While standards has a far more ambiguous definition due


While a variety of musical forms are
present in Finnish popular culture today, including contemporary pop music and classical/art
music, it is fascinating to realize that all of these musical endeavors in
Finland have been and are still being influenced, to some degree, by a rich
historic tradition of folk music. Traditional, early Finish folk music was
typically influenced by Karelian traditional music, as Karelian heritage has
traditionally been though of as the ‘purest’ manifestation of Finnish myths and
beliefs, thought to be “spared from Germanic and Slavic influences” (Bonser, 241).
However, Finnish folk music by today’s standards has a far more ambiguous
definition due to a variety of outside influences. Beginning with the influence
of the Kalevala and further championed by nationalist composers such as Jean
Sibelius, Finnish folk music has taken on a variety of modern forms while
solidifying a place within music classrooms and conservatories today, making it
a ubiquitous and defining national treasure with a highly global influence.

            The beginning of the vast history of
Finnish folk music can undoubtedly be traced back to the Kalevala, a
19th-century work of epic poetry, whose name “signifies ‘land of heroes'”, compiled
by Elias Lönnrot from Finnish and Karelian oral folklore and mythology (Bonser,
242). Regarded as the national epic of Finland and garnered by Max Müller as
the “fifth great national epic of the world”, it is one of the most significant
works of Finnish literature that exists (Bonser, 241). The influence of the
Kalevala is overwhelmingly vast and has served to “reveal to an obscure race
their own unity and power”, causing an “enthusiasm for natural culture and
historic life” in Finland and thus, has played an instrumental role in the establishment
of Finnish national identity (Billson, 318). Further, though the Kalevala
originated in text form, music has ultimately taken the richest influence from it.
The first recorded example of this influence is by composer Filip von Schantz,
who, inspired by the Kalevala, composed the Kullervo
Overture in 1860, which premiered to a massive audience on the opening of a
new theatre building in Helsinki the following November. Von Schantz’s work was
followed by Robert Kajanus’ Kullervo’s
death in 1881 and then, the symphonic poem, Aino in 1885. Aino is an extremely important composition as it was “credited
with inspiring composer, Jean Sibelius, to investigate the richness of the
Kalevala” (Billson, 319). In all, the Kalevala’s true significance to music was
that, for the first time, it “provided a foundation for the presentation of a
national art” by artists and composers alike (Goss, 47). Artist Gallen-Kallela
painted scenes from the epic and Sibelius gave titles to his works based on
characters and themes from the Kalevala, including Luonnotar, the Kullervo Symphony,
and Pohjola’s Daughter. Though a plethora of artists and musicians were heavily
involved in shedding light on their own, personal interpretation of the
national epic, it is safe to say that Jean Sibelius is the most famous
classical Finnish composer influenced by the Kalevala. Moreover, his Kullervo
Symphony, utilizing its text, “prompted Helsinki newspapers to hail the new
composition as the ‘first living Finnish musical work’ and ‘Finnish from
beginning to end'” (Goss, 48).

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Consequently, as twelve of Sibelius’ best
known works are not only based upon and influenced by the Kalevala but known by
musicians and academics internationally, it is unlikely that any native of
Finland would not be familiar with the composer or his work. Desperate to have
significant, internationally known art to call their own, Sibelius was
undoubtedly an important figure to his people following his success as a
composer. He was often “the recipient of public testimonials … of the high esteem
in which his countrymen hold him…due to expressing national aspirations and
national characteristics in terms of his art” (Oramo, 231). Put simply, Sibelius
was the first international composer to achieve an international reputation and
status. However, this was not simply because he was the first composer of
Finnish origin with a worldwide influence, but partially due to his utilization
of distinct, Kalevala-inspired folk music that is highly apparent throughout
his compositions. However, some argue that it goes a step beyond this, and that
his mere use of folk music was not what has established him as a national
symbol for his country either, because some of his musical themes employed as
such are “admittedly not actually of folk origin” (Wilfrid, 242). Perhaps nationality
in music, when it manifests itself, goes farther beyond this, and that instead,
“it springs from an innate love of country and it is this quality in the music
of Sibelius, and not his frequent use of folk-tunes, that makes for his
international reputation as the first great, racially distinct, Finnish
composer” (Lyle, 620). However, we can certainly attribute “part of the
originality, depth and immense vitality of Sibelius’s music…and the Kalevala
legends, to the Finnish environment of which he is so fond” (Cherniavsky, 16). Above
all, it is highly apparent that Jean Sibelius and his internationally
appreciated music came to forever represent the country of Finland through a
combination and vast array of influences, including not only the Kalevala and
the folk music that it inspired, but his true love for the country of Finland.

Furthermore, the combination of the significant
influence of the Kalevala and greater nationalistic compositions by composers
like Jean Sibelius have created a strong folk music tradition tied to a national
identity, respected and cherished by all and that is ubiquitous because it is found
and seen within Finnish public schools today and a part of every child’s
education. First, all children in Finland currently study the Kalevala as part
of their school curriculum. Though the emphasis had long been on the text, this
changed in the 1960s when folklorists from the Folklore Archive of the Finnish
Literature Society recorded a set of Kalevalaic songs for schools, drawing attention
to the epic poem as a work which had emerged from a song tradition that marked
a critical change in emphasis from text to song. This change, in turn, prompted
the inclusion of folk music and folk instrumental studies beginning in the
general music classroom, with one major example being the “Kantele project”. The
kantele is a zither-like instrument, mentioned in the Kalevala, that has been
regarded as the national instrument of Finland for the past one hundred and
fifty years. The five-string kantele is currently included within the music
syllabus of all comprehensive schools and the project is aimed at introducing
national music tradition to children at a young age. Additionally, music
teachers have found the instrument to be particularly appropriate for young
children in terms of its small melodic range and practical use for teaching

For students who wish to further pursue an
interest in folk music, courses are offered by many higher education institutions
and universities across Finland, including those in Helsinki, Turku, Tampere,
Jyvaskyla, Joensuu, and Kokkola. In the case of the Sibelius Academy in
Helsinki, members of the Central Music Association first suggested that some
provision for folk music education be made at Finland’s top music academy. The
initial reason as to why the committee members felt there was an urgency in establishing
a department of folk music in an urban center is accurately summed up by Anneli
Asplund, a folklorist professor within the Department, who once stated that “we
are living now in a modern culture, not any more in a peasant culture, and so
it is necessary to teach the folk culture” (Ramnarine, 128). This view is agreed
upon by Hannu Saha, the director of the Folk Music Institute, who is also a
professor in the department and has said that folk music “no longer leads a very
authentic life in the small country community – instead, it is an organic, cultivated
form of music, influencing general musical culture on one hand and absorbing influences
from all the music surrounding it on the other” (Ramnarine, 129). Undoubtedly, the
inclusion of folk music within the schools depicts how important and highly
relevant it is to contemporary Finnish culture. “It is unlikely that a law
would have been passed for the state-funded training of folk musicians if the
Romantic Nationalist and public Enlightenment movements of the nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries had not increased the cultural valuation of folk music
as the heritage of the Finish people” (Hill, 209). Further, some believe that a
strong democratic philosophy along with the Finnish communist movement of the
1960s and 1970s might have led to a need to incorporate less ‘bourgeois elitist’
music such as folk, jazz, and pop into formal education programs.  While all of these musical styles are
incorporated, to some degree, within each program at different levels, the
specific curriculum varies from one school to the next. However, the
overarching goal remains the same. For example, the curriculum of the program
at the Sibelius Academy was left entirely to Heikki Laitinen, the Folk Music
Department’s first head and professor. Together with students and colleagues he
aimed to “create a folk music avant-garde, raising the status of folk music and
carving out an institutionally sanctioned space for the artistic freedom of
folk musicians to develop their art” (Ramnarine, 132). Subsequently, this
artistic freedom has lent itself to an ever-changing field that is constantly
challenging the very nature of what folk music is defined by.

Perhaps the biggest change in Finnish
folk music and education today is within the development of strategies for teaching
folk music specifically. The recognition that the contexts in which folk music
has been transmitted have changed which has prompted initiatives in the field
of public education that accommodate these new needs, including the training of
musicians at advanced levels of performance while ensuring that an appreciation
of folk music is passed on to further generations, mostly through its inclusion
in the public school setting. Music educators in Finland accomplish this,
first, by “emphasizing a ‘re-creating of tradition’ by imparting practical,
theoretical, and historical knowledge upon students” (Ramnarine, 135). Second,
students are actively encouraged to use this knowledge acquired in the
classroom as the foundation for reinterpreting tradition in new ways and to
produce original compositions that combine traditional and new techniques to
create something truly unique of their own. Of course, a knowledge of traditional
practices is mandatory in order to knowingly create something truly innovative,
which is why it is heavily emphasized within the curriculum. Still, “Finnish
educationalists are not interested in transmitting musical artifacts” and new
ideas are considered an essential part of the creative process (Ramnarine, 136).
Consequently, such knowledge enables musicians to recognize what is truly inventive
and everything else in between, along with distinguishing their work from that
of their peers and other, outside influences. Both educationalists and students
share the notion that “folk traditions can only be maintained if they are
relevant to contemporary audiences”, which means a consistent level of
creativity and utilization of relevant, modern influences (Ramnarine, 147).

Finally, the education of folk music in
Finland’s top academies of music calls how we define folk music in the modern
world into question, along with the relationship between folk music of the past
and the present, between tradition and innovation, and its relevance and
contexts of performance. Nevertheless, an interesting paradox arises in doing
so; if how we define folk music has changed, can we still define it as such?
The answer lies with “coexisting notions of continuity” and within the nature
of festivals like the Kaustinen Festival, which are significant due to the
histories of local families of musicians (Ramnarine, 149).  This connection is highly apparent, in some
ways, between present activities and past traditions since the festival has
grown far from being an isolated musical even in the village. The Kaustinen
Festival is now an international event that attracts visitors from all over the
world, and is thus, detached from a strictly local context, making change
inevitable. Local historic traditions, like this, from the past are perceived
as a cultural heritage which can, at the same time, be juxtaposed alongside
other distinct, more contemporary traditions, and therefore, showcase a change
and evolution in musical style. Interestingly, “tracing the history of Finnish
folk music shows that the traditions have never been static but have undergone
a continual processes of change” (Billson, 319). This very change has been
inherent within the historical context in which Finnish folk music emerged as a
defined genre, and the true, current definition lies within the historical
context and the perception of folk music as the musical voice of both the
people and the nation.

In all, folk music in Finland has become
an ever-changing national treasure influenced by and for the people, and thus
appears in a multitude of different forms and permutations today from the
original, earlier Kalevala-influenced folk music. This historic art only
continues to flourish and has recently received considerable attention
nationwide due to the success of folk bands, many of whom were students or are
still studying at the Sibelius Academy, who is only further expanding their
programs to accommodate a growing need and interest for study. The latest
developments in the academy’s department of folk music include the formation of
more folk music performing groups, the organization and promotion of folk music
festivals and clubs, and the inauguration of a series of recordings in collaboration
with commercial labels within the Department of Folk Music Institute – all
increased efforts to advocate for the continual study of a major facet of
national identity weaved ever so tightly within Finnish culture. It is unlikely
that something so intimately tied to the nation’s identity would not continue
to have both a national significance and global presence, and is therefore,
worth studying, collaborating with, and further advocating for.


















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