Chapter 3.3:  The Kantele Traditions of Finland 

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

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                                               MODERN KANTELES


            The modern form of the kantele incorporates the reverse-curve shape found in other large western string instruments, such as the piano or harp.  Modern kanteles are in the same basic shape as concert grand pianos, only much smaller.  A second important feature is that some modern kanteles have a quick tuning machine which makes it possible to change to different keys quickly.  The Finns call modern kanteles by a number of different names.  If it has no tuning machine, it may be called a "home kantele" [kotikantele] or "school kantele" [koulukantele].  With a tuning machine it may be called a "machine kantele" [koneistokantele] or "concert kantele" and some even call it a "chromatic kantele", though it is still basically a diatonic instrument, but one which can be retuned quickly.  I use the term "modern kantele" to describe any kantele with the reverse-curve shape, and "machine kantele" for those with the additional quick tuning machine.  The reverse-curve shape of the modern kantele was adopted gradually by builders beginning in the 1920s and today it is the standard shape for large kanteles.  It can be traced to the influence of a single individual ‑‑ Paul Salminen.

            Paul Benjam Salminen (1887‑1949) was born in St. Petersburg (Leningrad) of an Ingrian father and Finnish mother.  He received formal training in music, becoming a professional trombone player.  It is believed he saw Karelian or Ingrian kantele players in his youth and became interested in the instrument.  He first came to Finland in 1913 to play trombone for a year in the Helsinki Philharmonic, during which time he met his wife, a professional singer, Ida Salmi.  After returning to St. Petersburg he happened to read an article in a Finnish newspaper which described various ideas to improve the kantele and make it more suitable for western art music performance.  This increased his interest in making his own experiments at "improving" the kantele.  Salminen and his wife returned permanently to Finland shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution, where he again became a trombone player in the Helsinki Philharmonic and built kanteles in his spare time (Salminen 1984:5).

            Salminen wanted his kantele to be the culmination of kantele form, designed specifically for playing art music.  That meant, first of all, that it had to sound resonant and pure in its tone, but still have certain qualities which are unique to the kantele, so that it would be sufficiently different from piano, harp, or any other western art music instrument.  It had to have an even timbre and volume throughout its range.  This could only be achieved by controlling precisely the ratios between the length and the thickness or weight of the strings, which is believed to have led to the use of the reverse-curve shape. 

            A second aspect was that there had to be a way to damp (silence) the strings, serving the same function in art music performance as releasing the sustaining pedal on a piano.  This was done by adding a hinged board over the strings with a padded felt piece underneath which, when pressed down, would damp all of the strings simultaneously.       Most importantly of all, there had to be a way to overcome the greatest limitation of the box kantele, namely, that it was a strictly diatonic instrument.  Box kanteles were not capable of playing music which changed in key or had accidentals. 



Illus. 27.  Modern kantele with a tuning machine. (Sketch based on an instrument build by Oiva Heikkilä, housed at the Sibelius Academy).


Illus. 28.   Modern kantele without a tuning machine as adapted for folk use.  (Sketch based on an instrument built by Jussi Ala-Kuha, housed at the Folk Music Institute, Kaustinen).


            Salminen believed that the solution was to build a machine which would very quickly at the turn of a lever retune a given pitch up or down a half step.  The machine would have eight levers; one for each of the diatonic scale degrees.  By pushing a lever forward, all the strings of that diatonic pitch would be raised by a half‑step.  For example, if the first lever controlled the C pitches, when moved forward, all five of the C strings on the instrument would change to C#.  The lever could be returned to the vertical position at any time to lower the pitch of all five C strings back to a C.  Likewise the lever could be pulled back one position further, which would lower all the C strings to Cb (B ).  The tuning levers for each set of diatonic strings work the same way.  The retuning, which could be done even during the act of playing, would account for most changes in key or accidentals, while generally leaving the tuning of the strings diatonic.

            Salminen patented his first kantele with a tuning machine in August 1920, which has been called his "spindle kantele." [1]    It worked on a system where three separate lengths of string were attached to spindles.  One string was tuned to the natural, the second a half step higher and the third a half step lower.  When the spindles were in normal position, the natural pitched strings were on top, forming a plane on which the instrument was played.  If the player wished to raise a pitch, he pushed a lever forward, which rotated the spindles in all octaves for that pitch a quarter turn.  This would bring the shorter length string, tuned a half step higher, into playing position.  If a lever was pulled in the opposite direction, it would bring the lower pitched strings into playing position (Illus. 29).

            The sketch for the patent application shows eighteen spindles, meaning that a total of 54 strings were used.  But according to Sulo Huotari, who saw a prototype, the kantele was much larger, having 35 spindles, with



Illus. 29.  Drawing from Paul Salminen's "spindle kantele" patent on August 24, 1920 (No. 8748).  From the Finnish National Patent Office, Helsinki.

105 strings (35 sets of three string each). [2]   The sketch shows a box kantele with the tip cut off, but a photograph of this kind of kantele shows that it had a reverse‑curve shaped body (Illus. 30).


            The spindle kantele was large and heavy in order to withstand the great tension of the strings and the tuning machine was awkward and difficult to use.  Salminen sold the rights to the spindle kantele patent in December 1921 to the Hellas Piano Corporation, which apparently intended to manufacture the instrument.  As part of the payment for his patent, Salminen received instruction in how to tune pianos.  This was significant, since he again experimented with developing a tuning machine, but this time based on the principle of string tension.



Illus. 30.  Photograph of Paul Salminen with his "spindle kantele" taken in the early 1920s, compliments of Jorma Salminen.


            Salminen's second patent for a kantele tuning machine was filed in July 1925, which laid out the basic principles by which machine kanteles are still built today.  The machine had seven spindles attached perpendicularly to the strings at the end of the instrument. To each spindle were attached the diatonic strings of a given pitch in all octaves.  As a lever was pushed forward the spindle would rotate slightly, increasing the tension of all the strings attached to it and raising their pitch by a half step.  Moving a lever in the opposite direction would reduce the tension and lower the pitch of all the strings. 

            With the new tuning machine, Salminen had to solve an extremely complex technical problem -- that of keeping all the strings in tune with each other, while changing the tension on the instrument by retuning some of them.  The solution required a great deal of study, experimentation and work.  He had to take into account the changes in stress on the body of the instrument which would affect the overall tuning as a change in tension took place.  An equal tempered tuning did not work, because when any of the pitches were raised, the tempered pitches would drop slightly and vice versa.  He had to develop an entirely new system of tempering the tuning, which would work with the tuning machine.  In spite of the great difficulties, he was able to make the system work.

            Although the tuning machine was the only improvement specifically mentioned in the patent applications, Salminen added several other structural and functional features to the kantele.  All of Salminen's kanteles used the reverse‑curve shape and were thus known for having an even timbre and tone quality across the entire range of the instrument.  The biggest improvement over box kanteles was in the sound of the bass strings.  Next to each tuning pin he added a second smaller pin around which the string ran, which helped make the sound clearer.  He added marks on the sound board to show the position of the tonic and dominant strings, usually a red or white mark for the tonic and a black mark for the dominant.  Finally, Salminen's kanteles were equipped with a damping board, which would silence all the strings simultaneously.

            At the same time, Salminen retained specific characteristics dating all the way back to carved kanteles.  The basic tuning of the strings was diatonic, though they could be retuned quickly enough to account for key changes and most accidentals.  The strings were all arranged in a single plane.  Most significantly, the strings passed from the tuning pins, around the positioning pins and to the hitch pins at the end of the instrument without passing over a bridge.  This retained an important part of the kantele sound

-- a natural vibrato -- which is praised by folk and art musicians alike.  The vibrato is believed to be caused by the loop attaching a string to its hitch pin.  Salminen experimented with various sizes and shapes of loops, settling on one which he felt provided a sufficient vibrato (Huotari 1984b).

            It is not certain how Salminen came up with the idea for the reverse‑curve shape.  The drawings accompanying his patent applications all show straight‑sided box kanteles, but even the oldest of Salminen's




Illus. 31.  Drawing from Paul Salminen's second kantele patent on July 11, 1925 (No. 11483).  From the Finnish National Patent Office, Helsinki.



Illus. 32.  A modern kantele with the damping board lifted open showing the tuning machine. (Built by Oiva Heikkilä, housed at the Sibelius Academy).



prototypes used the reverse-curve shape.  Some believe that he borrowed this shape directly from the orchestral harp or grand piano.  Erkki Ala‑Könni has written that he made precise calculations of the lengths and thicknesses of the strings (1983:16).  From these calculations he may have drawn the reverse-curve shape.  Paul Salminen's son, Jorma, mentioned that Paul read in a Finnish newspaper about an advanced kantele and eventually received drawings of the instrument (Salminen, Jorma 1984:5), though it is not certain what shape this kantele had.  A final possibility is that since Salminen was from St. Petersburg, he may have seen a variety of Russian gusli which used the reverse-curve shape.  A drawing of this kind of gusli may be found among the papers of A. O. Väisänen (Illus. 33).



Illus. 33.  Sketch of a Russian Gusli by A. O. Väisänen, from his papers at the Finnish Literature Society.


            It is equally uncertain how Salminen developed the damping board.  Most box kanteles have a board which covers the area where the strings are attached at the end of the instrument.  The board was usually fastened down by two screws and it was removed in order to change a broken string.  On square‑ended box kanteles this board made a smooth transition from ponsi to strings, providing a place to rest one of the forearms.  Perhaps this covering board provided a starting point for the damping board.  It is a small step to extend this board slightly, attach it with hinges rather than screws, then add padding underneath and a spring to hold it at the proper height, thus forming a fully functioning damping board.  I was not able to find any box kanteles which had a fully developed damping board, except a few special ones made after the time of the modern kantele.

            Some believe that Salminen borrowed the idea for the tuning machine from the modern orchestral harp, since the basic principle is the same, however the actual technical means to accomplish the retuning is different.  The machine of a harp retunes the strings by changing their length, while the kantele machine retunes by changing the tension of the strings.  It is believed that Salminen repaired orchestral harps, but only after he had developed the kantele tuning machine.  He was familiar with the harp mechanism but chose to keep the system he had developed.

            The metal parts of the tuning machines were prepared by Salminen himself.[3]  He nickel plated each of the metal parts and assembled the machines which required great precision in order to operate correctly.  He purchased raw steel string through the Fazer Music Store which he used to make his own strings.  Among the specialized tools he acquired was a lathe and a machine for wrapping bass strings.  The bass strings were made with a layer of silk between a central steel string and a fine silver wrapping.  The weight and thickness of the bass strings was determined by the thicknesses of the outer layers.  After turning in the tuning pins and attaching the strings, it took a great deal of time to make the fine adjustments necessary to be sure that the tuning machine worked properly  (Salminen, Jorma 1983?:[2];  Huotari 1984a:9).  The total time invested was between 220 and 500 hours for each instrument!

    Salminen's tuning machines underwent some improvements over time.  The earliest ones had the tuning levers on the bass side of the instrument and levers were harder to turn.  In later models, he moved the levers to the treble side and added "helper springs" which made the operation of the tuning machine lighter and faster.

            In addition to inventing and building the machine kantele, Paul Salminen played a central role in developing the techniques used in its playing and in promoting its use around Finland.  The machine kantele required special training in moving the levers of the tuning machine while playing, use of the damping board and a finger technique more compatible with art music.  Salminen and his wife Ida held recitals where she would sing and he would accompany on the kantele.  He wrote method books and arranged a great deal of music for the machine kantele and taught dozens of private students, many of whom went on to become outstanding players and teachers themselves.

            That a design for a kantele was patented signifies something important.  It is no longer a folk artifact, a one of a kind instrument used by the builder himself, it has become a commercial product to be manufactured, distributed and sold.  But Salminen's kanteles were never manufactured.  They were still made by hand and not in great quantities.  Paul Salminen assembled and sold only one hundred one machine kanteles from 1925 to 1949.  He kept a detailed notebook which recorded the history of each instrument, when and to whom it was sold, the amount of time used in making it, the price, and any other distinctions.  The notebook, together with detailed drawings, photographs and other important documentation, is in the possession of Paul's son, Jorma Salminen.

            It is important to note that Salminen concentrated his work on the difficult tasks of assembling the tuning machines, adding the strings and adjusting the instruments.  He commissioned various carpenters to build the bodies for the instruments from exact drawings he would provide.  The first of these was Efraim Kilpinen in Kalajoki.  Somehow, the dimensions were misunderstood and the kantele which resulted was many times larger than expected (Ala‑Könni 1983:16; Salminen, Jorma 1984:5).  The earlier Salminen kantele bodies (from 1925 to 1938) were built by a carpenter named Lepistö and another named Karvinen, both from around Helsinki.  From 1938 until Salminen's death in 1949, most of the kantele bodies were built by the master craftsman Armas J. Koivisto (Ala‑Könni 1983:16).

            Armas Jaakko Koivisto (1885‑1967) was born in Kuopio in the Savo area of Finland.  Like Salminen, Koivisto's father was Ingrian and his mother Finnish.  Koivisto attended trade school and became a master carpenter, building kanteles on the side.  He made and sold some square-ended box kanteles, with 22 to 30 strings, through the Binneman Music Store in Helsinki.  He experimented with various types of wood, making the bodies from pine, birch or alder, and the sounding boards from spruce or pine (Koivisto 1962:4/3‑4)

            Salminen contacted Koivisto around 1936 to build a body for a machine kantele.  Salminen provided the drawings, but said he was not completely satisfied with the previous bodies.  So Koivisto experimented, made some slight changes, and built one body out of pine.  The kantele which resulted was particularly good, so Koivisto continued to receive orders until Salminen's death in 1949 (ibid:4/8‑9).  During those years Koivisto worked for the Heinola Saw Mill (Huoari 1986), where he was able to select the most ideal pieces of wood for kantele building.  Koivisto was a particularly talented carpenter who took pride in accomplishing difficult tasks, such as circular inlays around the kantele sound hole.  He was also well known for his artistic wood carvings and some of his kanteles feature carved pictures.

            In addition to those kanteles made on commission, many individual builders had agreements with Salminen to acquire a machine kantele by building the body themselves according to specifications, then having Salminen add the tuning machine.  Perhaps the most well‑known of these was Leander Laasanen, who built the body for #83 in 1944.  Another who wished to get a machine kantele this way was Sulo Huotari.

            Sulo Huotari (b. 1920) is a master craftsman who became interested in the machine kantele, so in 1948 went to visit Paul Salminen at his home in Helsinki.  Huotari asked about the possibility of building the body for the kantele himself and having Salminen add a tuning machine, but the cost at the time was prohibitive.  Salminen did not want anyone else to assemble or adjust the tuning machine, explaining that it was complex process and certainly would not turn out right on the first try.  When Huotari again tried to contact Salminen in 1951, Ida Salminen informed him that Paul had passed away, but that there were five wooden bodies which had been built by Armas Koivisto and parts for one tuning machine left over.  Huotari purchased the machine parts and one of the bodies from Salminen's widow (Huotari 1984a; 1986a).

            The tuning machine had only the axles and the bearings on which the axles turned.  All the small parts were missing.  Huotari did not attempt to assemble it since he did not have the necessary measurements for the missing parts.  Some time went by before one of Salminen's former students contacted Huotari about making some minor repairs and adjustments to her machine kantele.  Ida Salminen had referred the girl to Huotari.  He completed the necessary repairs and at the same time took the measurements for the missing parts.  In this way he began a part‑time career as a machine kantele builder.

            At the time, Huotari was working as the foreman in a textile weaving factory.  He had access to a good metal shop where he could prepare the metal parts and do experiments on machine kanteles.  Even though he had the measurements, it was necessary to build many models before the machine worked properly.  He particularly studied how changes in stress affected the overall tuning of the kantele.  After a great deal of experimentation, he solved the problems and completed his own machine kantele. 

            After Paul Salminen's death there was a great need for someone to continue making machine kanteles.  Ida Salminen still received requests for machine kanteles, which she now referred to Huotari.  In return, Huotari paid a percentage of the kantele price to Ida.  Just as Salminen, Huotari concentrated on making the tuning machines and commissioned other carpenters to build the bodies.  The remaining bodies made by Armas Koivisto in Ida Salminen's possession were made into machine kanteles.  Among others who built bodies for Huotari's machine kanteles was the master kantele builder from Veteli in the Perho River Valley, Oiva Heikkilä.  Huotari built a total of thirty‑one machine kanteles from 1952 until 1963, when illness forced him to stop.  After Huotari stopped building machine kanteles, he sold the materials he had concerning the measurements, drawings, directions for building and adjusting the machines, and the way in which the kanteles should be tuned to Oiva Heikkilä, who began to make his own machine kanteles in 1968 (Huotari 1985:6).  Huotari is still widely recognized in Finland as an expert, especially on the mechanics of building the tuning machine.

            Oiva Heikkilä (1913‑1979) became one of the few professional kantele builders ever seen in Finland.  His father, Viljami Oskari Heikkilä, built both round‑ended and square‑ended box kanteles, some of which were decorated with a lyre in the sound hole.  They ordered the strings and tuning pins from the Fazer Music Store Catalog, where they saw a picture of the kantele developed by Paul Salminen.  Based on the picture, they started to build experimental kanteles with a reverse‑curve shape (Heikkilä 1975:10).

            Heikkilä received formal training as a carpenter, which included kantele building.  Before World War II, he built and sold kanteles to the Westerlund Music Store and to individuals in the Perho River Valley.  After the War, it was difficult to build kanteles since the metal parts, tuning pins and strings, were hard to get.  In spite of this, he started building three varieties of kanteles.  The first two varieties were straight‑sided box kanteles, one with 28 strings and pointed tip, and the other a 32 string model with a cut‑off tip.  The third variety was a 36 string kantele with a reverse‑curve tuning pin side and a round end, based on Paul Salminen's machine kantele (Ibid:11).

            In the mid‑1960s, Heikkilä moved to Nurmijärvi and soon thereafter to Tikkurila near Helsinki.  He worked for a short time making kanteles for the Hellas Piano Corporation, but soon established his own shop and sold kanteles to music stores as well as individuals.  By the late 1960s, he began building machine kanteles and was one of the first to build both the wooden bodies as well as assemble and adjust the tuning machines.  For most of his machine and other large kanteles, Heikkilä adopted a feature invented by Pasi Jääskeläinen: that of having a "middle bottom" halfway between the top and bottom.  This made his kanteles sound even and refined, making them particularly good for art music performance.

            Oiva Heikkilä was helped throughout the years by his sons, especially Ossi, who today continues building kanteles under the Heikkilä name.  Ossi builds the wooden bodies, and assembles and adjusts the machines.  One of his brothers does the finishing work, staining and coloring of the bodies, and another brother does the metal work for the machines.  Ossi estimates that the Heikkiläs have built approximately one hundred fifty machine kanteles, over three thousand other large kanteles (32 or 36 string models), seventy 25‑string "school" kanteles, two‑hundred 9‑strings models and over a thousand 5‑string models (Heikkilä 1986).  Heikkilä kanteles are probably the most well‑known and widely played kanteles in Finland today.

            Another noted machine kantele builder is Otto Koistinen (b. 1925) of Joensuu in Finnish Karelia.  He has been making kanteles since the mid 1950s and began building his own model of machine kantele in the mid 1960s.  The machine he developed has a unique design in that the tuning levers are positioned at the end of the instrument, halfway between the long and short side.  Koistinen has built some of the machines, but has generally contracted this work out to metal workers.  He builds the bodies, and assembles and adjusts the machines.  As of 1975, Koistinen estimated that he had built between three and four hundred large kanteles, most of which without the tuning machine (Koistinen 1975: 48‑49).  According to Sulo Huotari, Koistinen's machine kanteles are tuned closer to equal temperament and this brings about a difference in intonation when played with machine kanteles by other builders (Huotari 1985:5)

            Koistinen's kanteles do not have a "middle bottom" and thus are noted for having a bright tone, which is favored by folk musicians and some art musicians, particularly those who come from around Joensuu.  His kanteles have become well known throughout Finland, since they have been played by the Finn‑Kantele group, which began in Joensuu and later moved to Lahti and by Koistinen's daughter, Ritva, who is a noted master kantele player.

            In the 1980s several other craftsmen began building machine kanteles.  Erkki Leskelä from Ylikiiminkki in northern Ostrobothnia has become a successful professional builder.  His machines feature a fourth position, which raises the pitch an additional half step beyond standard tuning machines.  Jussi Ala‑Kuha, who is employed by the Instrument Workshop at Kaustinen has developed his own model of machine kantele.  Others who have built successful models are Arto Matto in Läppenranta, Keijo Planman in Vantaa and Pekka Lovikka in Ylitornio.  The young master instrument builder Jyrkki Pölkki from Kintaus, an expert on the physics of vibrating strings (see Pölkki 1983), has experimented with a tuning machine which shortens the length of the string, like a concert harp, rather than changing the tension.

            Although machine kanteles represent an important development, they make up only a small percentage of the modern kanteles built in Finland.  Machine kanteles are relatively difficult to build and are expensive.  In order to have the tuning machine operate as it should, it requires extremely exact work followed by many hours of fine adjustments.  A player typically will have to wait a year or more for it to be built and it will cost in the neighborhood of 10,000 FM (about $2500).  In many applications, such as for the beginner or in playing folk music, the machine is unnecessary.  Most kantele players, both art and folk musicians, prefer the advantages of the reverse‑curve shaped instrument, because its sound is even across the entire range.  So there is a great demand for the modern kantele without the tuning machine, or with other less expensive and less complex kinds of tuners.  A majority of modern kanteles fit into this category.

            Paul Salminen is also credited with inventing a simple tuning mechanism, attached to individual strings between the tuning pin and positioning pin (Salminen, Jorma [1983]:[3]).  This kind of tuner has a small lever which rotates on a shaft.  The shaft has a cam which presses against the string itself.  As the lever is moved in one direction, the cam increases the tension of the string enough to raise it approximately a half step.  As the lever is moved back, it allows the string to return to its original tuning.  While the lever of a machine kantele can change a given pitch in all octaves by as much as a full step, both up and down a half step, the individual string tuner can only change the pitch of one string by a half step, either up or down, but not both.

            These kinds of individual string tuners are not found on each string since the space required for clearance will not allow it.  They are typically found only on the strings which require the most retuning.  For example, on a diatonic kantele tuned in C major, the most frequently found tuners will be on the G strings.  This facilitates the tuning of G#,  which provides the leading tone for the relative minor key of A minor.  The next most frequent individual tuners will be on the F strings, to provide the F# necessary when playing in the dominant of the C major tuning, G major.  The third most frequent tuners are on the C strings, providing the leading tone for D major or D minor, or on the D strings, providing the leading tone for E minor.  I have not seen any kanteles with more than three sets of individual string tuners, though it is possible that some exist.

            There are certain disadvantages which come with individual string tuners.  First, they do not always work well.  Often their use does not quite tune the string as accurately as would be needed for first rate concert performance.  A second drawback is that they cause a great deal of wear on the strings, which causes more frequent string or tuning pin failure.

            The advantages are that they can be easily installed (or removed) and they are relatively inexpensive.  Such a kantele will cost in the neighborhood of 3000 FM (about $750) or about one third the price of a machine kantele.  The tone quality is virtually the same, only the convenience and the repertoire playable on such an instrument is limited.  It therefore provides an alternative for the beginner or intermediate art musician.

            Some kantele builders and players feel that the modern kantele has not completed its development, specifically for art music performance, since there are several problems to be overcome.  The machine kantele is difficult to build and therefore relatively expensive.  Even with the advantages of a tuning machine, the modern kantele is still basically a diatonic instrument, which limits the repertoire some-what.  In addition, many players have mentioned interference from noise, which comes when moving the levers to change keys or while using the damping board.  This noise can have a devastating effect in the recording studio.  In order to change keys or play an accidental, the player has to lift a hand from the strings to move a lever.  Some players have suggested that the modern kantele be improved by substituting foot pedals for the levers, so that both hands can remain on the strings when a change takes place.  Finally, the modern kantele still has a relatively weak carrying power and its sound frequently gets covered when played with other western instruments.  Many players have begun using contact microphones and amplifiers, but then the original timbre of the kantele is changed. 


                                           The Modern Karelian Kantele


            As a possible solution to some of the problems with the machine kantele, there has been a recent and significant movement in Finland to use chromatically tuned kanteles similar to those played in Soviet Karelia.  This movement has been brought about largely through the efforts of a single individual, Kari Dahlblom (b. 1955), who lives in Tikkakoski in Central Finland.  Kari is a master kantele player, who won the Finnish art style playing competition in 1982.  By profession he works for the Finnish Army as, among other things, a translator of Russian.  Kari has been interested for many years in Russian music and is also an outstanding dombra and gusli player, as well as a collector and player of various types of Finnish and Russian folk instruments.  Dahlblom became interested in Soviet Karelian kanteles after hearing the professional kantele ensemble from Petrozavodsk perform in Finland. 

            The kanteles they play are based on models first developed in the 1930s by Viktor Gudkov, with the playing of art music specifically in mind. They are fully chromatic instruments with the strings arranged in two separate planes, the upper plane having diatonic pitches and the lower plane, chromatic pitches.  Gudkov established the first Karelian kantele ensembles and made the earliest arrangements of written music.



Illus. 34.  Modern Karelian style chromatic kantele built by Heikki Linjama, Tikkakoski.


            Dahlblom wanted to learn to play the instrument, but was unable to acquire one.  In 1983, Hanna Pirhonen, a former member of the Petrozavodsk kantele ensemble, immigrated to Finland from Soviet Karelia.  She provided her alto kantele as a model and, at Kari Dahlblom's request, an instrument builder in Tikkakoski, Heikki Linjama, began building the first Finnish versions of the instrument.  As of mid 1986, Linjama had built just over thirty Karelian kanteles.  Dahlblom also commissioned the master instrument builder Jyrkki Pölkki to build this kind of kantele. 

            The Karelian kantele has certain advantages as well as disadvantages compared to the Finnish machine kantele.  It is a comparatively simple instrument to build and is therefore relatively inexpensive.  There are no problems with moving tuning levers or with their noise.  Almost all western art music can be played on the Karelian kantele, since even highly chromatic passages, while difficult, are still possible.  As part of its structure, the Karelian kantele has a bridge near the end of the instrument and thus has a louder sound than Finnish kanteles.  It blends well with other instruments and can still be heard over instrumental accompaniment.

            Because of the bridge, the Karelian kantele has a different timbre than Finnish kanteles.  It lacks the brightness and the natural vibrato praised by Finnish players.  The timbre is more "civilized"; closer to that of the concert harp.

            Being fully chromatic instruments, Karelian kanteles have a more limited range than modern Finnish kanteles.  To overcome this lack in range, they are normally played in ensembles with matched sets of different sizes.  In the Petrozavodsk ensemble they play three different sizes: prima, alto and bass.  So far, Heikki Linjama has developed his own soprano and alto models.  Because the range of these instruments is only around three octaves, they do not need the reverse‑curve shape and have straight sides.

            Modern Finnish kanteles and Karelian kanteles are suited to different purposes.  An analogy may be made in comparing the violin and piano.  The violin is more of an ensemble instrument, even though it can be used in playing unaccompanied solos.  The piano has the ability to play both the melody and accompaniment and is therefore more of a solo instrument.  An ensemble made up of several pianos would sound muddled.  The Karelian kanteles are more like the violin; the modern Finnish kanteles more like the piano in this regard.  For this reason, the Karelian kantele would be a nice supplement, played together with and in addition to the modern Finnish kanteles.


                                  The Modern Kantele and the Folk Builder


            Even though the modern kantele was invented as an art music instrument, it never ceased being a folk instrument as well.  Folk builders began adopting the reverse‑curve shape of Salminen's machine kantele soon after its invention.  They learned of Salminen's innovations in various ways.  Some were directly involved in building kantele bodies for Salminen, such as Armas Koivisto.  Others, like Oiva Heikkilä, saw Salminen's kantele pictured in the Fazer Music Store Catalog and began experimenting with the new shape.  Whether or not the reverse‑curve shape was absolutely necessary for the performance of folk music, it was perceived as being superior, since it was associated with a "developed" kantele.  By the 1950s, the box kantele passed into oblivion, as virtually all kantele builders used the reverse‑curve shape.

            Many folk builders began experimenting with the modern kantele due to the strong influence of fashion.  The reverse‑curve shape brought some acoustical advantages, in that the range of the instrument could be extended and still sound good, but many of the other conventions of the modern kantele were either unnecessary, or in some cases hindered folk music performance.  Box kanteles differed from modern kanteles in several ways.  Some of the differences were explained to me by the master instrument builder, Rauno Nieminen.

            According to Nieminen, the history of all western string instruments has been characterized by an overall rise in pitch with a corresponding rise in string tension.  New instruments had to be designed to withstand higher string tensions than the older instruments.  The development of new instruments which could cope with greater string tension can be seen in the history of violin and piano, and a similar development affected the kantele.

            Newer kanteles are tuned to a higher overall pitch level than older kanteles and are built to withstand far greater string tensions than the older ones.  This was discovered when the instrument builders at Kaustinen wanted to build box kanteles according to shapes and patterns which had not been used for some sixty years.  When they originally built some of these present day box kanteles, they were amazed to find that their tone and playing response was very similar to the modern kantele.  They had built them with strong internal bracing, similar to that found in the modern kantele.  It was not until they began taking old instruments apart, to repair and restore them, that they discovered the internal bracing of old box kantele was really quite minimal.  If such instruments were tuned up to today's standard pitches, they would sound strained and might not be able to withstand the tension.  When these instruments are tuned at a lower level, a truer picture begins to emerge as to how these instruments sounded and responded.  The box kanteles had a bright, sharp attack followed by a rapid decay in volume.  More modern kanteles, some of which have middle bottom and all of which have a great deal more bracing to drive the sound, have a smoother attack and the sound is sustained for a greater period of time. 

            These differences in the acoustical properties of the instruments actually favor one style of playing, art or folk, over the other.  For example, in folk playing, overall damping is not used.  With an old kantele damping was largely unnecessary because all strings would have a quick decay.  Also, a bright, clear, sharp attack is favored by folk musicians because much of the music played is dance music and strong attack is necessary for the rhythmic accompaniment of the instrument to be heard.  Folk playing is usually done on the hardest portion of the fingertip, just before the fingernail, which increases the attack even further.

            Art music, on the other hand, favors a smooth, rounded tone.  The instrument is played with the softest, fleshiest part of the fingers.  Blending of the tones in chords is important with art music, therefore art musicians favor an instrument with a smooth attack and a long decay.  At the same time, an instrument with a long decay requires some form of damping, otherwise an unacceptably muddy sound will result.  Thus the structure of the modern kantele included a damping board as an integral part. 

            When folk builders began making modern kanteles, they also included the damping board, even though it served no function in folk music performance.  In some cases the it was rendered non‑functional by placing a screw beneath it, so that it could be lifted easily to change the strings if they broke, but it could not be pressed to damp the strings.  In other cases the folk musicians would simply lift open the damping board and leave it open while playing.  Many folk builders also included the marks under the strings showing the position of the tonic and dominant strings, even though folk playing is usually accomplished more by feel and by listening than looking for the marks.

            While folk builders adopted the conventions of the reverse‑curve shape, damping board, and marks under the strings, they shunned the use of mechanical tuners.  Since most traditional kantele music can be played in a single diatonic tuning, folk musicians prefer to build and play modern kanteles with no mechanical tuners at all.  It is generally believed that the skill of the folk musician lies in gaining the maximum potential from a strictly diatonic instrument.

            The best folk builders, especially from the Perho River Valley, have been able to use the advantages of the reverse-curve shape to the fullest and still produce instruments specially suited for folk music performance.  Such kanteles appear on the outside very much like typical modern art music kanteles, but there are differences.  They have a brighter timbre, sharper attack and softer decay than art music kanteles.  An additional feature on many of these kanteles is the so‑called "lowered basses."  The three lowest strings are tuned to contrabass dominant, subdominant and tonic pitches, and the three next lowest strings one octave higher.  For example, if the kantele were tuned in C major, the six lowest strings would be tuned (in descending order) c, G, F, C, G1, F1.  The six lowest strings provide a bass octave in three strings, and a contrabass octave in three strings, which are used to produce a bass rhythm in dance accompaniments.  The overall range of these kanteles can be up to almost six octaves, depending on the number of diatonic strings, which is variable.

            The most favored kanteles among folk musicians, especially those from the Perho River Valley, are those built by Leander Laasanen (1892‑1985).  Like the famous kantele builder from Kalajoki, Efraim Kilpinen, Laasanen began his professional career as a ski maker.  Although he built more than four hundred kanteles, he considered it primarily a hobby.  He had contact with many of the best players in the Perho River Valley and became a fine player himself.  The Laasanen family playing tradition lives on with his children and grandchildren, all of whom play kanteles he built.

            Laasanen began by building straight-sided box kanteles, but over the years he experimented greatly with the structure of the kantele and the types of woods used. 


            [In the beginning, I built those straight sided instruments.  All the time I tried to build kanteles which satisfied their users. Improvements always came through experimentation and development, for example I eventually came upon the right kinds of wood] (Laasanen 1975:47).


In the late 1940s, he began building reverse‑curve shaped kanteles based on Paul Salminen's machine kantele.  He experimented with the shape, as evidenced by some existing models which look like round‑ended box kanteles, but with a reverse-curve tuning pin side (Illus. 35). 

            Laasanen perfected and adapted the modern kantele shape specifically for folk music performance.  From 1947 on he numbered these kanteles



Illus. 35.  A round-ended box kantele with a reverse-curved tuning pin side built by Leander Laasanen. (Sketch by Rauno Nieminen, 1983).


which have the same basic size, shape and range as machine kanteles, but no tuning mechanisms.  They are thought of as being among the very best kanteles ever built for playing folk music and are in great demand among folk performers.  For example, the master folk kantele player Viljo Karvonen from Halsua has built at least thirty kanteles himself, which were all fine instruments, but the kantele he prizes the most was built by Laasanen.

            Laasanen's kanteles are designed with the folk musician in mind.  The workmanship is particularly good.  When I asked various folk players and other kantele builders why Laasanen's kanteles are so good, several told me it was because the workmanship was "millin tarkka" [exact to within a millimeter].  His kanteles have a very bright tone, which is perfectly suited for the traditional dance music played in the Perho River Valley.  Laasanen's kanteles also feature the "lowered bass" strings, with a particularly fine bass sound.  As with all modern kanteles, he used strings of graduated thickness, with extra thick strings for the three contra bass strings.

            In recent years, the Kaustinen Instrument Workshop has been able to provide particularly good kanteles for playing folk music.  Their commercially built large kanteles can also be used for playing art music, though the tonal characteristics are more appropriate to folk music.  The kanteles are built without the lowered bass strings, though they can be specially ordered with that feature.  Recently they have produced their own model of machine kantele.  Kaustinen also offers a fully equipped workshop, training and materials for individuals to go and build their own kanteles and quite a few folk performers have done just that.  The professional builders make a variety of instruments ‑‑ jouhikkos (bowed lyres), mandolins, even electric guitars ‑‑ in addition to various types of kanteles.  The greatest number of instruments sold are carved kanteles, particularly five‑string kanteles, which has been the result of a significant revival in carved kantele playing.


                                        Revival of Carved Kantele Building


            The revival in carved kantele building began in the early 1950s, around the time when Finland hosted the Olympics.  During the same era when he was building bodies for the machine kanteles of Paul Salminen, the master craftsman Armas J. Koivisto was asked by the Fazer Music Store in Helsinki to build some small and inexpensive five‑string kanteles so they could be sold to Olympic visitors as souvenirs.  Koivisto began experimenting in making kanteles according to old models which were at that time only found in museums.  He did not want his instruments to be mere souvenirs and tried to make them as fine as possible, thus building the first real carved kanteles in Finland since perhaps the turn of the century.

            Martti Pokela, a popular folk musician, became acquainted with Koivisto's five‑string kanteles through his dealings with the Fazer Music Store and wanted to add the instrument to his repertoire.  He went to see Koivisto to ask him to build custom five‑string kanteles with improvements.  He had the tuning pins, strings and the size changed to improve its sound and ease of playing.  Koivisto also built Pokela some prototypes of seven and nine‑string kanteles.  They met many times trying to develop the carved kantele up to the time of Koivisto's death, when the development work continued with another master kantele builder, Oiva Heikkilä. 

            A significant contributor to the revival movement was Finland's Professor of Folk Music, Erkki Ala‑Könni, who wanted to promote the carved kantele in public schools for teaching the fundamentals of music.  Pokela and Ala‑Könni teamed up to develop what they felt would be standard models of the contemporary carved kantele and commissioned Oiva Heikkilä to build them.  Martti Pokela's model of the five‑string kantele marked the culmination of the developmental work begun with Armas Koivisto.  Ala‑Könni wanted to increase the capabilities somewhat, so he had Heikkilä build a nine‑string "school kantele," with a steel bridge along the tuning pin side of the instrument.  The bridge increased the amplifying power of the instrument, but at the same time left intact the characteristic vibrato of the Finnish kantele.  The increased range made it possible to broaden the repertoire. 

            These instruments were developed over a period of time.  In Pokela's and Ala‑Könni's own personal kantele collections they have prototypes of various lengths.  The correct length, width, sound quality and playing charac-teristics were worked out by trial and error until a "standard" emerged for both the five‑string and nine‑string models.  Pokela also commissioned many other master craftsmen to build him carved kanteles.  Some were custom-built models, with extensive decoration or Pokela's name carved into the sides.  Other carved kanteles which he commissioned served as prototypes for a particular builder's own line of carved kanteles.  Kantele builders were more than happy to make instruments for Martti Pokela, since he had gained national fame through extensive performances in concerts, on television, radio and records.  The revival movement brought with it a great deal of experi-mentation and in some cases even competition among kantele builders for the best type of carved kanteles.  Pokela amassed one of the largest carved kantele collections in Finland.  Most of the collection is housed at the Sibelius Academy division of Folk Music, where it is used by the various folk music groups which Pokela directs.

            During the past twenty years, the growth in the number of carved kantele players has been great, both among children and adults.  As a result, there has been a great increase in the building of carved kanteles.  Literally hundreds of Finns make five‑string kanteles, in wood shop classes, privately for their own use, or on a larger scale to sell to others.  The Kaustinen Instrument Workshop alone prepares around one‑hundred carved kanteles per month.  In 1985, the Folk Music Institute sponsored a five‑string kantele building contest, which had nearly one hundred entries.  All ages of builders were represented, male as well as female, from all parts of the country.  No two of the kanteles were alike!




            The art of kantele building has changed drastically over its history.  Originally kanteles were built by individuals for their own use.  This tradition of folk builders has not ended, since many Finns still build their own kanteles.  In addition to folk builders, there came a tradition of master builders, who made instruments of such high quality that others wanted to buy them.  The kantele became a commercial item, but something which was still built by hand, one at a time.  There are very few professional kantele builders in Finland, in the sense that the builder earns his entire livelihood from building kanteles.  The kantele has never become a factory built instrument.  There are instrument factories, such as those connected with large music stores that build kanteles on a mass‑production basis.  These instruments are widely thought of among kantele players and builders as being inferior and have not really been accepted as a part of the kantele culture.  As one builder put it, "Those people stack one instrument on top of another to the ceilings."  Another said,  "In the factory, a man stands with a calculator figuring out how long it takes for each worker to do a task.  The factory is not geared towards craftsmanship, only towards profit."  The professional kantele builder Erkki Leskelä put it best when he said, "I don't get to punch the clock when the day is done like in a factory.  I have to work on each kantele until it is just right and it pleases the customer and pleases me" (Leskelä 1983).





[1] Salminen was not the first to patent a kantele.  In 1904, Pasi Jääskeläinen patented one of the earliest kantele models designed for use with written music (Pat. No. 2144).  Ferdinand Kangasniemi from Turku patented a chromatic "concert kantele" in 1910 (Pat. No. 4192), which used the same structure as hammer dulcimers and modern Estonian chromatic kannels.  Otto Lampinen, also of Turku, patented a kantele tuning machine in 1918 (Pat. No. 7025).  Since Salminen's time, Jaakko Anselm Noso of Järvenpää patented a machine kantele with the levers near the bottom of the instrument (September 30, 1954, Pat. No. 26839).  This was the first patent application showing a reverse-curve shaped kantele in the patent application drawings.  One of Noso's kanteles was given to Jean Sibelius as a gift (see Hintikka 1982).  Martti Siira of Savonlinna patented a chromatic kantele where the strings are on two levels, similar to the system used in Soviet Karelia (August 22, 1979, Pat. No. 780562).

[2] In a more recent article Huotari described another spindle kantele, which had just two strings per spindle and was thus only half chromatic.  It too had a reverse-curve shaped body (Huotari 1988).

[3] According to Armas Koivisto (1962:4/10), Salminen had the metal parts made by someone in Riihimäki, then finished and assembled the machines at home.

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