in From the Archives

Rune-singing, the musical vernacular

by Heikki Laitinen

Runes were sung by people of all ages: children and adults, old and young, men and women. They were sung on all sorts of occasions: on working days and holidays, at play and at work, as young people got together and at dances. There were also many different ways of singing them: solo, with two people or groups alternating, together in small or large groups.

“Peoples the world over have from time immemorial displayed a love of playing, singing and reciting poetry, playing and singing are, as it were, a seconds more sacred language with which to express man’s desires and moods, either to himself or to others; a better means than this ordinary, everyday language for expressing his joys and delight, his sorrow and anxiety, his happiness and satisfaction, his hopes and longings, his rest, his peace and his very being.”

It was with these words that Elias Lönnrot began the preface to the Kanteletar, a collection of lyrical folk poetry, in 1840. Five years previous to this he had completed the first edition of what was subsequently to become Finland’s national epic, the Kalevala.

The ideas expressed in the introduction to the Kanteletar were of course, in the spirit of the times, but they were also inspired by Lönnrot’s own experiences during his extensive and fruitful field trips devoted to the collection of folk poetry. Lönnrot knew what rune-singing was and what it meant to people. For the folk poetry that went to make up the Kalevala and the Kanteletar was not spoken – it was sung. Originally the runes were not poetry but songs. The only exception were spells: sometimes they would be sung, at other times they would be recited with fervour and pathos, strong in the belief of their message. Lönnrot had seen and heard that the ancient mode of singing and musical thinking was still very much alive in Eastern Finland, and above all on both sides of the border in Karelia. Music was still an artistic means of expression shared by the community, a “second, more sacred language”. Rune-singing, “Kalevala language”, was the language of the epic, the lyric and magic, the language that dominated at weddings, bear-hunting an annual festivals, the thousand-year code for oral high culture, crystallised, formularised knowledge, skill and belief, as the folklorist Matti Kuusi has pointed out.

A contemporary of Lönnrot’s said of a trip to Karelia: “It echoed from the yard when I was inside and from the house when I was outside.” One poetry collector was told: “Wherever they went about their work, in the forests, fields, on the moors or lakes, they would always sing.” And the activities of the women were described as follows: “In summer, when they are out in the forests, or tending the cattle, or making hay, they sing all the day long, just like the birds; the songs are born of themselves, the words just spring from the singers’ mouths.” We may well speak of a true musical vernacular. It was a means by which every member of the community might, according to his skills and aptitudes, and with a depth endowed by art alone, meditate on his relationship with the past and the future, this world and the next.

Lönnrot’s Kalevala and the Kantelerar were not the final point in the process of collection: they were just the beginning. Over the next hundred years a vast amount of folk poetry in Kalevala meter was collected. Melodies telling of the way in which the songs were originally performed were also noted down and in later times recorded on tape. Towards the beginning of this century it was possible to publish “the biggest song book in the world”, the 33-volume Ancient Poems of the Finnish People containing about 85 000 texts and 1 270 000 lines of poetry. These describe in great detail the last century in the life of the “thousand-year code”. The period of tradition stored in the memory, and also of Kalevala language and rune-singing, came to an end with the transfer to written culture. And although this tradition still lives on in many ways in Finnish culture and in the thinking of every Finn, the conditions of life are already quite different. Two greatly divergent strata and eras may be distinguished in historical Finnish folk music. In the older stratum we find rune-singing, laments and all sorts of instrumental music.



Two to three thousand years ago a change began to take place in the culture of the forefathers of the Baltic-Finnish peoples, as a result of which, chiefly under the influence of the Balts, there gradually emerged a new type of music and poetry. Over the centuries this embryo form of art developed into rune singing with a particular, complex poetic meter and drawing on specific musical devices. It flourished in Finland, Karelia, Ingria, and among the Votes and the Estonians. Each area gave birth to its own distinctive features as the result of its own individual trends and outside influences.

Finnish-Karelian rune-singing retained its vitality in a few areas (Karelia, Savo, Ingria) up until the last century and has been preserved in the memories of the good tradition-bearers right up to the present day. In Western and Southern Finland, however, the 17th and 18th centuries saw the breakthrough of a new type of folk culture leading to the peasant music of class society: the rhyming folk song and “pelimanni” or folk player music. It is easy to discern regional and temporal strata in the rune-singing of last century but their historical interpretation is still only in its infancy. Rune-singing nevertheless preserved its inherent characteristics. Let us now take a look at certain general features.


Structural principles

The basic thing about rune-singing was that although elements of the plot an epic and the main lyrical motifs, likewise many of the rules for the production of songs, the “grammar” of folk poetry, might be handed down for dozens of generations, details of the presentation, its microstructure, were only determined in the performance itself. A song was given its ultimate form while it was being sung. Singers did not, therefore, simply repeat such a poem or melody once learnt by heart, or keeping as close to the original as memory permitted; not until they began to perform a song would they decide which lines, what melodies and what variation they would use on that occasion to express their subject matter.

This gave the context producing the song a richness of nuance and power expression. These aspects acquired special emphasis in the performance of long epic songs.

There were no verses in the rune, which was made up of lines and couplets. The lines were in trochaic tetrameter of a rhythmic variation of this: for if the stressed syllable of a word (which in Finnish is the first syllable of the word) is long, it must come on the stressed beat, if it is short, on an unstressed beat. There were not rules for the alternation of various line rhythms. Good singers would produce songs of great rhythmic diversity. The poetic means also included alliteration and numerous forms of parallelism.

The singer would choose whatever musical rhythm he thought most suitable for his performance. Most of the rhythms were the same length as the poetic line, some were longer. Sometimes the singer might change the rhythm in the middle of his performance, but this was unusual. The most common times were 5/4 and 4/4. Weddings, once the greatest occasion in a person’s life, would be celebrated with singing lasting many days. In the northern rune-singing area certain wedding songs, especially ones sung together, would be in special 9/8 wedding rhythm. The choice of rhythm only meant the choice of basic beat: the rhythmical microstructure likewise had a life of its own during the song.

Regardless of the type of rhythm and the content of the song, the singer chose his basic melodic material, drawing on melodic schemes for one or two lines or some scheme falling in between the two. The melodic range in most cases consisted of a pentachord. Sometimes there might be only three or four notes, sometimes one or two more. The scale was, however, basically pentatonic, just as the kantele had five strings. Some of the notes in the scale varied in pitch permitting greater expression with the few notes available. The first and fifth notes tended to be at a fixed pitch, the third, the notes above the fifth and below the first showing variation. The third could, for example, be major, minor or something in between, and the singer could vary it at each performance if he so wished. Large leaps in the melody were used sparingly.

In singing their poetry most performers created melodies with a marked sense of polarity and a clear tension between the tonic and dominant. The player of the five-stringed kantele was guided by a similar concept of tonality. This concept was, however, less consciously tonal that it is today.

The melodic structure of the performance was likewise devoid of verses. The singer might use the same melodic scheme throughout, subjecting it to constant variation, or he might employ several schemes, the order of which he would choose at random. The song in any case underwent such constant variation, never halting on any particular motif, that we may well ask whether in fact the singer of runes had any sort of concept of “tune” in the .modern sense of the word.

The rules guiding and giving birth to runes were unwritten laws. They had, after all, been developed in a culture relying on memory. This naturally does not mean that singers were unaware of them, or that they developed unnoticed, but that they were the outcome of conscious choice and artistic volition. The rules were for the most part aesthetic.


Rules did not have to be learnt

How, then, did the rules come about, and how were they learnt? The answer to that is simply: in the same way as the spoken language and its grammar. Even today we still learn our spoken mother tongue, with all its richness of expression, before we receive any organised instruction. At school we are taught to realise the complexity of our speech. In just the same way people learnt the “grammar” of singing, the rules for shaping poems and melodies, “Kalevala language”. We may therefore speak with justification of a musical vernacular. Playing and singing were like artistic speech, guided by the unwritten rules of grammar, containing crystallised sayings and phrases, but always unique.

Here is a tale dating from 1915 as an example of how this musical vernacular was learnt as a child. A Helsinki collector of folk tradition was travelling through the area north of Lake Ladoga when he arrived in the village of Shemeikka in Suistamo. In one of the houses there he tried to get Anni Feodorovna, an 11-year old orphan, to sing. The cultural gap was, however, too wide: and the collector failed. But later, while pretending to be asleep on a bench in the living room, he heard Anni improvising new poetry for about 1 1/2 hours without ever stopping. To begin with she sang about the child she was rocking and its innocent life, then she went on to herding, marriage, and finally to the Helsinki gentlefolk who passed through the villages looking at beautiful Karelia. By the age of eleven this girl had a command of not only her spoken mother tongue but also of the musical vernacular.

Runes were thus sung by people of all ages: children and adults, old and young, men and women. They were sung on all sorts of occasions: on working days and holidays, at play and at work, as young people got together and at dances. There were also many different ways of singing them: solo, with two people or groups alternating, together in small or large groups.

Rune-singing was fundamentally an individual art, like other forms of folk culture. Individuality was also preserved in singing together. The result was usually heterophonic: sometimes each singer would sing his own tune. We have very little precise knowledge about communal singing, however, for most of the notes taken were about individuals. Deliberate part-singing proper was to be heard in the southern part of the region, in Ingria, at least in the last and the present century. It is regarded as a relatively later innovation assimilated from the Russians.



There is no record of any Finnish laments. It may, however be assumed that laments did exist in the pre-Christian era, but that they have subsequently vanished without trace. On the other hand laments were an integral part of the older folk music stratum in Karelia and Ingria (also among the Veps and the Setumaa Estonians).

The poetic meter of the Karelian lament was not confined by form, nor the melodic form by regular rhythm. The poetic and melodic meters were both of free form; determining the melodic line from the intricate sounds is often no easy task.

A special poetic language was employed in performing laments, its basic features being the use of metaphors, alliteration and parallelism. People and objects were not called by their conventional names, and a variety of imagery was used instead. The metaphors were not, however, invented on the spot, for they observed a strict system of the most crystallised expression. The chains of alliteration were often very long; sometimes the lamenter might try to keep to the same alliterative scheme throughout the entire lament. Parellelism and redundance were, along with alliteration, elements giving body to the free-form poem.

Musically laments appear on first hearing to be free improvisation, the main overall feature being a falling melody. The scale is similar to that of rune-singing, but the pitches are less firmly established: the strong emotional charge contained in the song is manifest in the expressive use of very different pitches. Strict melodic analysis nevertheless reveals purpose and control in the melodic handling. It is simply that the melodic schemes on which the performance relies are very free in form and permit great scope. In most cases the melody follows its own line independent of the poem.

Laments were sung by women; they were poetry and music interpreting the desolation of parting. They were performed on occasions connected with death and marriage, and at certain other partings. It was the task of the lament to interpret the grief experienced by an individual or by the community. The poetic and musical mode of expression, accompanied by the lamenter’s sobs, often unleashed the uninhibited grief of all those present.

Laments were far more difficult to assimilate and perform than runes, and the performers were often exceptionally talented. In Finland there are a few tradition-bearers in Karelia who still possess the art of lamenting even today. But the original context in which the laments were performed has vanished: today they are sung on a platform.


Translation Susan Sinisalo

This article was first published in FMQ 1-2/1985 and is now in 2017 republished with the kind permission of the author.