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What’s been written for the kantele?

by Pekka Jalkanen

“Nowadays, a great variety of music is played on the kantele. Its repertoire includes neoclassical, minimalist, and modern music. The kantele is also a more international instrument than ever before”, writes Pekka Jalkanen in his article about contemporary music for kantele (FMQ 3/2008).

Finnish art music used to give the kantele the cold shoulder. The instrument was relegated to the role of a prehistoric relic even in the mid-1800s, while national Romanticism was simultaneously making the Kalevala part of the national iconography. Only the modern, diatonic box kantele with 20 to 35 strings was accepted as the national instrument.

The kantele player Kreeta Haapasalo (1813–1893), an Ostrobothnian tenant farmer’s wife, was the first national kantele icon, and she became the darling of the nationalist intelligentsia. Haapasalo’s style continued to be emulated for nearly 100 years. She originally played folk music from central Ostrobothnia but was also influenced by central European harp players touring Finland. It seems that the new type of kantele was modelled on the 20-string Tyrolean harp.

The Ingrian-born orchestra musician Paul Salminen (1887–1949) was an important kantele authority  in the 1920s and 30s. He arranged hundreds of mostly popular and folk songs for the kantele for teaching and concert use.

Salminen’s student Ulla Katajavuori (1909–2001) perfected the national Roman tie style of appearing on stage. Dressed like Aino in the Kalevala and with a braided wig, she tirelessly performed at various occasions and on the radio starting in the 1920s, toured the USA, and recorded. Her bravura piece Karjalan kunnailla spurred on pan-Finnish dreams in wartime performances at the front and served as crisis therapy for Karelian refugees after the war.

Sibelius dared to compose for the kantele

But no kantele was to be heard in art music. Jean Sibelius (1865–1957) finally composed two miniatures, Dolcissimo and Moderato, for the 22-string kantele in 1898, and a third one, Kehtolaulu, in 1899. At the time, Sibelius was the only composer who had a proper feel for Kalevala songs and music.

Other art music works written for the kantele up until the 1950s can be counted with the fingers of one hand. Inspired by Pasi Jääskeläinen [1869–1920], Oskar Merikanto (1868–1924) wrote the small Biedermeier piece Helkähdys in 1904. Erkki Melartin’s (1875–1937) Kalevala opera Aino (1909) includes a scene in which a tastefully archaic kantele accompanies a few measures of an aria recounting the birth of Väino’s (Väinämonen's) kantele. The harpist and kantele player Väinö Hannikainen (1900–1960) made numerous virtuoso arrangements of folk songs for Paul Salminen and also composed two solo pieces himself, Intermezzo and Tyttärelleni.

The conductor and composer Armas Järnefelt (1869–1958) wrote a small part for the five-string kantele in his cantata Isänmaan kasvot (1927). The most ambitious piece of the time played on the kantele was Melartin’s melodrama Maria (1915). Among the rare contemporary works composed specifically for the concert kantele were the post-Romantic Viisi Impromptua (1944) and Metsälampi (1946) by the church organist and composer Toivo Elovaara [1907–1978].

Finnish composers were not enthusiastic about the kantele for many reasons. Its playing and construction skills were quite primitive. The biggest problem was its petrified tradition; the ideal of nationality had revived but simultaneously paralysed it. When nationalism became more political, music withdrew into its folk-costumed absurdity. Just as happened in choir singing, performances of always the same arrangements of always the same folk songs resulted in loss of public interest.

Pokela revives the kantele

The state of the kantele was alarming in the 1960s. In fact, only the kantele music that merged into the traditional pelimanni music of central and northern Ostrobothnia had some vitality left. But there were still some who believed in the kantele’s possibilities as an instrument. The kantele player, teacher, and professor Martti Pokela (1924–2007) has the honour of having pulled the instrument out of its slough.

His efforts to save the kantele were not restricted to being a musician and composer. He also organised the teaching of folk music and kantele playing at the Sibelius Academy in the 80s.

It was also essential for the kantele’s revival that the Kanteleliitto (Kantele Society) was founded in 1977 to deal with the issues facing kantele players, makers, research, and teaching. Under the leadership of Ismo Sopanen, the difficult problem was solved of building up a new repertoire suitable for higher education and concert use. Thanks to commissions, competitions, and festivals, about 200 new contemporary music works for kantele have been written during the last 30 years.

The new compositions have helped to get rid of old prejudices. The national instrument is once again an instrument and kantele music is once again music.

Neoclassicism predominates

About half of the compositions written since the 1980s and commissioned by the Kanteleliitto can be considered neoclassicist. It is advisable to use the term loosely to mean works based on French influences as well as works influenced by the “second generation” neoclassicism of Bartók, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich.

The extremes are Hannu Syrjälahti’s idyllic miniatures and Ahti Karjalainen’s pastoral Kantelekonsertto (1983) on the one hand and Harri Ahmas’s and Kirmo Lintinen’s chromatic free tonality on the other.

The doyen of living composers writing for the kantele, Tauno Marttinen (1912–2008), makes use of Baroque toccata passages and polyphony as well as post-Romantic expressive harmonies and timbres. Together with Pokela, Marttinen played an important role during the kantele’s years of crisis.

Pehr Henrik Nordgren (1944–2008) studied in Japan and then settled down in the Finnish town Kaustinen where he composed the spare, somewhat Butoh-inspired Equivocations for kantele and string trio. His cantata Taivaanvalot (1985) is a large work for mixed and children’s choir and an orchestra consisting of archaic folk music instruments, flutes, horns, rattles, and kanteles. The first of Nordgren’s two kantele concertos explores what is idiomatic to the instrument using differently tuned chromatic octave ranges.

The second concerto (2000) is without doubt one of the most important works of the kantele repertoire. It is based on traditional dirge melodies, which use the Kalevalaic minor pentachord. Due to its archaism, it is related to Sibelius’s Tapiola, which is also inspired by weeping, the mysterious “tune of the forest”.

Pekka Kostiainen (b. 1944), famous for his choral works, has composed the solo pieces Imbroglio (1984) and Contemplations (2007) for kantele. His Concertino for Kantele and Orchestra (1998) in three movements makes use of the five-string piece Konevitsan kirkonkellot. Lasse Jalava’s Konsertto kanteleelle ja jousille (Concerto for Kantele and Strings, 1999) achieves a French neoclassicist atmosphere even in its melancholiness.

Jukka Linkola (b.1955), who started out as a jazz pianist, has been very successful in also transferring his neoclassicist jazz-spiced idiom to the kantele. His Summer Tales (1997), Neliapila (1999), Jortsut (2003), and Kolme karaktääriä (2004) are colourful, challenging, and often humorous works that test the player's lever dexterity.

A kindred soul is Lintinen, also a jazz pianist. His works explore the dimensions of stylistic eclecticism: Vesi (2002) for two kanteles is based on the contrast between the twelve-tone technique and tonality. Harri Ahmas’s (b.1957) large, very chromatic chamber music works Karjalainen Apollo (1997), the melodrama Eriskummallinen kantele (2000), and the ecology-oriented multimedia work Aspects of the Finnish nature (on this planet) from 2001 are in their expressiveness related to the works of the previously mentioned composers.

Seppo “Paroni” Paakkunainen (b.1943) used the kantele already in the band Karelia that he founded in the 1970s, and he has since written stylistically eclectic and experimental music for example for the Sibelius Academy’s kantele ensemble. The large and in many directions expansive solo work Fraghal (2006) uses five-string recordings played by Wilhelmiina Halonen [1840–1913]. The Karelian kantele player Matti Kontio (b. 1947[–2017]) has also composed solo pieces, for example Mitä soivat Kirkonkellot (1984) and Eco (1987), as well as chamber music, for example Kerimäen kirkonkellot, Hullun Sakarin polska, Veljensä surmannut, for eg. the Sibelius Academy’s kantele ensemble that he founded in the 1980s. The many years of collaboration with Pokela can be heard in Kontio’s Kalevala-inspired works.

Harri Wessman’s (b, 1949) two humorous kantele suites, Keskeneräinen sarja nokkahuilulle ja kanteleelle and Kalevala-sarja, frolic in the spare and ironic neoclassicist spirit of Erik Satie. The first suite is supposed to be a depiction of the countryside of Karelia, the second of the Kalevala. Ilkka Kuusisto (b. 1933) has composed two moving works as Kanteleliitto commissions, Sarja kanteleelle (1993) and Korttikannel (2004). Matti Murto’s (b. 1947) pieces Balladi ja Loitsu (1989) and Kolme myyttistä kuvaa for kantele and string quartet (1995) are based on various chromatic scales. In the chamber music works of Heikki Valpola (b. 1946) (Kantona 1997, Ludit II, 2001) and Timo Alakotila (Rapsodia kanteleelle ja harmonikalle, 2001) there is often energetic and capricious folk music material to counterpoise the lyrical arts. Individual works that can be classified as neoclassicist have also been written by Štěpán Rak, Fridrich Bruk, Minna Raskinen, Timo-Juhani Kyllonen, Markus Fagerudd, Atso Almila, and Ilari Laakso, for example, in addition to the pieces written by many kantele players for their teaching needs.

Minimalism and kantele go well together

Minimalism based on repetition, slow variation, and meditative tones is as if straight from the “silent elation” aesthetics of archaic five-string kantele music. In Finnish contemporary music, this style has been marginal – in contrast to the situation in contemporary folk music. Minimalism has its staunch supporters in new kantele music.

Erkki Salmenhaara’s (1941–2002) Balladi and Inventio (1981) are the pioneer works of kantele minimalism. These miniatures and their very limited diatonic material are simultaneously neoclassicist and minimalist. Baroque-like harmonic progressions and imitations connect it with the former, repetition and as it were surreptitious variation with the latter. Salmenhaara himself has called his style neo-simplicity.

In Kai Nieminen’s (b, 1953) numerous kantele works (, Menneestä ajasta ja hiljaisuudesta 1990, Itämaisia satuja 1993, Triptyykki 1994, Tanssinhaltija 1995) minimalism often merges with expressive chromatics and timbre effects. Their general nature is peaceful, static, and often very Japanese in character.

Juhani Nuorvala’s Kolme impromptua klarinetille ja kanteleelle (1995) has become a classic of kantele minimalism. In it, the kantele’s five tones form a harmonic series. The kantele’s tones resonate with the clarinet’s microintervals and sometimes produce surprising overtone chatter amidst the already magical sound. In the middle movement, the kantele becomes a percussion instrument and the clarinet quotes a piece of melody from The Kinks.

Nuorvala has also used the kantele in a few of his Piae Cantiones arrangements. The little piece Toivo (2006) for 15-string kantele tuned according to the overtone series also uses an electronically produced soundscape and was originally written as theatre music. The miniature Lehmuksen alla (2007) on the other hand is composed for an electric kantele with Pythagorean tuning. Tones that differ from equal temperament and the resulting overtone resonance are indeed the structural and aesthetic foundation of Nuorvala’s music – a bridge from the prehistoric past to today.

Eero Hämeenniemi (b. 1951), who has transformed from a strict Korvat auki modernist into a specialist of Indian music, represents minimalism’s origins in ethnicity in his solo piece Randzani (2005). The work is based on the Hindustani sivarandzani raga – in Western terms a Doric made with an augmented fourth degree. The Indian influence can be heard not only in the modal structure and the scale passages but also in the rhythms that capriciously change and are often simultaneously asymmetric.

My own kantele works consist of about twenty compositions ranging from solo pieces to chamber music and a concerto. As a composer (b. 1945) I’m a minimalist interested in archaisms and ethnic topics. At the beginning of the 1980s, I was interested in Kalevala melodies and the small kantele. The material used in my kantele works has come from, besides the Kalevala, the Balkans, the Mediterranean, and antiquity.

In my opinion, the five-string kantele is a distant relative of the sacral instruments of antiquity, the harp and the lyre. Adaptations of the modes and tuning systems of antiquity can be heard for example in the following works of mine: Kanteleseptetto (1987), Toccata (1992), Siemen (1993), Kantelekonsertto (1997), Yrtti (1998), and Pro Terva (2003). The extremes of my idiom are motives consisting of a few diatonic tones and the large modal sound fields these develop into. 

Composer Pekka Jalkanen Photo By Maarit Kytoharju
Pekka Jalkanen
Photo: Maarit Kytöharju

Lyricism predominates in post-serial works

Post-serial atonality was considered the official modernism of Finnish music from the beginning of the 1970s to the end of the 1990s. This caused conflicts with the kantele, which favours tonality and diatonic music. This in turn is one reason why no member of the older generation of atonalists has agreed to touch the kantele with a ten-foot pole, and this also applies to most members of the middle generation. But for younger composers who are also interested in stylistic eclecticism and connections between the arts the kantele is quite a different matter.

The post-serial pioneering work for kantele was Jukka Tiensuu’s (b. 1948) Manaus – aavesonaatti kanteleelle (1989). This modern nocturne was commissioned by the Kanteleliitto and has become a classic. Quarter tones, tiny lever movements, flageolets (harmonics), and damping combine to form a very varied texture that requires quick reactions and is sometimes aggressive and sometimes lyrical. The culmination point, a long, rising continuous glissando achieved by means of the tuning levers, transforms the mood from that of nocturnal hooting into that of the breaking of dawn.

Tapio Nevanlinna’s (b.1954) three compositions, Foto 2 for vibraphone and kantele (1997), Soimisesta (2001), and Hypatian ripset for two kanteles (2005) are spare and refined texture and timbre studies. The rich use of flageolet tones especially in the solo piece Soimisesta extends the number of available tones from 12 to a palette of 24.

The same kind of lyrical intensity is also found in Harri Suilamo’s (b. 1954) solo and chamber music works. The piece ...naavan lämmin nipistys... for accordion and kantele (1995) produces layers like the branches of a spruce tree. The contrasts and similarities between the sounds of the kantele and the accordion are also central aspects of the composition. Unohduksen pisara – rukousnauhasonaatteja konserttikanteleelle (2001) is a meditative suite for solo kantele in six parts that makes extensive use of flageolets and delicate effects. It should be mentioned that this piece was the first kantele composition that was admitted to an ISCM festival (2008).

Hannu Pohjannoro’s maan väreiksi taipuu valo for kantele and percussion instruments (1997) is similar in spirit, like a fragile watercolour painting. The main idea is to make the sounds of the percussion instruments and the kantele approach each other and merge as far as possible.

Spare and concentrated lyricism in which a post-serial idiom is often spiced with various playing technique innovations and special tunings also predominates in many other post-serial works. Jovanka Trbojević’s (b. 1963[–2017]) Lento (2001) is built on a on a low drone and receives an extra flavour in the form of a buzzing distortion by means of a pen feather wrapped around a string. Similar stylistic pieces have been composed among others by Jyrki Linjama, Tapani Länsiö and Perttu Haapanen.

Asko [Asta] Hyvärinen’s (b, 1963) solo piece Valse griffyr (2002) completely breaks away from the previously mentioned pieces. The work puts the durability of the instrument to the test and moves provocatively back and forth between noises and tones. Metal against metal is the origin of the composition’s “unbright” sound. An early kindred piece of Valse griffyr is Lauri Nykopp’s sound study Luft är och ljus (1981).

Works on the borderline between serial music and free tonality tend to emphasise expressiveness and drama. Jarmo Sermilä’s (b.1939) boisterous Danza 3 för violin and kantele (1992) starts out with the combination tones of the violin’s double stops and sometimes switches to another kantele with another tuning. Tapio Tuomela’s (b, 1958) works for the kantele (Mirage, Lemmin loitsu and Kuura) all feature repetitions, scale passages, glissandos, and sometimes aleatoric music that suit the instrument exceedingly well. A charming effect used by Tuomela is a tremolo between strings using a pencil. The innovation was discovered by accident when the composer's pencil fell onto the strings.

The kantele goes abroad too

Along with contemporary music in general, kantele music has since about 2000 become more eclectic and more receptive to all kinds of influences of both older art music and other kinds of music. When Kimmo Hakola (b. 1958) wants, he metamorphoses from an atonalist into an unashamed eclectic. Uljas Pulkkis’s (b. 1975) delicate Orpheus depiction Laet lauloi for flute and kantele (2006) portrays in an even slightly national Roman tie spirit Väinämöinen’s kantele playing, which spreads out into the entire universe in waves. Max Savikangas’s (b. 1969) lively chamber music work Geeniparanneltu Väinämöinen laulaa kyborgi-Joukahaisen lumeavaruuden mustaan aukkoon (2006) makes use of instrumental theatre, scale improvisation, and electronics.

Herman Rechberger (b. 1947), one of the pioneers of stylistic eclecticism and multiculturalism, already used the kantele in his early chamber music works in the 1970s. In Miika Hyytiäinen’s (b. 1982) performance Lotus (2006), the means of expression include live kantele, electronics, realtime composing, and paintings of the lotus flowers that intoxicated Odysseus’s men.

The kantele’s global potential can also be seen in that others besides Finns have begun to compose for it. In addition to the composers mentioned above who either studied in or moved to Finland, colleagues in North and South America, Scandinavia, Central Europe, and Japan have written for the kantele. And both traditional and more modern music has been composed for kantele-related instruments throughout the 1900s in the Baltic countries and Belarus.

Iannis Xenakis used kantele lever glissandos together with the Arab canun in his chamber opera Oresteïa (1965–66). The Finnish American Melvin Kangas (b. 1933), who studied at the Sibelius Academy, composed Kanteletar 1:32 for orchestra + kantele in 1973, which was based on a reminiscence played by the composer himself of the piece Konevitsan kirkonkellot. Since then, the following works, for example, of which some were commissioned, have been composed by other composers: Štěpán Rak’s neoclassicist timbre study Spektrum (1991), Satoshi Minami’s Impression Solo for kantele (2000), which uses Japanese melodies and koto plectrums, Miklos Maros’s Byzantine-inspired Apodikna, (1999), Karin Rehnqvist’s Interludes for kantele (2000), timeless in its diatonicness, and Per Magnus Lindborg’s Mao-variations for violin, cello, and kantele (2006), which were inspired by Mao’s oratory style.

There's plenty of kantele repertoire, all over the world.

Find out more Finnish works for kantele at Music Finland’s Composers and Repertoire pages here.

Translation: Ekhart Georgi
Featured photo: Paul Lenz

This article was first published in print in FMQ 3/2008 and is now (September 2021) republished online with the kind permission of the author.