in From the Archives

The Kalevala in Finnish music

by Eero Tarasti

Elias Lönnrot's Kalevala was part of a return to mythology, a desire to discover the roots of the nation's culture and history that prevailed in all the peripheral regions of Europe. In Finland the publication of the Kalevala in 1835 marked a decisive impetus towards the search for all that was inherently Finnish in practically all the arts.
Elias Lönnrot’s Kalevala was part of a return to mythology, a desire to discover the roots of the nation’s culture and history that prevailed in all the peripheral regions of Europe. Every nation had to have a golden age discernible in its mythology, providing the foundations for a new national culture. In Finland the publication of the Kalevala in 1835 marked a decisive impetus towards the search for all that was inherently Finnish in practically all the arts. The line dividing the beginnings of art music from folk music was in Finland particularly marked, and many years were to pass before the language of music itself became capable of absorbing elements of the Kalevala folk song, and it was possible to speak of a Kalevala style in music.

The emergence of any great names in national music is usually preceded by a stage in which the way is cleared, the foundations are laid for musical life, and regular orchestras, music colleges and organised musical life as a whole become established. Only then is the time ripe for the advent of a great composer such as Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) in Finland. His predecessors seldom gain recognition, for their time goes on solving frustrating practical problems that prevent them from realising their full creative ability in the realm of composition. Who were these pioneers of Finnish art music, and how did they stand in relation to the Kalevala? The latter question goes without saying, for there cannot have been many composers last century who remained unaffected by the Kalevala. There was, however, a gulf between ideals and reality manifest in the state of Finnish music well into the latter half of the 19th century.

The “German-born Finnish composer”

It cannot be denied that the state of music in the first half of the 19th century became somewhat impoverished following the relatively lively era of such talented composers as Bernhard Crusell (1775-1838), the brothers Lithander, Erik Tulindberg (1761-1814) and Thomas Bystroem (1772-1839). It is paradoxical that the great composer of the national awakening was a German, Fredrik Pacius (1809-1891), composer of the Finnish national anthem and other patriotic pieces. The history of Finnish music was in fact a continuation of the history of Swedish and German music well into the 19th century. A teacher of music at the University of Helsinki, Pacius was an indefatigable rallier of musical enthusiasts, a radiant personality and the unequivocal focal figure of musical life in the Finnish capital. But could he at base even begin to understand the Finnish national awakening and the Kalevala as one of its most illustrious symbols?

It is understandable that Pacius, by that time past middle age, was inspired to use Finnish elements in some work, possibly even an opera. The opportunity presented itself when the long-debated project for providing Helsinki with its own theatre began to be realised. (The initial stimulus for this had been provided by the general patriotic fervour occasioned by the first performance of the opera King Charles’s Hunt written jointly by Z. Topelius and Pacius.) Topelius was commissioned to write a play for the official opening of the new theatre; the idea of adding music appealed to him, and Pacius was invited as a matter of course.

This was the start of dramatic the work The Princess of Cyprys; in it Topelius moved scenes involving “Kyllikki” and “Lemminkäinen” from poems in the Kalevala to a new setting, the island of Cyprus, which he looked on as a sore of Viking relic of the Kalevala heroes. Lemminkäinen arrives on the island of Cyprus, abducts from the feast of Aphrodite the king’s daughter, who has a double Greek-Kalevala name: Chryseis and Kyllikki, and sails back to Finland with her. What is surprising is that Pacius wanted to compose something specifically Finnish, whereas Topelius stressed the ancient mythological aspect of his play. The outcome was a strange combination in which the only reference to original Kalevala music was the song by Lemminkäinen’s mother, Helka, for which Topelius had sent Pacius an edition of folk songs published by Reinholm in 1849.

But other items were also required for the official opening of the theatre. The Finnish aesthetician Fredrik Cygnaeus wrote, admittedly in Swedish, a prologue that was Kalevalan in its theme and metre. The influence of Cygnaeus’ essay “The Tragic Element in the Kalevala” published a few years earlier had been felt both in the arcs and in many other quarters too: Aleksis Kivi wrote a play called Kullervo, C.A. Sjöstrand produced pieces of sculpture on the Kullervo theme, and the composer/conductor Filip von Schantz wrote a Kullervo Overture. Kullervo was subsequently to become one of the Kalevala heroes to influence Finnish – and particularly young – composers most of all. Filip von Schantz (1835-1865) was a member of the first generation of Finnish composers to receive training abroad, studying in Leipzig on a state grant. Following Kullervo the only other music he composed was that for the play Ainamo before his promising career was cut short – like so many talended figures in the difficult conditions at that time: at around the same time Axel Gabriel lngelius (1822-1868) froze to death while on his way to tune a piano in Uusikaupunki (he was the composer of the first symphony written in Finland; it contained a movement entitled Scherzo finnico with quintuple metre of the Kalevala). Also Karl Collan died of cholera at just over 40.

The Kajanus era

The Kalevala by no means relinquished its significance as one of the pillars of Finnish culture as the century proceeded. It continued to act as a source of inspiration for artists, but they were now able to realise their visions with better technique and artistic control than their predecessors.

In summer 1874 the old Lönnrot was still alive and living in his by then famous cottage at Sammatti when he was visited by two students, one of them the subsequently famous conductor and composer Robert Kajanus (1856-1933). This visit had a profound effect on Kajanus’ career as a composer, as he later wrote in his memoirs: “The old man took out his kantele and showed me how he had written down the folk melodies he had collected. He was not familiar with musical notation, and he had devised his own systems of numbers. Just what this system was I do not, unfortunately, recall, but I vaguely remember that Lönnrot had numbered the strings of his kantele and that the singers’ intervals depended on these. – How I dreamt of inheriting something so unattainable as Lönnrot’s old kantele. Nor did it come to me, but it did arouse in me a love of Finnish music, and that is the reason why the old Kalevala melody is included in my first Finnish rhapsody.”

Kajanus was, however, even more impressed by music of Wagner and he thus became the second Wagnerian in Finnish music, alongside Martin Wegelius (1846-1906) the founder and director of the Helsinki Music College (now the Sibelius Academy). They had nothing else in common, for when Kajanus returned from his studies in 1882 he applied to teach theory at Wegelius’ College, only to be informed that Wegelius would see to the teaching himself. Whereupon Kajanus announced he would found an orchestra, and this he did. It was at the symphony concerts conducted by Kajanus in the 1880s that Helsinki audiences had a chance to hear the major works in musical literature, from Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven to Schumann, Mendelssohn, Wagner and the Nordic composers Svendsen, Grieg and Gade. Wagner’s settings of Germanic and ancient Scandinavian mythology and especially his orchestration loomed in Kajanus’ mind as one possible way in which themes from Finnish mythology could be used to create lasting artistic compositions. In early spring, 1890 Robert Kajanus had the honour of conducting his symphonic poem Aino at a concert at the Berlin Philharmonic Society, and it was a great success. Jean Sibelius, at that time studying in Berlin, was present on the occasion, and it is certain that the Aino symphony set him thinking about the Kalevala’s musical potential in a new light.

No Kullervo opera

The use of Kalevala themes in the arts reached its climax in Finland as the century drew to a close. Kullervo, Aino, Väinämöinen and other characters from the Kalevala became the heroes of literature, painting and music. They were often taken to symbolise various aspects of the Finnish character at a time when nationalism, the Finns’ awareness of themselves as a nation, was gaining strength.

Sibelius was the first Finnish composer to capture in music the spirit of the original folk song and to depict the characters by purely musical devices – just as realistically and as tangibly as Akseli Gallen-Kallela in his paintings. Seldom have different artistic genres been in such close contact with one another as in the atmosphere of Karelianism and symbolism in Finland in the 1890s. This atmosphere is reflected in the orchestral works composed at that time by Jean Sibelius on Kalevala themes, especially his Kullervo Symphony, in which the composer condensed the legend of Kullervo into five scenes within the confines of symphonic form – at the same time refuting the claim that symphonic structure is not compatible with anything mythical. In 1892, the year in which the symphony was composed, Karelianism was at its height. Finnish artists looked on Karelia as a Utopia equaled in mediaeval Italy or exotic Tahiti. Karelianism was not, however, concerned merely with seeking an imaginary Utopia, for its advocates sought living counterparts to the world of the Kalevala: artists saw in Larin Paraske, the most famous singer of poems and laments, something of a “noble savage”, a child of nature.

While on a visit to Vienna Sibelius had become deeply engrossed in the Kullervo poems from the Kalevala. Opera was not, however, the genre he chose for his vision of Kullervo; instead he wrote a monumental symphony in which the chorus acts as the narrator (as in a Greek tragedy), like a “living wall” between the characters proper and the audience. The first two movements of the symphony are purely instrumental, preparing the listener for Kullervo’s meeting with his sister by filling in the entire background to the tale and Kullervo’s youth and drawing solely on musical devices. Even the listener unfamiliar with the story is prepared for the events to come, in their right setting and atmosphere. But the music is not concerned merely with the creation of atmosphere, for it proves how convincingly Sibelius was able to put across the descriptive means used in the Kalevala itself.

One of the best-known stylistic devices in the Kalevala is parallelism – because the line is very short, every line of any length has to be divided into two, three or even more parts, each of which is repeated before proceeding to the next one. But this parallelism or repetition occurs even on a much wider scale in the Kalevala, sometimes achieving almost magical proportions. The singer himself begins to believe in his own, originally symbolic figures of speech – a figure originally intended as ornamentation grows into a structural motif. In Sibelius’ application of this genuinely Kalevalan sylistic device the ornamental subsidiary theme heard at the beginning of the first movement expands into a mighty musical motif that is repeated until it takes on magical proportions, acquiring the power of a shaman’s charm. Julius Krohn already pointed out the prevalence of the, crescendo as a stylistic device in the Kalevala and especially the pompous exaggeration characteristic of the Kullervo poems. This also explains the episode in Sibelius’ symphony that overthrows the barriers of traditional sonata form.

In the prelude to the third movement Sibelius comes closest to the decorative element of Karelianism, but also to the dance scenes that are an inseparable part of Russian romantic opera. This feature does, however, give way as the chorus joins in as the sombre, epic narrator. The Finnish language is used for the first time as the text for a monumental work, and in using it thus Sibelius laid the foundations for the setting of Finnish poetry to music. The Kullervo Symphony at times comes close to opera, but why did Sibelius never actually compose an opera on a Kalevala theme? We may well wonder, for many an artist at the turn of the century was fascinated by the Kalevala as a possible opera libretto. Sibelius’ path took him in a different direction, however, – one that was none the less Kalevalan but more purely musical. His symphonic poems were named after characters in the Kalevala – as was the lyrical suite Kyllikki for piano. The composer did, admittedly later deny that this had any connection with the Kalevala, but it does undoubtedly belong among the maestro’s greatest piano works, being cast in the same Kalevala mould.

The Kalevala’s operatic potential was pointed out by the American writer and essayist Lafcadio Hearn as early as the 1880s. Writing to a New York composer acquaintance he claimed that no epic could be superior to these miraculous poems. The Kalevala was not so well known as it deserved to be. It gave the impression of having been created by sages more in communion with nature than with man – the melancholy, misty landscape of the frozen North. It had, he said, all the ingredients for a great opera – the supernatural element, passionate love and the eternal battle between the forces of good and evil, darkness and light. It revealed an entire world more splendid than Wagner ever even dreamt of. Only the greatest of composers could think of composing a Kalevala opera. The Kalevala was the only truly musical epopee familiar to Hearn: Orpheus was but a clumsy simpleton alongside Väinämöinen. Such were Hearn’s opinions on the subject.

It was thus only natural for the Finnish Literature Society to hold a competition, in 1897, for an opera in the Finnish language (the first competition, in 1891, had proved fruitless). Only one opera was submitted by the closing date, the opera Pohjan neiti in three acts by Oskar Merikanto (1868-1924). The jury’s criticism was highly favourable – among its members were Kajanus and Sibelius: “The music in the opera is above all simple and melodious. – In all its simplicity this music is by no means – with a few exceptions – trivial, due to the nationalist tone characteristic of the entire work. Finnish rune melodies have been used, either in the original or adapted, at suitable points.” The opera was not, however, given its first performance until 1908, on the occasion of the Viipuri Song Festival. Even the French Le Theatre devoted an extensive illustrated article to the performance.

The Kalevala Isolde

It was not, however, long before a Finnish opera on the Aino/Väinämöinen theme saw the light of day. This was Erkki Melartin’s (1875-1937) Aino, set to the libretto by Jalmari Finne, the author of biting criticism of Merikanto. The opera was not of a folkloristic tableau type but a symbolical and mystical interpretation of Aino, the Kalevalan pantheistic view of Nature, sun mythology and the Leitmotif opera of the Late Romantic period.

The plot of the opera follows events in the Kalevala, supplementing them with Nature-myth symbolism; Väinö has fallen in love with Aino and her brother Jouko has already promised her to him. Aino lives in a mystical communion with Nature, her only companion being a birch in a sacrificial grove. Väinö, who has come to fetch Aino, is left speechless on seeing her, but in order to express his joy he turns Aino’s birch into a kantele and asks Aino to provide hair for the strings; the kantele makes music, but not jubilant music, as expected. Väinö realises he has done wrong, and in the final scene by the sea Aino, the Kalevalan Isolde, sinks beneath the waves and becomes one with Nature as the sun rises.

Looking towards Europe

Many new trends in contemporary European music found their way into Finnish musical life at the beginning of the 20th century. The modernist trends in the arts were by nature cosmopolitan and fought shy of national themes and romanticism – and especially the combination of the two: national romanticism. It was to Paris, the musical mecca of the 1920s, that Finnish composers made their way, among them Uuno Klami (1900- 1961), whose early works at Helsinki Music College had displayed originality and an independent search for new forms of expression. He felt attracted co French music, as to the Stravinsky of The Rite of Spring, and in Paris Klami observed what many other budding composers from all corners of the world had likewise discovered: that nationalist themes, primitive modes and harmonies were a source of musical exoticism to sophisticated Paris audiences, especially when suitably clad in modern musical guise. Klamis’s Kalevala Suite, completed a year after the second concert of his works, in 1932, expresses a completely new interpretation of the Kalevala. In typical manner it reflects the location of Finnish musical life on the Paris-Moscow-Helsinki axis, as the Swedish musicologist Bo Wallner described trends in Finnish music in the 1920s.

It is a particular feature of myths that they emerge again and again, because they bear a message that is universal and fundamental. The Kalevala, too, has this universal, always topical level, as contemporary composers have discovered. In fact not even the Kalevala works of Sibelius are all exclusively National Romantic. In Luonnotar he had created a completely new interpretation of the myth on the origins of the world given in the Kalevala; in it the melodic line for soprano and the archaic accompaniment pointed the way to the future.

In the mid-1950s, the golden age of serial music, Tauno Marttinen (b. 1912) completed his Kokko ilman lintu, which dealt with the same theme as Sibelius’ Luonnotar but from a completely different musical perspective. It manifests the stubborn fascination of Finnish composers for the Kalevala, but not so much, perhaps, for the traditional gallery of characters as for its universal elements of Nature myth and magic.

The music by Aulis Sallinen (b. 1935) for the television film Rauta-aika (Age of Iron) or the mystery play Marjatta, matala neiti (Marjatta the Lowly Maiden) by Einojuhani Rautavaara (b. 1928) are also proof of the contemporary appeal of the Kalevala for modern Finnish composers. The 200 or more works composed on the basis of the Kalevala are a clear indication that the Kalevala is in Finland an integral part of the history not only of literature but of music too, constituting a thread that runs right through the Finnish musical tradition.


Translation: Susan Sinisalo

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