(Swed. Helsingfors). Capital of Finland. Founded in 1550 as a trading station by the King of Sweden, Helsinki was destroyed by the Russians during the Great Nordic War in 1713. It begun to recover only at the end of the 18th century owing to the construction of the Suomenlinna fortress on the islands near the town. The fortress, however, fell into the hands of the Russians in 1808 and the same year Helsinki was badly damaged in a fire. By the Treaty of Hamina (1809) Finland was ceded to Russia as an autonomous Grand Duchy and the capital moved from Turku (Åbo) to Helsinki in 1812. In 1828 the only university in the country was transferred to the new capital. The population of Helsinki grew from about 4000 in 1810 to 100,000 in the 1890s and about 550,000 in 1999. In 2000 Helsinki was one of the seven cultural capitals of Europe.

1. Orchestras.

Musical life in the Helsinki area began in Sveaborg, site of a military band and later (1815–24) of an orchestra. From the late 1820s academic musical societies were founded, developed by the efforts of Fredrik Pacius (1809–91), a German-born violinist and composer, who became music teacher at the University in 1835. A professional orchestra of 16 players was set up by Filip von Schantz in 1860 to serve the Nya Teatern (New Theatre, from 1887 known as the Svenska Teatern); augmented by amateur players it also gave symphony concerts. A new era began in 1882, as Robert Kajanus (1856–1933) founded the Helsingfors Orkesterförening/Helsingin Orkesteriyhdistys (Helsinki Orchestral Association), renamed the Filharmoniska Sällskapet/Filharmoninen Seura (Philharmonic Society) in 1895. Initially, Kajanus’s orchestra had 36 players, growing to 45 in 1895. Each year it performed about eight symphony concerts in addition to many popular concerts. In 1900 it undertook its first tour via Scandinavia to the World Exhibition in Paris. In 1912 an ‘orchestral war’ broke out as Georg Schnéevoigt (1872–1947) founded the Helsingfors Symfoniorkester/Helsingin Sinfoniaorkesteri. In 1914 the rival orchestras merged to form the Helsingin Kaupunginorkesteri/Helsingfors Stadsorkester (Helsinki City Orchestra), which today also uses the traditional name Helsinki Filharmonia (Helsinki PO). Kajanus was its musical director until 1932, and was succeeded by Schnéevoigt. His successors have included Armas Järnefelt (1942–3), Martti Similä (1945–51), Tauno Hannikainen (1951–63), Jorma Panula (1965–72), Paavo Berglund (1975–9), Okko Kamu (1981–8), Segiu Comissiona (1990–95) and Leif Segerstam (1995–2001).

Suomen Yleisradio (the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation) established a radio orchestra in 1927. Originally a small studio ensemble, it grew during the following decades and developed in the 1960s into a full-size symphony orchestra. The Finnish RSO regularly plays in Helsinki and carries out a comprehensive recording programme of Finnish orchestral music. Since 1963, the year of its first foreign tour, it has given about 180 concerts in 25 countries. The subsequent principal conductors have been Ernst Linko (1927–9), Toivo Haapanen (1929–50), Nils-Eric Fougstedt (1950–61), Paavo Berglund (1962–71), Okko Kamu (1971–7), Leif Segerstam (1977–87) and Jukka-Pekka Saraste (1987–2001). Since the pioneering Helsingin Kamariorkesteri (Helsinki Chamber Orchestra), established by Paavo Berglund in 1953, Helsinki has supported several outstanding chamber orchestras. Avanti!, founded by Saraste and Esa-Pekka Salonen in 1983, has an international reputation in contemporary music, while the Suomalainen Kamariorkesteri (Finnish Chamber Orchestra) and the 6. Kerroksen Orkesteri (Orchestra of the 6th Floor), both established in the 1990s, concentrate on Classical and Baroque music, respectively.

2. Chamber music and recitals.

In the 19th century and the early 20th, many famous artists gave recitals in Helsinki en route from Stockholm to St Petersburg. The role of visiting artists has diminished as Finnish musicians have become a greater part of the city’s musical life. During the 1990s Helsinki offered recitals and chamber music on a daily basis. Concerts are promoted by such institutions and societies as the Finnish Broadcasting Company, the Sibelius Academy and the Suomen Solistiyhdistys (Finnish Soloists’ Association). Some of the most prominent ensembles in the 1980s and 90s were the Baroque ensemble Battalia, the Jean Sibelius Quartet, the Sibelius Academy Quartet, the Avanti! Quartet, the New Helsinki Quartet, the Breath Percussion Ensemble and the Toimii! Ensemble.

3. Opera.

In the early 19th century opera was performed in Helsinki by touring German companies. The first domestic performances took place at the end of the 1840s, and the first Finnish opera staged in Helsinki was Pacius’s Kung Karls jakt in 1852. In 1860 the Nya Teatern began to stage opera in Swedish, while the Finnish-speaking audiences were given regular performances of opera in their native language from 1873 at the Suomalainen Teatteri (Finnish Theatre), established a year earlier. During six years of activity, Suomalainen Ooppera (Finnish Opera), as the opera department was soon called, gave around 450 performances of 26 different works. Later the Suomen Kansallisteatteri (Finnish National Theatre) started performing opera in its new building (1902).

In 1911, Kotimainen Ooppera (Domestic Opera) was established by Aïno Ackté (1876–1944) and Edvard Fazer (1861–1943). In 1919 this troupe, renamed Suomalainen Ooppera (Finnish Opera) in 1914, moved to the Alexander Theatre, built for the Russian Garrison in 1876. In 1922 a ballet company with a ballet school was established. These companies were renamed Suomen Kansallisooppera (Finnish National Opera) and Suomen Kansallisbaletti (Finnish National Ballet) in 1956. After 50 years of collaboration with the Helsinki PO, the Finnish National Opera formed its own orchestra in 1963. It moved to a new building in 1993. Situated in the southern Central Park of Helsinki, this opera house offers the company a suitable working environment for the first time in its history. In the 20th century the Finnish National Opera commissioned and gave first performances of many new operas by Finnish composers, and since the 1950s it has given guest performances in several European countries and in the USA. The directors of the Finnish National Opera and its predecessor include Edvard Fazer (1912–38), Oiva Soini (1939–52), Alfons Almi (1960–71), Juhani Raiskinen (1974–84 and 1996–2001), Ilkka Kuusisto (1984–92), Walton Grönroos (1992–6) and Erkki Korhonen (from 2001). Conductors of the opera orchestra were Jussi Jalas (1958–73), Ulf Söderblom (1973–93), Miguel Gómez-Martínez (1993–6) and Okko Kamu (1996–2000).

4. Choral societies.

The tradition of choral singing in Helsinki reaches back to the early 19th century. The male-voice student choirs Akademiska Sångföreningen (Academic Choral Society, founded 1838) and Ylioppilaskunnan Laulajat (the Helsinki University Chorus, founded 1883) played an important role in the nationalistic movement during the tsarist regime. Other male-voice choirs with long traditions are the Sällskapet M.M. (founded 1878) and Laulu-Miehet (founded 1914). The birth of mixed choirs reflects the change that took place in woman’s position in the society. Suomen Laulu (Song of Finland) was founded as a male-voice choir in 1900, but included women from 1907. Kansallis-Kuoro (National Choir, founded 1908) and others followed suit. Choral singing is now the most widespread form of amateur music in Helsinki, performed by hundreds of choirs. The chorus of the National Opera is the only professional choir in Helsinki. Chamber choirs such as the the semi-professional Radion Kamarikuoro (Radio Chamber Choir, founded 1962), Grex Musicus, Jubilate and Kampin Laulu as well as smaller vocal ensembles such as Köyhät Ritarit (Poor Knights), Cetus Noster and Lumen Valo (Light of Snow), cover a wide range of choral repertory from medieval plainchant to contemporary music. Among children’s choirs, Cantores Minores, attached to the Lutheran Cathedral of Helsinki, is an institution with fine traditions.

5. Concert halls.

For 139 years the main venue for orchestral concerts in Helsinki was the Great Hall of the university, situated at the Great Square. The Helsinki PO played there until the inauguration of the Finlandia Hall (cap. 1750) in 1971. In 1965 the Finnish RSO moved to the House of Culture (1958, cap. 1400). In 1972 the Finlandia Hall became its main venue. None of these three halls is acoustically satisfactory. A new concert hall is expected to be ready by 2005. Orchestral concerts are also given in churches such as the Kallion Kirkko, Johanneksen Kirkko (St John’s) and the Temppeliaukion Kirkko (Church of the Temple Square). These churches, along with the Tuomiokirkko (Cathedral) and Saksalainen Kirkko (German Church), are also the main venues for church music. Chamber music and recitals are given in the concert hall (cap. 650) of the Sibelius Academy, in Ritarihuone (House of the Nobility) and the Temppeliaukion Kirkko. Although the Finlandia Hall includes a chamber music hall (cap. 380), it is seldom used for concerts.

6. Festivals and competitions.

The first music festival in Helsinki was the Sibelius-Viikko (Sibelius Week, 1951–65). It was replaced in 1968 by the Helsingin Juhlaviikot (Helsinki Festival), held annually in August and September. While the former was dedicated to the music of Sibelius, the latter, under Seppo Nummi (1969–77) and Veijo Varpio (1980–94), also covered fine arts, theatre, dance and cinema. Under the direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen (1995–6) it developed into a genuine city festival that spread from concert halls and art galleries into streets, pubs and a festival tent. Classical music continues to be in the spotlight under the direction of Risto Nieminen (since 1997). Helsinki Biennale, a festival of contemporary music, was founded in 1981 to succeed Nykymusiikin Päivät (Contemporary Music Days), organized by the Finnish Broadcasting Company since the 1960s. In 1998 it was replaced by the annual Musica Nova Helsinki. Since 1950 Helsinki has regularly hosted the Pohjoismaiset Musiikkipäivät/Nordiska Musikdagar (Nordic Music Days), an annual festival held in turn in the capitals of the five Nordic countries (Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden), as is an associated festival of young composers, Ung Nordisk Musik (Young Nordic Music). In 1978 Helsinki hosted the World Music Days of the ISCM. Music competitions in Helsinki are essentially a postwar phenomenon. The national Maj Lind Piano Competition, founded 1945, became international in 2000. Other established international competitions include the Sibelius Violin Competition (founded 1965), the Mirjam Helin Singing Competition (founded 1981), the Paulo Cello Competition (founded 1991) and the Sibelius Conductors’ Competition (founded 1995).

7. Education.

Helsinki is the site of the Sibelius Academy (Sibelius-Akatemia), founded by Martin Wegelius as the Helsingfors Musikinstitut/Helsingin Musiikkiopisto (Helsinki Music Institute) in 1882. In 1924–39 it was known as the Helsingin Konservatorio (Helsinki Conservatory). The Sibelius Academy was a private college until it gained university status in 1980. Its subsequent directors have been Armas Järnefelt (1906–7), Karl Ekman (1907–11), Erkki Melartin (1911–36), Ernst Linko (1936–59), Taneli Kuusisto (1959–71), Veikko Helasvuo (1971–81), Ellen Urho (1981–7), Tuomas Haapanen (1987–90), Erkki Rautio (1990–93), Lassi Rajamaa (1993–9) and Pekka Vapaavuori (from 1999). The Sibelius Academy offers undergraduate and postgraduate degree courses and also incorporates a junior academy, a centre of continuing education and one of the largest music libraries in Finland. Other music schools in Helsinki include the Helsinki Conservatory and several children’s music schools. Musicology was represented at Helsinki University from 1900 and at the Sibelius Academy from the 1980s. A large number of music unions and associations are active in Helsinki. The Finnish Music Information Centre provides an important service for musicologists and professional musicians.


O. Andersson: Den unge Pacius och musiklivet i Helsingfors på 1830-talet [Young Pacius and musical life in Helsinki in the 1830s] (Helsinki, 1938)
E.-M.v. Frenckell: Öffentliga nöjen och privata i Helsingfors 1812–27 [Public and private pleasures in Helsinki], i (Helsinki, 1943)
K. Maasalo: Radion Sinfoniaorkesterin viisi vuosikymmentä 1927–1977 [Five decades of the Finnish RSO] (Jyväskylä, 1980)
F. Dahlström: Sibelius-Akatemia 1882–1992 (Helsinki, 1982)
M. Vainio: ‘Musiikin esitystilat Suomen pääkaupungeissa 1790–1990’ [Music venues in the capitals of Finland], Musiikki, xx/3–4 (1990), 12–44
E. Marvia and M. Vainio: Helsingin kaupunginorkesteri 1882–1982 [Helsinki PO] (Juva, 1993)
S. Lappalainen: Tänä iltana Yliopiston juhlasalissa [Tonight in the Great Hall of the university] (Helsinki, 1994)
Finnish Music Quarterly, xi/1 (1995) [Helsinki issue]
G.C. Schoolfield: Helsinki of the Czars (Columbia, SC, 1996)
H.-I. Lampila: Suomalainen ooppera [The Finnish Opera] (Porvoo, 1997)

For further bibliography see FINLAND, §I.

About Ilkka Oramo

Professor of Music Theory, emeritus
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