Chapter 4.3:  The Kantele Traditions of Finland 

by Carl Rahkonen © 1989  All Rights Reserved   Back to Table of Contents

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            In my first kantele lesson at the Sibelius Academy, my teacher Anu Rummukainen (married name: Itäpelto) taught me that there were two basic "lines" or "styles" of kantele playing in Finland: the art style and the traditional style.  She had to describe the situation to me at the most basic level possible, because I was a complete novice in kantele playing and was still learning Finnish.  The dichotomy which she outlined is a general concept held by the many kantele players in Finland.  They tend to make a distinction between those who play art music and those who play folk music.  At competitions sponsored by the Kantele League, "art" and "traditional" players compete in separate categories. 

            Later I came to learn that the traditional style was not a single playing style, but actually a category of styles which includes all the various ways of playing folk music on the kantele.  In contrast, the art style is homogeneous and standardized in the way it is performed and taught everywhere in the country.  According to its players, the name taidetyyli  [art style] refers to the type of music being played, so‑called western "classical" art music.  I also met folk musicians who resented the application of this name, because they thought it implied that folk styles of playing were not artistic.  I use the name here because it is what the performers of this style called it, and do not wish to imply that the art style of playing is better, or more artistic than folk styles.

            Anu went on to describe that the art style is newer and is a "soft" playing style, while the traditional style is older and a "hard" style.  Later, Ismo Sopanen, chairman of the Kantele League, clarified that the word "soft" [pehmoinen] refers to the timbre which is produced while playing in the art style and not necessarily soft [hilja] in volume.  Traditional styles of kantele playing are likely to have a hard [kova] timbre.  This is basically true, but it is also true that it is more difficult to produce a loud [voimakas literally "powerful"] sound using the art style of playing.

            In the art style of playing, the kantele is held with the longest string closest to the player.  The players say this is done because they learn pieces from written music.  Perceptually, the way the pitches are written on the staff matches where the player will find that pitch on the instrument when the lowest pitch is the closest.

     The art style of playing favors a soft, even tone.  The the fingers are placed at an approximately 25° angle to the strings.  The strings are never "plucked" or "pulled up."  They are "stroked" by pressing down with the soft, fleshy part of the finger, never the fingernail, and letting the finger "glide" across the string, releasing it.  The right hand is used to play melodies on the higher pitched strings, usually with the fore finger.  The right middle finger, ring finger and thumb may also be used to play intervals in the melody or for accompaniment.  The left hand plays bass notes with the thumb and chordal accompaniment with the fore, middle and ring fingers, which are usually arpeggiated.  The left hand also operates the damping board, with the little finger and a portion of the palm always resting on this board.

            The damping of the strings is particularly important in the art style.  There are two basic types of damping: The first is done with the fingers.  As the player plays an ascending passage, the finger is brought down against the string previously played to damp it.  As the player plays a descending passage, the middle finger trails a string behind, to damp the unwanted pitches.  The purpose of finger damping is to create a clear, melodic style of playing, avoiding the muddiness of the sonorities decaying at their own pace.  The second style of damping is the general damping of all the strings by the damping board, which usually comes between chord changes and at the end of a piece.  This serves the same function as letting up on the pedal of a piano.


                                                 History of the Art Style


            The art style of kantele playing was not invented by any one person.  It evolved over a period of time beginning in the mid-nineteenth century and reaching a high point with a playing method developed by Paul Salminen in the mid 1920s. In some ways, the art style is still evolving today, with the first degree programs in kantele teaching and performance being offered by Finnish conservatories and with the relatively recent use of fully chromatic Soviet Karelian kanteles in Finland. 

            Traditionally, the kantele was used for one's own personal entertainment or for dance accompaniment.  As a dance instrument, the most important qualities of the kantele's sound were that it be loud and in a good rhythm for dancing.  When the kantele began to be played in concert settings, the context changed from dancing to listening.  The quality of the sound became an important aesthetic criterion, because it was judged in comparison to other western musical instruments.  Such things as precise intonation and finger damping became important to achieve this sound. 

            A history of the art style of playing is really a history of the written music and method books which exist for the kantele.[1]  Among the oldest kantele pieces in written form were those transcribed in the late 18th century and published in a book by the Italian explorer Joseph Acerbi (1802).  Acerbi's pieces, as well as many later transcribed kantele pieces, were descriptive rather than prescriptive.  During the nineteenth century people began arranging music and writing method books for kantele.

            Carl Axel Gottlund's Suomalaisia Paimensoittoja: Kantelella ja Sarvella Soitettavia [Finnish Shepherd Pieces: Playable on the Kantele and Horn], published as part of his Otava (1831b), features some of the earliest written music for the kantele.  Although the pieces are arrangements of folk music, they clearly show the influence of art music, since most include key signatures, time signatures, phrase markings, slurs, tempo markings and dynamics.  A. O. Väisänen did not include these works in his collection of carved kantele pieces, since most have just a single line of music and none of the polyphony found among the kantele pieces he collected himself (Väisänen 1928a:XII).

            Elias Lönnrot wrote a book for playing a type of kantele which he had developed himself.  Lönnrot's kanteles had seventeen strings, to which eight chromatic strings could be added if desired.  The book contains a short introduction, a tuning guide and transcriptions of 230 "Finnish and foreign" pieces written in number notation.  In the introduction, Lönnrot says that the seventeen string kantele may also be played from hymn book notation or regular musical notation. 

            At the time the carved kantele was replaced by the box kantele and the playing style among the folk changed from the together position to the apart position, church hymns and other spiritual songs made up a portion of the box kantele repertoire.  In Finnish Lutheran Church services, hymns are sung in unison to organ accompaniment from hymn books which usually contain only the text of a hymn, not any written music.  At home, hymns were frequently accompanied by the virsikantele, which had special hymn books with the melodies written in numbered notation.  The same melodies were also worked out by ear and played on the regular kantele and were among the earliest western, composed pieces played on the kantele.

            Kanteles were played with the shortest string closest to the player throughout most of the nineteenth century.  No one is certain who was the first to play with the longest strings closest.  According to the available evidence, one of the earliest was Akilles Ockenström.

            Adolf Akilles Ockenström (1867‑1898) learned kantele playing from his father, Aleksander (1834‑1882), who was said to have played kantele with Elias Lönnrot in earlier years.  As a boy, Akilles also reportedly heard Kreeta Haapasalo play.  He was blind from the age of eighteen and was trained as a piano tuner, but was also a fine kantele player who traveled around Finland giving recitals during the last two decades of the nineteenth century.  He played at least one concert a year in Rauma between 1888 and 1897 and also played concerts in St. Petersburg, Estonia and Stockholm, where he played at the 1896 World's Fair.  His programs included a mixture of folk music, marches and popular music of the day from Finland and abroad.  He was probably well known among art musicians, since his funeral was attended by such figures as composer Oskar Merikanto (Kemppi 1984:6‑7).

            It is a general belief among players that the kantele was turned around and played with the longest strings closest only when players began using written music for learning and performing pieces.  Ockenström, however, was blind and therefore could not read music.  In spite of his blindness, he is credited as the author of one of the earliest published kantele music books, Säveleitä kanteleelle [Compositions for the Kantele] (1898).  Ockenström's book was edited by the Finnish musicologist Ilmari Krohn, who must have played an important role in its production since it was published after Ockenström's death.

            Säveleitä kanteleelle features a photo of a kantele player on the cover, presumably Ockenström, with the longest strings closest to the player.[2]  It contains instructions on how to tune a twenty‑eight string kantele in C major with the range from G to f'''.  If the player owned a thirty string kantele, they could add g''' to the treble and F to the bass.  The first nine compositions are in C major.  It describes retuning the kantele to D minor, by lowering each of the three B strings to B‑flat, and tuning the c'' to c#''.  The last eleven pieces are in D minor.  The author explains that the left hand plays the bass side and can rest partly on the covering board.  The right hand lies freely on the treble strings.  As a starting position, the left thumb is placed on the G string (the A string in D minor) and plays bass notes.  Usually the left fore finger adds the third above the bass notes, and sometimes the middle finger adds the fifth.  The right thumb is likewise placed on the g' string (or a' string).  The right middle finger plays the melody and the fore finger adds accompaniment below in thirds.  The right fore finger plays the melody if it goes below d''.  The method also describes the basics of an art style of playing ‑‑ using the soft part of fingers and not plucking the strings up, but sideways.  The selections are written on a standard treble‑bass piano staff and are arrangements of twenty folk songs.  The second part of Säveleitä kanteleelle (1901), published under Ilmari Krohn's name, includes finger exercises for the right and left hands and arrangements of eighteen folk songs. 

            Simo Eemili Karjalainen, born in the town of Jaalanka on the banks of Lake Oulu in 1880, played kantele with the longest strings closest.  Karjalainen was a carpenter who built his own kanteles.  These were relatively large instruments with thirty or more strings and a unique feature which provided the playing of chromatic pitches.  On the ponsi side there was a ridge attached to the soundboard.  The player could press down on any given string against the ridge, which would shorten its length and raise its pitch a half step.  Karjalainen was also a choir director and was able to read and write music.  He made arrangements for kantele and even wrote arrangements for kantele ensemble, which featured different parts following choir voicing.  Some of his arrangements were published as the third volume of Säveleitä kanteleelle, which were "checked" by Ilmari Krohn.  In the preface, it mentioned a "transposing board," which was a piece of cardboard with the markings for the  C strings.  As the kantele would be tuned to different keys, the board could be moved under the appropriate strings.  It acted as a kind of movable "do" for the kantele player (Karjalainen 1984; Sopanen 1986b).

            Ilmari Krohn also published a book entitled Walittuja psalmeja [Expressive psalms] (1903), which contained psalms with kantele accompaniment.  The melodies and chordal accompaniment are written at the top of each page, and each chord is assigned a symbol.  The psalm text is written underneath, together with the appropriate symbols for chordal accompaniment.  Krohn mentions in the preface that the fingerings follow a system developed by Josef Binnemann.

            Binnemann was a music store owner in Helsinki around the turn of the century.  Apparently because no other books were available, he wrote a kantele instruction book in longhand, which was never published.[3]  According to his book, the kantele should be played with the shortest string closest.  Only the little fingers were not used in playing.  The right hand played the highest pitched strings, closest to the player, the left hand played the lower pitched strings.  Binnemann included many difficult technical exercises and fingerings which, according to Krohn (1903:[II]), are based on those for concert harp.

            Pasi Jääskeläinen, the famous kantele performer from Haapavesi, published a kantele playing method entitled Kanteleen soiton alkeita [Introduction to Kantele Playing] in 1903.  Jääskeläinen mentions Ockenström's method in the preface, but says that "a simple introduction is still lacking" and his method is meant to fill the void.  The cover features a picture of Jääskeläinen playing a right handed kantele with the longest string closest, which is unexpected because he patented and marketed left handed kanteles.  He includes illustrations showing diatonic tunings in C major and in C minor of a thirty string kantele, but he also suggests the use of a short octave bass, tuning the lowest three strings C, G, F, in descending order of pitch.  He recommends playing with the longest string closest and plucking the strings sideways.  The first few selections are finger exercises for the right and left hands.  The right fore and middle fingers always play in thirds.  The left hand plays bass notes and usually only one other note of accompaniment, but sometimes a complete triad, outlining the tonic, dominant and subdominant harmonies.  The musical selections are arrangements of folk songs or pieces which Jääskeläinen composed in a folk style. 

            In spite of Jääskeläinen's published playing method, most of the kantele players in Haapavesi continued to play by ear without written music.  They did, however, accept playing the kantele from the long side of the instrument, plucking sideways rather than perpendicularly and using left handed kanteles.  These changes which Jääskeläinen brought to kantele playing were adapted into and became a part of the folk tradition.

            Emil Kauppi, Pasi Jääskeläinen's lifelong friend, "[continued the work which Pasi had started]" (Porma 1948b:292) and published several books containing arrangements for the kantele and teaching its playing method.  Kauppi was a well known pianist, conductor and composer, as well as a fine kantele player.  He played the kantele, as well as the piano, in some of Jääskeläinen's concerts and even gave some solo recitals on the kantele (Härmä 1979:30).  Kauppi wanted to develop the kantele as a true art music instrument.


            [Emil Kauppi took the promotion of the kantele as his life's work.  Where Kauppi had received instruction in kantele playing is a totally unknown matter.  Kantele playing was not part of the program at the music school he attended.  He spoke on behalf of the kantele and explained the character and playing technique of the instrument at the kantele concerts which he held.  Emil Kauppi's greatest dream was that the Finnish kantele would be a true folk and orchestral instrument.  He dreamed of an orchestra, whose core would be made up of 40‑50 kanteles of different sizes] (ibid:36; from Tarpila 1952:15).


            Kauppi's Oppikirja kanteleensoitossa [Teaching book for kantele playing] (1908) was written to be used with a 28 string kantele, with a range from F to g'''.  It gives a basic description of kantele playing, mentioning that the bass side is closet to the player, the right hand plays the treble, the left hand the bass and accompaniment, and the strings are not plucked up, but stroked from the side.  The students practice a number of scale and rhythmic exercises with each hand similar to those for piano or harp players.  The book continues with three additional sections. The second section contains songs with kantele accompaniment; the third, five pieces for solo kantele; and the fourth, pieces for kantele duet.

            The Oppikirja was the first in a series of kantele books produced by Kauppi.  A second book (1909) contained "Songs and Dances" arranged for the kantele.  A third (1911) featured "Songs Accompanied by the Kantele" composed and arranged by Kauppi.  A fourth (1911) consisted of "Ten Oskar Merikanto Songs" accompanied by the kantele and arranged by Kauppi.  The second and third books contained mostly folk song arrangements.  The third and fourth books included some of the earliest genuine western art music arrangements and compositions written for the kantele. 

            All of Kauppi's kantele books were issued in new, larger and "improved" editions in 1922.  The Oppikirja received the title Kantelekoulu itseoppimista varten [A Self‑teaching Kantele School] and was now meant for a thirty‑string kantele, with a range extended down to D.  It features two photographs of Kauppi playing which show that he played a left handed, presumably a Pasi Jääskeläinen model of kantele.  In the new editions, Kauppi briefly mentions experiments to make the kantele chromatic.  He added two additional kantele books in 1922, the first with arrangements of thirty folk songs and the second with arrangements of forty folk songs.

            In 1909, Olli Suolahti published a playing method called Käytännöllinen opas kanteleensoittajille [A practical guide for kantele players].  Suolahti is shown on the cover playing with the longest string closest, but with the interesting difference that his hands are reversed; the left hand is playing the treble strings and right hand the bass strings.  He prescribes that the fingers of the left hand, mainly the thumb, should be used on the upper strings to play melodies, while the thumb and next three fingers of the right hand play accompaniment on the lower strings.  In the preface, Suolahti explains that his intent was to produce a truly practical kantele guide, especially for those who had not taken to the "art of reading music."  All the selections have just their melodies written out on a treble staff.  The chordal accompaniments are given in complex system of roman numerals developed by Suolahti.  The player is free to arpeggiate the chords or not.  Suolahti's guide is one of the first to mention the use of dynamics in playing.  He says there is no better instrument for quiet, beautiful playing than the kantele.  To play softer, he recommends moving the hand closer to the covering board; to play louder the hand should be moved to the middle of the strings.  The music selections are primarily arrangements of folk songs

    Kaksitoista kansanlauluja kanteleen säestyksellä [Twelve Folk Songs with kantele accompaniment] by Aapo Similä (1927) was meant to be used with the machine kantele invented by Paul Salminen, even though the cover features a picture of a box kantele.  The arrangements are noticeably more difficult and complex, being similar to what piano arrangements would look like for the same pieces.  Similä was a widely known kantele player in the 1930s and was reported to have played concerts in Karelia on a chromatic (i.e. Paul Salminen) kantele (Jakonen 1983).

            Paul Salminen's first kantele book, Suurkanteleen soiton opas [Guide for large kantele playing], was published in 1927.  The cover shows Salminen playing a modern kantele.  This is significant since two years earlier Salminen's patent application pictured the tuning machine added to a straight‑sided box kantele.  The Guide describes the kantele as having either thirty or thirty‑two strings.  Salminen gives a basic description of playing in the art style, the only new information being that the side of the left hand rests lightly on the damping board.  Nothing specific is mentioned about damping, except that the damping board will damp all the strings.  The hand positions and finger damping are not mentioned.  The Guide contains a number of advanced exercises to learn proper fingerings, such as the playing of scales and chords, which are similar to concert harp or piano exercises.  The music selections are mostly arrangements of folk songs and are at a high technical level.

            Salminen's Kantelekoulu [Kantele School] was published in February of 1949, in honor of the Hundredth Anniversary of the New Kalevala.  In Kantelekoulu there is a full description of the art style of playing, which has not changed substantially since.  Salminen includes instructions on the playing position, how the strings are stroked and proper fingerings.  There is a detailed section on finger damping and use of the damping board and even a section on "Care of the Fingers."  The preface explains:


            ... The practical instructions given here offer, in spite of their brevity, all that is essential to know about the technic [sic] of playing the kantele.  The kantele, after all, is no virtuoso instrument, properly speaking, so advanced technical exercises are not needed.  A substantial part of this volume consists of arrangements for the kantele of folk songs and some art songs, which undoubtedly are the kinds of pieces best suited to the kantele (Salminen, Paul 1949:2).


Kantelekirja (1950) provided additional arrangements and, together with the Kantelekoulu arrangements, still makes up an important core of machine kantele repertoire.[4]

            Salminen also gives instructions on how to tune the machine kantele, which has to be tempered by tuning the octaves exactly [perfect tuning], but contracting the fifths slightly.  He then provides some tests of the tuning throughout the range and, as the tuning machine makes it possible to play in different keys, tests for each new key.

            While the basics of the art style playing technique are rather straightforward and simple, their proper application comes only after a great deal of practice.  It is similar to playing the violin or piano; the basic description of how the instrument is played is simple, but the achievement of playing skill is difficult.  Salminen himself had dozens of students, most of whom took kantele only as a hobby (Salminen, Jorma 1984:6).  Only a handful became truly outstanding players, who became widely known in Finland and among Finns elsewhere.

            Another notable kantele player from the Salminen era was Väinö Hannikainen (1900‑1960) who was a harp player in the Helsinki City Orchestra from 1923‑1957.  Paul Salminen, who played trombone in the same orchestra and also repaired concert harps, was a personal friend.  In addition to playing the harp and kantele, Hannikainen was a composer and arranger who made numerous arrangements for the concert kantele.  He collected approximately three hundred northern Karelian folk songs and dances.  Hannikainen may have had a strong influence on Salminen in developing the art style of kantele playing.



                               Contemporary Art Style Players and Teachers


            Perhaps the most well known art style kantele player of the post‑Salminen era is Ulla Katajavuori.  Her father was a kantele player, who learned to play "by ear" and was reported to have had a gift for rhythm.  She became interested in the kantele in her early childhood.  Later, she studied voice and piano at the Helsinki Conservatory and kantele playing with Paul Salminen and Väinö Hannikainen. 

            By the early 1930s, Katajavuori had already developed into a virtuoso player of the machine kantele and was performing concerts all around Finland and on Finnish radio, for example on  A. O. Väisänen's radio program "A Half Hour of Folk Music."  She has given hundreds of performances, both in Finland and on tours to Norway, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Canada and the United States.  She also became well known from her many sound recordings.  In most of her performances she played the kantele as a solo instrument, but she has occasionally accompanied singers.  She has not performed with orchestras because, as she puts it, "[the sound of the kantele is too small and quiet, and will not withstand orchestral accompaniment]" (Katajavuori 1986).   She gave her last formal performances in 1980 and estimates the total number of performances in her career in the thousands (Katajavuori 1985).

            Katajavuori has also been a prolific teacher of art kantele playing, teaching at the Helsinki and Hämeenlinna Music Conservatories, and in recent years to private students.  She estimates the total number of students she has taught in the hundreds.  Perhaps her best known student is Tellervo Haikonen, who is also recognized as a first rate concert artist.  Katajavuori says that she has developed her own system of playing and teaching, based on Paul Salminen's method.  She emphasizes clarity in kantele playing, which is achieved by precise finger damping.  Her husband, Eero Koskimies, arranged most of her concert repertoire, a portion of which was published as Kanteleohjelmistoa I‑II (1963), which has become an important part of the machine kantele repertoire.

            Tyyne Niikko (b. 1903 in Sortavala) is also a well known kantele player.  Her father, Pekka Silvennoinen, was a kantele player and her mother, Anna, a piano and organ player and choir director.  Tyyne began playing kantele and piano simultaneously while very young.  Although she studied voice, choir direction and music theory, the kantele has  remained her primary instrument.  She did a great deal of concertizing, first in Sortavala and later in Joensuu, where she moved at the time of the Second World War.  She has played many concerts outside Finland as well, including the United States, Canada, Germany, Austria, Iceland, Hungary and the Soviet Union.  She was also featured on local Joensuu radio and on Finnish general radio (Niikko 1979).

            Tyyne Niikko's greatest impact has been in her teaching.  In Joensuu beginning in the 1940s, she taught kantele privately as well as at the Vapaaopisto [Free School].  She believes that the total number of students she has taught over the years is in the hundreds.  Perhaps her most important student was her own daughter, Anneli Kuparinen, who has continued her mother's work in Lahti.  Tyyne also organized a kantele group in the 1940s called Karjalan Kantelet.  In 1969 she moved to Lahti, where, with her daughter and son‑in‑law, Teuvo Kuparinen, she founded the Finn‑Kantele group, which has approximately thirty members.  The Finn‑Kantele group has made sound recordings, played concerts and toured extensively, most recently touring in the United States with concerts in New York and Florida in January 1985.


Illus. 56.  Tyyne Niikko teaching Antti Vavuli at the 1983 Lahti Kantele Camp.


            The Kuparinens and Tyyne Niikko were also influential in starting the "kantele camp" movement in Finland by founding oldest annual kantele camp at Ilomantsi in Finnish Karelia, in the summer of 1971.  The Kuparinens and Niikko directed this camp for its first five years.  In the summer of 1975, they established another kantele camp at Lahti, which they have directed every summer since.  In 1985 there were kantele camps in all parts of Finland and even one in Sweden, with a total enrollment of more than six hundred students (Sopanen 1985b:3).

            Tyyne Niikko teaches kantele in the art style.  Her students are taught to play from the long side of the instrument.  She follows Paul Salminen's methods, emphasizing the hand positions, using the soft parts of the fingers, and the use of finger damping and the damping board.

            Interestingly enough, when I asked her to play for me, she played the kantele with the short strings closest to herself!  Her kantele is marked from both sides, long marks for playing from the short side and short marks for playing from the long side.  She can play from either side, but prefers the way she originally learned.  Likewise, her playing technique is closer to that of folk players, even though she teaches the technique of art playing.  She explained that her father could read music, but still played from the short side.  She said, "[It is just a matter of tradition.  I do not want to forget how Finns played in the past, and how I learned to play]."  Then she repeated a saying heard often among kantele players, "[It really doesn't matter from which side the kantele is played, as long as it is played well!]" (Niikko 1983).

            Anneli Kuparinen has taken the primary role in directing the Finn‑Kantele group and Lahti Kantele Camp in recent years.  Her husband, Teuvo, acts as the business manager of the group and camp and occasionally performs with the ensemble as a singer.  Anneli has refined her kantele play-ing and teaching to a high degree.  Many of her students have become the most outstanding young art style players, for example my own kantele teacher, Anu (Rummukainen) Itäpelto.  For beginners, she emphasizes the technical aspects of playing, such as finger positions and damping.  The students practice these technical aspects until they come automatically.  Then the students are taught to read music in order to play exercises consisting of scales, arpeggios, and chords.  These exercises develop the basic components which will be used in playing.  The students are finally introduced to pieces of repertoire, which they practice and memorize for concert performance.  Students usually work on a single piece until it is perfected.  The teaching then emphasizes elements of interpretation, such as tempo, dynamics, and overall clarity.

            Kantele ensemble teaching follows a similar pattern.  Since all the kanteles in a Finnish ensemble are generally of the same type, there are no set "sections" based on graded sizes of instruments, as may be found in kantele ensembles in other Baltic countries.  Usually, in a Finnish ensemble there are only two or three parts which are played simultaneously.  Finnish kantele ensembles allow beginners to join with more advanced students, because the beginners may play just the bass, or the accompaniment of the piece, while the more advanced players play the melody as well as bass and accompaniment.  Ensemble playing has an advantage in that the sound is more powerful when combined in numbers.  A disadvantage is in trying to tune a group of kanteles, each of which covers a five octave range, so that they all play in tune with each other.

            Anneli still recognizes the symbolic significance of the kantele as a folk instrument and the national instrument of Finland.  She feels that tradition is still at the foundation of kantele playing and is valued by all kantele players.  The art style players want to develop playing as far as it can go, to be able to play classical music or any other style of music, which can only come after years of practice.  The dividing lines among kantele players are not entirely clear because many players who study art playing also perform folk music.  She feels that "[the artistic possibilities are increased in a developed style of playing, which does an additional service to our most beautiful folk songs]" (Kuparinen 1983).



Illus. 57.  Anneli Kuparinen teaching a large kantele class at the 1983 Lahti Kantele Camp.


            Partially as a result of the kantele camp movement and increasing prominence of kantele teaching in general, today there are literally dozens of first rate art style kantele players.  This has been quite a dramatic turn around since the 1950s and 1960s, when there were relatively few concert artists of the kantele.  Among the better known figures from this era were Ulla Katajavuori, Tyyne Niikko, Marjatta Puupponen (currently: Markkula), Urpo Pylvänäinen and Mauri Saikko.  By the early 1970s a newer generation of first rate art style kantele players had appeared which included Anneli Kuparinen, Tellervo Haikkonen, Ismo Sopanen and Hannu Syrjälahti.

            Ismo Sopanen (b. 1941) began studying kantele at the age of ten with Marjatta Puupponen.  After learning the basics, he began to develop his playing skill on his own.  Ismo has fit his playing technique to himself.  He is left handed, so he plays the upper strings with his left hand and the lower strings with his right hand, although he teaches his right‑handed students the standard hand positions.  Ismo has served as the Chair of the Kantele League since its founding and is also an outstanding kantele teacher, teaching at the Tampere Conservatory of Music as well as private students, and previously directing the Ilomantsi and Haapavesi Kantele Camps.  He and his three daughters, all of whom are first rate kantele players, frequently perform together as a family group.

            Hannu Syrjälahti (b. 1950 in Kymi) received basic instruction in playing the kantele when, at the age of fourteen, he joined a group of Karelian immigrants near his home town who started a kantele ensemble, which was led by Mauri Saikko from Iitti.  After a short while, he played on his own and continued to search for more repertoire.  He received a small grant from a Karelian organization in the Kymi Valley to further his instruction, so he contacted Ulla Katajavuori.  He was already playing at such a high technical level that he did not go for regular private lessons and was merely encouraged to continue on the same course.  The refinements in his playing skill were largely self‑taught.

            Syrjälahti has given hundreds of performances, both in Finland and abroad, and has been featured on numerous sound recordings, most significantly two solo albums, Kanteleella (1982) and A Kantele Escapade (1986).  He is one of the few kantele artists to have performed professionally in ensembles with other western musical instruments, such as in the work "Equivocations for Kantele and String Trio" by the Finnish composer P. H. Nordgren (1981).  In addition to his performances, he has made valuable contributions in composing and arranging pieces for the machine kantele, particularly mainstream art music, such as Bach and Chopin.  He has also taught kantele privately and in recent years at the Espoo Music School and Sibelius Academy (Syrjälahti 1986).

            Although many have attained a professional level in their playing ability, there are no current kantele players who earn their entire livelihoods from playing.  Most of the best kantele artists have combined teaching with their playing careers, as have Ulla Katajavuori, Tyyne Niikko and Martti Pokela.  Other outstanding soloists have had other professions.  For example, Urpo Pylvänäinen was a policeman; Hannu Syrjälahti is a Lutheran minister. Ismo Sopanen was a fish resources planner and Martti Pokela earned his college degree in agronomy.  The same holds true for most of the younger outstanding players.  Many have begun careers in music teaching or other fields to augment their kantele playing careers.  Part of the problem in establishing professionalism in kantele playing has been that in the  past the kantele has not been an instrument which could be studied at music conservatories and thus it was not possible to earn a degree in kantele performance or teaching.  But in more recent years this situation had started to change.


                                               Promotion of the Kantele


            A major vehicle for the promotion of the kantele has been the kantele camp movement.  There are many kantele camps held each summer in various locations around Finland.  Children, and some adults, go to a camp location, usually a school, for as short a time as a weekend or as long as two weeks to learn to play the kantele.  Food and lodging is all arranged and is usually quite reasonably priced.  Typically, a camp will include private lessons in large kantele playing, group work in kantele ensembles, group classes in five‑string kantele playing, then perhaps some specialized classes, such as music theory or simple folk instrument building or playing.  In the summer of 1983, I visited five such camps.

            The Lahti kantele camp had nine kantele teachers, one music theory teacher and sixty students in the following age categories: 6‑10 = 8, 11‑15 = 27, 16‑20 = 9, 20+ = 16.  Among the students, there were four males and fifty‑six females.  The teachers were all female.  The Ilomantsi kantele camp had fourteen kantele teachers (two male and twelve female) and eighty‑one students.  The students were divided in age and gender as follows:


                 age:     number:                       

                 21+             13         

                 18‑20          3            males:   11                  

                 13‑17          30

                 7‑12            35           females: 70

                              ‑‑‑‑‑‑                        ‑‑‑‑‑‑

Totals:                          81                        81


            The Haapavesi and Iisalmi camps were devoted to teaching folk styles of kantele playing.  The demographics were very similar to the Ilomantsi and Lahti camps:  mostly children and overwhelmingly female.  The figures seemed to show a fall off in interest among teenage students.  This figure was perhaps balanced out by the fact that a significant portion of the teachers were older teenagers.  The various directors of the camps offered several explanations for the lack of interest among males.  Perhaps the kantele is not seen as masculine an instrument as, for example, electric guitar or drums.  Also, some believed that young men did not have the patience to practice enough to learn to play well.  Still others felt that it simply reflected the feminization of all fine arts in recent years.

            The Kanteleliitto [Kantele League, formerly called the Kantele Players' Association] was established in 1977 with the express purpose of promoting the kantele.  One of the main goals of the Kantele League has been to make the kantele an equal among all other western musical instruments.  This has been accomplished in part by lobbying the Finnish Parliament and Ministry of Education to have the kantele used as a school instrument and by developing kantele performance degree programs at several Finnish music schools and conservatories. 



Illus. 58.  Participants at the 1983 Lahti kantele camp.


            The image of the kantele as the national instrument is both an asset and a liability.  It helps when arguing for funds from the Finnish government.  If this instrument is not supported in Finland, it will not exist.  At the same time, in the minds of average Finns, the kantele is a primarily a mytho‑poetic symbol, so the actual instrument in tangible reality is not taken seriously enough. Thus another major task of the Kantele League is overcoming prejudices.

            The Kantele League has been working to overcome these prejudices by a concerted information campaign.  The League publishes a quarterly journal, Kantele, which helps distribute information to all interested persons.  The League also sponsors local and national kantele competitions in various parts of the country, which receive good press coverage.  In addition, there is a large annual kantele concert, called the Kanteleparaati [Kantele Parade], which is held in various locations around the country and usually draws a good audience.  The League has also been involved in giving special awards, such as honorary memberships to outstanding older players and builders for lifetime achievement. Recently, the league has begun awarding special medals to outstanding players of folk styles.

            One would expect to find friction between those who promote the art style of playing and those who promote preservation of folk styles, but this has generally not been the case.  These two groups have found it more beneficial to work together towards common goals.  Originally there was some resistance among art players to the promotion of the five‑string kantele.  But today, the five‑string kantele is widely used as an elementary school instrument, so that students will become acquainted with "the most Finnish of all musical instruments."   The five string kantele is also taught at virtually every kantele camp.  This is in the hope that the best players will move on to the larger kanteles and study the art style of playing or perhaps one of the many folk styles.

            Only recently has it been possible to major in kantele performance at music conservatories in Finland.  The Sibelius Academy offers kantele courses through its folk music program, but it is also possible to take lessons in the art style of playing.  The music conservatory at Lahti, where Anneli Kuparinen teaches, awarded the first degrees ever in kantele performance to Aino Meisalmi and Susanna Heinonen in 1986 (Sopanen 1986a).

            There have been problems in promoting the kantele to the level of other western instruments.  The first of these involves the performance repertoire of the kantele and the second involves the kantele itself.  Even the most advanced form of the kantele, the machine kantele, is still basically a diatonic instrument.  The tuning mechanism allows it to play in all keys, to change keys quickly, and to play most accidentals, but highly chromatic passages are still impossible.  This limits the repertoire which can be played.  All published kantele music are arrangements or compositions made specifically for the kantele.  Unfortunately, this repertoire is relatively small compared to the repertoire of other instruments.  Also, until recently, there has been relatively little music which combines the kantele with other western instruments. 

            During the last few years the Kantele League has actively promoted new compositions and arrangements.  The attitude of many top kantele players is that composers should write with the kantele specifically in mind.  Hannu Syrjälahti said, "[You can't play a Beethoven piano concerto on the violin]" (Syrjälahti 1986), meaning that new compositions should be tailored to the limitations of the kantele.  Because it has an intimate and softer sound than many other western instruments, the kantele would be best suited as a chamber music instrument.  There have only been limited experiments in this area.  In 1985, the Kantele League sponsored a kantele concerto competition which resulted in three new concertos, by composers Andras Fekete, Ahti Karjalainen and P. H. Nordgren.  Such efforts continue and an increasing amount of kantele music is published every year.


                                         The Karelian Kantele Movement


            In addition to the machine kantele, there is a growing movement in Finland to play art music on fully chromatic kanteles based on those used in Soviet Karelia.  This movement has been started and led by Kari Dahlblom, a former champion machine kantele player who became interested in the Karelian instrument.  Dahlblom received basic instruction in its playing style from Hanna Pirhonen, a former member of the professional Soviet Karelian kantele ensemble from Petrozavodsk, who currently lives in Raahe.  He later received additional instruction from other members of the Soviet Karelian ensemble when they toured Finland.  Dahlblom has, in a relatively short period of time, become a master player of the Karelian kantele and has actively tried to promote it in Finland, not as a replacement for the standard modern Finnish kantele, but as a supplement to it.  After all, he reasons, there are many different types of kanteles and many different playing styles which are currently used in Finland, so why not add another? 

            Some features from carved kantele playing are still preserved in the playing style of the modern Soviet Karelian kantele.  For example, the kantele is held with the shortest string closest to the player's body and the fingers stroke the strings in the together position, meaning that they are basically crossed and the playing alternates back and forth from one hand to the other.  There is no clear‑cut division between melody and accompaniment.  Music is notated on a single staff, rather than the double "piano" staff used for the machine kantele.  The lack of separate accompaniment is made up for by the fact that the Karelian kantele is typically played in ensembles of graded‑sized instruments, each with its own

range and part.  The instrument has no damping board, so players have to practice precise finger and hand damping.  The basic rule is that each finger returns to damp the same strings it has plucked.

            Because this type of kantele originated in Eastern Karelia, the playing position is different than that typically practiced in Finland.  The longest side of the instrument is placed across the lap and the shortest side against the chest, placing the soundboard in a vertical slant.  This matches the "vertical position" used by carved kantele players in areas where the influence of Russian dance music was the strongest (Tõnurist 1977a).  Finnish kanteles are usually played in a horizontal position. 

            In the vertical position, it is difficult for the player to see the surface of the instrument.  There are no markings for the pitches of the strings as on modern Finnish kanteles.  Players find their place strictly by feel.  Since the chromatic pitches are in a plane slightly lower than the diatonic pitches, the strings for the pitches B and C and the pitches E and F are together on the upper plane.  The player can feel a gap between all the other strings except these and thus finds their location on the instrument.


Illus. 59.  Kari Dahlblom at his home in Tikkakoski, 1986.



Illus. 60.  Hanna Pirhonen at Kaustinen, 1983.


            Kari Dahlblom has written a playing guide for the Karelian kantele (1987), which is loosely based on the playing guide for the instrument published in Petrozavodsk. He has begun teaching some students privately and at the Mikkeli Music Conservatory and there are plans for him to teach some lessons in this type of kantele playing at the Sibelius Academy.  In addition, Hanna Pirhonen has taught several students in the Raahe area.  Kari has taken the playing style of the Karelian kantele one step further and has come up with a type of "free accompaniment" which can be used to accompany almost any kind of folk music.  Free accompaniment has never been used by the players in Soviet Karelia and is a new technique taught only in Finland.  Since the use of the Karelian kantele has only recently come to Finland, it remains to be seen what kind of impact it will eventually have on art music playing.


                                            Current State of the Art Style


            The art style of kantele playing is basically an urban phenomenon.  It is transmitted by the existing western art music teaching infrastructure.  As degree programs in kantele performance have become established, various aspects of performance technique and repertoire have had to be codified.  With the exception of the Karelian kantele movement, the art style of kantele playing has become more homogeneous.  There is little variation in the way it is taught at various conservatories and kantele camps.  As it becomes homogeneous, it establishes a standard for kantele playing.  Before, when everyone learned on their own, there was too great a variation in style among individuals to make valid comparative value judgments.  Today, there are numerous concerts and competitions where these comparisons take place.

            In spite of its connection with western art music, there are many things which the art style has in common with all other styles of kantele playing.  Although it is slowly changing, a major portion of the repertoire for the machine kantele continues to be folk music, though in arrangements which have been made to fit the standards of art music.  Paul Salminen in his Kantelekoulu preface tells that he did not conceive of the kantele as a "virtuoso instrument" and felt that folk music still best suited its character.  The basic timbre and natural vibrato of the Finnish kantele has remained the same, and is valued by folk and art music players alike.  It is very significant that until recently, even the best art music players learned a major portion of their skill on their own.  Most of the kantele playing guides were geared for self instruction.  After learning the basics, they merely played the instrument and worked out the details of their own individual styles, which is very similar to the learning process used by most folk players.  Perhaps the most important thing uniting all kantele players is the strong symbolic value of the kantele.  It is believed by many to be an ancient instrument ‑‑ a gift from the proto‑Finns to our day ‑‑ so it symbolizes the roots of Finnishness.




[1] I am indebted to the scholars at the Folk Music Institute at Kaustinen, who provided copies of early kantele method books for my examination.

[2] Tobias Norlind published a picture of Akilles Ockenström, whom he also calls Aatto Wirtta, taken in September 1896 which shows Ockenström playing with the shortest strings closest (1923:55).  On the following page (ibid:56), he published another picture taken in 1905 of a kantele player, who now has the longest strings closest.

 [3] A copy of the manuscript is located at the Folk Music Institute, Kaustinen.

 [4] An additional book of Paul Salminen arrangements was collected and edited by Anneli Kuparinen (1986).

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