in From the Archives

Oskar Merikanto, the composer who captured the hearts of the people

by Pekka Hako

When the biography of Oskar Merikanto was published in 1950, it was subtitled “A household name in Finland”. And although romanticising biographies were all the vogue at the time, the title nevertheless says much about the importance of Merikanto in moulding Finnish musical taste. In the early decades of the 20th century Oskar Merikanto, his performances and music, influenced the taste of the ordinary Finn more, even, than Sibelius.

Finnish culture underwent sweeping changes between 1890 and 1920, a period in which all the arts flourished. In music, Jean Sibelius and the singer Aino Ackté captivated international concert and opera audiences. Meanwhile Oskar Merikanto (1868–1924) was travelling the length and breadth of Finland, penetrating deep into the ranks of the ordinary people with his solo songs and brilliant piano technique, while the star of the soiree was J. Alfred Tanner, famous throughout the country for his ditties. Music was at the turn of the century an important element in building up a national Finnish culture and identity.

Oskar Merikanto, who should not be confused with his son Aarre, was one of the most versatile figures in Finnish music at the time. He was employed as an organist in Helsinki but was such an active man that he also taught at the Helsinki Music College and wrote music reviews for the daily newspaper Päivälehti. He was also in great demand as a piano accompanist for foreign singers visiting Finland. In the course of his numerous organ inspections taking him to all parts of the country he gave concerts in churches, and piano recitals. He also numbered among the intrepid band led by Aino Ackté who decided to found the Finnish Domestic Opera in 1911, continuing as its regular conductor until 1922.

Merikanto's active career as a performer and composer spanned the period from the mid-1880s to the early 1920s. One of his earliest works, the Kesäilta (Summer Evening) waltz for piano opus 1, is still one of the most popular little pieces in Finland and was written when he was only 16. Although Merikanto himself represented the musical elite, his music to begin with evoked the strongest response among the ordinary people. The Merikanto concert was the spiritual antidote to the everyday toil of the people. He was a champion of musical civil rights, as one radio reporter aptly described him. Indeed, Oskar Merikanto has moulded Finnish taste in music more than any of his contemporaries. Yet Merikanto differed from his contemporaries in that he did not try to place his national background at a distance; on the contrary, he tended more to place it in the foreground, unlike Sibelius, for example, who regarded the thought as vulgar.

Educator of the people

Oskar Merikanto believed in the beauty of music as such; for him beauty had an intrinsic value. Writing in 1909, he says that “music will return to simple forms, clarity and esprit if the currents of the time dissolve into peace and harmony”. Merikanto wished to contribute towards the peaceful construction of an increasingly urban Finnish society, then in the throes of change, and to soften the blows dealt by the restless times.

In musical terms this means, for example, the avoidance of dissonance and the predominance of melody. The subjects of the songs often span the fundamental human emotions, innocence, love and fate, tinged with the romantic ideal of faithfulness.

Among the audience at the recitals given by Merikanto on his organ inspection tours were many country people who had never before come into contact with serious music. For them music was tantamount to Merikanto. It is thus understandable that his simple-sounding idiom and settings of Finnish poems should also appeal to the rural population then being forced by the pressure of industrialisation and urbanisation to experience at first hand the changing rural population structure and to cross new mental thresholds. Urban culture was at the same time penetrating the rural regions in the form of, for example, concerts. These concerts for the ordinary people had an educational goal, to get people used to music that was easy to understand and thus to encourage them to accept a ‘higher’ form of art.

As the texts for his songs Merikanto chose poems with an instructive, educational message and moral. The transition to the new social structure, and above all the disintegration of the large family, is in many of his songs manifest as a conflict between romanticism and realism. To take an example, his song Nyt ja sitten (Now and Then, op. 34:1) raises the problems brought by the new era. The poem, written by J.H. Erkko in 1885, already reflects the new wave of realism in poetry, but at the same time it still bears clear echoes of a spiritual world inhabited by the folk poet. By choosing this poem Merikanto, too, indicates that he is steering a course through the intellectual cross-currents of his day.

Merikanto was well versed in Italian, German and Russian song literature. He assimilated these international elements in his own music and often coloured them with texts in Finnish, the subjects of which were blends of old and new. He knew how to exploit the interaction between the music and its sentimental appeal to the listener. In his music he sought a mode of expression spiritually akin to the Finnish folk song, but one that is not structurally very reminiscent of it or that even tries to imitate it.

Composer of songs

Oskar Merikanto, who studied composition in Leipzig and Berlin, composed around 160 solo songs. The Italian style, especially the Neapolitan song, and the German Lied are often said to have been his models. Examples of songs in the Italian vein might be Pai pai paitaressu (Bye, Bye, My Sweet Swaddled Baby, op. 21), Kullan murunen (Thou Art a Nugget of Gold, op. 20:1) and Annina (op. 51:2). And representing the German influence could, for example, be Scheideblick (op. 7:3), composed in Leipzig in 1889, in which the polyphonic treatment of the accompaniment calls to mind the songs of Robert Schumann. Scheideblick may be regarded as an early experiment in the German style, likewise Die Sprache des Waldes (op. 7:1) composed in the same year. Neither of the songs has the simple chord accompaniment otherwise so typical of Merikanto, often taking the form of bubbling or stormy broken chords. The German words further underline the traditional and at the same time romantic Lied spirit of the songs.

Broken chords are a typical accompanying device in Italian folk and folk-like songs, such as the solo songs of Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti and Gioachino Rossini. Merikanto does, however, possibly come closer to Paolo Tosti, whose simple serenades and melodic songs lacking in the unexpected can be said to be dripping - and sometimes even bursting - with love and yearning.

Sentiment is a major element of Merikanto’s music. Although many of his solo songs may look simple on paper, they are full of emotional sources usually tapped only via the texts. Crystal-clear, unadorned interpretations do not, any more than over-dramatic ones, do justice to the songs of Oskar Merikanto, since it is through the heart of the interpreter that the Finnish soul of his solo songs is brought to life.

Merikanto’s solo songs also bear traces of the Russian idiom and composers such as Tchaikovsky. The syncopated accompaniment of, for example, Kevätlinnuille etelässä (To the Spring Birds in the South, op. 11:1) is typical of such well-known songs as None but the Lonely Heart (1869) and Amid the Din of the Ball by Tchaikovsky. The melodic elements of the song also carry echoes of Russian opera music, Lenski’s famous aria “Ah, Olga, once we were in love!” from Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin. The slightly improvisational lullaby Pai Pai paitaressu, Italian in spirit and appealing to the sentiments, also displays a flash of Russian melody. At the beginning it contains hints of The Nightingale written by Alexander Alyabyev in 1826 and subsequently to become famous the world over, which in turn contains elements of folk music. Alyabyev was a pioneer in arranging Russian folk songs and thus bringing about a marriage between his rich native folklore and art music - just as Merikanto was later to do in Finland.

Well on a par with Pai, pai, paitaressu is the magnificent cradle song Laulan lasta nukkumahan (Singing My Child to Slumber, op. 30:1). The text is poem 174 in the Kanteletar, a sister work to the Finnish national epic the Kalevala, and paints a splendid yet lyrical fantasy of nature in the spirit of the Kalevala. The song combines the 5/4 rhythm of the Kalevala with 3/4 time. Drawing on folk tradition in a very different way is Itkevä huilu (The Weeping Flute, op. 52:4), a song which every Finn knows but which the majority think is a folk song.

In many of his songs Merikanto extols the joy of singing. Ma elän! (I Am Alive!, op. 71:1) is a captivating example of a fleeting miniature in which, through song, a young man experiences the feverish mood of spring. Oskar Merikanto took a deeply religious view of the world. This is particularly audible in the works of his later years, in which eternal life creates faith in the future. Oi muistatko vielä sen virren (o, Dost Thou Remember That Hymn, op. 52:3) - one of the best-known solo songs he ever wrote - has the simplicity of a hymn, the effect of which is further enhanced by the division into clear verses. But the song itself operates at two levels: as a hymn and as a new melody. Running through the chorale accompaniment is a 16th century hymn tune - the hymn to which the song refers.

Free illustration of the text

We still have some recordings dating from the very beginning of the century in which Merikanto accompanies his songs. The soloist in the recording of Merellä (At Sea, op. 47:4) dating from 1906 is Irma Tervani. The accompaniment, played by Merikanto, is, in keeping with the subject, a foaming one; “the storm rages and the ship judders”, as the composer himself said in 1891 on putting the finishing touches to his song in Berlin. On the disc he does not play anything like all the printed notes, and he also adds some that are not written. An excellent pianist, he used the score simply as an outline for the accompaniment, permitting the performers to etch in their own emotions as the mood took them.

In the recording made in 1913 of Wäinö Sola singing Kun päivä paistaa (When the Sun Shines, op. 24: 1) with the composer at the piano, Merikanto takes great liberties with the accompaniment. He slips in extra notes, alters the rhythms and in other ways, too, does not keep strictly to the score.

The interpretation of Merikanto's songs is often inspired by the text, the message and mood of which call for a freer piano accompaniment than that indicated on paper.

Oskar Merikanto was the first composer to make a point of choosing texts in Finnish. Among his favourite poets were J.H. Erkko, Larin-Kyösti, Eino Leino and L. Onerva. Of these, the poet with the greatest influence on his early songs was J.H. Erkko (1849-1906), to be joined later by Eino Leino (1878-1926) and L. Onerva (1882-1972). Although his solo songs do not follow any clear line of development, there is a marked trend in his choice of texts: the romantically tinged poems written by Erkko at a time of great social unrest were replaced after Erkko’s death by Leino’s poems in the spirit of the Kalevala, and later by the neoromantic sunset moods of Onerva. While composing his settings of Leino and Onerva he did, however, produce some folk song-like pieces to words by Larin-Kyösti (1873-1948). Religion assumed growing importance for him in the closing years of his life.

Composer of opera

In the 1890s composers turned to Finnish folklore in their search for subjects. The Finnish Literature Society was all in favour of this and in 1897 announced a competition in order to produce an opera in the Finnish language. Only one work was submitted by the closing date, Oskar Merikanto’s Pohjan neiti (The Maid of the North, 1898), to a libretto after the Kalevala by Antti Rytkönen.

Adventuring into the world of opera meant that Merikanto had to master new means of expression; above all, it made him more aware of the potential inherent in the orchestra. Even so the treatment of the orchestra in the Pohjan neiti is far from sophisticated. One of the strongest points about the opera are the natural, flowing melodies. “Who would have thought that anyone at the end of this century could have written such innocent, natural and easy music. - Yet despite its simplicity, this music is not trivial,” wrote the opera competition jury.

The Finnish National Theatre was looking round for a new opera to add to its repertoire, but reckoned the venture was economically too risky. When the work was finally performed at the Viipuri Song Festival in 1908, it aroused respect and affection; only the libretto was criticised. Taking the leading roles were three of Finland’s star singers, Abraham Ojanperä, Wäinö Sola and Mally Burjam-Borga. The magnificent chorus of 150 was made up of amateur singers.

A folk poem likewise provided the inspiration for Merikanto’s second opera, Elinan surma (Elina’s Death, 1910), this time a folk poem based on historical fact. Merikanto writes: “This opera has so many forceful outbursts of feeling that warrant the strength of a full orchestra. Here, if anywhere, is a dramatic work, whereas Pohjan neiti is lyrical.” In Elinan surma the composer experimented with the Leitmotif technique popular at the time. The opera got several performances in Helsinki and in the provinces, including the second Savonlinna Opera Festival in 1913.

Merikanto’s third opera, Regina von Emmeritz (1920), is dramatically not on a par with Elinan surma, but the singing melodies are Merikanto at his most genuine.

Musicus anonymus

Numerous accounts by Merikanto’s contemporaries prove that his works were indeed familiar but that people did not always know who had written them. Many of his songs have virtually achieved the status of folk songs, and he is in this sense a sort of musicus anonymus, just as the folklorists have hailed the author of certain poems as a creative poet performing a unique personal tradition. While the Finns are more familiar with the music of Oskar Merikanto than with that of any other Finnish composer, they are in many cases unaware of who actually wrote it. Thus Oskar Merikanto may well be called Finland’s best-known but not always best recognised composer.

Oskar Merikanto's music is published by Fennica Gehrman and Edition Tilli.

This article was first published in FMQ 2/1993 and is now republished with the kind permission of the author.