A Success Story under Development
The success story was no accident but the result of a concentrated and long-term development project, the benefits of which only began to emerge decades after the crucial initial decisions were made. The real impetus though was the flourishing of Finnish culture prior to Finland gaining its independence in 1917. Much of the particular character of Finnish music stems from the bond between the people, the land and the Nordic way of life.
In the early 19th century, the Finnish music scene still lacked the sort of cultural infrastructure that would have enabled the clarinettist and composer Bernard Henrik Crusell (1775-1838) from Uusikaupunki, for example, to practice his chosen profession in his home country. By the 1880s, the development of Finland's music culture was in full swing with the establishment of the Helsinki Conservatory of Music, now the Sibelius Academy, the Helsinki Orchestra Association, now the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and the first Finnish-language choir, the YL Male Voice Choir, previously known as the Helsinki University Chorus. The Finnish National Opera also became a cohesive force for the young nation.
The Sibelius Effect
It now seems prophetic that one of the first students to matriculate at the conservatory was the young Jean Sibelius, the majority of whose orchestral pieces were first performed by the Helsinki Orchestra. The importance of Sibelius to Finnish music and the Finnish national identity can hardly be overstated. If the figure of Sibelius in the early 20th century did cast a long shadow over other Finnish composers, his influence on Finnish culture as a whole has been enormously encouraging and inspiring. Thanks to Sibelius, Finns have come to understand the value of cultural endeavours with classical music, in particular, becoming an inextricable part of the Finnish psyche.
In the independence-era Finland, the Sibelius effect has been most evident in the strong investment in musical education. Since the 1960s, musical education has been supported by government funding and regulated by law. It has resulted in the phenomenal rise of many prominent composers, conductors, vocalists and musicians during the last quarter of a century. From its inception, the Finnish music education system has been aspirational, aiming for steady improvements in attainment and instrumental and vocal skills. As the educational opportunities grew, so did the Finnish orchestra network, now the densest in the world. The network ensured that classical music could be enjoyed across the length and breadth of this sizeable but sparsely populated country.
Conductors, Vocalists, Musicians...
Since Robert Kajanus, Finland has produced a great many outstanding conductors, with Paavo Berglund, Jorma Panula, a distinguished teacher of music, Okko Kamu, a Karajan Prize winner and Leif Segerstam, Chief Conductor Emeritus of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, representing the old guard. Younger generation international talents include Esa-Pekka Salonen, Osmo Vänskä, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Sakari Oramo, Mikko Franck, John Storgårds, Petri Sakari, Susanna Mälkki and Hannu Lintu, with many rising talents already walking in their footsteps.
Notable Finnish vocalists include bass singers Kim Borg, Martti Talvela, Matti Salminen and Juha Uusitalo. Aino Ackté, who sang at the Paris Opera in the early 20th century, was the first Finnish soprano to achieve international renown. She has since then been joined by such luminaries as Aulikki Rautavaara, Karita Mattila and Soile Isokoski. Finnish musicians count a wide range of personalities among their ranks, including pianists Olli Mustonen and Ralf Gothoni, violinist Pekka Kuusisto, cellists Arto Noras, Marko Ylönen and Anssi Karttunen and clarinettist Kari Kriikku.
Co-operation Between the Arts
Finnish music life is characterised by the close co-operation between the creative and performing arts. Some composers may have found the figure of Sibelius formidable and daunting but to others, such as Einojuhani Rautavaara, it is inspiring and refreshing. Rautavaara's oeuvre combines key 20th century impulses into a distinctive style that puts spiritual content before technical solutions. Aulis Sallinen's operas are a tour de force of Finnish drama and the Sibelian symphony tradition has evolved in the hands of composers such as Einar Englund, Kalevi Aho and Per Henrik Nordgren. The modernist generation that emerged in the 1980s counts among its ranks such notable names as Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho, Jouni Kaipainen and Esa-Pekka Salonen, the creators of powerful and vivid orchestral and vocal dramas.
Music has also become a feature of Finnish architecture. The Finlandia Hall in Helsinki is a magnificent display of Alvar Aalto's artistry, if acoustically flawed. The Helsinki Music Centre is under construction nearby and will join the many excellent music venues built in Finland in the past decades, including the Sibelius Hall in Lahti, the Madetoja Hall in Oulu and the Kuhmo Arts Centre.
In spite of a population amounting to only some five million, the achievements of Finnish composers, performers and others have made the country into a musical superpower. Einojuhani Rautavaara, Magnus Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho count among the most respected and most frequently performed composers in the world. Esa-Pekka Salonen, Paavo Berglund, Jukka-Pekka Saraste and Sakari Oramo have made a name not only for themselves but for Finnish conducting as a whole. Karita Mattila, Soile Isokoski, Matti Salminen and Jorma Hynninen have garnered accolades across the world for the Finnish vocal arts.
The vitality of the Finnish music culture is very much in evidence round the year. In winter, it can be seen in the busy orchestra activity and in summer in the countless music festivals, both large and small, taking place across the country. Also bearing testament to it are the many high-profile Finnish music competitions, including the Sibelius Violin Competition, the Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition and the International Sibelius Conductors' Competition and the Finnish recording industry, most notably the Ondine label. Finns are deservedly proud of their musical achievements. It is our way of reaching out to the world.
Text: Antti Häyrynen, music journalist