in From the Archives

Wartime sounds

by Pekka Gronow

This year [1992] Finland becomes 75. Our years of independence are being celebrated with exhibitions, speeches and commemorative gold coins. The country has changed in many ways since 1917, but the period which has so far attracted most attention in the celebrations has been the war. This is not surprising. For the generation of Finns born soon after the country gained her independence, the war has been the most dramatic event of their lives. Now, nearly fifty years after armistice, veterans' organizations are playing a very active role in the independence celebrations. The music of the war years is enjoying a revival, and there are even new songs being written about the veterans and their memories.

So far the popular songs of the war years have been receiving most of the attention. The production of popular records continued almost without interruption during the war, and military radio stations made new songs known to the troops. Serious composers had fewer opportunities to write music, and the works premiered during these years have not proved enduring.



The Second World War left its mark on all countries, even those which did not directly take part in it. However, the case of Finland differs from the experience of most other European nations. Between 1939 and 1945 Finland took part in two wars of quite different character. In 1939 Stalin – who had just forced Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to conclude treaties which in effect put an end to the sovereignty of these countries – demanded that Finland cede part of her territory to the Soviet Union. When Finland refused, the Soviet Union attacked. After a hundred days of the “Winter War”, Finland was forced to accede to the demands but otherwise preserved her sovereignty.

In late 1939 Western Europe was experiencing the “phoney war”, with both sides entrenched behind defensive lines. The Finnish-Russian clash was a short dramatic episode, fiercely fought in conditions of extreme cold, in which a small poorly armed country almost succeeded in resisting one of the world’s biggest fighting forces. The world saw Finland as a courageous David taking on Goliath, and the country received at least nominal support from foreign countries. Within Finland, the Winter War created a tremendous feeling of solidarity.

From spring 1940 to summer 1941 Finland was able to live in uneasy peace. In July 1941, when Germany attacked the Soviet Union, Finland was again drawn into the war. Professional historians and laymen alike are divided in their interpretations of the events. Some see Finland as a willing ally of the Axis, using the opportunity not only to regain her former territory, but to create a “Greater Finland”. Others see Finland as a helpless victim of history, and point out that it would hardly have been possible for the country to remain outside the conflict.

In any event, what became known in Finland as the “Continuation War” was quite different from the Winter War. After the outbreak of the fighting, there followed two years of well organized warfare, when Finland initially seemed to be on the winning side. The front lines were far from the main cities, and although times were hard for the civilian population, life went on much as usual. New books were published and films produced. There were regular concerts and even visiting soloists. When Germany began retreating from Russia, however, the situation soon became untenable on the Finnish frontier as well. The Winter War had found the country unified, but during this second round there was a considerable “peace opposition” in the country. In summer 1944 Finland signed a separate peace agreement with the Allies, and the next six months were spent driving out the German troops which had stayed in Northern Finland.

Finland was never occupied during the war, and all the country’s basic institutions survived the conflict intact. But Finland had been on the losing side. An Allied Control Commission was brought in to run things in the period immediately after armistice. Rightly or wrongly, several leading wartime politicians served short prison sentences as war criminals, and the Commission banned books and films which were considered war propaganda. As far as I know, no songs were officially banned by the Commission, but this may just be proof of the ephemeral nature of popular music.

When the war was over, Finland had to establish good relations with the Allies and learn to trade with its next-door neighbour, the Soviet Union. It would not have been wise to celebrate Finland’s former alliance with Nazi Germany. In post-war Finland, wartime popular songs were unfashionable and undesirable. Many war veterans felt, however, that their memories and their fallen friends were being belittled. Wartime songs lived an underground existence until the 1970s, by which time they had become so much ancient history that many of them were reissued and revived. After the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the unification of Germany, the last hindrances for the airing of such war souvenirs have gone. The time is ripe for a new look at wartime music in Finland. 


The Winter War put an end to musical activities. Mobilization was almost total, and most musicians were called to arms. The Helsinki Symphony stopped giving concerts for two months. Finnish radio and the Radio Orchestra were evacuated to Pori on the west coast and put under military supervision. The programme director was ordered to present more light music: the situation was serious enough without all that serious music on the radio. The members of the Radio Orchestra who were too old for military service were able to continue broadcasts on a limited basis.

During the thirties, Finland had been politically divided into opposing camps of the right and the left. The Winter War had swept away old enmities, and for the first time in Finnish history, employers formally recognized trade unions. It was now felt that the Radio Orchestra should also play a more active social role. Concerts were broadcast from hospitals and factories. The audience cheered when the orchestra finished a lunchtime concert at the Strömberg electrical works with The Workers’ March. Critics applauded, and many municipal orchestras were soon also performing regularly outside their usual concert halls.

When war broke out in 1941, many musicians were again called up. This time, however, the military leaders saw that they would be more useful without arms. Musicians were needed to boost public morale, and soon the army and the government were actively organizing entertainment both for the men at the front and for the civilian population. Musicians, singers and actors were transferred to special “entertainment troops” which gave concerts at garrisons and even in the trenches.

Most countries attempted to influence public sentiment during the war by fostering the production of patriotic and topical songs. In Finland the man entrusted with this task was Capt. R.W. Palmroth, “Palle”, a career officer who had already achieved some fame in the thirties as a poet and songwriter. Now he organized concerts, compiled song books, and wrote new songs for the troops. His best known song during the Winter War was Silmien välliin, which encouraged Finnish soldiers to shoot the Russian between the eyes, if he wouldn’t stop otherwise.

Palmroth's most successful effort, however, was a song competition which gave birth to the most popular Finnish song of the war years. In 1939, the recent Nobel Laureate F.E. Sillanpää had written a patriotic poem celebrating the solidarity of the Finnish people. “Liberty is our greatest treasure, and we are prepared to die for it. As long as a single man is standing, we shall protect our mothers and our brides”, Sillanpää had declared. Palmroth immediately saw the potential in the text and organized a contest, inviting composers to set the poem to music. Many professional composers took part, but the winner was an amateur, Aimo Mustonen. His simple, singable melody was ideal for the song which soon became the anthem of wartime Finland. The song is generally known as Sillanpään marssilaulu (Sillanpää’s March).

Soon other songwriters were also contributing to the war effort without any prompting from the authorities. The Winter War was too short to produce many songs, but during the next war most of the popular songwriters of the thirties decided to try military themes. Even if one just wanted to compose a love song, it was fashionable to write about the soldier at the front longing for his sweetheart back home! Many of these songs appear more or less ridiculous today, as they attempt to paint an excessively idyllic view of the situation: here are the Finnish soldiers enjoying life in their well-built dugouts; they will easily overrun their cowardly enemies when the time arrives, and meanwhile send love and kisses to their girlfriends at home. Of course such propaganda songs were not unique to Finland. Similar ditties were being produced in all the warring countries, to be forgotten as soon as possible after the war.

However, there were also more realistic songs actually written in the trenches, which show how military men attempted to extract some humour from their situation. A classic of this genre is Eldankajärven jää (The Ice on Lake Eldanka, lyrics by E. Tiesmaa to an older popular song), which skilfully and humorously chronicles everyday life at the front, such as digging latrines and hunting wild deer for extra rations. “I eat vitamin tablets and dream of my old lady; when my leave is cancelled, I go and shoot at the Russians instead”.

There were also songs which remembered the victims of the war. One of the most popular was Pienet kukkivat kummut (The Small Flowering Mounds), written during the Winter War by R. Nyholm, another amateur composer. It is a waltz about a mother tending her son’s grave in the churchyard. From today’s perspective it is excessively mawkish and sentimental and loaded with all the clichés of popular song, but if one has seen the rows of gravestones in churchyards commemorating all the nineteen- and twenty-year-olds who died during that winter, the clichés for once take on a deeper meaning.

This, of course, is the main reason for the revival of wartime popular songs. For listeners born in the Swinging 60s, they are just interesting historical documents, no different from the songs of the French Revolution or the American Civil War. But for those who still remember the war from personal experience, and had their friends and relatives killed, it is impossible to forget them. Let us honour their memories.

Finnish musicians George de Godzinsky and Nils-Erik Fougstedt in the Entertainment Troups during World War II. Photographed at a conservatoire hall March 25, 1943.
Photo: Esko Manninen / Sotamuseo


Popular composers usually find it easy to adapt to new situations, even war. The writing of a good popular song requires talent and effort, but an idea for a song can be born in a matter of minutes. For serious composers, the situation was not quite as easy. The writing of serious music demands more time, a commodity that is in short supply during a war. Orchestras had to limit their activities, and there were fewer opportunities to get new works published. During the Winter War most public life was suspended. But for the duration of the Continuation War the two large orchestras in the country – the Radio Orchestra and the Helsinki Symphony – were able to continue their activities almost without interruption. Only once was a concert of the Helsinki Symphony ended prematurely, when bombs fell near the hall.

There is some reason to assume that even without the war, the early 1940s would not have been a very interesting period for Finnish music. The thirties had already been an arid decade. Sibelius has long since retired to Ainola. The succeeding generation of composers, who had achieved a great deal in the twenties, had already largely gone quiet, too. Erkki Melartin (b. 1876) had dlied in 1937. Leevi Madetoja (1887–1947) had not written anything for several years. Selim Palmgren (1878–1951) was approaching retirement age and held a position as professor of composition at the Sibelius Academy, where the younger Aarre Merikanto (1893–1958) taught theory.

Yrjö Kilpinen (1892–1959) did not have any such responsibilities to interfere with his creative work. He had achieved a considerable international reputation in the thirties, when his songs had been successfully performed in many countries, and HMV had recorded his songs under the auspices of the “Kilpinen Society”, but his major works had already been written in the 1920s. His output during the war was limited to some Lieder. Only Uuno Klami (1900–1961), the youngest of the group, was still regularly producing new works. The modernists of the fifties were still students.

Consequently it is not surprising that although a fair number of new Finnish compositions were premiered between [1939 and 1945, not many of them  turned out] to be of lasting importance. Equally, they do not seem to have generated much enthusiasm among contemporary audiences. The Radio Orchestra had to delve back into the past, and in 1943 it played for the first time the earliest symphonic work ever written in Finland, the symphony of Axel Gabriel Ingelius (1847). In the same year the orchestra broadcast Ahti Sonninen’s Itäkarjalainen sarja (East Karelian Suite), well in tune with the then-current Finnish hopes for the annexation of the eastern part of Karelia. Nils-Erik Fougstedt, better known as a conductor, presented several new works, including an orchestral suite Kevään tuntua (Spring Feelings) written during the Winter War.

The Helsinki Symphony also premiered several works during the war years, but none of them have survived in the repertoire. Kalervo Tuukkanen wrote a violin concerto. Lauri Ikonen presented his 4th Symphony, and Einari Marvia wrote a symphonic poem called Virta (The Stream). For this orchestra, Nils-Eric Fougstedt wrote a Preludia eroico. Tauno Pylkkänen took up the Karelian theme once again in Karjalan virsi (Hymn of Karelia).

In retrospect, the most important composer of the war years was probably Uuno Klami, whose expressionistic orchestral music had attracted much attention in the 1920s. In the thirties Klami had made his living as a music journalist and by writing small works for the radio. In 1938 he had received a permanent government grant, but still felt that he had to consolidate his position. A violin concerto written in 1942 was lost soon after it was finished, but Klami rewrote it from memory, and next year presented a concert of his works in Helsinki.

Otherwise, older established composers more or less limited their activities to commissioned works. Palmgren wrote his last major work, the cantata Vallis Gratiae, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the town of Naantali. Several composers wrote marches and songs for various branches of the armed forces. The Axisminded Kilpinen even contributed a march for the volunteer Finnish SS brigade, with lyrics by A.O. Väisänen, professor of music at Helsinki University. However, it did not receive an opus number. 

Jaakko Vuormaa's band: Börje Sundgren (ts), Kurre Anders (as), Henricsson Carl (ts), Sal Furman (tp), Jaakko Vuormaa (dm) Erik Lindström (p), Olle Lindström (b). Photo: 1940 Helsinki city museum.


Popular music during the war was not just propaganda. There are also many people for whom the war years are synonymous with Moonlight Serenade, Begin the Beguine, and One o’clock jump. Swing was a big international youth movement in the late thirties and early forties. Like rock and roll twenty years later, swing was not just a musical idiom, but a lifestyle: specific types of dancing and dress went with it. From the United States, swing spread to Europe with the aid of films, records and visiting musicians, and not even the outbreak of the war could stop it.

Swing also conquered Finland in the early 1940s. The style, of course, was not completely new. Many dance bands had been playing jazz-influenced music in Finland since the late twenties, but it was not until the war years that there emerged a new generation of jazz fans and musicians who were entirely devoted to jazz.

The biggest swing fans could be found among students of the upper classes of grammar schools in Helsinki and other cities. Not yet eligible for military service, they formed bands and clubs and organized concerts. In 1942, some enthusiasts in Helsinki even started a mimeographed magazine called “Swing”. In 1943 it changed its name to “Yam” and began to appear in printed form until wartime paper rationing forced it to close down.

Dancing was banned in Finland during the war. Dancing was unpatriotic and sinful, and it would not do to have some people enjoying this questionable pleasure while others were dying at the front. During 1942 life in Helsinki was relatively peaceful, and the young (including servicemen on leave) were hungry for entertainment. Swing was primarily dance music, but as dancing was not possible, the ban encouraged the presentation of the music in concerts. Secret dances were also held in homes, but the music had to be kept low for fear of the neighbours. There was also a loophole in the regulations: some bureaucrat had forgotten to ban dancing schools, which now did a fine trade teaching jitterbug to youngsters.

New swing records were difficult to obtain during the war. Imports were not available. Some local bands made records, but purchasers had to turn in two used records for every new one. However, Finnish audiences could see all the big names of swing on the screen. Although Finland was at war with Britain and the Soviet Union, the United States never formally declared war. This meant that Finland could continue business with the United States to the extent that it was practically possible. New American films were regularly imported to Finland from neutral Sweden, and the Finns could see Glenn Miller in Sun Valley Serenade, Benny Goodman in Stage Door Canteen, and other popular films which featured swing bands.

The status of jazz in Finland during the war was not entirely unproblematic, considering the historical situation. Finland was a German ally with a strong pro-German faction. Germany was not exactly favourably inclined towards jazz. In Germany and the occupied countries of Europe, swing was forbidden. The pro-Nazi newspaper Ajan suunta had long demanded that the government should put an end to the performance of unpatriotic “nigger music”. It was even more unbearable to the paper that Jaakko Vuormaa (Jacob Furman), the young editor of “Swing” magazine, was Jewish.

However, the Finnish government was determined to preserve civil liberties in wartime as far as possibJe, and attempted to hold its ally ideologically at arm’s length. Only when Germany threatened to stop all exports of raw film to Finland (and thus put an end to the country’s domestic film industry) unless Finland stopped importing American films, was the government forced to bow to their demands. But there were no restrictions on swing concerts and recordings, and when peace finally came, it was celebrated with a spontaneous mass rally in Helsinki, with dancing in the streets to the music of Jaakko Vuormaa’s swing band.


Post-war Finland was different in many ways from Finland in the thirties. In all fields of public life, new faces replaced old ones.

In popular music, the changes were immediate. New singers who had made their debut during the war took over the stage. Many of the young wartime swing fans had became professional musicians. Others turned to the business side of music: most post-war Finnish record industry executives (today already retired) had been organizers of swing clubs during or soon after the war. Although they soon found out that no one could make a living in Finland from jazz alone, they gave post-war popular music a distinctly different sound. In serious music, cycles are longer. As Kimmo Korhonen has noted in a recent article (FMQ 2/92), “The last rays of the late romantic sunset continued in Finland even after World War II, but by then they were already being outshone by other lights”.

In the thirties, Finland had not been favourable to modernism in any form or in any of the arts. The war had delayed the entry of a new generation of composers no longer satisfied with the National Romantic idiom. The 1st Symphony of Einar Englund heralded the beginning of the new era in 1946, when the composer was thirty, but most of the post-war modernists (Bergman, Marttinen, Kokkonen) were well past thirty when their major works appeared. Still, it may be useful to remember that the war was not just a traumatic or nostalgic interlude in Finnish history, it was the beginning of many new things. 

Featured photo by SA-kuva: An unknown guitarist entertaining the troops during the "Continuation war" in Finland. 

This article was first published in FMQ 3/1992 and is now (March 2022) republished with the kind permission of the author.

More articles on music and war:

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