Chapter 3.1:  The Kantele Traditions of Finland 

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

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            Carved kanteles are the oldest form of the instrument.  In order to guess what builders of the past had in mind, we can study and compare existing carved kanteles found in museums.  These old kanteles are true folk artifacts, in that they were generally built by individuals for their own use.  Because they are folk artifacts, virtually no two of these instruments are exactly alike.  Any general statement about these instruments will have individual exceptions.  At the same time, there are characteristics which unite all these instruments, otherwise they could not be recognized under a single concept of kantele.


                              The Carved Kantele Among the Baltic Psalteries


            The older forms of Baltic psalteries have several characteristics in common.  They are all relatively small instruments, which were typically made by carving a single piece of wood to form the body.  The bodies may be described as irregular triangles, with the narrow end cut off, or as narrow irregular trapezoids.  They could be carved from the top, side or bottom.  If carved from the top, a separate sound board was added to make an enclosed resonating chamber.  Typically, the sound board had some type of hole, which could be in a wide variety of shapes, the most usual being a round hole, a cross, or a flower.  If the body was carved from the bottom, it was frequently left open, but sometimes also was closed with a separate board.  Again, the top of the instrument may have had a sound hole.  Some Baltic psalteries, particularly those built by Vepsians, were carved from the side, which was also left open.

            The carved Baltic psalteries have a highly variable number of strings, with as few as five and as many as fifteen, or occasionally more.  Perhaps the most significant characteristic of the strings is that they are usually not parallel.  The strings typically are attached at the end of the instruments to a single rod which can be U‑shaped coming up from the body of the instrument, or can be straight and held in place between the sides of a wide notch carved in the end of the instrument.  This part of the instrument is called the varras in Finnish meaning "spit", a metal rod on which meat was turned over a fire.  The strings fan out from the rod to the tuning pegs at the opposite end of the instrument.  The tuning peg side almost always forms an oblique line in relation to the rod and the other sides of the instrument, thus giving the strings graduated lengths.

            The general characteristics offer evidence that the various forms of the Baltic psalteries are related.  But there are also characteristics which tend to distinguish the instruments by nationalities.

            Almost all Finnish carved kanteles have an extension  at the end of the instrument called a ponsi, which is curved down.  This extension is much rarer on other Baltic psalteries.  Some of the Vepsian instruments occasionally have a ponsi which is curved up.  On Finnish instruments, the top of the ponsi has a wide notch carved in it, which the Finns call the ponnen lovi, meaning "the notch of the ponsi."  The rod to which the strings are attached is held in place between two holes in the sides of the notch.

            On the tuning pin side of the instruments the top is extended in order to allow space for the holes of the tuning pegs, which are usually inserted from the bottom.  On some Baltic psalteries, particularly Vepsian, Setu, Russian and Estonian instruments, this extension may be quite large.  It is called lapa meaning "blade" in Finnish, laba in Estonian meaning "blade" or "paddle", otkrylok in Russian meaning "stub-wing", and is frequently translated as Stutzbrett meaning "supporting board" in German, referring to its possible function as a support for one of the player's arms.  Virtually none of the Finnish carved kanteles have a large blade, only one large enough to accommodate the tuning pegs.

            The variations in structure between the instruments of the Finnish and Estonian regions may be the result of different playing positions.  The Finnish instruments generally have been played in a horizontal position, with the sound board parallel to the ground, while many other Baltic psalteries are played in a more vertical position, with the sound board at an angle to the ground, the long side of the instrument in the lap and the short side against the body.  Finnish folk runes say that the ponsi was placed on the knee, so it is believed that it originally had the function of securing the instrument more firmly in the player's lap.  While this is quite likely true, it cannot be proven.  The oldest descriptions of playing do not mention if the players placed the ponsi on the knee.  Descriptions and photographs of carved kantele players taken around the turn of the century show little evidence that the ponsi was actually used this way (see Väisänen 1928a; Saha 1986).  By the middle of the nineteenth century, builders made larger carved kanteles, which were generally played in a horizontal position on top of a table or other firm support.

            The extended blade has been attributed to the playing style and music of the regions where it appears.  In a significant article (1977a) the Estonian ethnomusicologist, Igor Tõnurist, argues that the extended blade was a rela- tively late characteristic which came about because of the influence of Russian dance music.  This dance music required a rhythmic accompaniment generally made up of chords.  The playing style for this music used the so‑called "covering technique," where the fingers of the left hand would cover the strings not needed to produce a chord, while the right hand would strum out the rhythm.  Originally the kannels were played horizontally, but with the new dance music and accompanying playing style they began to be held in a more vertical position.  Tõnurist believes that the primary purpose for the extended blade was as a support for the left arm, which would lie passively as the fingers covered the strings.  It also had a secondary function of increasing the resonance of the instrument, hence the Setu name heluhand [sound tail?]  for the blade.  As Russian dance music culture spread to a larger area, bladed kannels took the place of older kannels without the blade.



Illus. 6.  Baltic psalteries carved from a single piece of wood.  Sketches by Ilkka Kolehmainen, published in Kantele 1985 (4):7 and Viisikielinen 1987 (4):5.



                                    The Existing Carved Kanteles in Finland


            The old carved kanteles found in museums around Finland provide a significant source of information on what kantele building was like in the past.  Although there is no way to be certain, it is hoped that these instruments are a valid and representative sample of the kanteles from their era.  In this sample of "Finnish" carved kanteles, I have included only those instruments coming from Finnish, Karelian and Ingrian regions, since they are adjacent geographically and the kanteles generally have similar characteristics.  The sample contained a total of ninety‑one carved kanteles.[1]

            The information collected included measurements; the materials from which the instruments were made; the way in which the bodies were carved; the number of strings; structural characteristics of the sound hole, tip, ponsi, notch, rod, bridges; and the age, place built, and other specific details, if known.  Complete information was not available in every category, but the information which was available provided a way to compare and study the structure of the instruments.  The information was organized in a database and used to generate the reports in Appendix 1.

            All the kanteles in the sample were relatively small instruments.  Because their bodies were carved from a single piece of wood, their size was limited by the size of the available trees.  Finland, and nearby areas, being in an sub-arctic climate, generally have relatively thin trees.  The narrowest kanteles were approximately 10 cm wide at the widest point; the widest ones were approximately 30 cm.  The shortest ones were 46 cm and the longest were 80‑110 cm.  The thinnest ones were approximately 3 cm. thick, and the thickest ones 10 cm.  The measurements of length, width and thickness were evenly distributed between these extremes.

            The carved kanteles of the sample may be grouped according to whether they are carved from the bottom, side or top.  This grouping follows a distinctive pattern of geographic distribution.  Those carved from the side are the rarest.  Väisänen's materials contain information on just two such instruments and the National Museum collection contained three.[2]  Most of the kanteles in the sample were carved from either the top or the bottom.  If they were carved from the top, a separate sound board was added to make an enclosed resonating chamber; if carved from the bottom, they were generally left open.  With only a handful of exceptions, those which were carved from the bottom come from north of a line between Joensuu and Vaasa.  Those carved from the top come from south of this line.

            A second possible way to group the carved kanteles is to distinguish between those with narrow and those with wide bodies, which I have done basically as a subjective appraisal.  Generally, the division came at around 15 cm in width, those over this amount being wide and those under being narrow.  But if the width of a kantele was less than one third its length, I considered it narrow (Illus. 7).  Most of the narrow kanteles had just five strings, but some had as many as ten strings. [3]   The wide bodied kanteles were noticeably larger and bulkier and were obviously built to accommodate a greater number of strings (Illus. 8).

            There is a third category of carved kanteles which did not fit neatly into the narrow or wide categories.  These kanteles were relatively large instruments, each with more than ten strings, a greater overall length and generally had parallel sides.  The end which held the tuning pegs was quite long and at a steep angle in relation to the sides of the instrument which made it possible to accommodate a larger number of strings (Illus. 9).

            The bodies of kanteles in the sample were made from various kinds of wood, the most common being alder and spruce, followed by birch, pine or aspen.  When a kantele was carved from the top it had a separate piece of wood for the soundboard, which was usually made of spruce, followed by pine, alder, or birch.


                            From Väisänen's papers on individual instruments in the sample


Body wood                              Top wood  (carved from the top)


   alder              36                    spruce              24

   spruce           17                    pine                  4

   birch              10                    alder                 3

   pine               4                      birch                 1

   aspen            1                                                 



Illus. 7.  Narrow carved kanteles from the National Museum, Helsinki.  From top to bottom: instrument number F210 from Northern Savo; F212 from Nilsiä; 1855:11 from Liperi; 1855:42 from Juva; F1177 from Korpiselkä.



Illus. 8.  Wide carved kanteles from the National Museum, Helsinki.  From top to bottom:  instrument number F2084 from Myrskylä; F1617 from Salmi; F1838 from Viipuri; F1839 from Karelia. Bottom two sketches from the papers of A. O. Väisänen at the Finnish Literature Society.



Illus. 9.  Long carved kanteles from the National Museum, Helsinki.  From top to bottom: instrument number F213 from Kuopio; F197 from Tohmajärvi; F208 from Iisalmi.


            The shape of the bodies, when viewed from the end, was usually square or rectangular with the sides at 90° degree angles to the bottom.  Only a few of the instruments had the sides at a greater angle or more rounded bottoms.  The  rectangular shape was probably most popular because it allowed the kantele to lie flat on top of a table.  Those with rounded bottoms would have necessitated their being played in the lap.

            When counting the number of strings for which the kanteles of the sample were built, the most favored number was five (twenty‑two examples); the next most favored number was twelve (eighteen examples).  The other numbers of strings were more evenly distributed.  This is not a count of the actual number of strings present, since most of the kanteles were not in playing condition and lacked some or all of their strings.  The count reflects as well as could be determined the number of strings if the instruments were in playing condition (the chart below is based on the "Number of Strings" report in Appendix 1).


                           Number of strings                  Number of kanteles


                                     5                                             22

                                    12                                            18

                                     9                                             12

                                     8                                             10

                                     7                                              8

                                    10                                             7

                                    11                                             6



            The strings were missing on many of the kanteles in the sample, but when present they were usually made of steel (some were quite rusty) or copper.  According to folklore, strings were also made of twisted horse hair or human hair.  Some modern day carved kantele builders have experimented with these types of strings and they do work quite well, although producing less volume and a different timbre than metal strings.

            Almost all the carved kanteles of the sample had a ponsi, the curved extension at the end of the instrument. There was great variation in the size, shape and position of the ponsi, especially in its angle and the amount of curvature.  On some of the narrow kanteles the ponsi could conceivably have been functional, to help support the instrument against the leg or knee.  But on the majority of the kanteles the ponsi could not have been used in this way, since the size or curvature was inappropriate.  Looking from above, the shape of the ponsi was usually square, but on some instruments it was rounded off or semi‑circular.

            On most of the instruments the strings were attached at the end of the instrument to a rod which was held in place between the sides of a wide, carved‑out notch at the top of the ponsi.  The notch was either square or semi‑circular in shape.  Seven instruments, which came predominantly from the Northern Savo area, had a double notch.  Ten instruments did not have a notch, but still used a rod to attach the strings, which was typically a U‑shaped piece of metal attached to the sides or top of the instrument, or a straight rod held in place by brackets.  Väisänen's papers show at least some kanteles in which the strings pass through holes in the ponsi and are attached underneath.

            All the carved kanteles in the sample have tuning pegs and not tuning pins.  The top of the instrument is extended just enough to allow the insertion of these pegs from below.  None of the Finnish carved kanteles have a large, extended blade as seen on many of the Vepsian, Setu, Russian and Estonian Baltic psalteries. 

            Most studies of the carved kantele mention that they do not have bridges.  The strings are stretched between two points, the rod and the tuning pegs, and are allowed to vibrate freely.  The lack of a bridge produces a natural vibrato which the Finns prize.  The vibrato may be caused by the knot at the end of the string which attaches it to the rod, or by the changing length of the string as it vibrates against the tuning peg. 

            There were no bridges on any of the narrow carved kanteles in the sample, but eighteen of the wide carved kanteles had bridges, most of which came from the Ladoga Karelia area.  Twelve kanteles had bridges on the tuning pin side and four near the end of the instruments, which would presumably stop the vibrato.  Two had bridges on both the tuning pin side and the end.  The bridges were usually made out of metal.  Some were attached to the top of the kanteles and some were a flat U‑shaped piece of metal the ends of which were fastened to the top or sides of the instruments.  At first I thought these metal pieces served as resting places for the arm, but in almost all cases where strings were present, the strings passed over the metal pieces, so they probably functioned as bridges (Illus. 10).

            The "tip" [kärki] of the instrument is the corner formed between the side holding the tuning pins and the long side.  In the sample there were six basic varieties of tips:  First, just a normal point produced by the angle of the two sides; second, a cut off point; third, a simple round scroll; fourth, a hook; fifth, rounded; and sixth, a knob.  The scroll, point and cut off tips were by far the most common; the other three were perhaps variations of these. The point and cut off tips were more common in the north, while the scroll was more common in the south.  Most of the tips had a hole and on many instruments a loop of string was fastened through the hole, which apparently allowed the kantele to be hung on the wall when not in use.


                 Type of tip      Number of kanteles


                         scroll                           34

                         point                            29

                         cut                               9

                         hook                           4

                         rounded                       4

                         knob                           3



Illus. 10.  Carved kanteles with bridges.  From top to bottom:  instrument number F1178 from Korpiselkä; F443 from Suojärvi, in the National Museum, Helsinki ; 188:52 from Suistamo, in the Häme Museum, Tampere.  Bottom sketch from the papers of A. O. Väisänen at the Finnish Literature Society.



Illus. 11.  Kantele tips.


            The shape and arrangement of the sound holes varied greatly.  Round or cross-shaped sound holes were most common,  followed by kanteles with no sound holes at all.  Some of the instruments had arrangements of smaller holes which made up geometric patterns, the most typical being crosses.  There were many individual examples of other sound hole shapes.


                Sound hole shape                 Number of kanteles


                         round                                                  24

                         crosses (including

                         cross patterns of

                         smaller holes)                                       23

                         none                                                    12


                         (or square)                                          5

                         flower                                                  3

                         f holes                                                 1

                         c holes                                                 1

                         key hole                                              1

                         heart                                                    1

                         pentagon                                             1

                         stars                                                    1

                         swastika                                              1


            It is impossible to date with accuracy the majority of the kanteles in the sample.  A significant number of them were acquired by the National Museum in the nineteenth century, so they date from at least that time.  A few of the kanteles had what appear to be dates carved into the bodies.  The oldest one of these "dates" is 1698, on the side of a five‑string kantele from Kurkkijoki (instrument number 731 from the National Museum).  Very few of the instruments show the effects of having been on the walls of a "smoke cabin," but those which do all have five‑strings.


                                    Change in the Carved Kantele Structure


            It is generally assumed that the five‑string kantele is the oldest form of the Finnish kantele, but the number of strings may not be the best way to determine age.  The oldest known Baltic psalteries, which were found in archaeological excavations in Poland and in Novgorod, include a six‑string instrument believed to be from the 12th century, a nine‑string instrument believed to be from the 13th century and a five‑string instrument believed to be from the 13th or 14th century (see Simon 1957; Emsheimer 1961; Tõnurist 1977a; Povetkin 1982).

            The quality of having five strings appears more frequently among Finnish kanteles than among any other of the Baltic psalteries.  Rune singing was done to five pitches and moved in a pattern of five beats.  The kantele was believed to have been used in the accompaniment of rune singing.

            If we assume that the five‑string kantele is the oldest form, then at some time in the history of the kantele there came a significant change, in that builders began adding strings and began to increase the size of the instrument.  It is generally believed that this took place because the Finnish folk music culture began to change.  Until the nineteenth century, Finland was relatively isolated, but with the growth of an educated, upper class in Finland, this isolation began to disappear.  Finnish folk music, especially dance music, began to incorporate outside influences, particularly from the West.  One of the most important influences was the coming of the violin to Finland.

            The violin was much better suited for playing western dance music. It was a louder instrument than the kantele and had a larger range.  But most significantly, the violin was not limited to five pitches; it could play the entire range of diatonic and chromatic pitches called for in western tonal music.  Thus, the violin began to be widely used in dance contexts and began to replace the carved kantele for this purpose (see Väisänen 1955).

            Among the earliest transcriptions of Finnish folk tunes were those published by the Italian explorer Joseph Acerbi in his book Travels Through Sweden, Finland and Lapland to the North Cape in the Years 1798 and 1799 (1801).  Beneath one of the transcribed dance tunes played on the kantele, he marked the following comment:  "This is the tune of a dance of Finlanders played upon the Harpu; in such a limited compass of notes, it is interesting to see how they can vary their tunes" (ibid, Vol.II:327).  Under another transcribed dance, he states:


It is to be observed in this Tune, that the whole of the first part, and four Bars of the second, are within the compass of the five Notes of the Harpu; but the three last are two Notes out of the compass; the Violin, or the introduction of the Fiddle, inspired this license.  It is a timid step out of their limited circle, and for those who are fond of minute enquiries upon the subject, it may show how the introduction of a new Instrument, less limited than the first, introduces new ideas, and changes by degrees the character of the ancient Music (ibid:330).


            As the Finnish music culture changed, kantele builders began to make kanteles which could play this new music.  Thus, the number of strings was increased to expand its range.  The size was increased to accommodate the larger number of strings and to increase its volume. 

            If the violin was such a superior instrument, why did it not replace the kantele entirely?  Why did kantele builders build kanteles with more strings, rather than using the violin?  Part of the answer lies in the interaction between Finnish educated and peasant classes.

            The kantele was the musical instrument of the peasants.  Far from being the mytho‑poetic instrument mentioned in the Kalevala, the kantele was a typical part of everyday life.  To the peasants, it had less symbolic than practical significance. On the other hand, most educated Finns did not play the kantele; many had never even seen or heard a kantele, but this peasant instrument was being promoted in literature and fine arts as the only true Finnish instrument.  It became a symbol of Finnish identity among educated Finns.  Eventually the symbolic value of the kantele was communicated to the peasants through their interaction with scholars who came to collect folklore.  Perhaps because of the added symbolic importance placed on the kantele, the violin did not replace it, and it continued to survive. 

            The few educated Finns who did play the kantele wanted to "improve" the instrument to facilitate the playing of western music.  They began building, or having others build,  kanteles with a greater range than five pitches.  The increased number of strings was necessary and functional in the performance of western music.  Evidence of this activity is found in footnote #11 of a chapter named "Muistutuksia meijän vanhoista kansallisista soitoistamme" [Reminiscences of our oldest national [folk music] performance] in the first part of C. A. Gottlund's work Otava (1831).  Gottlund features an illustration of a five-string kantele from near his birth place in Savo and says,


[...This is the appearance of all the kanteles which I have seen in Savo, except those which have multiple strings and which are only found among the upper class] (Gottlund 1831, 1987:23).


Illus. 12.  Gottlund's kantele (from Otava I 1831, 1987:17).


            The theory that kantele structure changed solely for functional reasons to accommodate western music does not provide a complete explanation.  It fails to take into account the performance practice of carved kantele players.  A. O. Väisänen published a systematic study of carved kantele players during the first decades of this century (1928). He made the significant observation that often carved kantele players, who played more developed kanteles, did not always use all the new capabilities.  For example, he mentions that Fedja Happo, who performed on a twelve‑string kantele, used only five strings at a time while playing.  Väisänen mentions several other examples of players who performed on multiple‑string kanteles, but did not use all the strings, and did not even bother to tune many of the strings.

            According to the previous theory, a person would build a kantele with twelve strings because they knew music which required twelve strings.  But in reality, it was common for builders to make larger kanteles, which had a greater range, and then still perform music which did not require the new capabilities.  Part of the answer may again come from the interaction of peasant and educated classes, an example of which is provided by Elias Lönnrot.

            Lönnrot had a lifelong interest in the kantele and not just as it was depicted in folklore.  Lönnrot learned to play the instrument himself.  It was reported that Lönnrot played the kantele at his own wedding in 1849 and he frequently played for guests who visited his home.  For example, he was visited in 1840 by a Russian language Professor J. Grot who made the comment:


[Immediately I noticed on the wall an unpainted harp, which the Finns have named kantele.  Before I could talk about it, Lönnrot took it immediately from the wall, put it on his knees and began to play Finnish songs in a Finnish style on its steel and copper strings] (Grot 1847; quoted by Anttila 1931:205; Haavio 1970:103; and Laitinen 1982c:45).


            As many other educated people of the time, Lönnrot viewed the kantele which existed among the folk as being musically limited, but unlike others, his approach was not to replace the kantele with another instrument, such as the violin, but to build new and more advanced kanteles.

            Lönnrot is believed to have built perhaps twenty kanteles himself (Laitinen 1982:45).  Also, it has been reported that Lönnrot had several carpenters in Kajaani build kanteles according to his designs (Grot 1847:167). [4]  These were no longer the simple type of kanteles carved out from a single piece of wood and limited in the number of strings; they were advanced instruments.  The bodies were larger and were fashioned from several pieces of wood, so the number of strings could be expanded.  Another significant difference was that at least some of Lönnrot's kanteles were partially chromatic.  They were clearly designed for playing western music.

            Lönnrot wrote an instruction book for playing advanced kanteles with seventeen strings, to which a person could add eight chromatic strings if wanted.  The book included a tuning guide and a notation system based on numbers.  In it are transcribed 230 "Finnish and foreign" pieces for the kantele.  The instruction book was written out in Lönnrot's own hand, but was never published.  It may be found today at the manuscript archive of the Finnish Literature Society.  Lönnrot was also actively involved in promoting the teaching of kantele playing in public schools.  In the first issue of a literature magazine he published with J. W. Snellman in 1847, he wrote an article concerning "Folk Schools and Folk Education" where he says:


[Along side agricultural learning, we will place the learning of performance...Certainly not all are inclined to performance, but hardly any, who when they learn it, don't get accustomed to it and favor it.  A normal kantele with thirteen or fifteen strings would be a much more appropriate instrument for teaching than the virsikantele [a bowed monochord used to accompany hymns]: it has a sound which is sweeter and with its help one can gain a better understanding of matters pertaining to the knowledge of performance] (quoted in Laitinen 1982:46).


            Most likely, Lönnrot and his contemporaries had an influence on the kantele as it existed among the peasants. Just as the idea of the kantele being a symbol of Finnish identity eventually found its way back to folk culture, so did the idea that a kantele with more strings was a superior kantele. [5]  Not that such an instrument is truly superior, but it was perceived by the folk as being superior. 

            When a builder makes an instrument with greater capabilities than the music he will perform requires, the new capabilities may not be added to serve a function, but because the builder has seen them elsewhere and believes, for whatever reason, that they produce a better instrument.  Igor Tõnurist mentions the same phenomenon among the kannel builders of Estonia (1977a:158).  In addition to function, builders are influenced by fashion, by what others are doing in the area and by what they perceive as being superior.



Illus. 13.  Page from Elias Lönnrot's kantele instruction book, at the Finnish Literature Society.




[1] Seventy‑five of these instruments are found in the National Museum in Helsinki, of which I examined and photographed fifty‑six.  A. O. Väisänen's manuscript collection at the Finnish Literature Society provided six additional examples from the Häme Museum in Tampere, as well as detailed descriptions, drawings and measurements of most of the carved kanteles in the National Museum collection.  A series of articles by Ilkka Kolehmainen (1986‑87) provided information for the remaining ten instruments.

[2] The kanteles carved from the side included in Väisänen's papers were both from Suojärvi, instrument numbers 188:49 and 188:50 from the Häme Museum in Tampere.  The National Museum kanteles were from Ingria and one from Olonets Karelia.  Most of the Vepsian instruments in the National Museum collection were also carved from the side, but they were not included in the present sample.

[3]  For example, compare the National Museum instruments numbered 2218.218 and 1855.42, most likely made by the same builder from Juva.  The first has five strings and the second nine strings, but is only 1 centimeter wider.  Apparently some builders added more strings, but left the bodies essentially unchanged.

[4] In a personal letter dated August 18, 1983, Stephen Reynolds writes that p. 167 of Grot (1847) "states that under Lönnrot's influence town craftsmen in Kajaani were making kantele‑s commercially."

[5]  The folk adopted the idea of increasing the number of strings, but they did not adopt the idea of chromatic tuning.  Even the most technically advanced modern Finnish kantele, with a tuning machine, is still basically a diatonic instrument.

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