in From the Archives

From lament to success story: the Society of Finnish Composers at 50

by Erkki Salmenhaara

Finnish composers got together to form a society immediately after the war, in 1945. The following is a resume of the history of the first half decade of the Society of Finnish Composers, written in 1995 by Erkki Salmenhaara (1941–2002), at the time Associate Professor of Music at the University of Helsinki.
The Society of Finnish Composers was founded in Helsinki on October 15, 1945 as a professional association for Finnish composers of serious music. Its first secretary, and one of the driving forces behind the venture, was the composer Kalervo Tuukkanen (1909–1979). In his report for the Society’s first year, 1945–1946, he gives a lively account of its early history, overshadowed by the aftermath and heavy war indemnities of the Continuation War of 1941–1944:

The economic status of Finnish composers has never been good. The war and the years immediately following it have aggravated the situation even further. In a situation in which the very battle for our physical existence takes up all our time and all our strength, the future of Finland’s creative music is in danger. It seems to have become part of the modern way of life for various circles of society to devote themselves exclusively to the furthering of their own interests. Anyone who fails to do so is granted no mercy. Composers, too, are becoming increasingly aware of this. The idea of establishing an association of their own in fact proved to be more widespread than was initially assumed. All it needed was the initial impetus to set things moving.

This impetus was provided by Väinö Raitio and his decease. On the day after Raitio’s death, 11.9.1945, Erik Bergman and Kalervo Tuukkanen happened to meet in the entrance hall of Lallukka Artists’ Home. The conversation turned to Väinö Raitio, his fate and the position of composers in general. Their final comment was, “Things will not improve without a society of our own to safeguard our professional interests.”

The biggest problem was how to finance the society. The matter was discussed by Olavi Pesonen and Kalervo Tuukkanen. They came upon the idea of setting up a Sibelius Foundation in conjunction with the celebrations in honour of the maestro’s 80th birthday. The Foundation would be intended as a means of supporting creative music only, and it would at the same time act as a lasting monument to the maestro for future generations.

A delegation consisting of the Chairman and Secretary, Leevi Madetoja and Martti Turunen called upon Jean Sibelius in Järvenpää on 18.10.1945. The maestro gladly gave his consent to this far-reaching venture. He expressed the wish and obligation on the Society that the collection of the funds for the Foundation be organised on a broad scale to ensure that the Foundation would have a major impact and that the grants awarded by it would afford their receivers an opportunity to work for several years. The first name of the Society of Finnish Composers, and one written in golden letters, will always be that of Jean Sibelius, the Society’s first honorary member. By granting the use of his name, he has given Finland’s composers the brightest key to the future. In doing so he has put into practice his words to the delegation of composers uttered as they were leaving on 18.10.1945: “Give my regards to the others and tell them I’m a much better colleague than you realize.”

Early years

The Society of Finnish Composers was founded by 28 composers. They were soon joined by ten new members, so then, as later, the Society has widely represented the active band of Finnish composers. In the early 1960s its membership underwent a considerable rejuvenation operation when a number of composers under the age of 30 were elected members. By the time the Society celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1970, the number of members had risen to fifty. In 1994 the Society had 108 composer members, four of them women.All in all the Society of Finnish Composers had 166 members between 1945 and 1994, and four honorary members from abroad: Knudåge Riisager, Hilding Rosenberg, Harald Saeverud and Dmitri Shostakovich. In addition to Sibelius, its Finnish honorary members have been Leevi Madetoja, Selim Palmgren, Armas Järnefelt, Yrjö Kilpinen, Aarre Merikanto, Erik Bergman and Joonas Kokkonen.

Elected the first chairman of the Society of Finnish Composers was Selim Palmgren (1878–1951), who held the post until his death. A composer and pianist of international repute, he was the obvious man for the job, added to which his close ties with Scandinavia, his command of languages and natural, cosmopolitan air stood him in good stead in fostering cooperation between the Nordic societies of composers. His successor for the term 1952-1956 was Sulho Ranta (1901–1960), a versatile composer and cultural figure who made a special mark as a writer on music. The chairman to serve for the longest period in office was Olavi Pesonen (1909–1993), who was elected for two terms, 1956–1965 and 1977–1981. His administrative experience and international contacts were extremely valuable in an operating environment that was for composers becoming increasingly complex.

Composers band together

The main interest group and copyright bureau for Finnish composers is Teosto (The Finnish Composer’s International Copyright Bureau), founded in Finland in 1928. Professor and Academician Joonas Kokkonen (1921–1996) was chairman of the Society 1965–1971 and chairman of Teosto 1968–1988, thereby establishing firm relations between these two organisations. During his term as chairman, during which the practical running of the Bureau was in the hands of Pekka Kallio, Teosto grew into a modern, well-organised copyright bureau to which Kokkonen’s wide network of musical and cultural contacts lent cultural-political prestige. The credit for the establishment of the Foundation for the Promotion of Finnish Music (LUSES) set up in 1970 also goes to Kokkonen; financial support from LUSES has been decisive to the recording and publishing of Finnish music.

Since Kokkonen the Society has been chaired by Aulis Sallinen (1935–, chairman 1971–1974), a Finnish opera composer of international fame, the present author (1941–2002, chairman 1974–1976), Olavi Pesonen (mentioned above) and Usko Meriläinen (1930–2004), chairman 1981–1992), who has also promoted new music as the driving force behind the Tampere Biennale. The present chairman* of the society is Mikko Heiniö (1948–), who in addition to composing was at the time professor of musicology at the University of Turku. Heiniö is a leading scholar in the modern history of Finnish music who has in his publications also touched on the aesthetical, theoretical and sociological aspects of composing.

From Sibelius Foundation to government grants

The setting up of the Sibelius Foundation in the very first autumn after the Society was founded served as a demonstration of what the Society could achieve, and one that would scarcely be possible amid the bureaucracy and media world of today. The Foundation was extremely significant in the early years, when composers had very limited chances of obtaining grants elsewhere. Inflation has subsequently reduced its financial significance, but it is still an important form of support for younger composers in particular.

Since the 1960s Finnish society has greatly improved the conditions for composers and artists in general by creating a system of grants that has, for the first time in Finnish history, permitted a few composers at least to concentrate on their work for a long, sustained period of time without having to worry about making a living. A grant is the composer’s salary, and as in other walks of society, creative workers should be able to support themselves by their own efforts – especially since they usually finance their tools and social security themselves.

Pioneer recordings

The next major project for the Society after setting up the Sibelius Foundation was the compilation of a Fennica record anthology. Despite the rigours of the economy, society considered its cultural investments so important that from 1949 the Ministry of Education annually set aside considerable sums to support the recording of Finnish music. The practical handling of the project was entrusted to the Society, in the absence of any other suitable organisation. This was indeed a pioneering venture in both the technical and the artistic sense, since with the exception of Sibelius, almost no Finnish music had been recorded. The technical assistance of foreign companies, first the BBC and later die Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft, was essential in executing the project. A special Finlandia orchestra was duly assembled for the purpose of recording and the services of the leading Finnish conductors enlisted.

The anthology produced in 1953–1966 after many technical difficulties ran to a total of 13 LPs and 23 of the old 78 rpm records. The repertoire of the latter consisted of short pieces and was inevitably very fragmentary. But the items on the LP records were also criticised for being too “democratic” and chosen on the “something for everybody” principle. On the other hand the Fennica series still contains the only recording of a number of Finnish works. Technically the project came at a difficult juncture. At the outset, the LP record was still a novelty, but it ended with the advent of the stereo era. As a result, the anthology quickly became technically obsolete. Even today it is, however, still of documentary interest.

Nordic cooperation…

Right in the early days of the Society the ground was prepared for cooperation between Nordic composers in the form of the Nordic Council of Composers and the Nordic Music Festival organised by it. The first, still unofficial festival was held in Stockholm in 1947. Since then it has in principle been held every other year in each of the Nordic countries in turn. Helsinki first acted host in 1950, and the Society of Finnish Composers had by 1995 acted as organiser six times in all. The Nordic Music Festival has become a new music forum for the five Nordic countries unique by international comparison and has also forged links outside Scandinavia by inviting other countries to take part. The Society of Finnish Composers has also been responsible for the activities of the national ISCM section.

…and international

Ties have been formed with the societies for composers in other countries in the form of exchange visits and guest concerts. The exchange visit has either been organised under a mutual contract between two societies or on a freer basis. One special feature of the Society of Finnish Composers has been the ties with its sister organisation in the Soviet Union. The initial stimulus for these came from Dmitri Shostakovich after his visit to Finland in 1958. Other active countries in this respect have been the former German Democratic Republic and Czechoslovakia. The collapse of the socialist regime created a new situation that is still [in 1995] in a state of transition, but the connections with, for example, the independent Estonia have become noticeably more lively. Naturally the Society has also given a warm welcome to foreign colleagues other than those visiting Finland under official exchange programmes. The most famous of these has undoubtedly been Igor Stravinsky, who visited Finland in 1961.

Light and serious

Unlike in, for example, the former socialist states,Finland has two societies for composers, the Society of Finnish Composers for “serious” ones and the Guild of Light Music Composers and Authors of Finland (Säveltäjät ja Sanoittajat ELVIS r.y.; originally ELokuva- ja Viihdesäveltäjät or Composers for Film and Entertainment) for “light” ones. The latter was founded in 1954 and at present [in 1995] has about three times as many members as the Society. As far as individual composers and genres are concerned, the border between art and light music may be a nebulous one that shifts from one case to another, and reflects an attitude that is to some extent undoubtedly outdated. A few Finnish composers in fact belong to both organisations. But despite these borderline cases, serious and light music nevertheless represent two institutions clearly differing in their ideology and, especially, their economic infrastructure in Finnish society. For this reason certain clear conflicts of interests prevail between them.

Despite the diversity of stylistic and expressive trends in contemporary music, the composer of serious music still seems to aspire to the creation of works with an individual, independent identity in accordance with the traditional aesthetics. The lively, and at times heated debate on genre of the past few years has almost entirely overlooked one obvious fact that still clearly constitutes a musical criterion distinguishing “art” from “light”: whereas the concept and idea of genre became excluded from art music with the modernism of the 20th century, it remained all the more powerful in the bulk of light music. A piece of light music is as a rule cooked according to a certain “recipe”, with its seasonings and other ingredients determined according to use. Although the economic factors influencing composition are very complex, there is no denying that purely commercial interests count for far more in light music than in art music.

The broader the media, the narrower the information

The field of communications is at the moment in a state of radical development and change; this will, probably affect the structure of musical copyrights in both composer societies. These societies will be needed to defend the professional status and interests of creative workers – in a word, their scope in society. But the Society of Finnish Composers will undoubtedly remain and be needed as an ideological, collegial community. The nature of composing itself, as a form of artistic creation founded on personal ideas, is fundamentally unlikely to change even if the composer does use a computer and other modern technology instead of a pen.

The composer of new music belongs to “the minority minority of a minority”, as Eero Hämeenniemi once said. The red line running through the survey of the position of the composer in Finland in the course of the past fifty years seems to be the battle to get his music heard and published. Composing itself seems to have changed very little in essence. The outward conditions for composing have, by contrast, improved significantly, resulting in a steadyincrease in the number of compositions from year to year. Yet despite the wartime and other difficulties, far more concerts of compositions were given in the 1940s than have been now [in 1995] for many years. Composing has not changed,but the publicity surrounding it has. The trend has been paradoxical: the broader and more efficient the media world has become, the less room there is for profoundly contemplated information of which composition is but one manifestation. In speaking of what is so far the most effective medium in the present age, television, not even the degrees of marginality mentioned are sufficient to define the position of the modern composer.

The more a medium expands, the narrower its content becomes. The result is the spiritual, intellectual, educational and emotional impoverishment of society. Growing ranks of ecologists regard biodiversity as the core issue as regards the future of the globe. It is equally important to preserve the diversity of music, its faces and nuances, its absolute-value visions unshackled by commercial demand and market forces. For these are part of the spiritual biodiversity.

*Mikko Heiniö was chairman of the Society 1992–2010, and Tapio Tuomela 2010-2014. The present chairman is Antti Auvinen (since 2014).

This article was first published in FMQ 3/1995 and is now in 2015 republished with the kind permission of the author’s family.

See also Juha Torvinen’s article Composing, society and music at large FMQ 3-4/2015.