The Roots of Finnish Popular Music
by Pekka Jalkanen :: 1998
The emergence of a new kind of urban music in Europe after the French Revolution rapidly affected Finland too. As Classical and Romantic concert music and European folk music intertwined in a fascinating way, a new genre of light music and dance music for public entertainments evolved. A century later, this mix was spiced with an injection of Afro-American music.
Helsinki, the cosmopolitan spa town
The new European popular culture soon found its way to the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland, at that time (1809–1917) a part of the Russian Empire. This was a period of budding urbanization, industrialization and entertainment.
New needs bred new forms of leisure activity. The cutting edge of popular culture was in public concerts and entertainments, restaurants, dance parlours, balls organized by various societies and organizations, performances of operettas and plays with music, circuses, fun fairs and street musicians. The model for all this, and indeed some of the audience, came from abroad.
Helsinki was an idyllic spa town that attracted tourists from St Petersburg in summer to stay at Seurahuone and Kaivohuone. German and Russian 'restaurateurs' contacted agents to book international artists for their posh restaurants. There were all sorts of things: salon orchestras, cabaret artists, singers, Tyrolean ensembles, Wiener-Damen Kapellen, Serbian tamburitsa bands, Russian Gypsy choirs and balalaika orchestras, Hungarian violinists and Romanian luters, even American 'Negro comedians', i.e. minstrel show artists. The first red Indians ever seen in Finland appeared at the Tervaniemi hill circus in Viipuri in the 1890s.
Helsinki was conveniently located between St Petersburg and Stockholm or Tallinn, and thus attracted a great many chance visitors, from concert artists to organ grinders. All this laid the foundation for Finnish popular music.
The Central European influence was reinforced by similar developments in concert music. The new infrastructure from music training to concerts and sheet music sales adopted a 'European' attitude from the early 19th century onwards in order to conform to the external model that was perceived to be of high rank internationally.
Superficial glitter replaces folk music
As a result of this, the ancient Finnish tradition crumbled. In the cities, folk music no longer had a role to play. The aesthetic of modality and the 'silent ecstasy' of the shamans were drowned in urban glitter. The new 'German-Russian' music was solidly based on functional harmony. At its most appealing, this trend consisted of sweet Viennese and Schrammel chromaticism, emotional rubatos and glissandos and a glittery, tinkling sound.
The first advocates of triad harmony were the German harpers and zither players who toured the markets and taverns. They were followed by Italian organ grinders and accordion players, whose instruments had functional harmony and the 'beautiful' Central European music built into them. In the 1840s, the finer restaurants began to employ salon ensembles from St Petersburg and Germany, playing an endless muzak of overtures, opera fantasias, medleys and song arrangements. This repertoire also formed the core of the homegrown dance band variant, the brass seven.
Even the most resourceful folk musicians, such as kantele player Kreeta Haapasalo, abandoned the modal world of the "Kalevala" and began to play their instruments in chordal accompaniment to their tunes like the German harpers did. Thus, Haapasalo's tune "Kanteleeni" (My kantele), a piece elevated to almost iconic status as a representative of national culture and even of the "Kalevala", is in fact a variant of one of the staples of the Central European harp repertoire, the idyllic "Home Sweet Home" by Sir Henry Bishop.
The original music of the Kalevala — runo singing, laments and the five-string kantele — had to retreat to the huts of Karelia and Ingria. Only the pentatonic yoik of the Sámi was remote enough to escape destruction by proximity.
"The Continental roar of the jazz band"
In the 20th century, in Finland as everywhere else, Afro-American music became the major new influence in popular music. At first, it had the novelty value of all other 'Continental' fads. The cakewalk, or 'originally comic cowboy-and-Indian dance', was first heard in Finland at the Ciniselli circus in 1905. The tango, introduced through floor shows at the Börs restaurant from 1913, first stirred up a bit of hysteria complete with tango costumes and tango sweets.
Jazz made its breakthrough in the late 1920s. Unlike many other trends, it had come to stay. Through jazz, a new and non-European conception of music — including swing, hot jazz and improvisation — was gradually adopted. At the same time, boundary lines were drawn between musical genres. From then on, the world of music was divided into the opposed camps of European idealism and Afro-American utilitarianism, art and entertainment.
Autumn 1921 saw the appearance of the first jazz orchestra in Finland. The 'Continental roar of the jazz band' that intoxicated young poets Olavi Paavolainen and Mika Waltari was in fact burlesque cabaret music from Berlin. Anything could be used as an instrument in jazz, even a coffee grinder, a pistol or a clay whistle.
The breakthrough of accordion jazz
Salon jazz, hot jazz and accordion jazz were the three leading sub-genres in the 1920s. They demonstrate how the introduction of a new trend interacts with the surrounding society.
The finer restaurants meant for the affluent favoured restrained, European dance music. Secondary school pupils, particularly the linguistically gifted Swedes and Jews, preferred the authentic hot jazz of New Orleans and Chicago. They sought out their models through new media, gramophone records and the radio.
From among the working class youths and the Dallapé Orchestra, a popular, all-embracing synthesis finally emerged. It contained elements from German schlagers, Anglo-American hot jazz, Czarist military marches and workers' songs, all played in true folk fiddler style.
Determined action enabled a takeover of the popular music market in ten years. According to some sources, the Dallapé Orchestra and Georg Malmstén accounted for 80% of the recordings published in the 1930s! Before the Second World War, only about three recordings of music that can be described as jazz were made.
The same pattern was repeated at later turning points in the history of popular music in Finland, for example the breakthrough of swing and bebop in the 1940s and of pop music in the 1960s. The avantgarde creates the international connections and aims at authenticity, while the rearguard combines and assimilates the new elements and ultimately reaps the benefits.
Finnish schlager: fear of hell and hope of heaven
The schlager is perhaps the most popular of all the types of popular music. It has always been something of an outsider beside European sophistication and Afro-American avantgarde, a conservative and escapist beggar that never changes.
This never-changing image has to do with the therapeutic function of the schlager. Constancy creates security, however melancholy the immutable mood may be. The minor-key mindset of the basic Finnish schlager seems to be at its most effective in exploring the territory between two basic poles, despair and melancholy, the fear of hell and the hope of heaven.
The former is typefied by the falling fifth (so-do). This harks back to the melodies of the "Kalevala", Gregorian chant (particularly the ubiquitous "Kyrie eleison"), and folk chorales and folk songs plumbing the depths of Finnish anguish. Archetypal songs in this category would be "Syyspihlajan alla" (Under the mountain-ash in autumn) by Arvo Koskimaa and "Satumaa" (Fairy-tale land) by Unto Mononen, as well as the 'heart-on-the-sleeve' songs of the 1970s, a period of great change and concrete suburbs, "Yksinäinen" (The lonesome one) and "Et voi tulla rajan taa" (You cannot cross the border).
Contrasting with these rather suicidal abysses of despair are the minor-key melodies typically constructed on a rising minor sixth, from the "Yö Altailla" (A night in the Altai) foxtrot of the Dallapé Orchestra and Malmstén's "Suurin onni" (The greatest happiness) to "Täysikuu" (Full moon) by Toivo Kärki and "Punaiset lehdet" (Red leaves) by Pentti Viherluoto. The minor sixth (so-mi) has been traced back to Russian 19th-century romances; it was a cornerstone of Russian concert music in the Romantic period. At the fundament of the hope of heaven in the archetypal Finnish schlager, therefore, lies a Chekhovian root of sparkling crystal.
Translation © Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
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