Culture as natural resource

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]

What does it mean to be culturally ready for independence? And what is culture?

The latter question intrigued another great artist at the same time. In his essay Notes towards the Definition of Culture, the British poet T.S. Eliot noted that ‘a word does not need to receive this attention until it has come to be misused,’[2] as it was, according to Eliot, during the war years and the years thereafter. Or, we might add, until its meaning has become obscure or unintelligible.

Eliot distinguishes three important conditions for culture: ‘The first of these is organic (not merely planned, but growing) structure, such as will foster the hereditary transmission of culture within a culture: and this requires the persistence of social classes. The second is the necessity that a culture should be analysable, geographically, into local cultures: this raises the problem of “regionalism”. The third is the balance of unity and diversity in religion—that is, universality of doctrine with particularity of cult and devotion.’[3]

The first of Eliot’s conditions is of a special interest for our purposes, since it includes the notion of structure, a notion we may use to oppose Schoenberg. For it is not the quantity that matters, but the structure, not merely planned but growing and organic, ‘such as will foster the hereditary transmission of culture within a culture.’ It was due to structures of this kind that even small nations not only expected to be regarded as cultural units but also came to be regarded as such, after the First World War.

How did the Finnish nation achieve cultural maturity, of which it is agreed that it is a necessary condition for political independence? The answer is simple: by creating structures that could handle all the functions of an independent state. Some of these structures (church, university, judicial system) were inherited from the time of the Swedish rule; others (legislative organs, mail, railway, male voice choir, wood processing industry, newspaper, school of music, customs, currency, flag, coat of arms, theatre, museum, compulsory education, symphony orchestra etc.) were established during the 19th century.

All these structures belong to culture. As culture, to speak with Eliot, ‘includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people,’[4] we must not think of it as a unified whole. Its elements are widely different, partly incompatible with, and even hostile to each other. They nevertheless make up a system, and this system defines a politically independent nation.

How are structures born? They might just rise from the soil of human activities like a plant, without any conscious planning or effort. But sometimes they are creations of an individual or a group of individuals devoting themselves to a purpose. Of the latter type was the founding of the Helsinki School of Music, also known as the Helsinki Music Institute, in 1882.

A few years earlier a School of Crafts and Design had been set up in Helsinki on the initiative of Carl Gustaf Estlander, professor of Aesthetics and Comparative Literature at the University of Helsinki. Estlander’s idea was to bring art and industry together. He had realised that design was a weak point in Finnish industrial products. It had to be improved, or else Finns would remain a nation peddling raw material and products of low degree of working up. But high-quality design does not emerge from nothing. A necessary condition for it are the fine arts, because only they can advance and improve visual culture which, then, is reflected in the appearance of utensils, machines and equipment. ’The fine arts,’ Estlander wrote, ’are the industry’s noblest flower.’[5] And an industry capable of manufacturing high-quality products will provide a more stable foundation for national existence than keeping up traditions from earlier stages of economy. Therefore, Estlander reasoned, the nation needed, in addition to the School of Crafts and Design, an Academy of Fine Arts—and a School of Music.

A connection between the Fine Arts and industrial design was easily understandable, as was the role of design in manufacturing successful industrial products. But what was music needed for? It surely did not have any concrete and immediate influence on the industry’s competitive ability. Estlander nevertheless thought that such a connection was there, on a deeper level. Competitive ability means success in international trade, and among the conditions for this success are the nation’s achievements in other fields of culture than on those having an immediate impact on the appearance of products. Who would believe, Estlander reasoned, that a nation without a musical culture of a high international standard could manufacture high-quality industrial products.

As result of this reasoning, the Helsinki School of Music was founded in 1882. And the same year, as result of another initiative, a professional symphony orchestra, predecessor of the later Helsinki Philharmonic, was founded. Together these two institutions, deadly rivals to begin with, formed an infrastructure which made it possible for the small nation to express its national characteristics in ’singing and playing and, finally, even composing music,’ to quote once more Schoenberg’s words, the irony of which stems from traditional German suspicion about ’national music’ which, again, stems from the total and persistent inability of members of this great nation to discern what is national in their own music.

In the last decade of the 19th century, the Finnish nation faced an existential problem. When people of the Grand Duchy of Finland had finally become aware of themselves as a nation (a process in which poetry, music and the fine arts had played a central role all along the 19th century), their national existence was threatened by the influential Panslavist movement in St. Petersburg which aimed at depriving the country of its autonomy and making it just another Russian province. In 1899 Nicholas II, ’by the Grace of God, Emperor and Sovereign of Russia, Czar of Poland, Grand Duke of Finland, etc. etc.’, signed a document known as the ‘February Manifesto’ that was meant to be the initial stage in the process of Russification. This act of violence against the constitution, confirmed by the Emperor himself when ascending the throne in 1894, provoked a storm of controversy in Finland. Within just one week students gathered more than half a million names to support an address that was brought to St. Petersburg by 500 representatives of the people from all over the country and from all social classes. The Czar refused to receive the delegation.

Reaction among the artists was not less spontaneous. Sibelius wrote four days after the signing of the Manifesto his Song of the Athenians on a poem of Viktor Rydberg. In this poem, an adaptation of the battle song of Tyrtaeus, Athenian by birth but citizen of Sparta (who, according to Plato, idolised war and valued a man on grounds of his courage in battle, only), Athens is threatened by the Persians, and the Athenians raise their morale by praising the beauty of the sacrifice given for the freedom of their country. Male and boys’ voices sing in unison symbolising the undivided unanimity of the people, and the heroic character of the song is further emphasised by the accompaniment, scored for wind septet and percussion.

The Song of the Athenians was first performed in a concert with Sibelius’ works on 26 April 1899, and it immediately became a symbol of the resistance. The composer’s first symphony, premiered at the same concert, was, to the great annoyance of the composer, overshadowed by the song, which struck the audience by its topicality. In numerous arrangements, it, then, spread throughout the country and was sung, both in Swedish and in Finnish, by everybody everywhere. The same year and the following year, Sibelius composed a number of other patriotic pieces, which he probably never had written in other circumstances. The most well-known of them is Finlandia, originally conceived as the final movement of a series of scenes depicting Finland’s history. This work was programmed by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra on its first European tour through Scandinavia, Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium to the World Fair in Paris in 1900. In this World Fair, Finland had a pavilion of its own, the purpose of which was to show the world that Finland was not just another Russian borderland but a country inhabited by a culturally independent, modern nation with original art and architecture as well as crafts and design of a high standard. The programme sketched by Estlander had become reality.

Art (and, I believe, especially music), as shown by these examples, can be a powerful national resource because of its ability to penetrate deep into the collective feeling of a society and heighten a nation’s self-awareness in times of existential crises. This is an experience shared by many nations. Verdi became the symbol of Italy’s quest for independence. In his Nabucco (1842) the Jewish people, living in captivity in Babylon, sing of their lost country in a way the Milanese could easily apply to their own situation under the Austrian yoke. Bartók’s symphonic poem Kossuth (1903) depicts the life of a Hungarian hero who gave his life in a battle against the Austrian oppressor, and Tchaikovsky’s Overture 1812 reminded the Russians of their victory over Napoleon.

None of these compositions may belong to the most valuable achievements of their respective composers. Sibelius was quite aware of the fact that Finlandia was not on the level of, say, the symphonic poems of Richard Strauss and that it did not really belong to the symphonic repertory. Indeed, he wondered why people still were cheering ’what, compared with my other work, is this relatively insignificant piece.’[6]

But the value of this kind of music, which is national by function, is of another order than of an aesthetic order alone. It contributes to defining what a nation is to itself.

What a nation is to others is defined by achievements of another kind. If Sibelius had composed only works such as the Song of the Athenians or Finlandia, he would not have become a major composer on the international scene but remained a ’Heimatkünstler’ (a home area artist), so called by the German music historian Walter Niemann in 1906.[7] His worldwide reputation is based on his symphonies, symphonic poems and a violin concerto, that is on works that have absolutely nothing to do with the political fate of his country. These works must not be regarded in a geographical context, in the first place, even if writers on music often refer to their Northern character. They must be seen and evaluated in the context of symphonic music from the 1890s to the 1920s. In this view the ’Finnishness’ of this music is, if not completely irrelevant, is a subordinate quality, almost impossible to define in musical terms and probably related only to the listener’s knowledge of the composer’s nationality. It is something, to put it in another way, that hardly is a quality of the music itself, but rather of the audience’s receptive behaviour. The idea of a nation as an ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural unity, which we owe to Herder and other philosophers of the German Romanticism, still is so deeply rooted in our worldview that we hardly can think of anything without associating it with a certain nation. And for this reason, a nation is defined to others in terms of its unique contribution to the world community.

What are the things that define the Finnish nation to others, at present? You know it better than I do (and you can make your own list), but I might not be completely mistaken, if I enumerate the following items, and claim them to be on top of the list: sauna, Kalevala, Sibelius, Nokia, and Mika Häkkinen.

This list can be examined from several angles. One of them is temporal. The first three items are long-term and long-acting phenomena, whereas the remaining two belong to the present. The structure of these five items as cultural phenomena differs widely from each other.

Mika Häkkinen, the Formula 1 driver and twofold world champion, is probably the widest known Finn in these days. Hundreds of million people all over the world are watching every other weekend when he races on his McLaren Mercedes against Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari. The McLaren team is sponsored by the German tobacco manufacturer Reemtsma (yearly sales US$ 7 billion) and other companies wanting to reach as large a market as possible for their products. Schumacher races for another tobacco company, Philip Morris Inc., which is only logical because the colour of a Marlboro cigarette box is Ferrari-red.

If culture includes, as Eliot argues, ‘all the characteristic activities and interests of a people,’ then the Formula 1 circus is part of our culture. It provides entertainment for every world citizen with an access to a TV set, but the true objective is to make money for the companies running the circus, and their partners. This is achieved by wasting limited natural resources, contributing to the pollution of the environment and promoting products, which can cause severe damage to the health. Yet this activity, and the values behind it, is supported by national television companies as well as princes, presidents, and prime ministers who attend the races and let them be photographed in the company of the driver heroes.

Mika Häkkinen might be the widest known Finn in these days, but he is a short-term hero, who will be forgotten by the time he stops racing or ceases to win races. Motorsport enthusiasts may remember him, but the masses will forget him when his face does not show anymore regularly on the screen of their TV sets.

Nokia is a different case. This company became in the 1990s world market leader on mobile phones and is now (in 2000) No. 9 in the list of the world’s most valuable companies. With a market value of about US$ 200 billion, it is the greatest success story in Finland’s industrial history. It is, in fact, Estlander’s dream become true since its success is based on a combination of sophisticated technology and high-quality industrial design. Thanks to Nokia, its subcontractors and partners Finland is not anymore economically dependent on forestry and wood-processing industry alone, as it was, more or less, until the second half of the 20th century. But Nokia is not only a ‘Sampo,’ Kalevala’s mythical machine that created wealth for whoever owned it. More important is that it has launched an image of Finland as a modern, technologically advanced country and that this image has replaced, or potentially will replace, whatever ideas, if any, people in other countries might have had of it.

If culture is anything that people do, then Nokia is part of Finnish culture, even if the majority of its shares belong to international investors and even if it employs around 55 000 people in 50 different countries. But, despite the impressive figures of growth and profit, it shows today, it must be regarded as a short-term cultural phenomenon. The world changes rapidly. For ten years ago nobody outside Finland had ever heard anything about Nokia, which then was an old-fashioned cable factory. Then it got a CEO who changed its course. But during the following recession, the sales of mobile phones might collapse, and Nokia might find itself in difficulties. Or it will be taken over by another company, and its headquarters will be moved to London, New York, or Tokyo. Or the mobile phone technology will become obsolete as new technologies of communication are invented or discovered.

Whatever might happen in the future, one thing should be kept in mind. A company such as Nokia, as it is today, could not have been born anywhere. A necessary condition for its development to a world market leader in wireless telecommunication has been a society with a certain kind of infrastructure. This infrastructure obviously consists of first-class universities in engineering, commercial sciences and industrial design, but the ultimate basis of it is a general atmosphere of the society, an atmosphere that values and encourages creativity and believes in quality. ’A passion for quality’ was a favourite saying of Alvar Aalto, architect of the Nordic House in Reykjavik, and an artist I might have added to the list of persons and things that define the Finnish nation to others.

In contradistinction to Mika Häkkinen and Nokia, sauna, Kalevala and Sibelius are long-term phenomena. ’Sauna’ is the only word of Finnish language generally used as a loan in other languages (’le sauna’ in French, ’die Sauna’ in German etc.); Kalevala is the most widely spread Finnish literary work, of which there are translations into 51 languages (a translation into Icelandic dates from 1957); and Sibelius is the only Finnish composer mentioned in the largest contemporary history of music, the German Neues Handbuch der Musikwissenschaft in 13 volumes.

Why Sibelius? In the early 1890s, Sibelius made the invention of his life. He got acquainted with the primitive, modal rune singing that had been preserved as oral tradition in the distant villages of Karelia. He then fused some of the stylistic features of this primitive, pagan music with whatever he had learned from his teachers in the in the Helsinki Music School, in Berlin and in Vienna. A style emerged that we recognise as his style from a few bars or within seconds when listening to his music.

Sibelius is probably the most widely known Finn in the long term (not only in musical circles but generally), and he will continue to define the Finnish nation to others for a long time after the name of Mika Häkkinen has sunk into oblivion. The reason for this is simple. His music will be living reality as long as there are symphony orchestras and, hence, it will be part of the emotional and intellectual life of the future man in the Western world.

Music has an extraordinary capacity for resisting time. This is, among other things, due to the fact that it appeals to emotion and intellect directly, without concepts. Think about 18th-century culture. What else do you consume of it almost daily than its music? You might have read a poem by Goethe in your youth, but as a person living in the Western world, you cannot avoid hearing the music of, say, Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven on an almost daily basis.

According to Eliot, ‘the culture of the individual is dependent upon the culture of a group or class,’ and ‘the culture of the group or class is dependent upon the culture of the whole society to which that group or class belongs. Therefore it is the culture of the society that is fundamental…’[8] On the basis of this proposition, which I think is imperative, we may say the following: if Sibelius was born 20 years earlier than he did, he would not have become—to quote a recent evaluation of John Allison, music critic of The Times in London—‘one of the greatest symphonists of any time and place.’ The necessary structures of musical life in Finland that made it possible for this individual to develop into a great composer simply did not exist at that time.

It is up to the society to create the structures that allow groups and individuals to prosper. An investment into structures that strengthen the culture of a society is always a trade that pays. The benefit might not be immediately visible, but in the long run, it always will.

Contemporary Finland is known not only of Mika Häkkinen and Nokia, but also have its musicians: composers, conductors, singers, and instrumentalists. How is it possible that such a small country produces so many musicians making a great career on the international scene, one is often asked. The answer is quite simple. Finns are not musically more talented than members of any other nation. But since the 1960s Finland has built up a network of music schools (of which there are more than 150 today) that makes it possible for every talented individual to get competent instruction from an early age. In the 1980s this investment started to pay back. On several fields of international musical life, the percentage of Finns is now higher than might be expected on the basis of the nation’s population. From this state of affairs, the Finnish society benefits as a whole. Nokia is more credible as is comes from the country of Sibelius and Esa-Pekka Salonen (the conductor superstar, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and a fine composer) and the Finnish standard of living is higher than it was for twenty years ago, because—besides other things—we do not have to listen to mediocre music making any more.

In a modern society the concept of ‘natural resource’ needs to be redefined. In an old folk song, Finland is described as a poor country, if measured by the amount of gold it has in its soil. This might not be entirely true since some rather promising deposits have been found recently. However, Finnish economy will never be based on gold mining. For a long time it was based on forestry and paper mills (as it partly still is), and the woods were called Finland’s ‘green gold’. The most valuable natural resource, however, are the people and their creativity that produces surplus value out of knowledge and skill, provided that they are given structures in which to develop.

Structures are the responsibility of the society, but the question is, how much of this responsibility should fall on the state and how much on the private sector. Different models exist in the world, the extremes being the Nordic Countries, on the one hand, and the United States, on the other. In Finland, professional and semi-professional symphony orchestras, of which there are 21, are generously financed by the state and the municipalities. But there is a tendency to cut down the liability of the state for cultural affairs and to transfer it partly to the private sector. This development seems to be irreversible, and it causes problems especially to many not yet established or experimental groups, and this is alarming because it is in these groups that new ideas are forged. On the other hand, companies in Finland have recently become interested in looking for partners in cultural life instead of in sports. We are still, though, at a very early stage of this process, compared to the United Kingdom where a structure was set up in 1976, already, to help companies and cultural institutions to cooperate for the benefit of both parties. This structure is an organisation called Arts & Business (originally Association for Business Sponsorship of the Arts or ABSA), the stated aim of which is to ‘encourage the growth of sponsorship of, and participation in, the arts in the United Kingdom by business organisations.’

Sponsorship is not charity, nor patronage. ‘Charity is giving without thought of any award. Patronage is supporting without any commercial incentive. Sponsorship is a commercial arrangement that is beneficial to both parties.’ What is beneficial to a business, must be assessed by the business itself, but it is important to understand that strengthening the culture of a society is always beneficial to the life of the society as a whole, including its economy. T.S. Eliot was right, I believe, when he wrote: ‘We have to try to keep in mind, that in a healthy society this maintenance of a particular level of culture [which is a responsibility of the social classes] is to the benefit, not merely of the class which maintains it, but of the society as a whole. Awareness of this fact will prevent us from supposing that the culture of a “higher” class is something superfluous to society as a whole, or to the majority, and from supposing that it is something, which ought to be shared equally by all other classes. It should also remind the ’higher’ class, in so far as any such exists, that the survival of the culture in which it is particularly interested is dependent upon the health of the culture of the people.’[9]

Lecture given at Bessastaðir church, Iceland, in 2000.

[1] A. Schoenberg, ‘Folkloristic Symphonies,’ in Style and Idea. Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg, ed. Leonard Stein (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), 161.
[2] T.S. Eliot, Notes towards the Definition of Culture (London: Faber & Faber, 1948); 2nd edition 1962, 13.
[3] Ibid., 15.
[4] Ibid., 31.
[5] Carl Gustav Estlander, Den finska konstens och industrins utveckling hittills och hädanefter (1871); quoted after Aimo Reitala, ‘Nykyaikaa etsimässä ja epäilemässä. Suomalainen kuvataide teollistumisajan murroksessa,’ in Maailmankuvan muutos tutkimuskohteena, ed. Matti Kuusi, Risto Alapuro ja Matti Klinge (Helsinki: Otava, 1977), 161.
[6] Erik Tawaststjerna, Sibelius Vol. I 1865–1905 (London: Faber and Faber, 1976), 222.
[7] Walter Niemann, Die Musik Skandinaviens (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1906), 137.
[8] Eliot, Notes, 21.
[9] Ibid., 35.


About Ilkka Oramo

Professor of Music Theory, emeritus
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