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Music research in Finland looks east

by Anu Ahola, Jaani Länsiö

In the academic world, Finland boasts a high level of expertise in all things Russian. Over the past decade, musicologists too have begun to show an increasing interest in our eastern neighbour and above all in its history.

Finland has a large number of scholars in Russian matters in both relative and absolute terms, and there is an increasing demand for knowledge about Russia in various areas of society. However, many experts caution that because of a shortage of Russian language skills in Finland there are not enough Russian-speakers to cover all disciplines.

Musicological research in Finland has always had a strong national slant, and for good reason, because Finland is such a small language area that it would otherwise be completely neglected. On the other hand, Finnish scholars have largely neglected the musical superpower of global significance just across the border. This, too, is probably due to the shortage of Russian language skills.

Now that Finnish musicologists are developing an interest in Russian history, we are gaining a more accurate picture of the cultural apparatus of the Soviet Union and of cultural exchange between East and West during the Cold War. There are several studies under way on folk music in the borderlands between Finland and Russia and on folk instruments of the Russian and Baltic-Finnic peoples. Ethnicities in the region are also being studied. In the following pages, we will be surveying this fascinating field of scholarship.


Back to the USSR (and the USA)

Meri Herrala is one of the musicologists who in the 2000s have actively both revised and reinforced earlier conceptions of the severity of the cultural machine of the Soviet Union and how it affected musicians. Her doctoral dissertation, Socialist Realism lnstead of Formalism: The Formation and Development of the Soviet Music Control System 1932-1948, was published in 2009.

The research method adopted by Herrala for her doctorate was to look at the disciplined cultural scene through official documents, through the eyes of the establishment. Although the state imposed harsh restrictions on what artists were allowed to do, there were people who went on making “the wrong kind of music”.

“There was no way they could have completely rooted it out. People were still writing operas that were condemned as being Formalist, partly because no one really knew what Socialist Realism was supposed to be. Composers also wrote a lot of music that they never published at the time. It is true, however, that the development of modernist music was drastically inhibited as of 1948,” says Herrala. (See also the interview with Heli Reimann here.)


Between the official and the unofficial

Interview-based research is in favour today, but for the purposes of the present topic time is growing short. Not many musicians from the Stalin era are alive today to recount their experiences, and written statements by such people are difficult to find. A scholar relying on official documents may encounter obstacles even today. “You have always needed a permit to access the Soviet state archives, and to get a permit you need a letter of recommendation. lt is also important to be able to explain to the officials, in Russian, exactly what is going on. Besides, in the early 2000s certain personal archives were closed to the public for a while, probably because of the tightening political atmosphere,” says Herrala.

Herrala approached her subject both from the perspective of the government and through interviews, exploring the official sources produced by the Soviet cultural policy machine describing how the system operated. Reading between the Iines of official sources offers glimpses of an unofficial stratum of Soviet music, through the criticism and self-criticism exercised for instance in the writing and staging of operas.

“There is much to explore in the official activities of the Soviet system, and there is a lot of research being done outside Russia that is looking at the government system. And we must remember that through the documentation of the workings of the system it is possible to gain an impression of unofficial processes at the grassroots level,” Herrala points out.


Dialogue yesterday and today

Meri Herrala is currently studying cultural exchange between the Soviet Union and the United States on funding from the Academy of Finland. She is looking for material in the archives of both the former Soviet Union and the USA. Herrala has also written about a concert tour by Sviatoslav Richter to the USA in the book Music, Arts and Diplomacy (more about the book on p. 33).

As a historian, Herrala wishes that there were more appreciation of painstaking, long-term cultural research; competition for funding against more immediate research topics is stiff.

How does a scholar see the significance of musical dialogue, or more generally cultural dialogue, in this day and age? “Today, knowledge of the culture of the neighbouring country and cultural exchange remain important, especially in promoting dialogue between governments and their citizens and in fostering mutual understanding.”

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

Main photo: Charles Munch leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Leningrad, 1956



Aleksanteri Institute

The Aleksanteri Institute, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, is Finland’s national centre of research, study and expertise pertaining to Russia and Eastern Europe, particularly in the social sciences and humanities. A large percentage of the Institute’s 50 experts work on project funding. In addition, the Institute is regularly visited by other researchers, both Finnish and foreign.

“Choices of Russian Modernisation”, coordinated by the Aleksanteri Institute, is one of the centres of excellence of the Academy of Finland. The “Finnish school” evolving there offers a new multidisciplinary research paradigm for studying modernisation in Russia.



Thirteen examples of the latest music research on Russian and Baltic-Finnic music, history and culture

Kindred of Kantele

Timo Väänänen DMus, documentary director Leena Häkkinen, music producer Matti Kontio and kantele scholar Kari Dahlblom have collected information on instruments resembling the kantele among 16 peoples in their research project Kanteleen kielin [On the strings of the kantele, or On the languages of the kantele]. Begun in 2008, the project has resulted in the books Baltian kantelekansat (Kantele peoples af the Baltics) and Volgan kantelekansat (Kantele peoples of the Volga), a series of radio programmes and two CDs. There are three further books to come: Slaavilaiset kantelekansat (Slavic kantele peoples), Pohjoiset kantelekansat (Kantele peoples of the North) and a summary in English, Kindred af Kantele. 


Russian gusli and Finnish kantele

Like the Finnish kantele, its Russian relative gusli has always been known as a national symbol. Olga Shishkina MMus focuses in her research on both the chromatic gusli and the kantele – their playing techniques being very similar. The study is based on materials found in the archives of the Russian National Library and experiences as a performing kantele and gusli musician both in Russia and in Finland. Shishkina will also publish a comprehensive book about the history and practices of chromatic gusli playing.


Boris Asafyev – the problem of modern and tradition

Elina Viljanen MA, in her dissertation The Problem of Modern and Tradition. The Formation of Soviet Musicology and Music Criticism through the Aesthetic Theory of Boris Asafiev (1884-1949), analyses the theory development of the celebrated Russian/Soviet critic, composer and musicologist from 1914 to 1948 from the perspective of the general history of philosophy on the one hand and Russian cultural history on the other. The study discusses the philosophy of Soviet music and music teaching, which Asafiev’s output influenced.


The bowed lyre

Rauno Nieminen DMus focused on the jouhikko and related instruments in the areas of presentday Finland, Russian Karelia and Estonia in his doctoral dissertation (2008). His research has so far produced a sheet music collection, Jouhikko – The Bowed Lyre, a CD with historical jouhikko recordings, and a book detailing the history of the jouhikko with instructions on its tuning, playing and maintenance, Soitinten tutkiminen rakentamalla, esimerkkinä jouhikko (Studying instruments through building, case study jouhikko). In the practical dimension of his research, he has so far produced 19 copies of instruments held by museums and developed a method for copying instruments.


Alma Fohström, an international prima donna

The doctoral dissertation of Svetlana Toivakka PhD reconstructs the life work of Finnish coloratura soprano and prima donna Alma Fohström (1856-1936) by examining it as an interaction at the micro and macro levels viewed from different perspectives, i.e. micro-historical views. The study is largely based on Russian-language sources discovered by Toivakka at the Conservatory of St Petersburg, at the Theatre Museum and in national literature and arts archives, previously unknown in Finland.


Flexible ethnicity

The project ‘Joustavat etnisyydet’ [Flexible ethnicities], funded by the Academy of Finland, concluded in 2015. The project was implemented jointly with the Karelian Research Centre of the Russian Academy of Sciences and involved the exploration of national identities in the Republic of Karelia from the perspective of cultural functions and political control. The focus was on how people orientate themselves in a multi-identity environment. The project was led by Professor Pekka Suutari from the Karelian Institute of the University of Eastern Finland. (Also see Pekka Suutari’s article The national character of Soviet Karelian music here.)


Runo singing academy

Runolaulu-Akatemia [Runo singing academy] is based on the song lands of eastern Finland. It is an independent research unit that studies runo singing and other forms of folk music, including recording and pedagogical development. Engaging in both domestic and international cooperation, the academy regularly organises seminars for folk music scholars and publishes scientific studies. The academy director is Pekka Huttu-Hiltunen DMus.


Music, art and diplomacy

The book Music, Art and Diplomacy: East-West Cultural Interactions and the Cold War edited by Simo Mikkonen and Pekka Suutari and just published by Ashgate shows there was vibrant cultural exchange between East and West during the Cold War. The contributors explore the interaction of arts and politics, the role of the arts in diplomacy and the part played by the arts in shaping the course of the Cold War.


Suistamo – Laboratory of Tradition

Read more about Anne-Mari Kivimäki’s doctorate here.


From mood to music – the unaccompanied singing of Northern peoples as a basis for new music

Tuomas Rounakari MMus, in his artistically orientated doctorate, explores the musical traditions of Northern peoples from the perspective of a violinist and composer. In his genre-crossing doctoral recitals, he combines the aesthetic and philosophical precepts of the music of peoples distantly related to the Finns with the means of folk music, jazz and contemporary music. The written partion of his doctorate consists of essays, travelogues and music analyses exploring how the world view of Northern peoples manifests itself in their music.


Kalevala-metre runo singing in modern folk music

Heidi Haapoja MMus explores in her dissertation the discussions related to Kalevala-metre runo singing in the context of modern folk music in the 2000s. Based on ethnographic data, her study examines concrete and symbolic transnational efforts aimed at the domain of Finno-Ugric peoples, which are what justify and define runo singing to-day. In this data, the runo singing tradition is seen as an element of the cultural landscape of Russian Karelia, perceived as idyllic, mythical and ancient. (Also see Amanda Kauranne’s article By the Metre, FMQ3-4/2014.)


Clarinet music from Russia and the Soviet Union 1917-1991. Discovering an unexplored side of the clarinet repertoire

Clarinet compositions from the former Soviet Union are now rarely performed. The doctoral research project of clarinettist Anne Elisabeth Piirainen (DocMus, Sibelius Academy) aims to collate information raising the profile of the high artistic value of this unexplored music. The artistic research project, including five recitals, will increase access to relevant information and enable a broader perception of clarinet music within this field.


White tie and a balalaika – Russian folk instruments in Finland and elsewhere

Kari Dahlblom ‘s unpublished study on Russian folk instruments explores how simple rustic instruments have been developed into academically acceptable ones and what structural changes the instruments have undergone in the process. The manuscript includes chapters on the genesis of academic folk instruments, on Russian folk instruments in Finland and on Finnish, Russian, Belorussian and Ukrainian balalaika and domra orchestras.


Edited by Hanna lsolammi :: Translated by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi