in From the Archives

Kalevala – the Estonian perspective

by Veljo Tormis

The main theme of the first ever FMQ magazine in 1985 was the Kalevala. In the issue composers and researchers like Pekka Lounela, Eero Tarasti, Erkki Salmenhaara, Heikki Laitinen and Olli Kortekangas approached the epic from varying points of view. Estonian composer Veljo Tormis (1930–2017) wrote in his column how the Kalevala has influenced his work.

Whenever I think about the Kalevala I recognize it as the common Finno-Ugric epic. The birth of Lönnrot's Kalevala – directly or indirectly – heightened the confidence and self-consciousness or the Finno-Ugrian people, who had been living under foreign rule for centuries. The uplifting effect of the Kalevala also influenced our Kreutzwald and thereby the publication of the Estonian Kalevipoeg some twenty years later. Kalevala scholars have established direct correspondences between many Kalevala runes and the equivalent folklore of Kalevipoeg. Whether this is a matter of borrowing, equivalent creation by two different nations, or a sign that we are part of a common ancient Finno-Ugric culture, is of no importance to the layman. What is essential for me is that the Kalevala tells us first of all about the common source of our countries' epic runes and conception of life.

My feelings as an Estonian and an artist are well expressed by our author and Kalevala translator professor August Annist in his essay (well-known also in Finland) "The Kalevala as an artistic creation." He says: "The Kalevala is so rustically democratic, so humanly lyrical even in fantasy, so affectionate in its closeness to nature, rich in pictures and fresh in impressions – this is mainly what brings it closer to the Estonian peasant folk and the spirit of folklore."

This ethic of life and work, which overrules the epic-spirited thirst for war and intoxication with killing, makes the archaic Kalevala today specially topical and appealing.

The texts of Kalevala themes have been scientifically compared and analyzed by folklorists. However, I have personally gone through this recognition of a common culture via the musical emotional experience of practical compositional work with Finno-Ugric folk songs (e.g. the Izhorian rune Creation of the World) or while working with Undarmo and Kalervo's story. Song of Creation (Loomislaul), Big Oak (Suur tamm) and much more in the Kalevala style can be heard in old Estonian runes as well. The fact that this cultural unity still survives today to such a great extent is something that our own peoples are most likely unaware of, not to mention other nations.

It certainly was an experience for me to be able to work in the folklore archives of the Finnish Literature Society last summer. I had a chance to make recordings of Finnish, Karelian and lngrian runic songs. Judging by the evidence it is apparent that Kalevala traditions were fully and widely preserved even 20–30 years ago! Despite the fact that I have shelves full of folkloristic literature, this exposure to recorded sound gave me a surprising awakening to what I already knew in theory: the profound similarity to Estonian folk songs. I hadn't noticed it earlier. Our runic songs share a basic outline, of course. Yet I can now hear how much more we share in rhythm and melody as well, which vary by districts as a rule.

If I tried to put in words how I now perceive the specific essence of the Kalevala, I would note factors which have earlier been called characteristic of Finno-Ugrian folklore. Following an enchanting long drawn-out yarn, the content, the actual story may pass us by, and our belief in the power and magic of the word or the lyrical description of feelings gains in importance.

About twenty years ago I first started to recognize the singable song in ancient Estonian folk poetry. When I attempted to employ this principle in my creative work I experienced the same perception, which is also essential in the case of the Kalevala. It might seem paradoxical or illogical, but the descriptive content of the Kalevala is not as important to me as its structure. In by this I mean everything characteristic of the Kalevala – of metrical rune, runic song: suggestive monotony, repetition of thought, which coheres well with ancient tunes. Knowingly or not, Lönnrot accomplished in the Kalevala the same tasks as Finno-Ugrian folk singers did. He grasped, joined and fused the single elements of songs in accordance with the principle and sense of poetic form and not always following the logic of the action. "The possibility of fusion and reality shape our old songs into an undivided whole, which is not linear, but rather spatial. All the songs belong together." This thought by our poet Jaan Kaplinski strikes one as significant with respect to the musical side of runic songs.

My own formula states the same: any runic tune can be used to sing any verse of a Finno-Ugric rune (whether it be Finnish, Estonian, Karelian, Votic, Ingrian and to same extent even Livonian an Veps). In all these runes and within the consciousness which has created them, the same world and space prevails. This is the folkloristic universe. It doesn't start or end – it lasts. The lack of European-style phrasing, chain-breathing, fluent merging of chanter of a choir – everything confirms that the singer lives in the elements of song, within the enduring runic song throughout the ages, within the song itself. It is difficult to say whether the singer creates the song or whether the song expresses itself through him, using him as the medium. The possibility of singing it all with a simple melody proves the runic inheritance to be one entity, and that originally it was indeed sung.

It has been delightful to observe during the last few years in Finland the growing recognition of the Kalevala as a singable song. Also that the Kalevala Jubilee has increased the spread of this awareness, whether via the Kaustinen Folk Music Institute or via the Kalevala song series on the Finnish Radio, which I have followed with interest. In the latter, Kalevala verses are sung to authentic folk tunes. Although these verses are partly Lönnrot's conception, it is the only way to become acquainted with the authentic structure of the folk song.

My approach to the Kalevala began with a Finno-Ugric cycle of choir songs Estonian Calendar Songs 1967 (Eesti kalendrilaulud), Livonian Heritage 1970 (Liivlaste pärandus), Votic Wedding Songs 1971 (Vadja pulmalaulud), Thirteen Estonian Lyric Folk Songs 1972 (Kolmteist eesti lüürilist rahvalaulu). There was a direct contact in Curse Upon Iron (Raua needmine) in 1972. This grew deeper as the Finno-Ugric cycles progressed, maybe most of all with Izhorian Epic 1975 (Isuri eepos). I have since written a few more short compositions for choir based on the Kalevala, such as Bridge of Song (Laulusild 1981) and The Hero’s Voyage (Väinämöisen venematka; Väinämöise venesõit 1985). I have not forgotten "the better half” of the Kalevala, namely the Kanteletar: it was the inspiration for my Väinämöinen's Words of Wisdom (Väinämöisen sanoja; Väinämöise tarkussõnad) and God Protect Us from War! (Varjele, Jumala, soasta!Kaitse, Jumal, sõja eest!), both in 1984.

To this I should add a book of folk songs Regilaulik (1975) done in cooperation with the folklorist Ülo Tedre. Our aim was to popularize the singing of runic songs with chanter and choir. The second part of this song book is now in preparation.

Thoughout the USSR, the Karelian ASR and particularly in the Estonian SSR the Kalevala year is being extensively celebrated. I don't like to talk about my unfinished works, but I guess in this case I have to. Right now I'm preparing a larger work for the Kalevala year, commissioned by the Estonian State Academic Male Choir. I again chose the most interesting material by the same principle I explained earlier. The idea was not to "screen out" content, but take the characteristic form of the Kalevala – one rune as an entity, and then to make an attempt to find an adequate musical form starting with the Kalevala song. Maybe the way of following the chosen text line by line – not condensing or shortening it – will help me to discover some structural lines close to the Kalevala. I don't have any illusions. It would be hypocritical to state that an attempt to mediate an old folk song's authenticity today can be equal to the actual genuineness of the past. In my creative work with folk song material I am aware of a compromise between genuine tradition and today's professional musical culture. My work follows the basic rules of folk song but at the same time it ties in general European fundamentals of music: ascents and descents, contrasts, thematic development etc., which the music of runic song does not have. I chose the seventeenth rune, the story of the mystical voyage to Vipunen. Lönnrot surely fused into it (judging by its general content it is extensive filling material) all possible exorcist incantation. He didn't have the heart to leave anything out. Neither do I. Yet I don't know how choir members and an audience will react to the endeavor today.

It is actually the story of an ancient shaman. A daring attempt to influence nature by a child of nature who believes in the might of his word. The power of imagination, fanatic autosuggestion and incantational force work here in a ravishingly beautiful way. The flight of fantasy combines with the realism of nature – isn't this something primevally ours? The general message of the whole of the seventeenth rune could be more symbolic and vital: Väinämöinen was lucky enough to tap the source of primal knowledge, to deepest insights of ancient life, and to draw wisdom and strength from this source. We too would like to reach that source today as we turn towards the Kalevala or some other valid creative inheritance.

I would like to end with a private personal impression. I was looking at Gallen-Kallela's Departure of Väinämöinen and I saw myself there amongst the forsaken - the worried old man with bare feet at the right edge of the painting.


Translation: Endel Loo and Andrew Chesterman

This article was first published in FMQ 1–2/1985 and is now republished with the kind permission of Veljo Tormis's family.

Featured picture: The Departure of Väinämöinen by Akseli Gallen-Kallela.

Read more about Veljo Tormis here.