4.2.1: The Kantele Traditions of
by Carl Rahkonen © 1989 All Rights Reserved Back to Table of Contents
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FOLK STYLES OF KANTELE PLAYING
The kantele was originally a folk
music instrument and in spite of the great changes which have taken place in
the role of the kantele in the Finnish music culture, it is still a folk music
instrument in many parts of
The old playing practices of
Karelia, with the hands in the together position, did not survive in
Although each folk kantele player has his own style, there are areas of the country where strong similarities among individual players can be found, making up a style area. Finnish scholars recognize three such style areas: The Perho River Valley, Saarijärvi and Haapavesi. In addition to these areas, there are dozens of individual folk kantele players scattered throughout the country.
THE PERHO RIVER VALLEY STYLE
The practice of folk music in the
area has also been stimulated by other events.
From the mid 1950s, a pelimanni ensemble from Kaustinen, the Purpuripelimannit,
led by the master fiddler Konsta Jylhä, made some recordings for Finnish
radio. Their popularity steadily
increased and by the late 1960s were well known all around
The kantele has also been an
important part of the folk music life of the
Kreeta Haapasalo (b. approximately
1813, d. 1893) was the most famous kantele player of the area. She was believed to have learned carved
kantele playing as a child from a neighbor, Juho Vähätalo, and probably from others
(Ala‑Könni 1961, 1986:90; 1963:301).
Later, she played box kanteles and also sang to her own kantele
accompaniment. Haapasalo became widely
Haapasalo performed for the first
had traveled and pictured her "joys and sorrows" (Laitinen 1980b:3). Erkki Ala‑Könni has used these articles to document her concerts between 1851 and 1890 (Ala‑Könni 1963:306; 1986:85‑6).
Haapasalo's enormous success was
largely the result of living during a time of great nationalism. The Kalevala, folk runes and the kantele had
become important symbols of Finnish nationalism and what better way could be
found to promote these symbols than to have a living kantele artist perform. Heikki Laitinen (1980b) has written how
Haapasalo became a Kansallislaulajatar [national female folk singer],
meaning that she also became a symbol of nationalism. She was a peasant who performed in the halls
of the upper classes. Her songs and
music were no longer the ancient rune singing, but western folk songs, which
were much closer to the musical aesthetics of the upper classes. At the same time, she was of the rural,
peasant class in
One unusual aspect was that
Haapasalo had a successful concert career in spite of being a woman and a
peasant. It was very unusual at the time
for women to travel, especially the great distances necessary for concert
life. Also, between her concert tours,
she gave birth to eleven children. Her
daughter, Kreeta‑Sofia, became a fine kantele player and accompanied her
mother on later tours.
Haapasalo is credited with composing many pieces during her career, both texts and melodies. Her most famous piece, "My Beautiful Kantele", is in the style of a hymn and is still widely performed. The folk music collector, Ilmari Krohn, studied Haapasalo in her later years and transcribed some of her compositions. She died in Jyväskylä in 1893. It is perhaps a good indication of the quality of her performance that she remained a popular and sought-after performer for forty years.
Kreeta Haapasalo's niece, Priita
Liisa Purola (1820‑1893), was a well‑known kantele player in
Halsua. She also made concert tours,
including one to
Sven Perander (1825‑1902),
also known by the surnames of Huntus or Jarvilä, was said to have played so
much that he grew calluses on his fingers.
He had a particularly good technique, and like Kreeta Haapasalo was
considered a professional who traveled around giving concerts. He lived for a time in
Liisa [Virkkala] Juoperi (1819‑1916)
was thought to be a more artful and talented player than Kreeta Haapasalo and
almost as good a singer. She also made
concert tours. Her son, Juho Siltala
(1852‑1926), became a fine kantele player who, around the turn of the
century, won a kantele playing competition in
Eino Tulikari's Era
In the first decades of this
century, the kantele was a featured instrument at celebrations and evening
programs. The kantele was also used to accompany violins at dances and
occasionally to accompany solo singing.
In the 1910s, the Youth Leagues in
Oskar Tofferi (1891‑1967) was
a well known player who traveled the valley playing for many dances and
weddings. He won some local
competitions. In 1921, there was a
general competition in association with a song festival arranged by A. O. Väisänen. There were a total of sixty performers; the
twelve finalists performed in the
Eino Tulikari (1905‑1977) was the youngest of the Tofferi brothers. (He changed his name from Tofferi to Tulikari in 1935.) Eino began playing kantele as a boy and was largely self‑taught using the numerous examples around him. He played at many celebrations, evening dances and competitions. He also learned to play the violin and would sometimes play kantele as solo or accompaniment, or sometimes play violin while being accompanied by someone else playing the kantele, frequently his cousin Matti Karvonen.
In 1925, Tulikari went to
By the 1935 Centennial Celebration
of the Kalevala, Tulikari's brothers had left for
Tulikari was asked to judge some of
the Youth Society Folk Music Competitions in the 1940s and from this came the
idea to gather folk musicians together for a special course to help develop
their performance skills. In 1949 such a
course was arranged, with Tulikari as the teacher for both kantele and
violin. It was the first course of its
kind, a precursor to the folk music courses offered today all over
Perhaps Tulikari's last private kantele student was an American, Daryl Gibb, who was living in Jyväskylä in the late 1960s as an exchange scholar. One day, Gibb happened to see a kantele in a local music shop. He offered to buy it, if the store owner could suggest a teacher. The owner mentioned that the master kantele player, Eino Tulikari, lived there in Jyväskylä. At first he was reluctant to take Gibb as a student, since he generally only taught children and his playing was a folk style and not the art style generally taught. Gibb persisted and promised to practice faithfully, so Tulikari agreed to teach him (Gibb 1986).
According to Gibb, Tulikari
preserved most of the traditional aspects of the
Tulikari did not just continue the style he had learned as a boy; he actively tried to develop it by using more complex bass accompaniments and adding virtuoso ornaments based on the violin playing of the area. He used and taught finger damping, similar to that used by art style players, but did not use the damping board, although his kantele was equipped with one. He taught that not every pitch was damped, only those which would muddy the sound. The pitches which were part of the harmony at any given point were allowed to ring, which he believed gave life to the playing. He played a machine kantele which had levers to change the tuning of three different pitches up or down a half step in all octaves. His kantele was thicker than most played in the Perho River Valley because it had a double bottom. It was diatonic across the full five octaves and did not have the bass and contrabass short octaves used by other players (ibid.). Tulikari was noted as one of the finest players of the kantele in the Perho River Valley style. Many of the Valley's best kantele players still use Tulikari's playing as a measure of high technical achievement.
Elements of the Current Perho River Valley Style
Kanteles in the Perho River Valley are played with the shortest string closest to the player, the same way the old carved kanteles were played. The hands are placed in the apart position, with one hand playing melody and the other accompaniment. Usually the right hand plays melody and the left accompaniment, but there are some left‑handed players who reverse this order. The kanteles are all right handed instruments. The older box kanteles have been replaced by modern kanteles, but usually without tuning mechanisms.
Some players own several kanteles, which may be tuned to different keys, so when the key changes between pieces they can quickly switch to a kantele tuned to the proper key. Minor tuning of kanteles is usually done by raising the fifth scale degree a half step, going to the relative minor (for example, D major will be changed to B minor by adding an A sharp). Some players have taken to lowering the third and sixth scale degrees to produce the parallel minor (D major going to D minor by adding an F natural and B flat) (Tulikari 1976:51-52). The kanteles in the Perho River Valley are generally tuned with a bass and a contrabass short octave, covering the lowest six strings.
The playing position of the hands is with the fingers generally perpendicular to the strings. The kantele is played with the hard tips of the fingers, the same part of the finger used in playing the violin, so the sound produced is quite strong and appropriate for dance accompaniment. Use of the fingernails is discouraged. The players do not "pull" or "pluck" the strings with the right hand, they merely "stroke" them by pressing down and letting them quickly release. These strokes are made towards the player and the players say they never make a backstroke with the nail. But sometimes, though very rarely, they do make a backstroke with the nail, perhaps to add variety to the timbre. Scale runs in the music are always ascending in pitch (because of the kantele's position) and players say that the finger slides or glides across the strings. The left hand occasionally plucks, with the fingers pulling and coming up off the strings.
The wrist of the right (melody) hand is placed on the board covering the hitch pins. On modern kanteles this is the damping board. Although most of the kanteles currently used in the Perho River Valley have a completely developed damping board, including the padded, felt strip underneath, the board's normal function is stopped by a screw. The wrist of the left (accompanying) hand is placed across the tuning pins and tuning pin protecting board.
The right hand plays the melody with the fore finger and usually the middle finger adds an accompanying pitch a third lower. Sometimes the middle finger will carry the melody, in which case the fore finger adds a softer accompanying pitch a third higher. In fast pieces, the thumb of the right hand is brought down against the strings, but only to measure where the fore and middle fingers are going to play. The left hand plays an ostinato or chordal accompaniment and bass notes, which can be with three or four fingers, usually thumb, fore and middle fingers, or with the ring finger added.
The bass and accompaniment are not mechanical. They can be varied at will, adding bass and contrabass notes as the player feels appropriate, which produces a flexible bass rhythm. The accompaniment generally uses only the tonic, dominant and subdominant chords in root position, but this has been expanded with experimentation. For example, Eino Tulikari used inversions, occasionally added the seventh, and experimented with other chords.
In slow pieces, which are usually folk songs or hymns, the thumb and ring finger of the right hand may be added to produce an arpeggio accompaniment. The melody is usually played in octaves with the right thumb and fore finger. These pieces may be performed in a much freer rhythm than dance pieces and may have some dynamic contrasts.
There is no overall damping done in this style of playing. Although found on most kanteles, the damping board is not used and the strings are allowed to decay by themselves. Due to several factors, there is less muddiness than one would expect. Plucking with the hard part of the fingertips produces a much sharper and louder attack. The players believe that playing from the short side also adds to a bright and vibrant attack, well suited for dance music. The kanteles played in the Perho River Valley are typically lighter, thinner and have a brighter timbre and softer decay. Also, it may be true that the older players do use finger damping, but instinctively, especially in descending figurations where the finger is brought down against the string just played. Those players who have taught this style, such as Eino Tulikari and Jaakko Laasanen, have had to codify and explain it in detail and they teach finger damping as an element of the style. In certain pieces the strings are completely dampened with the hands, for example to decorate a polka's or mazurka's rhythm.
The repertoire of the Perho River Valley kantele players may be divided into two large categories: dance pieces and song pieces. The dance pieces are all characterized by a fast or driving rhythm and they follow closely dances played by the fiddle players of the valley. Many of the dance pieces played on the kantele are adapted fiddle pieces. The fiddle also brought a greater use of technique, as kantele players began using fiddle ornaments in their playing. It should be noted that many of the best kantele players were also fine fiddlers. A given sequence of dances are played as a part of the "Crown Wedding" festivities, which are an important part of the kantele players' repertoire in the valley. The song pieces are characterized by a slow tempo and are either folk songs or spiritual songs (hymns). Many of the better kantele players have composed pieces for the kantele, which have also come into the traditional repertoire of the valley.
The playing contexts and ensembles have changed over the years. The kantele was originally a personal instrument for home use, going all the way back to the days of the carved kantele. Only later did it become a public instrument used in concerts, celebrations, competitions and dances. The kantele was used to accompany violins, but it was not the most ideal instrument because it had to be retuned between pieces every time there was a change in key, and it was impossible to change keys during a piece. Kanteles were also played together in ensembles at concerts and festivals. These ensembles had a variable number of players, but two or three kanteles was typical. Usually, at least one player would play only the accompaniment.
As with other folk traditions, there is a great deal of variation among individuals in specific aspects of their playing styles. This variation has been preserved better among kantele players than among fiddle players of the area, because fiddle players have come to rely more on written music (Saha 1985). This variation takes place in the patterns used for accompaniment and in ornamentation which is added to the melody. Also, each individual may have several accompanying patterns which are used with different pieces. A comparison of these patterns may be seen in the transcriptions made by Laitinen (1975) and Saha (1985).
Illus. 39. Kantele accompaniment patterns used by four different players from the Perho River Valley, from Saha 1985:2.
Viljo Karvonen (b. 1906) is considered one of the finest living kantele players of the Perho River Valley style. He was a significant informant in my own fieldwork in 1983 and had also been studied in detail by Heikki Laitinen (1975) and Hannu Saha (1985). Karvonen was born in Halsua, where he still lives today. He was a bus driver who drove a route between Halsua and Kokkola for nearly forty years until his retirement. He described the beginning of his kantele playing as follows:
[My father played kantele with the neighbor and I became interested in the instrument because it had such a beautiful sound, but it was difficult to get one into my hands. I was then about ten years old. Dad put the kantele up on the wall so high that a young boy couldn't get it down from there. But boys always find a way and I got the kantele from the wall and started playing. It was difficult because Dad didn't want to teach me. So, I took [examples] from Dad's playing half in secret. Then I was able to begin a little ... Also, I received some instruction from Eino Tulikari on the side] (Karvonen 1983).
Karvonen began playing violin around the age of sixteen and was in a violin ensemble directed by the cantor in Halsua, where he learned to read music. He was in the ensemble only a year and after that never used written music again, forgetting what he had learned. Later, he hurt his fingers, so he could not play violin easily any more and his main instrument became the kantele. In addition to his father and Eino Tulikari, undoubtedly his cousin Matti Karvonen also had an influence on his playing style and repertoire (Laitinen 1975:18).
As with several other current folk kantele players I interviewed, Karvonen stopped playing for a time and then later began again.
[I was around the age of fourteen when I built my first kantele. The outside wasn't such tidy work, but at any rate it still played. Then I could use it freely because it was my own instrument. I played on it until I was twenty years old, when the time came that I left my playing alone because I started [driving] cars. We bought a delivery van and I liked to drive it, [so] I let my playing go for a time...
Only after the war did my playing begin to be restored. There were these local playing competitions and then came the Youth League competitions in Helsinki. I won a kantele playing competition [in 1955] and this gave new support to my playing. I developed it so that I received the Master Folk Musician's title in kantele playing at the  Kaustinen Festival ... and this way my playing has developed] (Karvonen 1983).
Illus. 40. Viljo Karvonen at his home in Halsua, 1983.
Karvonen described the general aspects of his playing style by comparing them with the art style of playing, noting that he plays with the shortest strings closest and in the art style they play with the other way around, because they read from music. He also noted that in his style of playing the damping board is not used.
With his right hand, Karvonen plays the melody and a third, either above or below the melody. Usually he plays the melody with his forefinger and adds a third below with his middle finger, but if he plays the melody with his middle finger, he will add the third above, but not quite as loudly. When playing slow pieces such as hymns, he will use his right thumb to double the melody an octave higher.
Karvonen uses his left thumb, fore- and middle fingers for accompaniment and sometimes uses his left ring finger to play a contrabass note. He mentioned that he does not always play the bass figures exactly the same way, which gives more color to the accompaniment. He also remarked how small rhythmic changes in the flow of the melody and accompaniment bring "life" to his playing.
Karvonen has performed with many of the other folk musicians of the area. Long ago, he accompanied fiddle players at dances.
[I have played at dances, accompanying violins with the kantele and when there were as many as four violins playing with kantele accompaniment. Listen, I had to change the tunings between various pieces, since they weren't all in the same key. I was there changing tunings in the middle of everything, so it would fit with certain pieces. It was very difficult and also for my fingers. The shortest dance was at least an hour and I was playing kantele the whole time ... [Later] there were no dances at all. The kantele ensemble played at [social] functions, celebrations and then at festivals...] (Karvonen 1983).
In the 1960s, Karvonen was a member of a group made up of twelve kantele players. In more recent years, he has played in a kantele trio with his friends Onni Kauppinen and Niilo Meriläinen. On occasion, he has also accompanied the master fiddler Otto Hottokainen.
Because it was necessary when playing in groups, Karvonen learned to tune his kantele quickly and accurately. He tunes the tonic, dominant and subdominant strings in octaves, then the rest of the strings by playing scales. He checks the tuning by playing triads. His kanteles generally have six lowered bass strings, tuned to the tonic, dominant and subdominant in descending order of pitch. His favorite kantele, one made by the master builder Leander Laasanen, was tuned close to D major in my recordings. The tuning of Viljo Karvonen's kantele has been studied in depth by Ilkka Kolehmainen (1983).
Jaakko and Tytti-Leena Laasanen
The Perho River Valley style is not confined just to the Valley. It may also be found to some extent in areas north and south of the Valley and also in a very lively kantele movement in and around the city of Iisalmi in the East‑Central Finnish province of Savo. Jaakko Laasanen (b. 1930) is the son of Leander Laasanen, the famous kantele builder from Veteli. Jaakko moved to Iisalmi to direct the organized youth activities sponsored by the town. His influence had been great in teaching the Perho River Valley style. He organized a kantele group during the seventies called Jaakon Kanteletytöt [Jaakko's Kantele Girls] and began a "Traditional Style Kantele Camp." At the 1983 camp I met and interviewed Jaakko and his daughter Tytti‑Leena as they taught approximately twenty students.
Jaakko learned his playing from his father, who was the first in their family to begin playing the kantele. A neighbor, who was a shoe maker and kantele player, helped spark his father's interest, which continued to be sustained by his work as a kantele builder. All seven of Leander Laasanen's children learned to play the kantele.
As with all other Perho River Valley players, Jaakko learned to play the kantele with the short string closest. He explained that this is because it is better for playing fast pieces. The hand positions and use of the fingers is basically the same as other players. Jaakko plays and teaches the use of finger damping in the same way as Eino Tulikari and art style players, but does not use the damping board. He plays ascending scale runs with the right forefinger and trails his middle finger one string behind to dampen only those pitches which would muddy the sound. He plays descending figurations by "walking" the fore- and middle fingers, damping the unwanted pitches by bringing the finger down against the previously played string.
Jaakko mentioned that perhaps the main difference in his playing is the use of his left ring finger always to add contrabass notes to the accompaniment. Rather than being basically a three finger accompaniment with the occasional use of the fourth finger for bass notes, as Viljo Karvonen plays, Jaakko says he plays a four finger accompaniment, producing a constant bass rhythm. He says the four finger accompaniment was prevalent in Veteli, where his father learned it and taught to his children. He also mentioned that it was a significant part of Eino Tulikari's playing.
Jaakko's daughter, Tytti‑Leena Laasanen (b. 1965), is perhaps the best young player of the Perho River Valley style. She learned kantele playing from her father and grandfather at a very young age and soon began winning numerous kantele playing competitions in the traditional playing category of her age group. Today, she is acknowledged as a true virtuoso player. Her playing is particularly fast and nimble, even when adding difficult ornaments. The sound is exceptionally clear, because of her expert use of finger damping. Her timbre is noticeably lighter and less harsh than that of the older Perho River Valley players, which she attributes to not having as much overall strength in her fingers. She holds the fingers of her left hand perpendicular to the strings, as do the older players, but her right hand is noticeably more parallel to the strings. When I asked her about this, she said that she was unaware of it. She believes her playing skill has come from a strong desire to develop a good technique and persistent practicing.
She estimated (in 1983) that she had composed perhaps thirty pieces in the Perho River Valley style. Most of these pieces are strictly for her own use, but she has transcribed a few and taught them to her students. Some older players have likewise shown an interest in her compositions. She has also made numerous arrangements, from popular music or any other music which she likes and which will fit the instrument.
Tytti‑Leena has studied piano since the age of six and reads music well. In 1985, she began studying at the Sibelius Academy and hopes to become a music teacher. She has already been teaching kantele students for several years and recently her students have begun winning kantele competitions in the traditional style category. In the summer of 1985, she premiered a kantele concerto written by the Hungarian composer Andras Fekete. In spite of all these activities and like many other folk players, Tytti‑Leena keeps her kantele playing separate from her other musical activities. She plays a kantele which was made by her grandfather and has learned to play only from instructions from her family and by practicing. She is a fine example of the folk kantele player's concept of "gaining the maximum potential from a purely diatonic instrument." At the same time, she is a part of the modern world and has broadened the limits of the tradition to suit her needs. She and her students represent one future direction of the Perho River Valley style.
Illus. 41. Tytti-Leena Laasanen, teaching the Perho River Valley Style at Kaustinen, 1985.
 According to Heikki Laitinen (1986), players mention many reasons for playing with the shortest strings closest, but one important reason is that the hands can lie relaxed on the kantele and the playing position is therefore comfortable.
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