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Universal, national or Germanised?

by Vesa Kurkela

The turn of the 20th century is conventionally referred to as the era when the national musical culture of Finland was born. On closer inspection, however, we find its roots in the transnational context of general European art music, which also included the popular music of the day.
The influence of German culture is a perennial favourite topic in research on the early years of independent Finland and the Second World War. Today, it is commonplace to wonder how it was even possible that a large percentage of the Finnish intelligentsia maintained close contacts with Hitler’s Germany.

The newly independent Finland actively sought assistance from Germany against the threat of Soviet Russia, but the roots of this affinity go back far deeper into cultural history, to the medieval cities that developed around the Baltic Sea and the Lutheran Reformation. Swedish clergy and academia had had close ties to the centres of learning in northern Germany for centuries, and although Finland parted ways with Sweden in the early 19th century, the connections remained and were further strengthened in the 20th century: German was the most studied foreign language in secondary schools, and before the Second World War half of the guest lecturers at the University of Helsinki came from Germany, which at the time was top nation not only in philosophy and human sciences but also in modern natural science.

In the arts, ties to Germany were particularly strong in the area of music, and they were further reinforced when modern musical life based on a continental model began to emerge around the turn of the 20th century. This was when the foundation was laid for Finland’s current music education system, symphony orchestras, opera and ‘national’ musical style, spearheaded by Sibelius. Around the same time, urban and continental lighter music – operetta and varieté – also arrived in Finland. The flow of influences and imports, often directly from Germany, was so strong that we could with reason describe this era as the Germanification of Finnish music.


Fading methodological nationalism

However, such an argument would simply be a rehashing of an old conventional viewpoint, a methodological nationalism. We must consider the relationship between music and nationality with great care if we choose to rewrite the history of music. On the macro level, national labels can be stripped away to reveal the underlying general European classical music scene, with its shared consensus on the autonomy of music, the criteria of good taste and the status of the classics. At the time under discussion, popular music was still just a branch of the great system of art music. ‘Continental music’ was an umbrella concept for everything: classical and modern, serious and light, religious and secular.

At the grass-roots level, the national perspective obscures just how far-reaching the networks of musicians and other influential people in music were. As far as they were concerned, they were primarily members of the general European community of music professionals and only secondarily national operators. There is an obvious parallel here with academia: theologians from Helsinki went to the University of Göttingen certainly not to affirm their Finnishness but as members of an international scientific community.



Beyond the national perspective, the ‘German’ aspect in music appears as a universal ‘super-culture’ that in the 19th century conquered the world. Its core consisted of the great Classical masters – Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. They were German-speaking Austrians; but more to the point, they worked in a multicultural environment. The Habsburg Empire was not so much ‘German’ as a mishmash of ethnic groups and languages, and there were many historically noteworthy composers in Vienna at the time of the great masters whose roots were in Bohemia, Italy or Hungary. The music of the Viennese Classics very quickly became international: the music trade took Beethoven’s piano sonatas to Moscow, Istanbul or New York with equal swiftness.

The canon of classics – works by dead composers – took over the core repertoire of symphony orchestras from the mid-19th century onwards, and this at the very latest made the central European system of concert music universal. Music theory reinforced this trend: budding composers all around the world studied Bach’s counterpoint, seeing it not as a specifically German musical system but as a generic one.

German philosophy of music, aesthetics and even the modernist trend beginning with Wagner had the same sort of effect. Although all of these could easily be linked to German nationalism (and were), underlying them was a broader goal: the universal applicability of the central European musical tradition. Indeed, modernism in music was as ambitious and expansive as the Catholic Church had been in earlier centuries.

The super-culture of music was strong enough to foster uniform practices in music in all European countries. The continental models were especially eagerly adopted in emerging nation-states such as Finland. They were brought in as completely new models, not to replace old ones. The new super-culture was conveyed by a group of musical authorities, a handful of music merchants and a body of foreign musicians.


‘Music Popes’

In Finland, a handful of active individuals played a highly significant role because of the small size of the community. In the 19th century, there were two Germans and two Finns advocating the universal/German culture in Finland: Fredrik Pacius and Richard Faltin, and Robert Kajanus and Martin Wegelius, respectively. These ‘Music Popes’ had been trained in Germany – Faltin, Kajanus and Wegelius at the Leipzig Conservatory. Leipzig was an important place for top Finnish musicians to go to study prior to the 1880s, which was when Wegelius founded the Helsinki Conservatory and, on the other hand, Finnish talent began to explore further afield: Sibelius studied in Vienna and Berlin, and in the early 20th century many Finnish musicians went to Paris.

Between 1856 and 1887, at least 33 Finnish musicians studied in Leipzig, one third of them women. This may seem like a small number among the almost 5,000 names in the student register, but it includes all major Finnish musicians and composers of the 19th century, our first conductors, educators, orchestral musicians, a few concert virtuosos and Ilmari Krohn, the founding father of Finnish musicology.

The first students were sent to Leipzig on government grants, but in most cases going to Germany to study required the student to have substantial independent funds and a sufficient basic education: German language skills were essential. In 1887, Oskar Merikanto, subsequently one of Finland’s most beloved composers of solo songs, began his studies in Leipzig. Talented but penniless, he had to go to a lot of trouble to find patronage for his studies abroad.

Pacius, Faltin and Kajanus held the post of music director at the University of Helsinki one after the other. Hermann Paul, a lecturer in German at the University and a well-known music critic, was also an important influence on the musical scene. Two cosmopolitan institutions, music and academia, supported each other at the level of individuals.


Transborder business

Faltin and Paul were also in the music business: Faltin imported pianos, and Paul published sheet music. The music business in Finland was generally in foreign hands at the time. The first notable sheet music publisher in Finland was Ludvig Beuermann, a German musician who set up shop in Helsinki in 1850. His business was continued by a Finn, Axel E. Lindgren, another alumnus of the Leipzig Conservatory. Lindgren must have picked up more than just musicianship in Leipzig, as the city was a focal point for the music trade in central Europe at the time, and contacts made there with publishing houses would be of immense value for future composers and music entrepreneurs.

In the 20th century, Finnish music publishing evolved rapidly. Several domestic entrepreneurs entered the field, the most prominent among them being K.G. Fazer, R.E. Westerlund and Alexei Apostol. Most of their business involved selling musical instruments, but they all had an ideological mission to publish Finnish music in printed form.

Music publishing was a truly transnational business in those days and relied heavily on international networks. The Finns had a lot to learn, but luckily they had the wits to hire an army of experts from abroad to help them. By now, it should come as no surprise that these foreign experts had German names: Kaibel, Cornelius, Koch, Zingel, Succo, Falkner. Many of them settled in Finland.


Cosmopolitan musicians

But the real powerhouse in spreading the central European super-culture far and wide consisted of the hundreds of orchestral musicians trained in central Europe. By the middle of the 19th century, they constituted a rapidly growing body of professionals, and with a glut on the market on the continent, they sought employment opportunities in lands where the modern music scene was only just emerging.

The best musicians employed themselves on concert tours all over Europe and even to America. Many managed to find posts as music directors or teachers abroad, but the majority ended up as ordinary members in a wide variety of orchestras. Accordingly, in Finland by the turn of the 20th century professional orchestral music was almost wholly in the hands of ‘Germans’ – a blanket term for foreigners in this context. Actually, the musical profession in Finland was ethnically highly diverse, including Danish, Swedish, Baltic, Polish and Bohemian musicians. This cosmopolitan community had a common foundation in the central European tradition, and the working language very often was German.

The community of foreign musicians in northern Europe moved from country to country as the seasons dictated. As recently as in the early years of the 20th century, Robert Kajanus’s orchestra only performed from October to late April. At that point, a large number of musicians left Finland to play in orchestras in nearby metropolises and spa towns. In the autumn, Kajanus had to recruit his orchestra all over again; turnover was high.


Universally European

This universal musical super-culture did not make Finland’s musical life at the turn of the 20th century national, but neither did it make it German. It made it universally European much in the same way that the European Union today is unifying the legislation and administration of its Member States.

Classical music never did become a universal art form embraced by all ranks of society. But it did import a number of cultural structures: an education system, musical criticism, permanent orchestras and musical theatre. At the same time, Finnish musical culture became polarised with the arrival on these shores of a rival super-culture with the advent of jazz and moving pictures in the 1920s: American popular culture.

Vesa Kurkela is Professor of Music History at the Sibelius Academy, the University of the Arts Helsinki. He has written extensively on various topics of music history in Finland and elsewhere: popular music, music publishing, music and nationalism, folk music and ideology, orchestral repertoires, radio music, cassette culture and the recording industry. 

 Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi