The Kantele Traditions of Finland
Carl Rahkonen © 1989 All Rights Reserved Back to Table
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People have asked me occasionally
"Why are you doing a dissertation on the kantele?" My interest in the kantele goes to the time I
was in junior high school and I became familiar with the sound of the kantele
from a record called "A Visit to Finland" which belonged to my
parents. There were only three kantele
selections on the record, played by the master Urpo Pylvänäinen. The back cover had a picture of the
instrument and player. Although there
were many other types of music from Finland on the record, something
about the kantele selections stayed with me and had a profound effect upon
me. Of all the music I had studied and
heard, this was the first truly Finnish music.
The melodies stayed with me as I
listened to them over and over again. I
worked at a piano to figure out what the kantele was playing and in high school
I transcribed all three pieces for string orchestra. My orchestra teacher, Dennis Hansen, allowed
me to conduct the pieces. They were
beautiful, but not as satisfying as when played on the kantele.
I entered college and became
interested in music and human behavior, which led me to do an undergraduate
degree in both music and psychology and to do graduate work in musicology. When I was about to complete my master's
thesis on music therapy in 1977, my advisor, Professor Joyce Newman, asked me
what topic I would like to research for my doctoral dissertation. Without any hesitation, I replied, "The
Finnish Kantele." I could find so
little written about this beautiful sounding instrument and I wanted to find
more. At that point she suggested that I
apply to study at Indiana
University because of
their outstanding program in ethnomusicology.
So, it is true that my interest in doing research on the kantele led me
to Indiana University to do doctoral work.
At Indiana University,
in addition to studying folklore and ethnomusicology, which made it possible to
combine my interests in music and human behavior, I had the benefit of an
outstanding library and the opportunity to study Finnish. For several years, I read and studied
everything I could find written about the kantele, which was still a very
limited body of information. The goals I
set for my dissertation were simple ones; I only wanted to answer two
questions: "What is the
kantele?" and "How is it played?" In my quest to answer these two questions, I
encountered a third and more complex question: "What is tradition in our
modern world?" The answers to these
questions are the focus of the present work.
With the award of an A.S.L.A.‑Fulbright
Grant to study in Finland,
my long term dreams became a reality.
Before arriving in Finland,
I had never seen a kantele, except in photographs, and had never heard one
played except on recordings. After
arriving, I was very surprised to find so many different types of kanteles and
many different styles of playing which today co‑exist in the Finnish
music culture. The kantele is known to
all Finns, but actual kantele building and playing is not as widespread as
expected. To most Finns, the kantele is
merely a motif of folklore and a symbol of Finnish identity.
I was interviewed several times for
newspaper articles and on the radio while conducting fieldwork in Finland and was
frequently asked the question: Is there really enough information on the
kantele to write a doctoral dissertation?
I would reply that there is enough material for ten dissertations! This is still my belief. The present work is just a general overview
of kantele building and playing; it only begins to explore some of the more
interesting questions concerning the kantele.
It is my hope that many further studies will be done on the kantele
traditions of Finland.
Most of the interviews and quoted
texts are originally in Finnish. I have
placed the English translations in brackets.
The translations are my own, unless otherwise indicated. Written transcripts of the interviews in
Finnish are available at the Tampere University Institute of Folk Traditions
and the Indiana University Archives of Traditional Music.
Please read the official
created and maintained by Carl Rahkonen. ©
1989 Last modified 10/24/05
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