The Kantele Traditions of Finland 

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

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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.


                                                Some Practical Matters


            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.


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