3.2: The Kantele Traditions of
by Carl Rahkonen © 1989 All Rights Reserved Back to Table of Contents
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After the mid nineteenth century, there was a gradual shift away from carving the bodies of kanteles from a single piece of wood and builders began making larger kanteles which had bodies fashioned by combining individual pieces of wood to form an enclosed box. Box kanteles are distinguished from modern kanteles in that the sides of the instrument, particularly the side which holds the tuning pins, are usually straight rather than curved.
Like carved kanteles, most box kanteles are folk artifacts, so there is enormous variation in specific characteristics of structure. The sample of box kanteles which I studied came from five different collections and numbered one‑hundred ten instruments.  Information was collected on structural characteristics peculiar to box kanteles and organized in a database, which was used to generate the reports in Appendix 2.
There are four kanteles attributed to Elias Lönnrot in the sample which are believed to be among the oldest box kanteles. Two are relatively small box kanteles, similar to the drawing found in Lönnrot's handwritten playing guide.  They differ from other carved or box kanteles in that they have a set of chromatic strings positioned between and in a plane slightly lower than the normal diatonic strings of the central octave. The strings pass over the edge at the end of the instrument and are attached to pins set into the end, similar to string attachment on many Russian instruments. Both kanteles have a ponsi, which appears to have been added as a separate piece after the instruments were built.
The other two kanteles attributed to Lönnrot are much larger and substantially different from the two instruments described above. They appear similar to very large carved kanteles, with a large and pronounced ponsi which is an integral part of the instrument. The strings are attached to a rod held in place between two metal brackets on the sides of the instruments. Like the two smaller Lönnrot kanteles, both are partially chromatic, even though all the strings are in the same plane.
14. Two kanteles attributed to Elias
Lönnrot from the
Older box kanteles shared several structural characteristics with larger carved kanteles. They were generally the same size and had approximately the same number of strings. The strings were not parallel, but radiated from the end of the instrument to the tuning pins like a fan. The tuning pins were placed into a board outside the body of the instrument, which brings to mind the lapa [blade] of carved kanteles. Also, many early box kanteles used a rod to attach the strings at the end of the instrument, similar to the varras [rod] of carved kanteles.
As box kanteles developed, structural changes resulted. The overall size became much larger. The average size of the sample of box kanteles is approximately 30% larger than that of the carved kanteles. The tuning pegs of the carved kantele gave way completely to tuning pins. The strings became parallel and the board into which the tuning pins were set was placed inside the body of the instrument. In the place where the previous tuning pin board had been, came a new "protecting board" which projected up from the body of the instrument the same height as the tuning pins. Its function was to protect the tuning pins from damage and to provide a place for one of the forearms to rest. Eventually, the rod system of fastening the strings gave way to screws and later to hitch pins for each string. The hitch pins were covered by another board, which I call a covering board, on which the player could rest the other forearm.
The changes in box kantele structure did not happen uniformly. The various characteristics cannot be used to determine the age of a given kantele, since individual builders may have retained certain characteristics, while changing others. The box kanteles of the sample show an interesting mixture of innovations and tradition.
The box kantele came about as a direct result of builders trying to increase the number of strings and the sample shows a substantial increase. Builders tended to favor using an even number of strings, rather than an odd number. The most frequently occurring number of strings were 30 (15 kanteles), 28 (12 kanteles), 24 (10 kanteles), and 32 (7 kanteles).
The box kanteles of the sample generally retained the characteristics of diatonic tuning and lack of bridges. Only six kanteles of the sample were tuned chromatically, four of which were attributed to Elias Lönnrot. Thirteen kanteles of the sample had bridges. Six had bridges on both sides, six had bridges only on the ponsi side, and one had a bridge on the tuning pin side of the instrument.
The wide variety of sound holes found among carved kanteles gives way almost completely to plain round holes with the box kanteles of the sample. Occasionally, these round holes may have a figure, such as a lyre or flower carved in them. Heart‑shaped sound holes were also typical, particularly for secondary sound holes.
There are two general types of box kanteles: one type with a square end, which the Finns call "even‑ended" [tasaperäinen] or "straight‑ended" [suoraperäinen] and the other with a round end [pyöreäperäinen]. Approximately two thirds of the kanteles in the sample are square‑ended, while one third are round‑ended. These two different types cannot be separated into distinct classes because they often co‑existed in the same areas and frequently individual builders would build both types (Illus. 15). To the folk, then, these two different types of box kanteles were both considered genuine kanteles and were interchangeable.
15. Round-ended and square-ended
kanteles from Jooseppi Pohjola's workshop, near
When a box kantele is square‑ended, it typically has a ponsi. In this context, the ponsi is no longer able to serve the function originally attributed to it. Box kanteles are so large that they were usually played on top
of a table, and if they were played in the lap, the ponsi of a box kantele would be too long to be placed against the knee. There are many different sizes and shapes of ponsis. Some of the box kanteles of the sample have a very large and pronounced ponsi, others have a very small ponsi, and a few have no ponsi at all. The ponsi is a structural characteristic coming directly from carved kanteles which was retained in square‑ended box kanteles. The general feeling of current builders is that "a kantele would not be a kantele without a ponsi." In its new context the ponsi no longer serves its original function, but acts as a kind of identification mark; it makes the instrument more than a plain zither ‑‑ it makes it a kantele. So in addition to function and fashion, an additional influence upon kantele builders is tradition. Tradition makes possible the retention of characteristics which may have served a function at one time, but no longer do.
Some believe that the round‑ended
kantele began to be built in
Finnish museums contain some examples
of round‑ended carved kanteles and small round-ended box kanteles from
Eastern Finland and
Illus. 16. Swedish hummel from (Walin 1952:153).
17. Early round-ended box kanteles in
The round‑ended box kantele has a relatively simple structure. The frame of the instrument is made with just two pieces of wood. One long board is bent by moistening it in some fashion and pressing it around a mold, forming the short side, end and long side of the instrument. To this is added another straight board for the tuning‑pin side. The instrument body is completed by adding a top and bottom to the frame. The round‑ended box kantele is also called a "pressed‑end" kantele [paineperäinen] because of the pressure required to bend the board forming the end and sides.
Fifty-five kanteles of the sample had a covering board while thirty-five did not. A hinged covering board or fully developed damping board was quite rare, being found on only six instruments of the sample.
There were an equal number of box kanteles where the long and short sides were parallel as those where the sides were not parallel. Likewise, the number of kanteles with the tuning pin board on the inside of the box was nearly the same as the number with it on the outside.
At the time when the carved kantele
was disappearing in Eastern Finland, the box kantele became a normal part of
everyday life in Ostrobothnia and
The box kantele also brought with it a new phenomenon: master builders, who produced kanteles commercially. They were generally folk builders who became so good at their craft that other players found it better to buy a kantele from them than to build one themselves. Master builders began to establish workshops which produced kanteles on a larger scale than ever before. Some of the more famous people who established workshops were Jaakko Östermark and Juho Sillanpää (Perho River Valley), Efraim Kilpinen (Kalajoki), Pasi Jääskeläinen (Haapavesi), Kustaa Lipponen (Oulu), Jooseppi Pohjola and Juho Tamminen (Saarijärvi), and in more recent years, Leander Laasanen (Veteli) and Oiva Heikkilä (Veteli and later Vantaa), Otto Koistinen (Joensuu) and Erkki Leskelä (Ylikiiminkki). The structure of the kantele became more standardized and homogenized when it started to be made commercially on a larger scale.
Even though master builders brought the box kantele to a new level of sophistication and uniformity, it never ceased being a folk instrument. The vast majority of the box kanteles in the sample are one‑of‑a‑kind instruments. Some of the box kanteles incorporate the uniform conventions of the master builders, while others deviate greatly in their structure.
Box Kantele Builders of Ostrobothnia
In the past, and still today, making
things from wood is a basic way of life for people in the
A very well-known builder of this era was Jaakko Östermark (1836‑1883). Östermark was related by marriage to Kreeta Haapasalo and it is known that he built some of her kanteles. All of Östermark's kanteles were round ended. He used spruce for the top and bottom of the instrument and birch for the sides and tuning pin board. Östermark was one of the first to increase the overall size and number of strings of his kanteles, which grew to as many as twenty eight. It is believed that he made many kanteles though few are still around today. His kanteles were played by many of the famous early players and were held in high regard for their fine sound. Undoubtedly, Östermark had an influence on other kantele builders of the area who began to make similar large round‑ended box kanteles. Even though the instruments were made in greater quantities, builders continued to experiment with individual instruments (Tulikari 1976:54).
Another well-known builder was Juho Sillanpää (1855‑ 1923), a professional carpenter who made large round‑ended kanteles which he sold to players of his era, such as Matti Karvonen and Oskari Tofferi. Sillanpää was not a musician and did not play the kantele himself. His kanteles varied in size and had from twenty-two to thirty strings. He chose his wood carefully and dried it thoroughly before he started to build. Some of his kanteles were decorated with a cross carved in the sound hole or with painted pictures (ibid: 55‑6).
18. Round-ended box kanteles from the
The kantele building traditions of Östermark and Sillanpää were continued by Viljam Heikkilä (b. 1883) from Veteli, who built fine round- as well as square‑ended kanteles. He passed his craft on to his son, Oiva Heikkilä (1913‑1979), who became one of the most prolific builders
The tradition of building round‑ended
box kanteles was not confined just to the
The board along the tuning‑pin side of Lipponen's kanteles is a particularly interesting and unique feature (Illus. 19). Most box kanteles have a tuning pin protecting board which projects vertically from the body of the instrument; the Lipponen kanteles have a relatively wide board which projects horizontally from the body of the instrument. Its function is uncertain since its position would prevent it from functioning like the protecting board. A possible explanation is that it was added because it was traditional to have some kind of board along that tuning-pin side of a kantele. It changes the appearance of the instrument, bringing it more in line with tradition.
19. Round-ended box kantele by Kustaa
Lipponen. (Sketch based on an instrument owned by Maija Pesu,
Box Kantele Builders of Saarijärvi
The box kantele was also popular in
the Saarijärvi area of
Most Saarijärvi kanteles were set up for playing using the so‑called "covering technique" where the fingers of the left hand cover the strings not needed for a chord and the right hand strums across the strings with a plectrum or finger. The right hand would also pluck out bass notes on the side furthest from the player. Saarijärvi kanteles generally had three bass strings, or courses of bass strings, tuned to the tonic, dominant and subdominant which were spaced much further apart than the upper diatonic strings, thus providing an easier target for the player to hit.
Saarijärvi kanteles had a
distinguishing mark: a lyre carved into the center of a round sound hole. No one has been able to determine why the
builders began to carve lyres in their sound holes. There are kanteles from other areas of
Jooseppi Pohjola (1873‑1945)
was a sharecropper born in the
Juho Tamminen (1869‑1929)
worked as a carpenter and later as a teacher of carpentry. He was known as a particularly good kantele
builder who received orders from all parts of
Vihtori Honkanen (b. 1901) from Viitasaari may be considered a part of the Saarijärvi kantele building tradition, since he lived relatively close and many of his kanteles were set up to be played using the covering technique. Honkanen experimented greatly, making many kanteles which were unique in structure. He is perhaps best known for building double kanteles, designed to be played by two people. One half of the instrument was set up for playing using the covering technique, while the other half was a normal diatonic kantele (Illus. 20). The player on the diatonic side would play melodies, while the player using the covering technique would accompany. A photograph published by Ala‑Könni (1963a:425, 1986:34) and Asplund (1983b:61) shows one of Honkanen's double kanteles being played. Both players are standing on the same side of the instrument, the player on the diatonic side with the longest string closest, and the covering technique player with the shortest string closest. If the picture is accurate as far as actual performance practice, it suggests influence from the Haapavesi playing tradition where diatonic kanteles were played with the longest string closest.
Illus. 20. Double kantele built by Vihtori Honkanen, in the instrument collection of the Tampere University Institute of Folk Traditions.
Left‑handed Box Kanteles
One interesting variation found among box‑kanteles are those which are "mirror image" [peilikuva] or "left‑handed" [vasenkätinen]. Both terms are used by Finns in describing these instruments. Virtually all early Finnish kanteles were made so that when played with the shortest strings closest, the end (ponsi) of the instrument was on the right while the tuning pins were on left. Left‑handed kanteles were fashioned in a mirror image of this. Approximately one-fourth of the box kanteles in the sample were left handed.
During the nineteenth century, the folk kantele culture was influenced by urban ideas. The most significant idea was learning and playing the kantele from written music. Kantele method books began to appear. The earliest, mentioned in the previous chapter, was written by Elias Lönnrot, but was never published. Among the earliest published kantele method books were those by Akilles Ockenström (1898) and Pasi Jääskeläinen (1903).
The use of written music caused a significant change in the kantele playing tradition. Previously all kantele players played the instrument from the short side, meaning that the shortest string of the instrument was closest to the player's body. The highest pitched string was closest and as the player would play the strings further away, they would descend in pitch. It was quite awkward to use written music with this kantele position because it appeared that the player would have to move in the opposite direction from the notes as they appeared on the staff. An example of this perceptual problem is shown in Illus. 21.
As a result of using written music, the kantele was turned around and played from the long side with the longest and lowest pitched strings closest to the player. By turning the kantele around, the player now had an awkward time reaching with the right hand over many strings and tuning pins to play the shorter, higher pitched strings which were used frequently in playing melodies.
Of course the player could have played the upper strings with the left hand and the lower strings with the right, but this was unsatisfactory to most kantele players since it felt backwards, particularly for right handed individuals. The eventual solution then, among some builders, was to build the box kantele in a mirror image of what it had previously been. That way the instrument looked the same as before (with the ponsi on the right) when it was played with the longest string closest and the player could use the right hand for the upper strings and the left hand for the lower strings.
Illus. 21. The use of written music helped bring about playing from the long side of the instrument, since the motion on the kantele would match that of the music.
The Box Kantele Around Haapavesi
Nowhere was influence of the left-handed kantele felt more than around Haapavesi where an actor, comedian and entrepreneur, Pasi Jääskeläinen, is credited with "inventing" the left‑handed kantele. He patented a box kantele in 1904 (Pat. No. 2144) which was specifically designed to be played from written music. Strangely, the patent application does not mention that the kantele was purposely made left‑handed, even though the illustrations show a left‑handed instrument (Illus. 22). The important features mentioned are that the kantele had a "middle bottom" positioned in a plane parallel to and halfway between the top and bottom. This middle bottom increased the resonance and decay of the instrument, making it more suitable for concert performance. A second important feature mentioned is the attachment of the strings to a rod, which was held in place by two metal brackets, which is actually a throwback to the rod system of attachment used by carved kanteles.
Jääskeläinen's kantele retained the protecting board along the tuning pin side of the instrument, even though his kantele was designed to be played with the longest string closest and thus the board would no longer serve its original function. The tuning pin protecting board had become a part of the box kantele tradition of some builders. The influence of tradition made it possible to retain a feature which no longer had a specific function as the playing position changed. This board is still retained on virtually all modern kanteles. 
Jääskeläinen played a significant role in the dissemination of his kantele model, especially in and around Haapavesi. He started a kantele shop and employed several gifted craftsmen in building left‑handed kanteles and marketed these under his own label (Ala‑Könni 1973:394, 1986:20). Even though the workshop produced kanteles for only a couple of years, apparently hundreds were built since they can still be found in significant numbers in museums and in private ownership around Finland today. They were known for having a particularly good sound.
Jääskeläinen's influence in
Haapavesi was substantial. Boys in carpentry
classes were encouraged to build left-handed kanteles, so they became extremely
common. There was, according to some
accounts, literally a kantele in every home.
22. Drawings from Pasi Jääskeläinen's
kantele patent of 1904 (No. 2144). From the Finnish National Patent Office,
Illus. 23. Left and right handed box kanteles built by "Jaakko Hissan Patentti Pulpetti harmooni, Kantele ja Sitratehdas ... Lapualla". Owned by the author.
The left‑handed kantele movement influenced other kantele shops in that some craftsmen began building left-handed as well as right‑handed kanteles. The customer could choose his favorite type, presumably based on whether he would play the older, traditional way, from the short side of the instrument, or the new way, from the long side.
An additional factor here is the way the Haapavesi kantele players viewed themselves: first and foremost as folk musicians. Playing from the long side of the kantele became the tradition in Haapavesi. Not everyone in Haapavesi played kantele from written music. In fact, it was the exception rather than the rule, even though it was written music which was supposed to have caused kantele to be played from the long side. However, after Jääskeläinen's time, all kantele players from the Haapavesi area played from the long side on left‑handed kanteles, whether they were playing from written music or not. It is another example of the influence of fashion on folk practices.
Efraim Kilpinen (1862‑1951)
was born in Haapavesi, but later moved to the town of
Illus. 24. Advertisement for Kilpinen's kanteles from the Fazer Music Store Catalog around 1915 (published in Kansanmusiikki 1975 (3):42).
Kilpinen built mostly square‑ended,
left‑handed kanteles, but he also built some right‑handed
models. He believed the wood found in
Efraim had two sons who helped him build kanteles, but only one, Oskari Kilpinen (1895‑1980), continued to build and develop the kantele on his own. Oskari originally followed his father's model, but during the 1950s began to experiment with the reverse curve shape of the modern kantele. The early ones were left‑handed, but soon they became mostly right‑handed instruments. The reverse curve shape tended to minimize the hand position problem of right‑handed box kanteles when played with the longest strings closest, so virtually all modern kanteles are right-handed. The curved shape used by Oskari was not quite as pronounced as in other modern kanteles, so the bass strings did not work as well as they should. Oskari even did some experiments building kanteles with tuning machines, similar to the ones found on modern kanteles, but only with a few tuners for the strings most frequently retuned. At least one of these experimental kanteles had pedals rather than levers to produce the changes. It is estimated that the Kilpinens made over 4000 kanteles (Ala‑Könni 1973:23, 1986:23; Kilpinen 1975:41).
Further Development of the Box Kantele
In the first decades of this century, box kantele builders continued to increase the range and the number of strings. At the same time, many people wanted to improve the tonal qualities of the kantele to make it more suitable for the performance of western art music.
Box kanteles were built on the mathematical premise that a longer string vibrates more slowly and thus has a lower pitch. The tuning pin side was in a straight line at an oblique angle to the strings, so the length of the strings increased at a constant rate. This works well as long as there is a limited range, usually up to about three octaves. But if a musician wanted an instrument with a greater range the system began to break down. As strings would get longer and longer for the bass notes, they no longer had the power, volume or projection of the upper strings. The lower strings were too loose to be effective. Thus, it was well known among players and builders alike that the majority of the larger box kanteles were fine in the upper registers, but very poor in the lower. Many players would simply avoid playing the lower registers, which was especially true in playing art music. So various attempts were made to improve the quality of the lower registers.
The first great improvement came in using bass strings with a greater thickness and weight. These strings were made by adding an outer wrapping to the normal string. By using thicker and heavier strings for the lower registers, the tension could be increased without changing the pitch, which improved the sound somewhat. But there was still the additional problem of timbre. The lower strings, even when tuned properly, would have a much more "twangy" sound, because their great length would make the pitch unstable. This was thought by many to be an unpleasant sound, particularly for art music.
The builders of box kanteles solved the problem of timbre by shortening the bass side of the instrument and using even thicker strings with even more tension. Many of the kanteles made in Pasi Jääskeläinen's workshop had the cut‑off tip, with the six lowest strings being shortened, though his patent application shows a kantele with a normal pointed tip. Väinö Haapakangas of Pattijoki in northern Ostrobothnia described that kantele builders in school workshops also began to use the cut‑off tip (Haapakangas 1983). The result was a much better sounding kantele in the lower range. The box kantele with a cut-off tip may have been the execption rather than the rule. Only eighteen kanteles of the sample had this feature.
Even with the improved sound quality, the box kantele still had significant shortcomings in playing western art music. It was strictly a diatonic instrument and thus was limited to playing in a single key. Of course, the player could retune to different keys, but this was a cumbersome process which took a great deal of time and was impossible to do in the middle of a piece. The kantele had reached the limits of its development and a qualitative or revolutionary change was in store, which came with the invention of the modern kantele.
Illus. 25. Square-ended box kanteles with a pointed and with a cut-off tip. (Sketches based on instruments at the Folk Music Institute, Kaustinen).
Illus. 26. Typical Haapavesi box kanteles based on the model patented by Pasi Jääskeläinen. Each is left-handed and has a cut-off tip. (Sketches based on instruments at the Haapavesi Kantele Camp, 1983).
 Sixteen instruments came from the Folk Music Institute collection at Kaustinen, forty‑eight from the Tampere University Institute for Folk Traditions collection, sixteen from the Sibelius Museum collection in Turku, sixteen from the National Museum collection in Helsinki and fourteen from a collection gathered for the 1983 Haapavesi Kantele Camp.
 One is a twenty‑five
string instrument found at the
 One is a twenty‑nine
string instrument from the
 According to Sulo Huotari (1986), the tuning pin protecting board influences the sound quality of modern kanteles, and is therefore retained.
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