Beyond Nationalism

Arnold Schoenberg wrote in 1947:

Piece after the First World War granted political independence to nations, which culturally were far from ready for it. Nevertheless even small nations of six to ten million people expected to be regarded as cultural units, nations whose national characteristics expressed themselves in many ways: in their applied arts, weaving, ceramics, painting, singing and playing and, finally, even composing music.[1]

If Finns were one of the nations Schoenberg had in mind (which is possible because the timing fits), he both overestimated the size of its population and forgot about the fact that, until the piece after the First World War, Finns had been able to practice independence for more than a hundred years as an autonomous state (in Russian gosudarstvo) within the Russian Empire.

One of the preoccupations of the young state in the 19th century was the creation of national symbols, and the background and origins of these symbols were not much of a concern as long as they fulfilled their function. In 1848, when Pacius’ and Runeberg’s Vårt land[2] (a de facto national anthem since that date) was heard for the first time, nobody was disturbed by the fact that the composer was German-born and the tune itself was based on a German folk tune. It belongs to the character of art which was national by function that its status was determined by receptive behaviour of the people it concerned rather than by its origins and substance. What is accepted as national is national, wherever its roots may be; and therefore it is not surprising that nations may even adopt another nation’s national anthem, as shown by the examples of Estonia and 19th century Prussia.[3]

Other patriotic music that is of symbolic significance to a nation often relates to fateful periods in its history: times of oppression, threat or war. In the history of Finland three periods have been particularly favourable for patriotic music: the russification programme of Nikolai II, culminating in the February Manifesto of 1899 with the purpose of depriving Finland its autonomy, events leading to the independence and civil war of 1918, and the Second World War. Most of Sibelius’s works of this kind, such as Atenarnes sång/The Song of the Athenians (Viktor Rydberg, 1899), Isänmaalle/To my country (Paavo Cajander, 1900) and Jääkärien marssi/March of the Jaegers (Heikki Nurmio, 1917), were connected to first two of these periods. They were (with the exception of Finlandia) battle songs in character and composed to heighten the morals of the nation. Consequently, there is nothing specifically ‘Finnish’ in their musical style—consequently, because the sorrowful tone of a Finnish folk tune in Dorian mode (if that is what is ‘Finnish’ in music) would have been totally inappropriate for their purpose. The March of the Jaegers, it is true, uses a melodic pattern related to a Southern Ostrobothnian folk song Tuuli se taivutti koivun larvan, but uses it in such a way that the connection is not immediately recognisable (Example 1). Compositions of this kind are probably hardly known outside Finland—and rightly so, because they really have a meaning for Finns only.

National art with aesthetic ambition should, thus, be distinguished from nationalistic art with political motivation. The main concern of the former one is originality and artistic excellence, whereas the latter one aims at effect in the first place. In Finland, the origins of national art are ideologically bound with the movement of the national awakening and can be dated to the latter half of the 19th century. Although the first edition of the Kalevala—a paradigm of Finnish national art—had been published in 1835, it was only towards the end of the century that artists at large begun to look for the national identity in the folklore and, in the case of the visual arts, in the ethnic characteristics of the Finnish race. Painters were trying to portray the archetype of the Finnish man and disputed about whether it would be the graceful Karelian type with a long neck or rather the more sturdy middle Finnish man with a short neck. A model was needed to illustrate motifs drawn from folk poetry, especially the Kalevala and the Kanteletar.[4]

In music the problem was similar: to find the original ’Finnish tone’ that reflected the prehistorical Finno-Ugrian background of the Finnish people. This was precisely the problem of the young Sibelius, who actually came to know himself through the lesson of the primitive peasant music he got acquainted with through an old singer, Larin Paraske. The first and purest example of this brand of nationalism, which might be called ethnic, is, of course, the Kullervo symphony (1892). As a dream of the mythological past of a nation, it can be compared not only with Wagner’s music dramas but also with Stravinsky’s Rite of the Spring, however different the language.

Motifs from Kalevala had been used previously in orchestral music, as in the Kullervo Overture (1860) by J.F. von Schantz (1835–1865) and in Kajanus’ symphonic poem Aino (1885), but musically there is nothing national in their style, which is pure German romanticism. It is only in this comparison, within Finnish music, that the originality of Sibelius’ conception becomes fully clear.

The melting together of the national and the European—or the national and the universal, to put it in terms of the turn of the century—was a problem to be solved both in music and painting inspired by folkloristic sources. The idea was that the substance of a work of art should be national and yet generally understandable at the same time. This is why the painter Albert Edelfelt, just to take one example, based his canvas Kristus ja Mataleena (Christ and Magdalene, 1890) on a legend from the Kanteletar, in which a familiar scene from the Bible has been transferred to the Nordic landscape (see picture below). Christ is dressed as a Finnish shepherd, and Magdalene represents the archetype of a Finnish woman, as contemporary critics immediately noticed, but still there is no doubt about the real identity of the figures. They could be easily recognised as well in Paris, where the painting was first shown, as in Helsinki or Stockholm.[5] In Sibelius’ Kullervo the method is basically the same: its modal melodic style comes from the same source as the poetry of which it is a setting, but the overall stylistic context is German Romanticism.

Sibelius avoided borrowing directly from folk music.[6] The composer should, Sibelius declared in his trial lecture at the University of Helsinki in 1896, as far as possible get rid of the local and strive towards a universal language, and in that he will succeed if he has a strong personality.[7] He was frightened by the prospect of being labelled a ‘home area artist’ (‘Heimatkünstler’), which is nevertheless what happened in Germany. ’Sibelius’ music is pure Heimatkunst’, Walter Niemann wrote in 1906.[8]

‘Heimatkunst’ was not necessarily a pejorative expression in the language of that time. According to Niemann Bruckner and Mahler were Heimatkünstler as well, Bruckner an Upper Austrian and Mahler a Moravian German, and both were painters of landscape, too, with the difference that whereas Mahler viewed nature as a decorative theatre landscape, Bruckner’s was genuinely rural.[9] Description of nature became an essential part of Finnish National Romanticism, not only in painting but in music as well; the years around 1900 yielded hundreds of lyrical character pieces which were supposed to describe and illustrate the beautiful nature in its many forms: birds, butterflies, trees, lakes, rapids, the seasons, the dawn and the sunset glow etc., and description of nature was not unusual in orchestral music either, as titles like Metsässä sataa/It rains in the forest (Kuula, 1912) or Virta/The River (Palmgren, 1913) demonstrate. The language of this music is purely romantic with a touch of impressionism here and there, and if folk music was used, it was the more recent folk music, and not the primitive one, the archaic tone of which was more in harmony with mythological subjects.

It seems that ’Finnishness’ in music is associated, in the minds of many domestic listeners at least, as much or possibly even more with this lyrical Romanticism than with Sibelius’ early ’Kalevala Romantic’ period. Composers like Oskar Merikanto (1868–1924), Armas Järnefelt (1869–1958), Erkki Melartin (1875–1937), Selim Palmgren (1878–1951), Toivo Kuula (1883–1918), Heino Kaski (1885–1957), and Leevi Madetoja (1887–1947), to mention only a few names, are felt to be more national than Sibelius for the simple reason that their music has not attained a lasting position in the international repertory. In Finland, on the contrary, Madetoja’s operas, particularly Pohjalaisia/The Ostrobothnians (1913), his symphonies and works for choir, Palmgren’s piano concertos, Merikanto’s, Järnefelt’s and Kuula’s songs, Kaski’s piano pieces and Melartin’s large and versatile output belong to the everyday repertory, which practically no Finn can fail to come across during his lifetime—not in the concert hall, but because this music is broadcasted on a regular basis. That some of it once was called ’music of the Finnish homes’,’ refers to the fact that much of it originally was composed precisely for use in homes; but as the practise of home music little by little faded, the radio has adopted the role that once belonged to the daughters of a bourgeois family.

Sibelius was the first Finnish composer who succeeded in breaking into the international repertory and assuring a position in it, even if his popularity has greatly varied from time to time and from country to country. Thus, the national character of his music has more dimensions than that of composers, whose audience is mainly Finnish. He has become among music lovers outside Finland a symbol for what is being considered ’Finnish’ in music, and not least because he probably is the only Finnish composer, whose name is familiar to the average audience in London, New York, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna. This is to say that if ’Finnishness’ in music, from the international point of view, is associated with Sibelius—as ‘Polishness’ with Chopin or ‘Norwegianness’ with Grieg—the contrary is true from the Finnish point of view: Sibelius looks more like an international composer, who, just because he has surpassed the nationality barrier, is less ’Finnish’ than many of his contemporaries and successors who are domestic currency only.

Of course, there is in Sibelius’s output, as we have seen, a national and patriotic layer very familiar to the Finnish people; pieces belonging to that layer—often composed for a particular occasion or in economic distress—are, however, not those on which his international fame is based.[10] These works, which include the symphonies, the symphonic poems, and the violin concerto, have generally been considered too esoteric to become really national, if by national, in this context, we mean music that the average citizen of a nation feels as his own. There are, therefore, at least two Sibelius’s: an internationally national and nationally international genius, who claims a position as one of the great composers of his time, and a nationally national fatherland composer, beloved at home, but whose existence outside Finland is inside knowledge of a few experts.

The 1920s was the first period in Finnish culture, since the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which was truly international in spirit. If one looks at the modern poetry of that time, both in Swedish and Finnish, and compares it to the music of Ernst Pingoud (1887–1942), Väinö Raitio (1891–1945), Aarre Merikanto (1893–1958), and Uuno Klami (1900–1961), one is almost tempted to believe that there is some truth in the ’Zeitgeist’ hypothesis. As this period is extensively dealt with in other papers of this volume, I shall confine myself to one comment only. The fact that modernism failed with the public at this time, causing the intellectual decline of the composers in the 1930s, reminds me of Vaughan Williams’ analysis of the problem:

Some music may appeal only in its immediate surroundings; some may be national in its influence and some may transcend these bounds and be world-wide in its acceptance. But we may be quite sure that the composer who tries to be cosmopolitan from the outset will fail, not only within the world at large, but with his own people as well.[11]

This prophecy, or the latter part of it to be more precise, became very true for the most talented Finnish composers of the time between the wars. Today they are an important part of the national tradition, without being national in any stylistic sense, and their influence can be felt even in some recent Finnish music. It would not be a surprise, if some day their best works found their way into the international repertory along with works of other once almost forgotten early 20th century masters like Zemlinsky and Schreker.

If we turn our attention to the contemporary musical scene, one problem, in particular, calls for attention. Why does some contemporary Finnish music that, from the Finnish point of view, does not show any tangible national characteristics, sound ’Finnish’ in the ears of outside observers? In what way have composers like Magnus Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho, just to mention a couple of internationally well-known names, ‘preserved and developed the Finnish tradition,’ as the Japanese composer Michio Mamiya stated in a recent interview,[12] and what prompted the British critic Stephen Pettitt to write about the world premiere, in London, of Saariaho’s Amers (1992): ’There was a vastness and a mystery about it, connecting it to Sibelius, however different the language.’?[13] This question can hardly be answered by referring to a number of stylistic criteria in Saariaho’s and Lindberg’s music, because any combination of them would be general enough to describe the style of recent music by lots of contemporary composers of any nationality. There are, it seems to me, two alternative explanations: either there is a ’Finnish’ spirit, which the Finns themselves are unable to recognise, or else the ’Finnishness’ of much of Finnish music is just an illusion or a fallacy based on the listener’s knowledge of the composer’s nationality. I am inclined to think that this is very often the case.

It is possible, though, that contemporary Finnish composers do share something that unintentionally is reflected in their music and that the Finnish ear cannot catch. What this something could be, hardly unveils itself by analysing just the music (its ‘niveau neutre’ as Jean-Jacques Nattiez would put it) but calls for a study of its social, cultural and historical context as well; for music is not composed in a vacuum, but in an environment filled with traditions, norms, values, beliefs, habits, and resources, including education, institutions, individual musicians etc. This means that as long as states take care of their own cultural policy and do not let it be decided by some EC directives, there will be national differences in music as well as in any other field of culture.

An analysis of the structural aspects of a society and its significance for the music it produces is no simple matter, but some cultural variables pertinent to the question may be mentioned. One of them is obviously language. In what way does the mother tongue of a composer influence his music? We cannot elaborate on that, in this context, but let us just keep in mind that the native tongue of many prominent Finnish composers (Sibelius, Englund, Bergman, Lindberg etc.) is Swedish. Since their music nevertheless feels ’Finnish’ and not ’Swedish’, as we are told, language cannot be that important, except perhaps in vocal music. Another important variable is the natural environment. People living in the North, with its long dark winters and luminous summer nights, are mentally affected by the natural conditions; and this must have some consequences as to their way of thinking and feeling and expressing themselves in music as well as in other matters.

But the natural environment would be common to all Nordic countries, at least with respect to the climate and the amount of light. The music of these countries is basically different in some important respects, from, say, that of the Mediterranean countries. But such features of the natural environment do not explain internal differences, remarkable as they are, between the music of the Nordic countries. Music as description of the beautiful nature has already been mentioned, and this kind of music tends to reflect the particular landscape, in which the composer lives and with which he identifies himself. But does landscape, the visible nature, leave its mark in more abstract music, which has nothing to do with the description of nature? To prove this by concrete examples could be very difficult, indeed.

A third factor that varies from country to country is repertory. The basic repertory may be more or less the same in major cities of Europe with full-scale symphony orchestras, opera houses etc., but in addition to that, each country seems to have its own side-track repertory, mostly unknown in neighbouring countries.[14] Other variables, which are different from place to place, include 1) music education, with its complex set of requirements, norms, values, working habits, trends and fashions, 2) the personality of a composer’s teacher 3) the composer’s international contacts, 4) the musicians he works with and writes for, etc. The combination of factors of this kind is not necessarily typical for a nation but for a place, a region, and a society, under the conditions of which the composer works. This means that nationalism does not seem to play any major role in the contemporary musical scene in Finland (or any other Western European democracy); the political need that it requires is lacking.[15]

A possible exception in Finland, however, is the group of the so-called ‘fur cap operas’ of the 1970s, the success of which might be understood as coming from a need to strengthen the national self-consciousness in a decade in which the concept of ’Finlandization’ spread throughout the world.[16] The political prerequisite was there, and it was met by works strongly appealing to national feelings and using an easily understandable musical language. But generally speaking, if contemporary Finnish music is national at all, it might be described as structurally national, the word ’structure’ meaning, in this context, not the structure of music itself, but rather that of social and cultural characteristics of a particular region or subculture. It would be, perhaps, more appropriate to abandon the concept of ’nationalism’ altogether in a time in which the Europe of nations, as we are told, transforms into a Europe of regions; our path seems to lead beyond nationalism. Some confusion arises from the fact that at the same time development in Eastern Europe seems to evolve in the opposite direction, as national feelings, suppressed for a long time, are allowed to discharge. In those conditions there seems to be a prerequisite for national and nationalistic music. New national anthems, at least, are needed.

[1] Arnold Schoenberg, ‘Folkloristic Symphonies,’ Style and Idea. Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg, ed. Leonard Stein. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984, p. 161. Schoenberg was sceptical about the use of folk tunes in symphonic music, because he thought that they were complete in themselves and that ‘there is nothing in them that asks for expansion.’ This opinion has proved to be inadequate by the examples of Bartók and Stravinsky, among others, but nevertheless close to Sibelius’s view on the influence of folk music on art music. See my article ‘Vom Einfluß der Volksmusik auf die Musik unserer Zeit. Ein unbekannter Aufsatz von Sibelius aus dem Jahre 1896,’ Bericht über den internationalen musikwissenschaftlichen Kongreß Bayreuth 1981, ed. Christoph-Hellmut Mahling and Sigrid Wiesmann. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1984, pp. 440–444.
[2] In Finnish Maamme (Our Land).
[3] The Republic of Estonia adopted Pacius’ tune in 1922, and the Prussian Royal hymn Heil Dir im Siegerkranz, Herrscher des Vaterlands was set to the tune of the British Royal Anthem, adopted in many other German states as well. Before that, it had been sung, with words by the priest Heinrich Harries (1790), as Royal Hymn of the King of Denmark. See Paul Nettl, ‘Nationalhymnen,’ MGG 9 (Mel–Onslow) 1961, 1277–1278.
[4] See Salme Sarajas-Korte, ‘Karelianismin laitamilla. Albert Edelfeltin kristus ja Mataleena,’, Kirjojen meri. Professori Annamari Sarajaksen juhlakirja 12.10.1983, ed. Kai Laitinen & al. Helsinki: Otava, 1983, pp. 225–234.
[5] Ibid.
[6] This was acknowledged by Schoenberg, who wrote: ‘On the other hand, some smaller nations whose folk music is not as extraordinary have succeeded in placing in the history of music and into the minds of music lovers representatives such as Smetana, Grieg, Chopin, Liszt, Dvorák, and Sibelius. Characteristically enough, Sibelius contends that his music is not based on national folk music, and I guess that neither is Grieg’s. Chopin’s rhythms are often derived from Polish dances, but harmonically and in part melodically neither his music nor that of Liszt (or much of Smetana’s) differe essentially from Western and Central Euopean styles of their day.’ (‘Folkloristic Symphonies,’ in Style and Idea, p. 162.)
[7] Jean Sibelius, ‘[Några synpunkter beträffande folkmusiken och dess inflytande på tonkonsten – Joitakin näkökohtia kansanmusiikista ja sen vaikutuksesta taidemusiikkiin,]’ Musiikki 10:2 (1980), pp. 102–103.
[8] Walter Niemann, Die Musik Skandinaviens, Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1906, p. 137.
[9] Walter Niemann, Die Musik der Gegenwart, Berlin: Schuster & Loeffler, 1913, p. 137.
[10] One exception obviously is the Valse triste, which may well be the best known of all of Sibelius’ compositions. The fame that the Valse triste brought to him is rather suspicious, however, because, although incidental music, it has been received as plain musique de salon and used as a weapon against him. See e.g. Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Glosse über Sibelius,’ Impromptus. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 31970, pp. 88–92, and René Leibowitz, Sibelius, le plus mauvais compositeur du monde, Liège: Editions Dynamo, 1955.
[11] Ralph Vaughan Williams, National Music and Other Essays (1932). Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 2.
[12] Matti Tuomisto, ‘Säveltäjä Tokiosta tutkii Lapin joikua ja pohjoisen Japanin ainujen musiikkia,’ [A composer from Tokyo studies the yoik of Lapland and the music of the Japanese ainu people],Uusi Suomi, July 25, 1991.
[13] Stephen Pettitt, ‘Firsts from the Finns,’ The Times, December 10, 1992.
[14] Friedhelm Krummacher, ‘Symposium “Das Nationale” – Einleitende Bemerkungen,’ Musiikki 19 (1989), p. 88.
[15] Cf. Carl Dahlhaus, Nineteenth-Century Music. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988, p. 38: ‘Nationalistic music, it seems, invariably emerges as an expression of a politically motivated need, which tends to appear when national independence is being sought, denied, jeopardized rather than attained or consolidated. Cynics might remark that those who look to music for additional reassurance of their own national identity will always find what they need: any high-quality music written in an emerging nation will be taken as national music simply because it meets the nation’s need for a common musical property.’
[16] ‘Fur cap operas’ (karvalakkioopperat) was an invective used by the young generation of Finnish composers to describe certain operas with national sibjects, such as The Last Temptations (1975) by Joonas Kokkonen and The Red Line (1978] by Aulis Sallinen. As for the concept of ‘Finlandization’ see e.g. Timo Vihavainen, Kansakunta rähmällään, Helsinki: WSOY, 1992.

Paper presented at a symposium on nationalism in music, held at the Finnish Institute in London, December 14–15, 1992. Published in Music and Nationalism in 20th-century Great Britain and Finland, ed. Tomi Mäkelä (Hamburg: von Bockel Verlag, 1997), pp. 35–43. Updated in November 2010. In French: ’Au-delà du nationalisme’, Boréales N˚ 70/73, 1997 (La musique finlandaise. Textes recueillis par Anja et Henri-Claude Fantapié), pp. 105–111.

About Ilkka Oramo

Professor of Music Theory, emeritus
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