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RADAR

The centenary of Finland’s independence in music

On the 27th of September 2017, Esa-Pekka Salonen will be leading the Philharmonia Orchestra in a celebration of the centenary of Finland’s independence.

Finland has been a Member State of the European Union since 1995 and has been an inspiration in terms of democracy, art and philosophy. Say Finland and the word inevitably conjures images of the country’s vast and magnificent wilderness and the majestic wetland landscapes that Jean Sibelius evoked so masterfully in Finlandia. Where the expansive taiga where the forest seems to embrace the dreamy lakes, inspiring powerful and enchanting lyricism. At the same time, Finland’s culture and civilisation, which has been fundamentally shaped by its landscape, is also worth exploring.

Finland has borders with Sweden and Russia, making it a coveted prize for these two rival powers. They used the territory of present-day Finland as a battleground for their wars, with the loser alternately giving up power over the territory to the winner. From the Middle Ages onwards, Finland gradually became an integral part of Sweden. Under the Treaty of Fredrikshamn in the nineteenth century, the territory was incorporated into the Russian Empire as the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland. During this period like other parts of Europe, a strong Finnish nationalist movement grew. Elias Lönnrot compiled the Kalevala, a compilation of epic poetry from Finnish folklore, which had been handed down orally until then and which became Finland’s national epic. Music played an instrumental role in the Kalevala, which is one of the most significant works of Finnish literature, as it is the unifying element between the various traditional songs and its main character, the bard Väinämöinen. The work influenced figures such as Jean Sibelius much like the work of Johan Ludvig Runeberg, “the national Finnish poet”. The Tsar’s Russification policy, which was implemented around the turn of the twentieth century, caused widespread Finnish resistance, consolidating the growing sense of Finnish nationality, which was celebrated by painters like Akseli Gallen-Kallela and Pekka Halonen, or the author Eino Leino and his brother Kasimir.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela, The Mother of Lemminkäinen (1893), one of the main characters in the Kalevala. Public Domain
Akseli Gallen-Kallela, The Mother of Lemminkäinen (1893), one of the main characters in the Kalevala. Public Domain

In the wake of the upheaval in Europe and Russia at the end of World War I and after the October Revolution in Russia, Finland finally declared its independence on the 6th of December 1917. Its culture is founded on one of the few EU languages that are not of Indo-European origin, a linguistic affinity it shares with the Finno-Ugric peoples (Finnish is closely related to Estonian and Hungarian).

The Senate declared Finland independent on 4th December 1917 and it was confirmed by parliament 6th December 1917 which became the independence day of Finland. Eric Sundström, Official picture. Public Domain
The Senate declared Finland independent on 4th December 1917 and it was confirmed by parliament 6th December 1917 which became the independence day of Finland. Eric Sundström, Official picture. Public Domain

Perhaps the creation of Finland’s remarkable democratic model can be attributed to the influence that its two great neighbouring empires exercised over it for so many hundreds of years. The Fins have traditionally been fuelled by a precocious passion for freedom and the rule of law, which is all too often ignored in favour of the French, British or Swiss models. Most people for example have no clue that Finland was the first European country to give all adult citizens full suffrage – i.e., including women, the other half of humanity – twenty years before Great Britain (1928) and about forty years before France (1944) and Belgium (1948)! The legislative elections of 1907, which it organised as an autonomous region within the Russian Empire, was the first election ever to allow women to vote, without being sexually, ethnically or socially discriminated against. The Fins were also the first to give women the right to run for legislature. To this day, Finland continues to be a modern democracy, pioneering a model of citizen participation under which Parliament must consider a legislative initiative by any citizen if it has the support of at least fifty thousand Finnish citizens. Citizens can also engage in debate with each other through online platforms, which can also be used to formulate legislative proposals, to ensure that the bills that are submitted to MPs comply with the legislation enforce and are compatible with it.

Finnish MPs reviewed the marriage act, enacting gender-neutral marriage, after a citizen’s initiative forced parliament (which is a one chamber system, called the Eduskunta) to include it on the agenda.  Russian Ambassy in Helsinki (2013), Murrur, Creative Commons
Finnish MPs reviewed the marriage act, enacting gender-neutral marriage, after a citizen’s initiative forced parliament (which is a one chamber system, called the Eduskunta) to include it on the agenda. Russian Ambassy in Helsinki (2013), Murrur, Creative Commons

The Finnish model did not just produce avant-garde democratic structures. It also displayed its inventiveness and its national genius in other fields, such as epistemic logic, (a domain in which Jaakko Hintikka is one of the most eminent scholars), and music. And that is how one of the country’s most widely-respected conductors and contemporary composers, Esa-Pekka Salonen intends to pay tribute to his country. For this occasion, he has chosen two works by Sibelius, noblesse oblige, who is to Finnish music what Bernstein was for the American school. The composer attained an innovative musical synthesis through a new type of musical coherence, which became a symbol of, and played an important role in the development of a Finnish national identity. Sibelius succeeded, better than anyone else, in stripping down musical expression to its minimalist essence. As such, his compositions contrasted strongly with the post-romantic demonstrative music and symphonic flourishes of such composers as Mahler. Instead Sibelius sought to evoke Finnish nature, its landscapes, its ambience and its spirit in his organic, simple music. While essentially concentrating on tonality, he was also drawn to the music of several of his contemporaries, including Debussy or Schönberg.

Photograph of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius in colour, 1938, Georg von Wendt, Public Domain
Photograph of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius in colour, 1938, Georg von Wendt, Public Domain

The prestigious Philharmonia Orchestra, which was founded by the legendary Walter Legge, will illustrate the singular beauty of the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies by Jean Sibelius – the two last major works he composed – with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting. The Finnish conductor is the orchestra’s Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor.

Also on the programme are two contemporary works by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho and her Icelandic counterpart Daniel Bjarnason, whose Violin Concerto will be performed for the first time ever in Belgium, by the soloist Pekka Kuusisto. The Finnish musician comes from a musical lineage.