in From the Archives

Towards a less rigid notion of tradition

by Olli Kortekangas

“One of the greatest problems confronting Finnish culture is the relative absence of critical attitudes with any measure of influence,” says the composer Olli Kortekangas in his article from FMQ 1-2/1985.
What position does Kalevala occupy today? Should the worth of a work of art based on Kalevala be measured only in the aesthetic sense, or in the folkloristic sense too? How is folk tradition translated into the language of art? And why? 

The average Finn knows his Kalevala only sketchily at best. Nonetheless, both the epic itself and the multifaceted tradition its appearance spawned are a central element in the Finnish way of life, all the way from the works of art that crystallize the collective sense of well-being down to the most tired and banal expressions found in everyday speech.

The idea of a direct line of communication between the Kalevala and the reader of today would be a utopian one. But if a series of events like the 150th anniversary celebrations, concentrated in terms of their theme, but yet representing a broad spectrum of practical applications, could somehow make a contribution to the issue of how our national heritage indirectly – and fundamentally – affects the everyday life of modern Finns, then it would serve a dual purpose; as a mark of respect to the past, and a service to the future.


Romanticism and politics

For Finnish art, the Kalevala and certain other of the written documents of our national heritage – in the loosest possible sense of the expression – have from the moment of their appearance provided the most gratifying of materials to work with. In this context it would be wise to point out that the Kalevala, with its various versions, somewhat arbitrarily worked up into an integrated epic by Lönnrot, is in itself one of the major works of early literature in Finnish.

The best works of art linked to National Romantic subjects have of course held their own more by virtue of their aesthetic weight than for their folklore connections. All the same, it is remarkable just how many of the most prestigious Finnish artists around the turn of the century and shortly thereafter have been inspired by the world of Kalevala. It is tempting to see in this close relationship of artist to material, in many respects more authentic than that existing today, the reason why the Kalevala visions of artists such as Akseli Gallen-Kallela and Jean Sibelius seem even today most accurately to resemble the image of the myths of the past that the Finn wants to hang on to.

The truth is probably at least in part a different story. For few of the issues belonging to the basic problematics of Finnish culture has there been such an urge to provide “the definitive answer” as in the case of how the artistic execution of the national folk heritage should be carried out. This situation has not been brought abour solely by the undeniable persuasiveness of a certain given aesthetic tradition; when ralking about Finnish art at the turn of the century and just after, one must never lose sight of the historical fact that the development leading to Finnish independence would have been, if not slower, certainly rather different without the presence of those resources which the flourishing haute culture was able to set at the disposal of nationalist aspirations.

The Finnish image of an unaffected, natural Kalevala aesthetic is still a bizarre combination of the artist-centred thinking inherited from the Romantic era, “back to the woods” nostalgia, and feelings of national pride undercut with an endemic sense of inferiority. The initial romanticised artistic notions of the time have been misconstrued into a concrete image, and applied to the present¬day it produces results which are equally difficult to conceive of as expressions of the archaic or the modern.


The second coming of nationalist art

Over the last ten years or so, the Finnish folk herirage has once again surfaced as a subject of broad interest to artists. The abundant opportunities for work offered by this year’s anniversary celebrations have come at a particularly appropriate moment as far as this renaissance is concerned.

The currents in art are always tied in some way or other to the general development going on in society itself. It is only natural that when the strongly internationalist-minded political stirrings found in the 1960’s and early 1970’s began to die down, and Finnish society moved into an otherwise more stable phase, the interest felt towards national traditions should have supplanted the dreams of a global aesthetic order. This new National Romanticism can indeed be seen as an indicator of a kind of heightening of Finnish self-esteem.

The development, which has occurred, provides cause for concern, at least in respect of what will come out of the detaching of the problematics of art from other areas of human question-setting which has resulted from this narrowing down of perspective. The clouding over of the individualistic freedom of art, and of its ultimately anarchistic significance may on the other hand present an equally potent threat, and the broader the field of activity which the artist seeks to master, the greater the danger.

The directing of Finnish art towards the rediscovery of subjective values seems also on the whole to denote a positive stand towards the traditional aesthetic. One of the greatest problems confronting Finnish culture is the relative absence of critical attitudes with any measure of influence. Independent subcultures would be able on the one hand to create a markedly better balance between conservative and progressive notions of art, and on the other to help the mainstream culture keep itself under control.


The composer versus tradition

It is my belief that all art of any significance takes at least a large part of its energy from the conflict which exists between whatever work is being created and the entire weight of tradition up to that point. The recognition of this confrontation is the first step towards opening up new horizons. The ultimate goal should be the total utilization of tradition, something which can of course take place in countless different ways. Simply stressing the importance of tradition is only to repeat what is obvious; binding oneself to it, on the other hand, is the worst sort of naive credulity – and an affront to tradition itself.

In the Finnish music composed in recent years one can find examples of efforts directed towards the creative reinterpretation of the Kalevala and its related material, It should nonetheless be pointed out that many of even these new works linked to our national heritage and traditions have been based on the false premise that imitation of the traditional style would automatically bring with it the aesthetic qualities to be found in the masterpieces of years long gone by.

The world of the Kalevala undoubtedly still retains its powers of inspiration, but what exactly is the Kalevala today? In order co have an understanding of this, one must cake account of all aspects of the great patina of tradition which has formed around the epic. Only after breaking through these layers can one perhaps arrive at the original message of the Kalevala. Let us hope it is worth the effort.


Translation: William Moore

Olli Kortekangas (b. Turku, May 16, 1955) studied composition and music theory at the Sibelius Academy during the period 1974-77 and 78-81 under the guidance of Einojuhani Rautavaara and Eero Hämeenniemi. At the same time he pursued studies at Helsinki University. During the period 1981-82 Kortekangas lived in West Berlin where he worked with Dieter Schnebel.

In addition to his work as a composer Kortekangas has been active as a journalist, choral conductor and performer of his own pieces. He has also workerd for Korvat auki (Ears Open), a society for the promotion of new music, as well as the Ung Nordisk Musik (Young Nordic Music) festival run by Scandinavian composers and performers.

This article was first published in FMQ 3/1995 and is republished with the kind permission of the author.