Chapter 3 Introduction:  The Kantele Traditions of Finland 

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

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            In addition to being a motif of folklore and a symbol of national identity, the kantele is a musical instrument, an object which exists in tangible reality.  The kanteles which exist were made by people who had a concept of what the kantele should be and who then produced a physical realization of that concept.  Kantele building is part of a system of culture in which all aspects of life are intertwi­ned, thus the kantele cannot be understood apart from its cultural context.

            The paradigms of ethnomusicology and material culture folkloristics intersect with the study of musical instrumen­ts.  The kantele is part of the material culture of the Finns, but it is a special part since its function is the production of music.  The kantele is not an implement of work, necessary for survival, but an implement of play, which adds to the quality of life in some intangible way.  The careful study of kanteles reveals insights into the cultural aesthetics of those who made them.

            The kantele is a product which results from a dynamic process of tradition.  This begins with a concept in the kantele builder's mind of what the kantele should look like, how it should sound, what kinds of music will be played on it and what kinds of symbolic or social significance it will have.  The concept can be general or specific, depending on the experience and skill of the builder.  The builder must then deal with specific questions related to the building process such as the types of materials that should be used and the techniques that should be employed in building.  All these things are shaped by the norms and values of the culture.  Builders borrow ideas from other builders or from older instruments.  In addition, builders sometimes change things and create new things, thus "improving" upon the old or that which already exists.  Builders create innovations through experimentation.  Thus, a tradition is formed by the dynamic balance of stability and innovation.

            The kantele is an ideal subject for studying the processes of tradition because it has retained a unique identity and place in Finnish culture in spite of radical changes in its structure over the past three centuries.  It began strictly as a folk instrument, meaning that builders built the instrument for their own use.  The skill of folk builders varied greatly, as they learned their craft through trial and error.  Therefore, folk kanteles are not homogeneous in specific characteristics of structure.  Each is unique, sharing only general characteristics with other folk kanteles. 

            The kantele also became a significant instrument among the upper classes, as a symbol of their national identity.  This resulted in the desire among some to "improve" the kantele for the specific purpose of facilitating playing of western art music.  Kanteles built for this purpose were much more standardized and homogeneous.  They were generally built by "master builders" for others who would play them.  The transition of the kantele from a folk to an art instrument took place over a period of approximately a hundred years (from the 1830's to the 1930's) and in some ways continues today.

            Three factors influenced kantele builders in changing its structure:  The first is function.  Most of the various parts of the instrument serve some function in order to produce music of a specific type.  The second is fashion, which takes into account what other builders in the area do and the perception of what makes a superior instrument.  The final factor is tradition, which takes into account what has been done in the past and provides stability in the midst of change.

            I have divided all the various types of kanteles into three broad categories, which have been recognized by Finnish scholars.  The carved kanteles [koverettukantelet] are those which are made by carving out a single piece of wood.  They are the oldest form of the kantele.  The box kanteles [laatikkokantelet], also called board kanteles [lautakantelet], are made by combining individual boards of wood to produce an enclosed box.  An additional important characteristic is that the sides of the instrument, especially the tuning‑pin side, are straight.  The third category of kanteles, I call the modern kanteles.  These are known among Finns by a wide variety of names, but they all have a commonality in that the tuning pin side employs the reverse‑curve shape used by other large string instruments, such as the harp or concert grand piano.

            In order to discuss the structure of existing kanteles accurately, it is necessary to have standard names for the basic parts.  All kanteles are zithers, generally shaped as an irregular trapezoid with one narrow end.  The side of the instrument holding the tuning pegs or tuning pins, I will call the tuning pin side.  The other two sides, I will call the long side and the short side.  The end of the instrument opposite the tuning pins, the Finns call perä, which means "rear," "butt," or "end."  I simply call this the end of the instrument.  The angle formed by the tuning pin side and long side, the Finns call kärki, which means "tip,"  so, likewise I call this the tip of the instrument.  The top of the instrument is that which is closest to and runs in a plane parallel to the strings.  It generally has a sound hole.  The bottom is furthest from the strings.  The illustration on the next page shows kanteles of all three varieties with the standard names.


Illus. 5.  Three varieties of kanteles with their parts labeled.


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