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100+ Years of Finnish Music

What’s Finnish music? Besides Sibelius, that is? When asked about Finnish music, Finns often resort to saying there are none that are good. But honestly, without making unnecessary comparisons to music from other countries, Finnish music has many good things that have reached even the ears of music fans elsewhere.

Finland has no famous composers from the baroque era, the time when J.S. Bach made music in Germany, nor are there famous Finns from the classic era represented by Mozart, Beethoven et al. That is not to say that Finns of old would have had no music. People played folk music with instruments like the kantele (a kind of harp), the jouhikko (a bowed lyre), flutes and horns. Violins, another important instrument in folk music, were imported in the 17th century. There were songs with lyrics, too, resembling the epic songs from Kalevala, travel songs and lullabies, and other oral traditions among all classes of society. 

Nuku, nuku nurmilintu (“Sleep, sleep grassbird”) is a traditional lullaby in trochaic tetrameter, the so called “Kalevala meter” .

The kind of music referred to as classical music only came to Finland in the 19th century. In 1834, Fredrik Pacius (1809–1891) moved from Hamburg to Helsinki to teach music at our own University of Helsinki, then Imperial Alexander University in Finland. Pacius composed a lot, including two operas, but is best remembered by the national anthem, Maamme in Finnish, Vårt Land in original Swedish (lyrics by J.S. Runeberg). It fell to Jean Sibelius (1965–1957) to become the face of Finnish classical music: his Finlandia is celebrated even today, but his other compositions, for example Valse Triste and the Karelia-suite are also beloved. National romanticism reigned throughout the art world of Europe, which meant that both music and fine arts drew inspiration from national customs, language and legendarium. It is not surprising that Sibelius, too, composed suites based on the national epic Kalevala, the Lemminkäinen-suite and opera Kullervo being examples of this.

Valse Lente by Oskar Merikanto

No other Finnish composer has quite managed to surpass Sibelius in terms of fame, but that does not mean there have not been any classical composers since. Leevi Madetoja and Toivo Kuula both composed a number of classical songs. Oskar Merikanto (1868–1924), too, composed a number of lighter pieces still remembered today, including Valse Lente and Kesäillan valssi (Summer Night’s Waltz). His son Aarre Merikanto (1893–1958) composed operas, but tried to stray from the national romantic style towards a more modernist style. Modernism was later represented also by composers such as Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928–2016) and Aulis Sallinen (1935– ), a tradition still upheld by big names such as Kaija Saariaho (1952– ) and Esa-Pekka Salonen (1958– , also an internationally acclaimed a conductor).

Olavi Virta and the Dallapé-orchestra perform Kun Ilta Tummuu (“When the night darkens”)

Modernism above refers to an art movement that challenges the established norms and traditions set up by previous generations. Meanwhile, modern music as popular music for the masses in the sense we might understand it (even old classical music was aimed for its contemporary masses!) got kicked off as jazzy orchestra accompanied songs in the early 20th century. These were the first steps of what became the Finnish iskelmä-genre, which has been popular since the 1930s and made famous singers such as Olavi Virta, Kari Tapio and Katri Helena. Nowadays the more recent vocals-synth- guitar-and-drums iskelmä songs (always sung in Finnish) are seen as the kind of music retirees pair-dance to in old dance halls, but really, their appeal was not surprising! Iskelmä-songs are catchy, rhythmic enough to dance to, and even foreign songs were translated into Finnish, which made singing along easy.

Eppu Normaali’s Njet Njet is a cross of punk and rock

The 1960s Beatles paved way for new genres. A new wave of music was born in the 70s, when Finland was introduced to punk. Representors of punk include Pelle Miljoona and the band Eppu Normaali. This somewhat short-lived genre had to give way to rock music in the form of Hurriganes and later Leevi & The Leavings. But this is when Finnish music became visible on the world stage. Hanoi Rocks has fans in the US and Japan and has influenced a number of other rock bands, including Guns N’ Roses. Since 2000, many Finnish rock and metal bands have made it big abroad by singing in English. Examples include HIM, The Rasmus, Nightwish, Apocalyptica, Sonata Arctica, and many more, not to mention Lordi, whose Hard Rock Hallelujah won the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest. Pop rock bands and artists we remember include Tiktak, Maija Vilkkumaa, and Anssi Kela. Current hot names in pop/rock are Robin, Haloo Helsinki! and Antti Tuisku, with hip-hop/rap represented by Cheek and Musta Barbaari. Meanwhile, metal seems to always have been popular in the Nordic countries. There are around 3400 metal bands in Finland, making Finland rank #1 as the country with the most metal bands per capita!

Vesala won the 2017 Emma music award in three categories: Best Female Artist, Best Pop album and Best song (with this song, Tequila).

Curiously enough, a number of Finnish songs have gained fame through the Internet. Darude’s Sandstorm – whose music video was filmed in central Helsinki – has become strangely memetic. And if you haven’t yet heard Ievan Polkka, you’ve missed out – the Finnish band Loituma’s version of the song is famous for having been coupled with a flash animation of a girl spinning a leek.

So what is Finnish music? There is plenty of it besides Sibelius. The reason many people from Finland say it’s no good might be because of their personal preferences, or it might be a form of typical Finnish modesty, but objectively speaking the Finnish music scene is a versatile thing, and the (lack of) international fame of Finnish music says nothing about the quality. In 2019, a new kind of museum, the Finnish Music Hall of Fame, will open its doors in Pasila – and maybe that will let both Finns and foreigners people explore Finland’s musical traditions in more detail. While we wait, why not enjoy some locally produced tunes!


Bibliography and further reading:

In Finnish:

In English:

Ylva Biri

Helsinki '18

Ylva is a PhD student at the University of Helsinki researching the linguistics of social media discourse. When not studying, procrastinating and overthinking, she enjoys shonen anime and trying out new foods.
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