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The accordion in Finland – an instrument of contradictions

by Vesa Kurkela, Marko Tikka

Edited by Vesa Kurkela and Marko Tikka and released in late 2014, a new book about the Finnish accordion covers, among other things, the early stages of the instrument and the most significant players, as well as going through the Finnish accordion repertoire. In the following article, based on the book’s introduction, the two editors contemplate the status of the accordion in Finnish music.

When the Academy of Finland was established in the late 1940s, a short film about the work of the first members of the Academy was released. The members were also asked to share their thoughts in front of the camera. Author V. A. Koskenniemi and composer Yrjö Kilpinen carried out a relaxed conversation at a smoking table about the Finnish landscape. Its most treasured element, a serene summer evening, was associated with “the accordion playing in the distance” by Koskenniemi. Kilpinen agreed.

Why the accordion? These luminaries of Finnish civilisation and culture of the time would hardly have spared a thought for the accordion or accordion music in any other context. A summer evening and the accordion seemed to form a particularly good aesthetic fit with the emotional landscape that these children of the 1800s longed for: the conflict-free Finland of the rural villages, a far cry from the very different Finland of the late 1940s.

This small episode illustrates the status of the accordion in Finland: Finns have harboured a peculiar love-hate relationship with the instrument for over 150 years. At times, the accordion has been resisted, even hated. At the same time, it has been the interpreter of the genuine and reputed feelings of the Finnish people – not unlike a good singer performing a simple song in Finnish. The accordion has always been, and continues to be, an instrument of emotions: it awakens both melancholy and resentment.

The most likely reason behind this polarised attitude is the fact that the accordion was a democratic, egalitarian, tolerant and transnational instrument long before society as a whole had achieved these attributes. Upon its arrival in Finland, the accordion was an affordable instrument that almost anyone was able to purchase. In addition, it was easy to learn and skilled accordion players were able to reach an esteemed status in their community, regardless of their social background. Ever since the beginning of the history of the accordion, women and children too have successfully played the instrument. In fact, one of the unspoken flaws of the accordion was the fact that it was played by the wrong kind of people. The early masters of the accordion in Finland were Italian, Jewish or Romani. They were often collectively called “ryssä”, a pejorative term for Russian.


Folksy but not national

The accordion was distinctly a “folk” instrument, even though it did not represent the aesthetic values given to folk music by the 1800s intelligentsia. The accordion was a problematic instrument for folk tradition researches as well, and it was considered too simple from the viewpoint of older folk music. It tempted the lower class to engage in music that was the wrong kind and too simple.

The locations where the instrument was played also contributed to its lack of esteem: the accordion was often heard on the streets, in cafes and at spontaneous dance gatherings of the common people. The last nail in the coffin of contempt was the instrument’s industrial background: it was a mass-produced product and a market gadget whose very sound seemed to evoke more references to foreign noise than to domestic peace. The accordion was simply not suitable to become a national folk instrument as it represented a certain decline among other instruments, similar to street singing. Its antithesis was found in Kalevalaic singing, the kantele and more recent folk songs, especially in choral arrangements. These were deemed good enough to perform at patriotic events and act as the symbols of the building of the nation.

One of the most persistent beliefs and prejudices about the instrument was the assumption that the accordion was a bit like a street organ. People generally thought that it did not require any specific skills to play the accordion, and the players – with a handful of rare exceptions – were not regarded in high esteem. Even as late as the 1930s, professional musicians were under the impression that no-one was able to successfully sight-read accordion music.


The unbearable lightness of entertainment

The most significant ambivalence was found in the audiences’ relationship to the music played on the accordion. For a long time, conservative audiences played a part in limiting the accordion culture to the type of dance music that was modern up until the mid-1900s. Accordion players seldom got the opportunity to play any other type of music, as up until the last few decades, the number of listeners capable of understanding art music played on the accordion was very limited.

This setting can be seen as a product of history in its own way: an ordinary music listener considered the accordion to be a dance and popular music instrument for over a century – from the 1870s up until the 1970s. When the repertoire at the national accordion competitions began to include classical music, the reaction was strong: “There is something wrong with accordion playing in Finland. The audiences are used to hearing jenkka and tango. The nation has not yet approved the accordion as a concert instrument. But the players have. They play pieces that are difficult, repulsive. The listeners squirm in their seats, waiting for La Cumparsita,” a journalist wrote about the national accordion championships in spring 1970.

The reason why concert music audiences shunned the accordion was that the instrument was considered to be too light and frivolous. Up until the 1950s, it was commonly thought that the accordion was not at all suited to concert music. This thinking was reflected in the programming choices of institutions such as the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE, where the accordion was allocated a slot in the entertainment section from 1930s onwards. Some of the accordion artists who toured regularly strove to introduce their audiences to the many different shades of accordion music by performing even some light classical music, but the bulk of the repertoire still consisted of traditional dance music, marches, waltzes and polkas.

This ambivalence had a certain influence on higher music education as well. One of the masters of the golden era of the accordion, Veikko Ahvenainen, describes in his biography an encounter with the rector of the Sibelius Academy, Ernst Linko. When Ahvenainen applied to study composition, Linko asked if it was true that Ahvenainen played the accordion. When Ahvenainen said yes, Linko asked if he was going to “use the information you learn here to benefit your accordion playing”. When Ahvenainen admitted this to be true, Linko declared that “we do not teach accordion players here”.

For a long time, the classical music scene had a downright archaic fear of the accordion and Unterhaltung. The strict attitude towards entertainment stemmed from a 1950s art dispute between the infantile popular film songs called “rillumarei” and the spiritually uplifting and educational culture and art, a schism that may have been a counter-reaction to the forced democratisation of the cultural scene during the war years. During the war, circumstances and military orders dictated that high- and lowbrow cultures must meet – an accordion player at the front had to be equally available to accompany ballet dancers or church services – and the false notions about the esteem of certain musical styles, which might have been created through this experience, had to be weeded out in no uncertain terms.


Chained by history

Also the relationship that accordion players had with their own instrument and the music they played remained in conflict for a long time: from at least the 1920s onwards, accordion players adopted virtuoso numbers and even played classical music. Professional players, however, earned their living by playing dance music. This bipolar practice, where artistically ambitious concert music and lucrative entertainment music were competing, had a big influence on the identity of accordion players for decades.

When accordion teaching was established at music institutes from the late 1960s onwards, the drift between classical and entertainment accordion playing styles grew deeper. The issue was partially due to generational differences: older-generation musicians were particularly quick to voice their criticism about the academisation of accordion playing, and they still enjoyed exceptionally strong support from audiences who almost exclusively listened to traditional accordion music. When the Sibelius Academy established the Folk Music Department in 1983 and subsequently began to produce academic world music players, the Accordion Players’ Association newsletter even contemplated the need to establish entertainment accordion training.

In time, the contradictions about the status of the accordion began to change. Before the First World War, the instrument had been a symbol of the modern world and an ambassador of contemporary dance music. When the “ambassador players” started to age, their music aged alongside them. Society had changed, however, and the accordion no longer reflected the spirit of urbanising Finland, except where it served as a reminder of the suburb-dwellers’ origins. The accordion unavoidably became a symbol of rural decline, perhaps even more so than the older pelimanni music, folk songs or the kantele which managed to retain a more positive rural appeal for the very reason that they had already been established – over a century ago – as the trusted currency of our national culture.

Another problem presented itself in the relationship between the accordion and the young generation. According to Kimmo Pohjonen, the well-known reformer of accordion playing, the accordion had become a “nerdy” instrument in 1970s youth culture. Accordion players were not welcome in pop or rock bands, not to mention punk. The five-row accordion was played by slightly strange youngsters who either took lessons at music institutes or played in tango bands. For a long time, accordion playing was passé, even when world music and contemporary folk music began to attract young people to music institutes – to engage in even more traditional playing and singing, or to create fusion between folk music and contemporary popular music.


The accordion today

In the 21st century, the academic accordion culture – both classical art-music playing and contemporary folk music – has finally earned its status. It has also become an essential part of the music scene supported by state and various foundations. The image of the accordion has become modern once more, and the accordion is now used in very different kinds of contemporary music productions. The traditional entertainment accordion playing, however, has been in steady decline, although it can still be classified as a reasonably strong subculture whose annual highlight is the international Sata-Häme Soi Accordion Festival in Ikaalinen.

The young accordion players of today may have heard the name of the national accordion legend Viljo Vesterinen, but would not be able to name any of his compositions. Even twenty years ago, this would not have been possible. The slow withering of tradition can be seen as partly positive and partly negative: on one hand, the influence that entertainment accordion players had over accordion repertoire and competitions held back the development of the Finnish accordion culture for a long time. On the other hand, it is important to be familiar with the history of the accordion in Finland and its transnational roots in order to achieve something new and creative in the future as well.


Translation: Hanna-Mari Latham

Photo: August Pulli, Kalle P., Pentti Kokki, Asko Saukkonen. From the book Suomalaisen harmonikan historia.