[Paleopsych] NYT: An Epic Gave Finns a Lot to Sing About

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An Epic Gave Finns a Lot to Sing About
New York Times, 5.1.7

You may not think you know a thing about the "Kalevala,"
but if you're acquainted with Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings"
trilogy, the heavy-metal band Amorphis, or Don Rosa's
Donald Duck cartoon books, you've got a running start.

And if you want to dig deeper, check out the New Jersey
Symphony Orchestra's Northern Lights Festival, featuring
several works by Sibelius and running through Jan. 23, or
any of the several other Finnish musical events taking
place around New York this month. If you do, you'll also
learn a lot about why Finland's artistic clout so far
exceeds its size.

The "Kalevala" is Finland's national epic, a hefty volume
full of voyages, battles and magic, very much like the
Scandinavian "Edda," the Anglo-Saxon "Beowulf," the German
"Nibelungenlied" or the Indian "Mahabharata." But unlike
those tomes, it is basically a reworking by a single
individual - and a modern one - rather than a
rough-and-ready collection of unvarnished folk poetry.

It was Elias Lonnrot (1802-84), a country doctor and
folklore scholar who, by sheer force of will, created the
"Kalevala." Beginning in 1828, he made 11 expeditions,
ranging as far south as Estonia, as far north as Finnish
Lapland, as far west as the Tampere area (100 miles
northwest of Helsinki) and as far east as Russian Karelia,
in search of the ancient sung poetry, or "runo," tradition
then alive in the Eastern Orthodox regions of Finland,
though long banned in the Lutheran areas.

Lonnrot sought out accomplished runo singers, the best of
whom could remember thousands of lines. He could not read
or write music, but notated the runos he heard by numbering
the strings of his kantele, the five-stringed zither that
is the national musical instrument of Finland.

Lonnrot then organized the material into a unified body of
poetry, as Homer had with the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey."
Lonnrot selected the best variants of each story and
assembled them into a coherent whole, writing his own
connective passages where necessary and imposing his own
timeline to create a logically flowing chain of events.

He conflated characters to streamline the action and
transformed dialect passages into newly minted literary
Finnish. On Feb. 28, 1835, Lonnrot completed the first
phase of his work on the "Kalevala," and ever since, Feb.
28 has been celebrated as Kalevala Day, the birthday of
Finnish culture.

Such a freakishly wonderful event could have happened only
at that precise split second of history. The German poet
Johann Gottfried von Herder was urging Europeans to seek
their cultural identity in their ancient folklore, which he
termed "the mirror of the soul of the people." Finland, a
province of Sweden since 1155, had been annexed as an
autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire in 1809 and
was beginning to hatch dreams of nationhood.

But Finland in 1809 was a far cry from the sleekly
sophisticated, Nokia-obsessed nation we know today. The
country's educated elite then spoke Swedish, while Finnish
was the tongue of servants and peasants.

Longfellow's Source

During the first millennium A.D. the
animistic tribes living near the Gulf of Finland, and
speaking an exotic, non-Indo-European language nothing like
that of their Scandinavian and Slavic neighbors, laid the
foundation of "Kalevala" poetry. This poetry, sung in a
narrow, five-note melodic range, lacked both rhyme and
stanza structure, but it hewed to a single, all-purpose
metric formula that served as a memory aid, so that the
unlettered Finns could easily remember old poems and
improvise new ones.

This "Kalevala meter" is trochaic tetrameter, or four
two-syllable feet, in a long-short pattern, similar to
Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha":

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,

By the shining

Stood the wigwam of Nokomis.

Longfellow, a contemporary of Lonnrot, had co-opted the
Finnish epic's meter, alliteration and even some plot
points, trying, as he wrote, "to do for the old Indian
legends what the unknown Finnish poets had done for

The "Kalevala," the epic of the people of Kaleva, is
dominated by the character of Vainamoinen, a shaman and
sorcerer who can charm wild beasts with his kantele and use
words as weapons. He is the Gandalf-like "eternal sage" who
establishes the land of Kaleva and leads and teaches its

Promise of Prosperity

The "Lord of the Rings" parallels don't end there. Tolkien
fashioned Quenya, the lyrical lingo of Middle Earth's
elves, after the click and lilt of spoken Finnish. Both the
"Kalevala" and Tolkien's saga, modeled after it, outline a
hero's journey in pursuit of a powerful sacred object,
replete with shape-shifting, demons and magical plants and

The "Kalevala" depicts the continuing struggle between the
good Kaleva (read the Finns), from whose perspective the
story is told, and the bad Pohjola from the foggy north
(perhaps the Sami people of Lapland). On a deeper, more
esoteric level, the "Kalevala" may be read as a contest
between light and darkness, good and evil.

The central myth of the "Kalevala" is the story of the
Sampo, a mysterious object forged by Vainamoinen's brother,
the blacksmith Ilmarinen. We are never told what the Sampo
actually is, but it has often been imagined as a sort of
magic mill that churns out salt, grain and gold. The
Sampo's metaphorical meaning is clear enough: it is the
source of prosperity and good fortune.

The "Kalevala" swiftly became the de facto collective
memory of the Finns, a boost to their national self-esteem,
a rallying point for Finnish independence and, eventually,
a wellspring of artistic inspiration. It brought a small,
obscure nation to the world's attention, raising the Finns
to a historical status alongside other old European
peoples, while highlighting their uniqueness.

Creating an Identity

Lonnrot published an expanded "New
Kalevala" in 1849, but it would be years before any of it
was set to music. Finland was then a political and economic
backwater, and Finnish classical music was in its infancy.
It slavishly imitated the music of central Europe, the only
model it knew. So even the first "Kalevala"-based concert
works, like the "Kullervo Overture" (1860) by Filip von
Schantz, merely stuffed the epic's sprawling subject matter
into a tidy Western musical matrix.

Enter the Karelianists, a group of young Finnish artists
who revered the "Kalevala" as the cornerstone of Finnish

The Karelianist movement peaked in the 1890's and continued
until shortly after Finland achieved its independence, in
1917. Its ranks included the poet Eino Leino, the architect
Eliel Saarinen and the painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela, whose
vivid images of "Kalevala" scenes are still the ones etched
in most Finns' minds.

These Karelianists also gave the world Jean Sibelius
(1865-1957), who, through his embrace of the "Kalevala,"
would become as great a national symbol and source of pride
as the epic itself. His music, the composer Erkki
Salmenhaara said, "was stylistically influenced to a great
extent by the modality, endless repetition and narrow
compass of ancient Finnish folk music and the rhythm of
'Kalevala' poetry - much like primitive Russian folk music
was later to influence the music of Stravinsky."

A National Music

Sibelius was a Swedish speaker by birth,
unable to speak a word of Finnish until he was about 8. His
mother enrolled him in one of the first schools in Finland
to use Finnish as the teaching language, which opened up to
him the world of the "Kalevala."

Like many Finnish composers before and since, Sibelius felt
humbled at the thought of setting the "Kalevala" to music.
But he tamed his fears enough to write the symphonic poem
"Kullervo" (1892), which put him on the international
musical map and, more important, planted the seeds of a
national musical language. Rather than idealizing the
subject matter, Sibelius took an archaic-flavored,
musically radical approach that embraced both the tale's
ancient nature and its modern guise.

After "Kullervo" Sibelius planned a "Kalevala" opera,
"Building of the Boat," with Vainamoinen as the main
character. When this project was scuttled, its musical
materials were absorbed into the "Lemminkainen Suite"
(1896), four tone poems on the exploits of the epic's Don
Juan figure.

Sibelius had gone on a poetry-collecting jaunt to eastern
Karelia in 1892, but he rarely used direct quotes from folk
songs or runo tunes, and disparaged their significance in
his works, probably for fear of being branded provincial.

Though digging for traces of runo tunes in Sibelius's works
has been frowned upon in Finland, the folk song scholar A.
O. Vaisanen found numerous runo tunes in his work. In the
first tableau of "Karelia" (1893), the composer used direct
folk music quotes and brought actual runo singers on stage
to perform them.

More significant than Sibelius's quotations of folk songs
is the way that the musical heritage of the "Kalevala"
merged seamlessly with his personal musical voice. The
narrow melodic range of the runo themes gave birth to his
distinctive brand of symphonic motifs, and the endless
repetition of "Kalevala" tunes sparked his new ornamental
variation technique.

The modality of "Kalevala" music helped Sibelius distance
himself from the constricting major-minor tonality of
Western music. In 1896, Sibelius wrote: "I had to yield to
the tonality stemming from ancient folk songs. Now it is
apparent that our present system of tonality is crumbling."

As the 20th century wore on, enthusiasm for the "Kalevala"
waxed and waned, and Karelianism was sometimes stereotyped
as conservative jingoism or a retreat from reality.
Modernists saw the "Kalevala" culture as a hindrance to the
universal aspirations of their art. When the "Kalevala" did
influence 20th-century music, it tended to do so more
generally, as an emphasis on ancient, mythical

The youngest generation of Finnish classical composers has
taken scant interest in the "Kalevala," but the epic seems
to intrigue young musicians of a more popular stripe. In
the 1980's, the folk music band Vrttina began with pure
runo singing but more recently has raised hackles among
purists for its fusion work.

Edward Vesala, a powerful, shamanlike jazz musician,
recorded two "Kalevala"-flavored discs, "Snow" (1987) and
"Ode to the Death of Jazz" (1990), before his death in
1999. The progressive rock band Kalevala recently released
a triple CD, "Kalevala - A Finnish Progressive Rock Epic,"
on which 30 international bands explore themes and tunes
inspired by the "Kalevala."

Made for Heavy Metal

Of all popular musical styles, heavy metal would seem
perfectly matched to the moody Goth fantasy of the
"Kalevala." In 1994, Amorphis, Finland's best-known metal
band, began exploring the "Kalevala" in its album "Tales
>From the Thousand Lakes."

Clearly, the impact of the "Kalevala" has been
extraordinary, both within and outside Finland. Beyond the
realm of high art, Finland's streets, businesses and
merchandise (including Kalevala-Koru's imposing replicas of
Iron Age jewelry) bear names drawn from the epic, and
"Kalevala" tarot decks, video games and comic books abound,
including Don Rosa's "Tale of the Sampo," featuring Donald

The epic has been translated into 51 languages, including
Arabic, Chinese, Esperanto, Greek, Hindi, Swahili - and
even Yiddish.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the "Kalevala," however,
is the fact that the heroism it celebrates is accomplished
not through physical strength or violence, but through
magical songs. If that's not the key to Finland's success
story, what is?

Cori Ellison is the dramaturge at the New York City Opera.


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