Georg “Jori” Malmstén (1902-1981) took his first steps towards a musical career as a member of a brass band. Later, while majoring in instrumental performance at the conservatory, he chose singing as a minor subject, and singing was later to become his primary mode of expression. In the 1920s he studied classical voice and sang both opera and Lied to considerable acclaim, but it is as a light entertainer that he is best remembered.
A versatile musician, composer and singer with more discs to his name than any other artist in Finland, Malmstén was already contributing greatly to Finnish children’s music in the early stages of his career. In 1930 he persuaded a record company to produce a first-class children’s song, Sairas karhunpoika (The Poorly Teddy). This record, both composed and sung by him, was the result of a lucky coincidence.
The Poorly Teddy
In 1929, Malmstén had written and recorded a song called Särkynyt onni (Shattered Happiness) that had clocked up unprecedented sales of some 17,000 copies and made him a star on the light music firmament. From then onwards, he had the full backing of the record label, Parlophon. They found him a job as “sales manager”, and he sometimes served behind the counter at one of its shops.
One day, while Georg was working in the shop, a customer asked whether they had any children’s records. To which the friendly, willing young assistant replied, “Unfortunately no, but we will have by Christmas.” This was in 1930, when records for children were virtually unheard of, and children’s culture simply did not exist. The man, Georg, who promised a children’s record had entertained his little son Ola with his own songs and reckoned other children, too, might like them.
The Malmsténs spoke Swedish at home, and Daddy Georg was unable to write lyrics in Finnish. He therefore composed a tune and under the notes wrote a story about a poorly teddy. He then asked his singer friend Roine Richard Ryynänen (1891-1963) to write lyrics for him in Finnish.
Not content to record the song with piano only, Malmstén made an orchestral arrangement of his Teddy song, conducted the orchestra, and when the time came to sing, moved closer to the single microphone. This Malmstén classic, written over 80 years ago, has already delighted generations of children and can often still be heard in Finland. Many artists of the present century have, furthermore, released a version of their own.
Finland’s best-known mouse
Even greater Malmstén hits for children are the adventure songs composed in the 1930s in which the hero is a brave little mouse called Mikki.
The first Mikki record, Mikkihiiri ja susihukka (Mikki the Mouse and the Wolf) dates from 1934. Its popularity was partly due to the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE), which could be heard all over Finland from the late 1920s onwards and even in the early years already sent out programmes designed expressly for children. Broadcaster-announcer Markus Rautio was told to launch a Children’s Hour on the radio and became universally known as Uncle Markus. Children’s Hour ran from 1926 to 1956. It was tremendously popular and among other things played children’s record requests.
The tale of Mikki the mouse was requested and played so often on the programme that Uncle Markus began to get a bit sick of it, likewise Malmstén’s Tottelmaton tipi (Naughty Tipi) on the flip side. So he asked Malmstén to compose some new songs for children.
Nukku-Matti (The Sandman) was duly recorded in 1935. To sing it with him Malmstén managed to recruit some young relatives of R.R. Ryynänen, who was later to be his regular lyricist. But many little listeners covered their ears when this tale with a moral came on the radio. And Uncle Markus likewise requested some more, exciting Mikki stories.
In the 1930s Malmstén composed and recorded, with his younger sister Greta Pitkänen, a few more adventures stories: Mikkihiiri merihädässä (Mikki the Mouse in Distress at Sea, 1936) and Mikkihiiri ja vuorenpeikko (Mikki the Mouse and the Goblin, 1937). Greta sang the difficult Mikki parts, and both songs in time became lasting children’s favourites.
When Greta died at Christmas 1938, Malmstén’s songs for children ceased to flow. The role of Mikki, in particular, was so closely associated with Greta, whose clear, fresh voice could handle even the highest notes without any of the mannerisms of classically-trained sopranos.
A cavalcade of classics
That the children’s songs by Georg Malmstén have survived the decades is due specifically to their recordings. The fact that three of his songs were included in the school songbook published in the 1970s was a source of great joy to the by then ailing and aging composer.
One of these songs was Jänöjussin mäenlasku (1952), about a bunny that goes tobogganing. By the 1950s Georg’s Finnish was so good that both the story and the lyrics are his. Another 1950s hit is Lasten liikennelaulu about the rules of the road. Malmstén was commissioned to write the music while he was conductor of the Police Force Band, as a guide to children on the increasingly busy Helsinki streets. Both songs are still sung in Finnish schools and day nurseries.
All in all Georg Malmstén composed some fifty songs for children, most of them now evergreen classics. After The Poorly Teddy he continued in the same vein, writing songs that showed respect for their young listeners, and in doing so laid the foundations and provided a model for future children’s discs.
Translation: Susan Sinisalo