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From the archives: Music for children in Finland – A short history

Children’s music boasts a surprisingly extensive history in Finland. In this article, originally published in FMQ in 2011, Anu Ahola provides an overview of the various phases of children’s music in Finland.

From runes to hymns


The oldest Finnish music for children comprises lullabies and singing games set in the archaic 'Kalevalaic' meter, which entertained people of all ages in the agrarian society of bygone days. These songs were passed down orally from one generation to the next. Some of them have been preserved in the collective Finnish memory for thousands of years, right up to the present day.


From the 16th century onwards, the hymnbook became the most commonly used songbook in Finland, remaining one of the few books familiar to children for a for a long time. The first Finnish hymns for children date from 1824. In 1582, a collection titled Piae Cantionescontaining 74 devout and school songs in Latin was published, and young scholars would sing these as they roamed around Finland during the summer.


The first children’s broadsheets of secular songs are thought to have been printed in 1797.



National Romanticism and European trends


In the 19th century new ideological and musical trends found their way into children’s music. Kalevalaic music gradually gave way to emerging vocal and instrumental music of Central Europe characterised by triads and major-minor tonality. Many of the songs introduced to Finland during this period would later become classics: Häschen in der GrubeGubben Noaand Mary had a Little Lamb, to name just three examples.


The National Romantic children’s song, distinct from the folk song, emerged in Finland at the end of the 19th century to meet the needs of the newly-established primary school. Alongside new Finnish children’s songs the compilers of school songbooks considered certain folk songs suitable for children. Selected songs from Swedish and Central European publications were also translated into Finnish.



Recorded music


The advent of radio, recording techniques, gramophones and films with music vastly expanded the range of music accessible to the people of Finland in the 1920s and 30s. The Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) was established in 1926, and its first programme for children, titled Children’s Hour and hosted by “Uncle Marcus” (Markus Rautio, 1891–1973), aired the next year. The broadcasts consisted of music and poems performed by children and presented by Uncle Marcus.


The first peak in record sales came when portable gramophones hit the market in 1929. The demand for children’s records was satisfied by a small group of experienced singers. Among them was Georg Malmstén (1902–1981), a musician, composer and singer widely recognized across the country. In 1930 he recorded the first children’s song with orchestral accompaniment, titled Karhunpoika sairastaa (The Poorly Teddy) (see this story, originally published in FMQ in 2011).


In the 1950s and 60s radio programmes for children increasingly considered the voices of children themselves. Children were provided opportunities to plan programmes, and a separated slot was allocated for musical requests.


As the 1950s progressed, a handful of young radio stars emerged and started to record. English and American children’s songs and others that particularly appealed to children were released in Finnish by popular music stars. Songs from such revues and films as The Teddy Bears’ PicnicHow Much is that Doggy in the Window? and The Three Little Pigletsbecame great hits with children and adults alike. These were recorded by the Kipparikvartetti male-voice quartet, which was highly popular at the time. Soundtracks from Disney films were also released in Finland. Meanwhile, the Pikkuorava (‘Chipmunk’) records by Saukki Puhtila (1928–2014) added a completely new touch of humour to children’s music.




The swinging years


In the years that followed the Second World War, the musical education of children evolved into a distinct project. It was fostered in schools, day nurseries, music colleges, music playschools, and through activities run by churches and other institutions. Composers of classical music mostly wrote children’s music for pedagogical purposes, while the composition of children’s songs in the traditional sense gradually shifted more towards the domain of popular music.


A new era in children’s music began in the late 1960s, led by broadcaster Tytti Paavolainen(1937–2008) and YLE. The pioneers aimed to provide children with a diverse selection of high-quality music that would neither underestimate nor patronise them. The success of the record Iso Mies ja Keijukainen (The Big Man and the Fairy) of 1970 triggered a golden era of children’s LPs (see this story, originally published in FMQ in 2011).


In the 1980s the LP was joined by the cassette tape, which in turn elevated the production of recorded children’s music to unprecedented heights. One of the best-loved and best-selling children’s titles of that decade was Marjatta Pokela’s (1925–2002) Mörköooppera(The Bogey Opera, 1980). The decade was also favourable on the radio: children’s music and radio play joined forces and flourished, with a variety of music for children being broadcast. Quality music for children was also featured on television.


Embarking on what would become a long career were artists such as Pentti Rasinkangas(b. 1955) and Mikko Perkoila (b. 1950), who focused on creating music for children. Composers of classical music also began to show increased interest in the younger audience (see this story, originally published in FMQ in 2011).



New-generation songs


The first rock band for children, subsequently becoming highly popular, emerged in the 1990s. Among them was Fröbelin Palikat, known for their rock arrangements of children’s songs. Soili Perkiö (b. 1958), a music teacher and composer, began writing songs for children in partnership with writer Hannele Huovi (b. 1949). The Moomins, created by Finland’s Tove Jansson (1914–2001), also became an inspiration for songs. Composed by a Dutchman, Pierre Kartner (1935–2022), and sung by Benny Törnroos (b. 1950), these songs took Finland by storm.


However, the children’s music boom faced setbacks due to the recession that hit in the early 1990s. Record production experienced a decline, and at its lowest point in 1999, YLE temporarily halted the production of children’s programmes, albeit for a brief period.


As the old millennium gave way to the new, Finns once again acknowledged the importance of children’s culture and the crucial role played by music in education. This was reflected in curricula and cultural-policy statements. The tangible resources, funding and other support from society, however, have not kept pace with the promises.


In the early 2000s major record companies revived their interest in children’s music. Numerous well-known artists from the new generation artists, originally focused on adult audiences, have expanded their reach to include children through recording for them. Music for children now spans across every genre, from folk to classical and heavy metal (see this story, originally published in FMQ in 2011).



This brief history is based on the articles by Antti Häyrynen, Kati Kallio, Anu Karlson, Maisa Krokfors, Pekka Jalkanen, Tarleena Sammalkorpi, Tiina Tolo-nen and Saara Tuomaala in the book Aika laulaa lapsen kanssa – Polkuja lastenmusiikin historiassa (Time to Sing with the Child – Paths in the History of Children’s Music, ed. Anu Ahola & Juha Nikulainen).


Featured picture: FMQ 3/2011 cover by Sanna Mander.


Translation: Susan Sinisalo. Slightly edited from the original for this republication.