in From the Archives

What is “Finnish” in Finnish music?

by Mikko Heiniö

"The 'Finnish element' - if indeed it even exists in the empirical sense - is no unique property; it is the sum of numerous factors each weighted in a different way", writes Mikko Heiniö in his analytical article in FMQ 2/1992.
The question of defining the unique national quality of a country’s music is a topical one in a Europe facing change and integration. But it is also an extremely difficult one to answer. To begin with: the Finnish element of our music may be as difficult for me to see as my own shoulder blade. Secondly: I doubt I can point to a single feature of Finnish music that cannot be found anywhere else in Europe. The “Finnish element” – if indeed it even exists in the empirical sense – is no unique property; it is the sum of numerous factors each weighted in a different way.

Yet people are always asking: “What is Finnish in Finnish music?” The word “Finnish” appears twice in the question. In other words it has at least two different meanings.

When we say that music is Finnish, we may mean that (1) it was written by a composer a) living in Finland or b) born in Finland (2) it ties in with Finland’s national history (3) a) the name or b) the words are particularly Finnish (4) it contains Finnish folk music (5) it is a) by Sibelius or b) “Sibelian” (6) its style is a) traditional, b) undeveloped or limited or c) not international or (7) it is by nature Finnish: e.g. gloomy, melancholy, leisurely, etc.

Features 1-3 are extra-musical and 4-6 refer, to a greater or lesser degree, to concrete features within the music. Yet (6a), and especially (6b), often involve a set of values rather than a statement of musical history, and (6c) is more or less the musical-political conclusion drawn from these values. Item (7) is the one on which you might, judging from the title of my article, expect me to take a stand. In that case I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you, because any assessment of the nature of Finnish music inevitably, it seems, turns out to be speculative.



In writing the history of Finnish music we have had to debate which composers are in fact involved. The answer is simple and liberal: any composer who was born in or who has settled in Finland. But the problem is not quite as simple as it may seem.

In l852 the writer Zachris Topelius put forth the View – now generally accepted – that the founder of Finnish music was a German by the name of Fredrik Pacius. On the other hand Bernhard Henrik Crusell, who at the age of 16 left Viipuri and spent the rest of his life in Stockholm, could not, he claimed, be classified as a Finnish composer and musician. But this happened in 1791, when Finland was part of the Swedish kingdom, so in other words the composer merely moved from an eastern province to the capital of the kingdom. No wonder the Swedes look upon him as a Swedish composer. The same honour has not, however, been bestowed on a contemporary of Crusell’s, Erik Tulindberg.

True, Tulindberg did not settle in Sweden as we know it today. But whether or not a composer is afforded a place in the national music history does not, of course, depend only on what he did and where, but also on his rating on the musical stock exchange. If Tulindberg’s string quartets enjoyed the same international reputation as Crusell’s clarinet concertos, he might well find himself included in the history of Swedish music, too.

There are others who, like Pacius and Crusell, were travellers. Herman Rechberger moved in 1970, at the age of 23, from Linz to Finland, and Kaija Saariaho had already settled in Paris before she began making a name for herself. In the minds of the Finnish music historians they represent Finnish music just as much as Pacius and Crusell. And if you should ask whether they will also go down in the musical history of Austria and France, I would remind you of Tulindberg and say: it depends on their aesthetic rating.

In style Crusell and Tulindberg were directly influenced by the Viennese classicism of Germany and Austria, and Pacius by early romanticism. In the same way young contemporary Composers like Rechberger and Saariaho are closely in touch with the international trends. It would thus be wiser to seek our ‘typically Finnish music’ somewhere between these two extremes.



Not until Finland became an autonomous grand duchy of the Russian Empire in 1809 did she begin to develop into a nation with a sense of her own identity. But elsewhere, too, nationalism and the nation states did not emerge until after the Enlightenment, and only then can the music they produced be considered as national. The national-romantic movement grew out of a socio-historical need on the eastern and northern periphery of Europe, where the art music tradition was not as old as it was further south.

National-romantic style is equated with “Finnish style”. Yet Finnish national music was being written before the national-romantic era and thereafter. The music closely linked in its day with the historical events uniting the nation has come to be regarded as national (and indeed patriotic) Finnish music. Function has proved to be more decisive than content: the musical material itself may even be of completely foreign origin, yet no one is in the least bit concerned. The best—known example of this is, of course, our national anthem, Maamme, by Pacius. It is based on a German mazurka and the poem in Swedish Vårt land by J.L. Runeberg, the Finnish translation of which poorly fits the music.

Biafra, a country no longer to be found on the map of Africa, went even further than Finland in its search for a national anthem and arrived at Sibelius’s Finlandia. So this work cannot be regarded as very exclusively Finnish.

It nevertheless acquired great symbolic value during the years of oppression in the early 20th century, when Russia was trying to curtail the autonomy of the Finnish grand duchy. The patriotic reception of Finlandia was later enhanced by its use in Edvin Laine’s film The Unknown Soldier (based on the novel by Väinö Linna).

The music that acquires national significance is thus very much a question of chance and convention. A certain piece of music emerges in a given historical and social context. And if it is musically “strong” enough to become common property, it elicits the emotions dictated by that socio-historical situation.

Music is thus a flexible sign language and can tolerate all sorts of contexts. When the Finnish music in the BBC’s TV documentary In the Giant’s Footsteps was illustrated with scenes showing Finnish lakes and forests, they were just as applicable to the music of Magnus Lindberg as to that of Sibelius. (Far more astonishing combinations have been made. One documentary on Vietnam showing a B-52 leaving behind a trail of bombs like a string of beads is eternally etched on my mind simply because the film was grotesquely intensified by a certain piece of music: the Intermezzo from Sibelius’s Karelia Suite).



The name of a composition is extra-musical in the sense that it lies outside the structure of the music. Yet the name — even of a purely instrumental piece — is in a sense an integral part of the work. Even though the structure of the music remains the same, the work is not strictly speaking the same if it is given a different name. The name inevitably influences the associations and emotions aroused by the work in the listener. The catalogues of works written in the first half of this century in particular are full of names taken from Finnish history, nature, geography, and above Kalevala mythology. These titles put the listener in a national frame of mind.

During the period of nationalism prevailing in the 1930s international stimuli could be smuggled into Finnish music by calling in a national subject. The Abduction of Kyllikki by Aarre Merikanto and the Kalevala Suite by Uuno Klami were hits despite their Stravinskian elements. Admittedly the type of international element smuggled in was also decisive; had it been written in the style of Schönberg, the reception of the Kalevala Suite would have been frosty to say the least.

When in 1984 a young-generation composer, Eero Hämeenniemi, wrote an orchestral work called Soitto (Music for Orchestra), the thing that caught the listener’s attention was not merely that the subject has associations with Väinämöinen (one of the central figures in Finland’s national epic, the Kalevala), but the very fact that the title is in Finnish. For the majority of young Finnish composers want to underline their international ideals by giving their works French names. Hämeenniemi purposely made an unfashionable choice – not in absolute terms but in relation to his contemporaries.

Now since the title alone can help to decide whether or not people look on a work as Finnish, the words carry an even greater influence. This applies particularly to the best-known songs by Pacius. National romanticism gave birth to countless choral works imbued with the national spirit, and the trend continued well into the present century. As I have already said, both the social function and the subject or programme of a work placed highly superficial demands on the actual musical content. The same applies to the text: this again could be served up in the most various of guises without endangering the content.

The Finlandia Hymn is known in Finland to the words of V.A. Koskenniemi, but hundreds of other texts and arrangements have been produced. Judging from the titles, the American words seem on the whole to have preserved the patriotic tone of Koskenniemi’s text (e.g. Beloved Land, A Land of Ours, Our Great Lone Hills), or the religious approach of the words by Wäinö Sola (e.g. God’s Treasures, Accept Our Thanks, Be Still My Soul). There are, however, cases in which the new text in fact gives the music a completely different content, especially in folk music. Many folk songs have been raised from the status of jingles to become Christian-patriotic songs; for example, the love song Kreivin sylissä istunut has lent its melody to the poem Olet maamme armahin synnyinmaa by J.H. Erkko.



In setting out to establish a national brand of music, the peripheral states of 19th century Europe turned to their folk music. The musical concepts of the national romantic era are still very much alive, so the extent to which Finnish music is “Finnish” will, I suspect, depend considerably on how much folk material they contain. Yet the folk melodies now thought to express the national element may originally have come from quite unrelated peoples. Or even if they did originate in Finland, they only acquired national weight at a much later date, by which time they had already become isolated from their own milieu.

Many people would say that Smetana’s Moldau superbly captures the spirit of the Bohemian landscape and countryside. But it is a well-known fact that the theme corresponds to the Swedish folk tune Ack, Värmeland du sköna, which the composer probably heard while engaged as a conductor in Gothenburg. Vain pieni kansanlaulu is in many people’s opinion a genuine Finnish folk song, but it comes from the fourth symphony, Oratorio volgare, by Sulho Ranta to words by R. Mustapää (1951). But it can hardly be attributed to Ranta any more than to Finnish folk tradition, for it was already being used by Mendelssohn in his fourth symphony, in a German work bearing the epithet “Italian” (1833)!

Foreign origin has not, therefore, constituted any obstacle to regarding a folk melody as being markedly Finnish once it has become popular here. And the very fact of making a folk melody an element of art music is an expression of belief in its domestic origin. What could seem more utterly Finnish to composers and listeners alike than such instrumental works as the Finnish Rhapsody by Robert Kajanus (1886), the second symphony of Leevi Madetoja (1918), the Karelian Rhapsody of Uuno Klami (1927), the Summer Scenes of Väinö Raitio (1935) or Fiddlers by Einojuhani Rautavaara? In all of these works motifs or elements of Finnish folk music operate, as it were, on their own terms, in other words they are not placed in a context that is completely alien to their tonal system. Folk music could be said to merge with art music to form an organic entity – already one of the guiding principles of national romanticism.

The closer we come to the present day, the more obvious it becomes that a composer can exploit folk music without creating a national impression. Take, for example, the Schott Concerto by Aarre Merikanto (1925), in which a folk dance suddenly pops up in the second movement, creating a marked contrast to its surroundings in both rhythm and tonality. The ‘joiku’-like motifs in Erik Bergman’s Lapponia (1975) and the numerous folk instrument timbres in Pehr Henrik Nordgren’s The Lights of Heaven (1934) to me sound not “Finnish” but exotic. It is interesting to note, what is more, that both composers have also drawn on non-European music.

To the modernists of the 1950s and 1960s folk music was taboo. This view continued to prevail in the post-serial music of the young generation of Finnish composers writing in the late seventies and early eighties (the Korvat auki / Ears Open group). It now seems to be on the wane. Esa-Pekka Salonen said in an interview during the Helsinki Biennale in 1991 that the time for “paper music” is past and that contemporary composers can once again even use folk music with a clear conscience. By “contemporary composers” Salonen presumably meant the composers approved by the festivals specialising in new music. For while the adherents of the Darmstadt school and their descendants have been trying to define what exactly is meant by “new music”, countless other composers the world over have been happily making use of folk music.

As such, Salonen’s statement supports what I have already said: that folk music elements do not necessarily make music national. This generalisation is, however, dangerous outside Europe. The further a composer travels to introduce us to his music, the more automatically we look upon him as the specific representative of a given nation. The horizon of expectation is nationally oriented. Once in Scotland the Finns showed a video of Paavo Heininen’s opera The Damask Drum. The comments were, I am told, along the lines of “Fine – but what’s Finnish about it?”



Sibelius made very limited use of clear folk music stimuli. They chiefly applied to his Kullervo, and appear to be one reason why he later wanted to have nothing to do with this “youthful folly”. Scholars have therefore had to turn to his use of church modes to discover anything Finnish (though naturally these are not in themselves Finnish). Sibelius got landed at an early age with a task about which his supporters were more enthusiastic than he was himself: the task of “raising Finnish music”. In this he succeeded beyond all expectation, but it still left his supporters with one problem: to satisfy the demands of Finland’s emerging national awareness, Sibelius had to be both a national and an international master. And out in Europe nationalism has often been regarded as an obstacle to internationalism.

Schönberg, for example, sneered at “folkloristic symphonies”, and Hindemith reckoned musical nationalism would result in a show of dilettantes. (In the eyes of the Germans German music has always been universal, the music of other countries national.)

The type of problem that arises in trying to define the Finnish element in Sibelius’s music is reflected in statements such as these:

“The way he creates and feels instinctively goes hand in hand with the Finnish scenery and the spirit of the people. (…) But on the other hand it is relatively common (…) for the unique, individual character of the composer to be made too dependent on Finnish nationality, Finland’s landscape and history.” (Leevi Madetoja 1935.)

“In his idiom could be heard sounds going beyond the style of the melodies of the people, this is naturally a figurative way of speaking, but it does reflect the inner quality of this music. This idiom, or so the listener understands it, then as now, was the ingenious expression of impressions of the Finnish countryside and ancient past. Closer analysis of it would be akin to analysing the maestro’s personality.” (Taneli Kuusisto 1950.)

Sibelius is, therefore, Finnish because he was influenced by his Finnish surroundings. But what makes him Finnish can no longer be distinguished from what makes him Sibelius. In other words, the music of Sibelius is Finnish because it is Sibelius. This is not just a vicious circle, however, but a case of viewing the interaction between the environment and the artist from both sides. Or as the cosmopolite Ernest Pingoud said in 1928: great artists “draw their strength from the most central and most important blood vessels in their milieu”, but at the same time they guide “the bloodstreams of the time in a certain direction”.

This explains why the “Sibelian” style really does sound Finnish – and the Finnish style “Sibelian”. Listening today to, for example, the Adagio religioso from Joonas Kokkonen’s Music for Strings, the impression is very Finnish. Closer analysis then reveals features reminiscent of late Sibelius.

Outside Finland the music of Sibelius was right from the very beginning stamped “Made in Finland”; and the stamp still holds, even though he is an international name. Foreigners often think they can detect Sibelian overtones in other Finnish music, too. I recall that this once happened even to Herman Rechberger almost before he had even arrived in Finland!



The works classified as new Finnish music and written in the 1970s that sound traditional are the ones that cultivate tonal elements and simple rhythms and textures, whereas the ones that sound modern are those characterized by atonality and complex rhythms and textures. The former represent free tonality (Joonas Kokkonen, Aulis Sallinen), the latter post-serialism (Usko Meriläinen, Paavo Heininen). I believe the listener regards the free tonal works as being more typically Finnish than the post-serialist ones.

In other words “Finnish” may easily be equated with “traditional” and “traditional” with “Finnish”. Whether or not music is traditional can be debated by assessing its relationship with history, but in practice it seems difficult to speak of traditionalism without at the same time adopting a positive or negative attitude to it. Traditional implies homey, and homey may inspire a sense of either security of claustrophobia. An ideological war has for decades been waging in Finland between the advocates of national versus international music, and the arguments have changed very little.

In 1975 the operas of Sallinen and Kokkonen sparked off a veritable opera boom in Finland. Much of their success was undoubtedly due to the traditionality of their idiom and their Finnish themes. The young composers of the Ears Open group took to calling these works “fur hat operas”.

They could not believe they would ever make it onto an international stage. But they were wrong. By contrast, the post-serial opera The Damask Drum (1984) by Paavo Heininen, which the youngsters hailed as an alternative to the “fur hat operas”, never got off the ground. (The reason is that opera and the new music circles which accept Heininen but not Kokkonen and Sallinen are two different institutions, two different worlds. The values, modes of operation, artists, organisers and audiences of these institutions differ to such an extent that they seldom meet.)

The music regarded as being exclusively Finnish may therefore at the same time be regarded as conservative, undeveloped and restricted. The “not international” stamp may, of course, simply mean it has failed to arouse foreigners’ interest. But it may also imply the musical-political conclusion: not suitable for foreigners. The conclusion is either right or wrong, depending on where our musical exports are aiming. If we want to export Finnish music to the established European cultures and record a quick success, then we had better abide by their rules. The French and the Germans will accept new Finnish music (by such composers as Kaija Saariaho and Magnus Lindberg) that does not in principle differ in any way from their own music. The Nordic countries and the UK – to say nothing of the USA – will take a far wider variety, including composers branded as being national (from Leevi Madetoja to Aulis Sallinen).



The basic question remains: is Finnish music by nature of a certain type? According to Boris V Asafyev music, like language, is the accumulated experience of different generations, a “fund of intonation”, part of the collective awareness of a given time and place. It therefore seems sensible to imagine that the Finnish element in a composer, society, history, in other words the cultural environment as a whole, is what makes music Finnish. Maybe the Finnish element is to be found in the popular music close to the everyday lives of the people, in which the pieces are all much of a muchness. On the other hand I think recent Finnish art music as a whole defies national analysis.

The Finnish element is the sum of innumerable special features. Not many of these special features are in themselves necessarily peculiar to Finland alone; what is Finnish is the certain constellation they form. But even this constellation is undergoing constant historical change: we can at best say that at a particular moment a considerable proportion of Finnish music is of a certain nature, but beyond that this nature has little continuity. To carry the point even further, we could say that at a certain moment music of a certain kind is simply well to the fore, in other words in fashion.

The “national character” is ultimately no more than a metaphor for the constellation of different cultural- historical properties, and there is no point searching it for deterministic genes. For some reason we just assume that a nation will behave like the individual of whom we say, “He can’t help being what he is.”

It is therefore tempting to look on such traits as melancholy, gloominess and the darker shades in the colour scale as being typical of the Finnish character and thus of Finnish music. It is tempting to speak in the same breath of the suicide statistics, the long winter nights and the Finnish liking for the bass register (in opera roles and instrumentation alike). It is indeed easy to point to the darker shades in the music of such composers as Kuula, Madetoja and Nordgren.

But it is not, I am sure, the dominant feature of our music, or even an exclusively Finnish feature; at this stage people usually mention the Slavs. Another typically Finnish feature is, so people claim, the leisurely pace of which Kokkonen is such a good example. The popularity enjoyed by Kokkonen in the 1970s has, it seems, encouraged people to generalize individual properties and to call them national.

I suspect that as soon as someone hits on a good criterion for the Finnish character, he will not be able to find enough fitting examples, or else he will find just as many examples proving the opposite. There will be no statistical evidence.

The Finnish nature of Finnish music thus looks to be a highly speculative phenomenon that evades musical analysis. I should, however, point out that it is widely believed, both in Finland and elsewhere, that Finnish music is by nature typically Finnish. At some stage the conclusion is therefore drawn that music of such-and-such type is by nature Finnish. In the national-romantic era such conclusions – however conventional or arbitrary they may originally have been – might persist for a long time and even influence creative composition. The remnants of national romanticism lived on in Finland right up to the 1950s, in other words until the structural changes in society and the economy that revolutionised our entire culture. In the process our music became as international as it was in the days of Crusell; the epithet “Finnish” vanished from sight and became no more than a myth.


This article is an abridged version of “Suomalaisen musiikin suomalaisuus” first appearing in Musiikkitiede 1/1991. It was first published in FMQ 2/1992 and is republished with the kind permission of the author.