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Music and Nationality – Who is a Finnish Composer?

by Ilkka Oramo

In this article, originally published in 1988, Ilkka Oramo writes about the national concept in music and asks whether it is possible to adapt the nationalistic view of history to provide the basis for a modern day history of a nation’s music.

Anyone who sets out to write a history of Finnish music finds himself faced with a paradox. There is certainly no shortage of material as there was a century ago when Martin Wegelius, founder of the Helsinki Music Institute (now the Sibelius Academy) and Sibelius’s first composition teacher, concluded his Outline History of Western Music with the words: “In Finland we must first have a music before its history can be written”. But in the meantime, the very idea of a history of music along national lines has become fraught with problems. A history of this land should have been written in Wegelius’s own day when nationalism was still a cherished ideal and people still believed in Herder’s Romantic concept (of which Zachris Topelius was the foremost Finnish exponent) that art expresses the nation’s soul which, in turn, is the prime mover of history. As national classicism simply did not exist, artists and intellectuals turned their attention to folk poetry and folk music in which they believed national identity to be enshrined. The traditions of Carelia became the purest spiritual expression of Finnishness although, to the majority of Finns, especially educated ones, they represented an alien and exotic culture.

Much the same thing happened in Hungary somewhat later when Bartók and Kodály discovered a rich musical tradition in outlying villages which Bartók called ‘peasant’ music to distinguish it both from popular art music and urban folk music. This music brought about a fundamental change of attitude towards what was ‘Hungarian’ in music and displaced gypsy music that, even in the time of Liszt and Brahms, had been considered the national music of Hungary. In 1930 Kodály justified the importance of peasant on the grounds that virtually no Hungarian music had survived in written form. Peasant music was therefore indispensable to the Hungarian concept of history in order to demonstrate that, in spite of the absence of documentation, Hungary had an age-old musical culture. From the artistic point-of-view, folk music, therefore, assumed far greater importance for Hungarians, as Kodály pointed out, than for nations which had developed an independent musical style of their own centuries before. In Germany, for instance, folk music had long since been assimilated in music and a German musician could therefore find in Bach and Beethoven what a Hungarian had to seek in country villages — the organic continuity of a national tradition.

In Finland, just as in Hungary, people felt it important to find in music expression of the nation’s soul which, as with language and poetry, would lay foundations for national consciousness and, ultimately, for the existence of a nation-state. Although Kodály’s words are imbued with the spirit of nationalism, Bartók had already begun to move from this by collecting and studying musical traditions of the Rumanians, Slovaks, Arabs, and Turks and employing them side-by-side with those of Hungary as materials for his music. According to Kodály, the substance of a history of Hungarian music must be found in folk music precisely because Hungary lacks an independent tradition of art music, a national classicism such as Germany has. But on this basis Haydn, for example, would have no place in Hungarian music history: in spite of the many years he spent on Hungarian soil in the service of a Hungarian prince, he was merely a representative of the culture of the Viennese court and aristocracy and his music is German and Italian with no trace of anything Hungarian.

The idea of a national history of music is not only problematic in small countries, which have contributed comparatively little to the development of mainstream European music. The German professor Carl Dahlhaus has observed that a national model is just as inappropriate as the basis for writing the music history of large countries as well. There are, indeed, books such as the Geschichte der deutschen Musik or Musikgeschichte Österreichs but they do not satisfy the expectations raised by their titles. Although in his use of language the writer might speak with a national accent, the true subject and content of the historical narrative are musical genres, forms and stylistic periods in which national differences are of secondary importance. Musical phenomena which can lay claim to be national are a smaller part of musical reality than local, regional or supranational features. If the historian slants his work accordingly, the result is to distort historical reality. According to Dahlhaus, the concept of German music is incapable of explaining the development from Schütz to Bach and from Haydn to Beethoven. Any attempt to do this by inferring an ethnic substance of some kind in the composer’s way of writing would be to create an entirely false and mythical construction from the facts.



The national music history of a small nation on the fringes of European culture must seem, in nationalistic eyes, to be one and the same as the history of its folk music, the music of a peasantry living in the greatest isolation of all. But is it possible to adapt this nationalistic view of history to provide the basis for a modern day history of a nation’s music? Can the history of Finnish music be written from Kodály’s viewpoint that the truest expression of the musical identity of the Finnish people is to be found in the Carelian folk music associated with the Kalevala? But even in Germany the followers of Herder’s notion of a nation’s soul did not go as far in the direction of folklorism as this. On the contrary, it was generally considered that the national spirit, which manifests itself on the lowest level in folk music, finally produces national classicism. Around the year 1800 classicism effectively meant German classicism though Italian and French composers were also included and German classicism itself was a synthesis of 18th Century national styles.


In Finland, a national classicism of international importance had not even come into being by Wegelius’s time. In 1852, the poet and historian Zachris Topelius wrote that Crusell who “framed his verses in Sweden” had no place in Finnish national music. On this basis the composer’s origins and ethnic roots were a less important factor than the cultural environment in which he composed and to whose musical life he contributed. Topelius’s stand is justified if seen from the viewpoint of the idea of ‘Finland’ current at the time and the geographical borders of that period. Arguing along the same lines, Topelius considers Fredrik Pacius a Finnish composer regardless of his German origins. But this interpretation would cause problems in other contexts, as it would mean that during his years at Esterhaza Haydn was not, in fact, a German but a Hungarian composer, that Liszt was not Hungarian and Chopin not Polish. And where would that leave Handel who lived in London and wrote Italian music to texts in English?

A composer’s country of origin, his social background, his environment and his style of writing all constitute a labyrinthine network of variables on the basis of which it is difficult to assign him unambiguously as representative of the music of any specific nation. At one and the same time, a composer may belong to several different cultural systems and frames of reference – national, local, regional, social and supranational.

Dahlhaus has also pointed out how the concept of national style that held away throughout the 18th Century was radically different from that of the 19th Century. In the 1700s, a French or Italian style could be adopted by a composer at will regardless of his country of origin. Handel and Mozart were no less Italian in their opere buffe and serie than Vivaldi and Pergolesi. But a national style in international use is singularly unsuited as the basis for a national music history as it does not bring ethnic and political criteria into play. A concept of Italian music that included Handel and Mozart would hardly form the basis for a satisfactory history of Italian Music in 19th Century eyes.


A composer’s country of origin, his social background, his environment and his style of writing all constitute a labyrinthine network of variables on the basis of which it is difficult to assign him unambiguously as representative of the music of any specific nation. At one and the same time, a composer may belong to several different cultural systems and frames of reference – national, local, regional, social and supranational.



The father of art music in Finland is generally considered to be Erik Tulindberg whose reputation rests on six string quartets written in the style of early Haydn. While the composer and virtuoso clarinettist Bernhard Henrik Crusell (1755-1838) moved from Finland to Sweden, Tulindberg spent his whole life in Finland as a minor civil servant. In 1784, he even left the capital of Turku, where he had studied, and moved to the remote Northern town of Oulu which at the time had less than 2,000 inhabitants. Here the conditions for pursuing a career in music were virtually non-existent, not only as compared with Stockholm but also with Turku. Tulindberg withdrew to the periphery and his compositions rapidly sank into oblivion, insofar as they had ever been particularly well known. Topelius does not even bother to mention him in his survey of the course of Finnish music up to 1852.


At the end of the 18th Century, Oulu was infinitely further from the centre of Finland’s spiritual life – Finland at the time of the union with Sweden – than was Stockholm. It was a god forsaken place as one realizes from reading Giovanni Acerbi’s travelogue Travels through Sweden, Finland, and Lapland, to the North Cape, in the Years 1798 and 799, printed in London in 1802, or the memoirs of his companion, the Swedish colonel A. F. Skjöldebrand. While Tulindberg moved to a remote outpost, Crusell gravitated towards the centre, to the seat of power. For Crusell, a practising musician, the choice was inevitable. Even if Tulindberg had remained in Turku, he would still have been a dilettante though he was hardly less gifted than Crusell. Throughout the kingdom, the court in Stockholm was the only place to pursue a career as a professional musician.


Because Tulindberg lived in Finland and contributed to Finnish musical life, his place in Finnish music history is undisputed. But what of Crusell? The Swedes, with some justification, claim him as Swedish and could call on Topelius for support. But it would be futile to expect to find any expression of the Finnish nation’s soul in the music of either, nor any other specifically Finnish or Swedish traits. From the musical point-of-view, both were as German as Haydn or Weber. For both composers, the adoption of a supranational style was more important than national affiliations. And yet neither has a place in the music history of Germany. Are they then composers with no fatherland?


With the Peace of Hamina in 1809, Finland ceased to be an integral part of the kingdom of Sweden-Finland and became an autonomous grand duchy of Russia. The concept of Finland that came into being after that date, influenced by a national awakening and a growing patriotic movement, would not seem applicate in describing the musical history of the Baltic states in the 18th Century or earlier. Indeed Topelius was of the opinion that it was fruitless to speak of a national ‘history’ of Finland before 1809 at all as the history of previous periods was merely local history, of no more value than a chronicle. It is not difficult to agree with this even today and the obvious conclusion to be drawn, though different from Topelius’s, is this: the musical history of Sweden and of Finland during the union up to 1809 and even beyond (as cultural contacts were not abruptly several when the states parted) must be treated as a single whole. Accordingly, in place of Topelius’s concept of nationality, a multinational state would become the basic historical unit, a state beyond whose borders would remain various parts of present-day Finland of different sizes, depending on the period in question. And what place is there in the presentation of Finnish music history for those ethnic Finns who lived either on or beyond the borders of the realm? If they are to do incorporated, one must content oneself with chronicles and local history, the description of the different kinds of musical environments connected with different places. Apart from Stockholm-Finland, mention could also be made of Viipuri-Finland or St Petersburg-Finland as cultural units of their own in which the Baltic and German influence of bourgeois musical life rubs shoulders with the Byzantine tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the folksong tradition of Kalevala looms in the background.


But these solutions bring their own problems. If Crusell is accorded a place in a presentation of Finnish music then one must also find room for Roman, Bellman and the other 18th-century Swedish composers who contributed to musical life in Stockholm, for the Utile Dulci secret society, for the Royal Opera and Royal Academy of Music. The state visit of King Gustav III to Turku in 1775 and the music composed for the occasion can hardly be considered in isolation from the music written for other royal occasions. A local viewpoint can certainly be justified in speaking of music as a social phenomenon but, where musical taste and styles are concerned, the heart of the kingdom must be examined as a single whole. There can be no justification for divorcing Crusell and Tulindberg from this context so long as there exists the possibility of achieving a wider perspective than that of purely local history. 


Looking eastwards the picture is considerably more shadowy and difficult to interpret. While Viipuri-Finland and St Petersburg-Finland have individual features of their own, it is unclear to what extent Russian music and the musical life of the Tsarist seat of government can properly be said to belong to the presentation of Finland’s music history at different periods.



The national concept makes its first appearance in Finnish music history as late as the mid-19th Century. To his contemporaries and, indeed, to later generations as well, Fredrik Pacius (1809-1891) was the father of Finnish music, as a result of whose work Finland experienced a genuine musical awakening. This awakening was closely related to national awakening in general. His composition (such as Maamme, Suomen laulu and Sotilaspoika) inspired powerful feelings of solidarity and, as Flodin wrote at the turn of the century, ‘gave expression to the patriotism of the Finnish people and their hopes – in spite of everything – for a bright future’. The loyalty that the Finns had previously shown to monarch, church or nobility was now transferred to Finland: One Land, One People.


In his survey of Finnish music published in 1852 on the eve of the premiere of Pacius’s opera Kung Karls Jakt (King Charles’ Hunt) Topelius was able to find very little worth mentioning. Crusell had “framed his verses” in Sweden and could not really be said to belong to Finland’s music history, the ‘mild, modest’ Fredrik Ehrström had dashed off a few simple songs, and various dilettantes had written ‘valses and anglaises’ – that was the sum total. In Topelius’s opinion, the history of Finnish music would in future be divided quite simply into the period ante Pacius and the period post Pacius.

Through his songs and other compositions, Pacius provided the Finns with a musical identity which was felt to be genuinely Finnish although its materials might have been borrowed from elsewhere. This may well be the reason that Topelius saw him as exerting such a decisive influence on the history of Finnish music – not his professional skills which were merely the prerequisite for enabling the national spirit to find realisation.

In the conditions of the time, Pacius was a significant composer, not least because, unlike almost all other Finnish musicians, he was not a dilettante. In the 1830s, when Pacius arrived in Finland, to know one’s craft as a professional musician – above all as a conductor – would not have sufficed in Central Europe where the prevailing spirit of Romanticism demanded something more from a true artist. But in Finland, where no other person possessed this professionalism, it was welcomed with open arms. Nor did Pacius’s German background prevent him from becoming a national figure in Finland. The symbols of nationalism are not necessarily bound up with ethnic questions or with folklore. Maamme (Our Land, the Finnish national anthem) is, indeed, based on a folksong but a German folksong, as Klemetti rather shamefacedly pointed out at a later date. Through his songs and other compositions, Pacius provided the Finns with a musical identity which was felt to be genuinely Finnish although its materials might have been borrowed from elsewhere. This may well be the reason that Topelius saw him as exerting such a decisive influence on the history of Finnish music – not his professional skills which were merely the prerequisite for enabling the national spirit to find realisation.


Pacius was thus the first representative of national classicism in Finnish music. He achieved this position only by becoming identified with Finnishness. He has no contact with Finnish folklore but nor had hardly anyone else at the time. At any rate, the musical style that Pacius represented was more familiar to educated Finns than the traditional music of the Eastern Finns and of Carelia over the border – if they had suddenly been confronted with both side by side. The national significance or colouring of a musical phenomenon is, therefore, not necessarily based on its ethnic substance but rather on how it is perceived. Almost anything can become the subject of national identification regardless of its nature or origins. The decisive factor is how the phenomenon is comprehended and received.


In Western and Southern Europe, folk music has existed throughout history in a close symbiosis with the polyphonic sacred and secular music cultivated by the Church and aristocracy. But prior to the 19th Century it was not understood as a national but as a social or regional phenomenon. Neither the music associated with the Kalevala nor any other folk music can single-handedly represent what is national in Finnish music. But what place should be found for it in the presentation of the music history of Finland? During the period of unrecorded history, it formed part of the local ethnic culture which had a purely local significance. It only became part of national Finnish culture in the 19th Century when it was discovered. The history of folk music therefore from the moment the educated classes respond to it. A ‘Finnish tone’ enters Finnish music history with Sibelius’s Kullervo when it starts a ‘second existence’.



The national ideal continued to exert its influence well into the 20th Century and it is only, in fact, this century that most of the features that are considered Finnish in music were developed. Sibelius set the wheels in motion, just as Grieg provided the basis for what is considered Norwegian in music. But perhaps what Finns consider Finnish in music is connected even more with Leevi Madetoja, Erkki Melartin, Yrjö Kilpinen and Heino Kaski than with Sibelius. This is at least partly because the signification of these composers has remained national whereas Sibelius also occupies a place in a greater, supranational cultural system. In that context it would be as senseless to treat him as a national composer as Debussy, Mahler or Strauss, even though national characteristics can be found in the music of each of them.


The closer to the present day one comes, the less important becomes the national element in Finnish music (and European-American art music in general). Apart from Sibelius, Aarre Merikanto (1893–1958) in the twenties also broke free of national musical traditions. Today many Finnish composers have done the same. What is national in our present-day musical culture are the conditions of musical life and the special features that result rather than the music itself, which needs to be examined in a wider context. It would be fruitless to discuss whether Kaija Saariaho or Magnus Lindberg, both of whom spend most of their time in Paris, are Finnish or French composers.


This article is originally published in the Finnish Music Quarterly magazine in 1988 (Finnish Music Quarterly 3/1988).

Translation: Jeremy Parsons

Featured photo: Composers from Finland: Leevi Madetoja, Ida Moberg, Toivo Kuula and Helvi Leiviskä