in From the Archives

The Story of the Finnish Choir – Social institution and human instrument

by Markku Kilpiö

In his article from 1987 Markku Kilpiö takes a look at Finnish choral singing.

Well before a province of Sweden going by the name of Findia was recorded in a Florentine document of the early 12th century, and the papal Gravis admodum bull of 1171 accused the Finns (Phinni) of failing to show allegiance to the new faith, the Finns were singing. I leave it to the ethnomusicologists to tell us what and how they sang, but for the Finns, poetry and singing have always been a fundamental form of self-expression. Documents from the early Middle Ages only report the ties by which Finland was bound to the neighbouring kingdom of Sweden. The confrontation between the old, indigenous culture and the new was indeed dramatic – a demonstration of western superiority. Yet looking back over the centuries, it was for the most part a gradual merging of different worlds; as a result Christ, the Virgin and the saints began to feature in a new light, as characters and heroes of Finnish folk poetry.

As Swedish power became established in Finland, the distant province across the Baltic became increasingly westernised. The Missale Aboense, published in Turku in 1488, is proof of the centuries-old influence of the Dominican tradition in Finland. For a major cultural centre, a Dominican monastery, had been founded in Turku as early as 1249. Turku Cathedral and the greystone and red bricked churches throughout the country echoed to the sound of Gregorian chant. Plainsong was a new musical element of the Finnish scene and of the cultural bridge between the continent of Europe and its most northerly corner, Ultima Thule.

Pupils in the schools of the Middle Ages may well have been singing in parts already, but polyphonous singing proper did not spread until the 16th century. The students at Turku Cathedral School were obliged to sing at mass – a duty that lived on even after the Reformation. As late as the 1590s there were still three divine services on Sundays, at which the students' singing was conducted by an inspector chori. He was assisted by selected scholars (scholare), cantores in figurativis. We know from documents that by the 17th century Turku congregations were already familiar with such composers as Josquin des Prez, Michael Praetorius, Orlando di Lasso and Daniel Friderici. Throughout the 17th century, in keeping with the medieval tradition, music occupied a major role in Finnish schools. The most valuable historical document of Finnish school singing is the Piae Cantiones collections of 1582 and 1625 (see FMQ 4/86).

By the beginning of the 19th century music had lost some of its importance in the instruction provided in schools. It no longer prang from the former philosophy or aesthetics; music simply became a 'practical subject'. When the new waves of choral singing again reached Finland at the beginning of the 19th century, they did not, however, wash virgin territory, even though the harmonies of former centuries had by that time vanished into the clear Northern night.


In the 20th century the task of continuing the old European choral traditions was assumed by choirs of a new type not backed by any traditional institution, such as the church. This century has seen the rise of a new middle class and of a new species, the amateur musician. And in keeping with the new concept of art, singers also want to influence the choice of programme. Thus Percy M. Young did not mince his words in assessing commissioned works and their musical value in his book The Choral Tradition: “The choral societies of Europe and America have been responsible for much of the worst music of the nineteenth century.”

The matter may, however, be viewed from many angles. The “democratisation” of choral singing has for a growing number of social and professional groups meant a chance to make music, and on their own terms. It must be conceded that the result is not only as pointed out by Young, for there has also been a happy marriage between choral singing and various extra-musical ideals. At the same time the impression emerged that the choir is an instrument of only limited artistic potential; it may suit some purposes, but it cannot be expected to produce a fully balanced programme or an artistic experience of the highest quality.

Paciusjohtaa Hgin Kaupunginmuseo
This drawing by August Mannerheim from 1825 depicts Fredrik Pacius conducting a male choir and a female soloist.
c) Helsinki City Museum


At Uppsala, in Sweden, Finnish students were introduced to male-voice singing at the university. On returning home to a Finland which had in 1812 been made an autonomous grand duchy under the Russian Tsar they gradually began to recall the merry years they had spent at Uppsala. The first student choir was founded in Turku in 1819 and soon there were others in various academic circles. When, on graduating from the university, students dutifully took up posts in different parts of the country. They acted as choir leaders or formed bands of singers inspired by their new ideal. Forced to move to Helsinki by the Great Fire of Turku in 1827, the university students infused new life into the music of the young capital by founding the Academic Music Society. When the German-born musician and composer Fredrik Pacius (it was he who wrote the melody of the Finnish National Anthem) arrived in Helsinki in 1835, the foundations had already been laid for the musical life of the city. The Music Society embraced both choral and instrumental music. In other words it was a sort of Collegium Musicum.

Pacius was invited to conduct the Akademiska Sångföreningen, a male-voice choir founded in 1838 and probably the oldest Finnish choir still in existence. In 1883 the Finnish-speaking students (at that time the official language of the country was still Swedish) broke away to found a choir of their own. This was Ylioppilaskunnan Laulajat (YL, The Helsinki University Chorus), which has since become a byword in Finnish choral history. Since in the 19th century the oldest choirs were for men, Pacius had to recruit women too if he wanted to perform large-scale works. Following the examples of Central Europe, oratorios and, for example, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion were performed in Helsinki in 1875.


The university choral tradition spread, as I have said, as young lawyers, doctors and clergymen took up posts in different parts of the country. Yet it was up to the elementary school teachers to complete the democratisation of choral singing proper. This is such an important stage in the history of Finnish choral singing that Erik A. Hagfors, lecturer in music at the Teachers' Training College in Jyväskylä, has been called “the father of choral singing”. The launching on 6.6.1864 of his first choirs singing in Finnish has been called “the birthday of Finnish choral singing”. Before anyone accuses the coiner of this phrase of falsifying history or exaggeration, I should point out that the accent is on the attribute “Finnish”. Singing at the universities had been in Swedish, so the shift to Finnish-speaking territory really did mark the beginning of something new. Jyväskylä, a little school town in Central Finland, was the cradle in which Finland national identity was nurtured. A series of works began to be published in the Finnish language. Hagfors edited about 300 songs for choirs which teachers graduating from the college in Jyväskylä used as the repertoire for the choirs they founded. The songs were for the most part of foreign origin and the influence of Central European tradition is evident in, for example, the name of the collection Finnish Song-Wreath (Lieder-kranz).


In the early 19th century the Swiss Hans Georg Nägeli propounded his view on the importance of music, singing and especially choral singing as a means of educating the nation. Choral singing was, he claimed, the only way of raising the life of the people to “a higher realm of art”. Die Pestalozzische Gesangbildungslehre is the theoretical basis for this vision, and it draws on such elements as the independence, freedom and evolutionary optimism of the individual, combined with national cohesion – nationalism seen through the rose-tinted spectacles of the Romanticists.

Nägeli's theories also sparked off a song festival tradition on German soil and provided a model for e.g. the East Baltic vocal and instrumental festivals. The first Estonian song festival was held in Tartu in 1869. These festivals were significant for Finland in that the Finns who visited them found inspiration and began to propagate the song festival ideal in Finland too. One of the main driving forces was the kinship between the Estonian and Finnish nations.

The first vocal and instrumental festival was finally held in Finland in 1884. It did not, at least to begin with, attract the crowds familiar in Estonia, and only gradually did the number of performers and listeners grow into the thousands.

Inspired by the festival, choirs were quickly established in different parts of the country, and they were joined by new social and occupational groups. Choral singing does truly seem to have become a movement uniting various strata of the nation according to Nägeli's model, a point that was certainly not overlooked; here was something quite new in a society traditionally divided into estates: common folk attending the same festivals as gentlefolk!

“May our festivals be patriotic, guided and inspired by a pure national spirit, festivals at which singing and playing rake pride of place! May they be first and foremost national, and only then song festivals.” Such were the goals of these festivals at the end of the 19th century. The main emphasis was on creating a spirit of nationalism, on reinforcing a national Finnish identity and a national profile. For it must be remembered that these festivals were being held in an autonomous grand duchy of Impcriat Russia. As Pan-Slavic tendencies caught on, the festivals also assumed political significance and the nature of a national manifestation. No wonder, therefore, that they were prohibited in the most heated years at the beginning of the century.

It is proof of the strength of the national ethos that choirs of workers took part in these joint festivals, even though they did not always feel entirely at home there. Even the language barrier was broken down when Swedish-speaking singers and player attended the festivals. Not until the beginning of the present century did singers and players begin to go their own ways. The workers initiated a festival tradition of their own in 1910 and the Swedish-speakers continue festivals in their own tradition alone, with a Scandinavian orientation.

The festival tradition continued from 1917, the year in which Finland gained political independence, until 1921. Only a few decades before, this united “nation”, gathering together in the spirit of Nägeli and Romanticism, had spread over four group holding festivals of their own: those continuing the old tradition, workers, Swedish-speakers and finally church choirs. This is also the disposition of song festivals today and in fact the basic division prevailing throughout amateur music in Finland.

I have dwelt on these festivals for many reasons. They were an institution that laid the foundations for choral singing in all strata of the nation. To begin with the movement was united by nationalist enthusiasm, but it later broke up into a number of groups as a result of various social factors. True, all these factions did come together to celebrate the nation’s anniversary and the centenary of the song festival tradition. But no mention has yet been made of one very important point: amateur choral singing has become a field all of its own. Amateur orchestras sprang up before the end of last century even, but the same trend was not apparent in choral singing. To be music rather than an expression of national feeling, working-class ideals or language policy, choral singing needed critics and reformers. 

Suomen Laulu 1922 Matteus Passio
Heikki Klemetti (sitting in the middle of the first row) among his flagship choir, Suomen Laulu.
c) Finnish Heritage Agency (Museovirasto)


It was Heikki Klemetti (1876–1953), charismatic leader and patriot, who emerged as the keen critic of the artistic standard of choral singing at the turn of the century. In 1908 he wrote: “Always the same performances completely ignorant of vocal technique groping in the darkness of uncertainty..., out of tune, lack of taste in the choice of songs.” ln 1900 Klemetti had founded a choir of his own – Suomen Laulu – as his flagship. He turned to voice production, artistic expression and the musical standard of the repertoire. Soon he took the results abroad, on extensive concert tours of Europe. As conductor of the Helsinki University Chorus Klemetti also raised the standard of male choir singing and influenced the repertoire.

Klemetti was a systematic man when it came to implementing his policy, as is illustrated by the Suomen Laulu Song Academy which he founded and led from 1925–1953. Its very name reflects the influence of its Central European models. Klemetti introduced his singers to the classical international choral repertoire. His performances of the Bach motets and passions have in particular gone down in the history of Finnish choral art. At a song festival in 1937, for example, a choir made up of hundreds of singers performed Bach’s motet Jesu, meine Freude. German guests in the audience cried out in astonishment: “fabelhaft, unglauglich!” The annual custom of performing the St. Matthew Passion begun by Klemetti in 1915 has continued uninterrupted to the present day.


As the artistic standard of choirs rose, Finnish composers began to show interest in the genre. Jean Sibelius broke away from the Liedertafel tradition with his unadorned songs on Kalevala themes for male-choir and also posed new technical challenges. Toivo Kuula (1883–1918) wrote choral compositions with orchestra. Selim Palmgren (1878–1951) introduced impressionist tones into Finnish choral music, and at the beginning of the century Leevi Madetoja (1887–1947) created the richest and most sophisticated of choral works. These are by no means the only composers producing choral works at the beginning of the century. They all contributed towards a basic national and late-romantic repertoire for different types of choir.


Soon after Finland became independent in 1917, choirs began to form national associations. The first to do so were the workers (1921), followed the very next year by the Finnish Choirs’ Association, which in the 1930s took in instrumentalists too and changed its name to The Finnish Amateur Musicians’ Association, (Suomen Laulajain ja Soittajain Liitto, SULASOL). The Swedish-speaking choirs became organised in 1929 and the church choirs in 1931. The Swedish-speaking male choirs have an organisation of their own, founded in 1936. Today these organisations have a total membership of around 70,000 singers and orchestral players. No statistics have been kept of the choirs not in an association, so the exact number of all choirs and singers is not known. It has sometimes been estimated that more than 100,000 Finns sing in a choir.

All the associations operate along very much the same lines. They provide training, publish their own journals, hold festivals of singing and instrumental music and public music.


When contacts with Europe revived after the Second World War, it seemed that the Finnish mode of singing favoured at the beginning of the century was no longer suitable for the new (or indeed the old) music in the choirs’ repertoires. Many new choirs were formed in Finland as post-war cultural life got back to normal in the late 1940s – choirs ready to join ranks with the existing ones to continue the traditional style of singing and repertoires. The tension between new and conventional views broke out into prolonged debate in the 1950s – debate that has been dramatically called the “choir war”. The champion of the new ideals was Harald Andersén (born 1919), who as leader of the Chorus Sanctae Ceciliae introduced his reforms in 1953. In 1956 Andersén was appointed to the Sibelius Academy and from 1959 onwards his new chamber choir began to spread its “revolutionaly” views all over the country, because it was composed of choir leaders.

There was a rapid reaction. Views at the height of the choir war were outspoken: “The singing is in every respect an unmanly puffing completely lacking in any sound vocal basis… So down with the false prophets! Long live sound, legato singing!” Andersén himself formulated his own goals in moderate terms at the end of the 1950s: “We should aim for a middle-of-the-road solution, because the right singing style for any nation is, to my mind, to some extent tied to the phonetics of the language in question. Thin singing does not have quite so much potential for resounding dynamic climaxes: choral singing also needs an element of primitive force.”


A handful of chamber choirs were not sufficient to provide a basis for a new culture. It was vital to embark on the systematic training of leaders, and to this end the Klemetti lnstitute operating for about one month in summer was established at the beginning of the 1950s. Later that decade a corresponding Wegelius College was founded for Swedish-speaking choir leaders. Harald Andersén played a vital role in the training provided by these colleges. Soon the results began to be audible all over the country. Choirs reconsidered their manner of singing and their repertoires and new choirs, especially chamber ones, were formed. Harald Andersén was also in charge of training choir leaders at the Sibelius Academy, which still provides the highest training in this field, though there is still no professor of choir leading. The lecturer in choir leading is Matti Hyökki, who not only teaches but also conducts several choirs. 

Hkk Leo Samama
The Helsinki Chamber Choir, former Finnish Broadcastin Company Chamber Choir
Photo: Leo Samama


Proof of the general rise in status of choir singing are the choirs established by the Finnish Broadcasting Company. The chamber choir conducted by Harald Andersén 1962–1981 holds semi-professional status. The FBC at present also has children’s and youth choirs. For a quarter of a century the choir has been singing choral masterpieces, introduced its listeners to the choral cultures of different countries and given the first performance of a great number of Finnish choral works. The choir is at present conducted by Ilmo Riihimäki.


To begin with the repertoire of the new choral style consisted exclusively of old and modern music. Soon, however, the romantic era was rediscovered, in the 1960s, and especially works in national romantic style. This helped to even out the marked contrasts. But at the same time there was a revival of a phenomenon that give birth to the basic classical repertoire in the first half of the century: Finnish composers rediscovered the choir. The most significant church musician is Sulo Salonen (1899–1976), the creator of a new musica sacra bold in its use of tonality. One exceptional leader and connoisseur of the choir is Erik Bergman (born 1911), who constantly finds new potential in the human voice. Joonas Kokkonen (born 1921) translates elements of his architectonic, symphonic thinking into his choral works. Some significant works, though few in number, have been produced by Bengt Johansson (born 1914), while Einojuhani Rautavaara (born 1928) has created a varied choral repertoire rich in rhythms and timbres.

Many other names could be added to this list. It may, however, be true to say that in the 1980s composers have not been so interested in the choir as they were in previous decades. Let us hope this is a false assumption that will be corrected as we gain a longer time perspective.

It would be a mistake not to mention yet another factor that has influenced Finland’s choral culture as a whole. Both schools and music colleges have given birth to children’s and youth choirs whose repertoire and manner of singing justify our speaking of a new epoch and in a way of a new form of choir. The number of children’s and youth choirs has increased most over the past two decades. One is the Tapiola Choir founded by Erkki Pohjola in 1963 that has achieved international fame and frequently gives concerts in different parts of the world. Many other youth choirs have also won international renown and prizes. New, young composers are discovering this form of choir – a familiar phenomenon repeats itself.


It is difficult to draw a picture that does full justice to Finnish choral singing. One reason is probably that the qualitative dispersion, even the polarisation of goals, is greater than ever before. The choral field is full of all sorts of goals and strivings, some even operating in opposite directions. For some singing is simply an excuse for getting together; others have more ambitious goals. Some are not content to remain within the national arena and east their sights high and far.

Although the present is too close for making assessments, one of the most positive phenomena is the upsurge of interest among young singers. There are no technical obstacles, so the full choral repertoire is at their disposal. When it comes to interpreting old and Baroque music, these choirs have opened up new vistas. They do not approach modern works as an acrobatic feat but as music to be interpreted.

We are part of the European tradition, and certain features link us with Scandinavia. At its best Finnish choral singing is, however, more than the sum of these components. It has the softness, depth and power of a somewhat melancholy language rich in vowels but also the ability to meet the demands of the music of different eras. Could this be the secret of the best Finnish choirs? 

Translation: Susan Sinisalo
Featured photo by U. Nordlund: A choir performing at Joensuu music festival in 1907. 

This article was first published in FMQ 2/1987 and is now republished with the kind permission of the author.