it. Generally, opera is tied up to the nation-state; it must find and establish itself a function in society at large.”


Riikka Hiltunen is the editor of FMQ and a musicology PhD student at University of Helsinki. Tove Djupsjöbacka is a music journalist and musicologist specialising in flamenco and folk music, but eagerly diving into all kinds of music from opera to hip hop.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi