Chapter 4.1:  The Kantele Traditions of Finland 

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

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                                 IV. KANTELE PLAYING TRADITIONS


            There are as many different styles of kantele playing in Finland as there are types of kanteles.  The kantele is used in folk music, art music and popular music, in a wide variety of styles appropriate to these contexts.  Various groups and various geographic areas of Finland maintain different playing traditions which exist simultaneously in the music culture.  On a basic level, all of the various playing styles can be divided into two categories: those appropriate to smaller kanteles carved from a single piece of wood and those appropriate to larger kanteles assembled from separate pieces of wood.


                                        CARVED KANTELE PLAYING


            Very little is known about the oldest playing styles of the carved kantele.  Even though the carved kantele was a normal part of everyday life for Karelian rune singers, for some reason the early collectors of folk runes did not write about kantele playing in detail.  Most of what we know about old styles of carved kantele playing has come from research done in the early decades of this century by A. O. Väisänen.  Detailed descriptions of his work may be found in Asplund 1976, 1981, 1983b:63‑66; and Laitinen 1980a.

            A. O. Väisänen was interested in both music and folk traditions from an early age.  He is reported to have made his earliest collections around his home town of Savonranta while still a school boy.  Shortly after graduating from compulsory school, he came to Helsinki and studied violin at the Helsinki Philharmonic Society Orchestra School and began playing profes-sionally with the new Helsinki City Orchestra as a violist.  He continued to be interested in folk traditions and for each summer between 1912 and 1917, he received stipends to conduct field work.  During this period he collected material from among the Karelians, Estonians, Vepsians, Ingrians and Mordvinians.  He also studied the music transcription collections at the Finnish Literature Society (Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura or SKS) which resulted in the publication of Suomen kansan sävelmien keräys [The Collection of Finnish Folk Tunes] (1917a).

            In studying the existing music transcriptions, Väisänen noticed that surprisingly few kantele tunes had been collected, only thirty‑nine tunes out of 13,000 in the SKS collections and even fewer jouhikko tunes.  In the summer of 1916, with the aid of a stipend from the SKS, he set out to the Karelian towns of Impilahti, Suistamo, Korpiselkä and Kitee with the express purpose of collecting tunes in these genres.  He had fairly good results, collecting a total of 250 tunes, of which eighty‑four were kantele tunes from fourteen informants.  The next summer (1917) he returned again to the towns of Suistamo and Korpiselkä, this time on a Kalevala Society stipend and again had good results.

            Väisänen took extensive field notes and made transcriptions in the field.  He also made cylinder recordings of most of the pieces, but the volume of the kanteles was generally too weak to make good recordings on wax cylinders.  Also, in their natural playing positions, it was difficult to get the instruments close enough to the horn.  Still, he was able to hear enough from the recordings to complete and check the transcriptions which, at the time he did his work, were considered the primary source of information.  The original cylinders are in the SKS sound archives.

            Väisänen also credited his success in collecting kantele tunes at such a late date to the fact that he brought along a carved kantele and extra strings.  He knew that most of the old players had long since stopped playing and had sold their instruments to various museums around Finland.  Some of the players had switched to newer "store bought" models of kanteles.  He gambled that they still knew music which was played on carved kanteles and how it was played.  Väisänen was able to bring forth a great deal of information from passive tradition bearers.

            Väisänen's field trips, together with other information he collected from kantele performers at song festivals and from his thorough archival research, culminated in the publication of Kantele‑ ja jouhikkosävelmiä [Kantele and Jouhikko Melodies] (1928a), which is the definitive work on the older styles of kantele playing.  It contains all of the transcriptions of kantele pieces from other sources known to Väisänen at the time, as well as his own transcriptions.  There were only some fifty pieces previously collected from fourteen informants.  Väisänen collected 182 pieces from thirty‑three informants.  He describes the playing style and contextual information for each of his own informants and any information available on the previous informants.  The book concentrates on older styles of playing, but includes some examples of newer styles.  Several informants were able to perform in both older and the newer styles.

            According to Väisänen's descriptions, carved kanteles were always played from a sitting position.  Usually the kantele was placed on top of a table, but if that was inconvenient it was played in the lap.  It was generally in a horizontal position, meaning that the sound board of the instrument was horizontal to the ground.  This was different than most other Baltic psalteries, which were played more vertically with the long side of the instrument in the lap and the short side against the stomach or chest.  Väisänen's book and some of his other articles include pictures showing the kantele being played in the horizontal position, but some of the pictures show the players holding the kantele in the vertical position.  Väisänen explains that in the photograph of Miinan Domi (1928a:XXVII) he held the kantele in the vertical position because it was unusually large and therefore cumbersome to play in the horizontal position (ibid:XXXII).  Tsertin Miikkula played the kantele in a horizontal position on a table while indoors, but when outdoors for the photograph (ibid:XXX), he placed the kantele in the vertical position (ibid:XLVI) perhaps so it could be seen better.

            In all cases, whether or not the kantele was held vertically or horizontally, the shortest side of the instrument, in other words the shortest string, was always held closest to the player.  Virtually all Finnish carved kanteles were right‑handed instruments, which means that when the shortest string was held closest to the player, the end of the instrument with the ponsi was on the player's right.

            The way the hands and fingers were placed on the instrument varied almost with each player.  Generally the right wrist or palm would be placed across the ponsi, while the left wrist or palm was placed across the side of the instrument with the tuning pegs, with the left palm or fingers curved over the tops of the tuning pegs. 

            A general principle in carved kantele playing was that a given string was always played by the same finger.  On five string kanteles each string had its own finger, which would pluck only that string.  Another general principle was that the finger arrangement was crossed, alternating at some point from one hand to the other.  The player alternated back and forth from the fingers of one hand to the fingers of the other while playing.  This basic finger arrangement has been called the together position by Väisänen and subsequent Finnish scholars  (Väisänen 1928a:X; Laitinen 1980a:49; Leisiö 1978:365; Asplund 1983b:17‑8).

            The general principles of carved kantele playing were preserved even when the number of strings increased.  The additional strings were taken care of by fingers in the vicinity.  For example, the right thumb would pluck additional upper strings, while additional bottom strings were plucked by the right middle or ring fingers.  The finger patterns used in playing carved kanteles with more than five strings were a logical extension of the patterns used in five‑string playing.  Each finger would play a given string or set of strings as required.  The central range of the instrument, where most of the playing activity took place, still preserved the general together position principle, where the playing alternated back and forth between the hands.

            Väisänen (1928a:X,LXV) shows four different finger arrangements.  The first three have in common in that the right thumb plucks the shortest string and left forefinger the next shortest; the fourth shows that the left thumb was used for the shortest string and the right thumb for the next one.  The basic finger arrangements shown by Väisänen have been reproduced in subsequent carved kantele playing method books.  Ala‑Könni and Pokela (1971) mention just the first arrangement, while Laitinen and Saha (1982) mention the first three (Illus. 36).

            The general principles and finger arrangements were not hard and fast rules.  They give a general description of how carved kanteles were played, but not all of the players of Väisänen's time adhered strictly to the rules.  For example, Antti Rantonen used his right forefinger to play both the highest and the lowest pitched string.  This violates the one finger to a string principle, but still keeps the together position principle generally intact.  Väisänen tells that Lukkani Huotari in Vienna Karelia played the top, middle and bottom strings with his right forefinger, while still alternating to his left fore and middle fingers for the other two strings.  Ontreini Jyrki from the same area played in a mirror image to Huotari's playing, with the left forefinger playing top, middle and bottom strings.  Pekka Komulainen from East Ostrobothnia had an unusual position, playing the top string with his right thumb and the remaining four strings with left thumb, fore, middle and ring fingers. 


Soittaja = "player" ; 1 = thumb ; 2 = forefinger ;

            3 = middle finger ; 4 = ring finger.


Illus. 36.  Top: Four finger positions for playing the carved kantele shown by Väisänen 1928:X.  Bottom: Three finger positions reproduced in Laitinen-Saha (1982, 1988):4.


            Väisänen believed that the playing of larger carved kanteles developed from five‑string kantele playing.  One clue here is the fact that even though most of Väisänen's informants played larger kanteles, they frequently did not use all the strings in their playing.  For example, Fedja Happo played a twelve string kantele, but only used five strings at a time and the same finger position as on a five-string kantele.  This finger position, however, could be used on any five adjacent strings and thus could be moved around the instrument.  Although the intervals would vary, Happo would still insist that it was the same piece.

            Another clue is provided by the way the players would tune their instruments.  The younger players would tune the strings in sequence, to a major or minor scale, but the older players would tune using perfect intervals: the fourth, fifth and octave.  On a five string kantele, the outer strings (#1 and #5) were tuned first to a fifth, then each of the next inner strings (#2 and #4) were tuned to their opposite outer strings in fourths.  The result sounded basically like the first five notes of a diatonic scale.  The middle string (#3), which held the third scale degree and determined major or minor in western music, was quite variable.  It could be tuned either major or minor, or sometimes it was even tuned somewhere between, being a "neutral" third.  The same basic tuning method was used on larger carved kanteles, except that the octave was also used, and the fourth, sixth and seventh scale degrees were variable.  Heikki Laitinen, a scholar and current carved kantele player who completed a detailed study of Väisänen's transcriptions has said:


            [Although we can easily understand in our own minds the old kantele players' scales by comparing them with major and minor, it is important to remember that major and minor were never in these players' consciousness and it had not yet come even up to the beginning of this century.  For this reason, as far as we know, the tuning of the scale degrees which produce major and minor (3rd, 6th and 7th degrees) was something which did not matter to the old players.  Even though the pitches of these scale degrees moved, which happened quite often, in the players minds' the character of the music did not change] (Laitinen 1980a:46).


            Väisänen transposed the actual pitch levels of his transcriptions to make them comparable and so that they would fit well on the G staff, so the majority of the pieces are written with g' as the pitch center.  He mentions that the actual pitch center was usually closest to d' (1928:LX).

            Improvisation was another significant aspect of the carved kantele playing.  It was not enough simply to pluck out a melody on the instrument.  A good player had to "blend in" additional sounds well.  It could almost be said that at no time was a single string played alone, there had to always be some other string played along with it.  Rather than a simple melodic style, carved kantele playing featured a complex interweaving of sounds.  According to Heikki Laitinen, the old carved kantele players probably did not think in terms of melody and accompaniment.  Playing in the together position automatically produced a type of music where "melody" and "accompaniment" blended into such a whole that their separation would be almost impossible (1986).  The challenge in the past, and still today, was to get the most out of a limited instrument.  Each time a piece was performed, it was a little different.  This variability added variety and interest to the playing.  Carved kantele playing was an act of creating something new each time out of something familiar.

            Two additional playing styles were mentioned by Väisänen.  The first employs the so‑called covering technique and was seen in Antti Rantonen's playing.  Sometimes Rantonen would play accompaniment on a five string kantele by covering two or more strings with the fingers of his left hand, while strumming the instrument with his right forefinger or occasionally a plectrum.  The strings left uncovered would ring together in a chord.  Between the strums, Rantonen could also pluck strings with the fingers of his left hand.

            The second style of playing Väisänen saw as a new style, encroaching on the older style.  The new style of playing used the apart position, where the right hand plays melodies and the left hand plays bass and accompani-ment.  The hands were kept apart because each hand had a separate role, in a different range of the instrument.  This style of playing is almost impossible to use on a five string kantele, but is quite possible if the number of strings is increased to the point of having a sufficient range for descant and bass.  Some carved kanteles had a great enough range, but the apart position did not become a significant aspect of kantele playing until the advent of the box kantele.  At the time of Väisänen's research, the box kantele was already well established in Ostrobothnia.  Undoubtedly the box kantele with its apart position playing style influenced to some degree those players still playing carved kanteles.  Some of Väisänen's informants could play in either the together position or the apart position.

            The apart position arose as a result of western folk music influence.  The new style of music, which had a separate melody and accompaniment, came to Finland sometime during the eighteenth century.  This new music from Western Europe also brought with it new musical instruments, the most important being the violin and perhaps the next most important the accordion.  The music played on these new instruments was also adopted for use on the kantele.  Folk styles of playing using the apart position gradually took hold and replaced the previous carved kantele playing style.

            Väisänen arranged his collection of kantele melodies into improvisations, rune melodies, songs, and dances. He further broke down these categories by the meter in which the pieces were performed and whether they are in the together or apart positions.  The improvised pieces were of two varieties: those pieces used to tune the instrument, or to check the tuning, and those which were imitations of church bells.  The rune melodies are not those to which Kalevala rune singing was performed; they are merely those which Väisänen felt were related to Kalevala rune melodies. The song and dance sections contain a large number of Russian pieces.  This is understandable considering the area in which Väisänen was collecting and considering the Russian surnames of many of Väisänen's informants.  Particularly common among the dances is the ripatska (also called ribatska, rissakka, tripatska and brisahka), a fast dance in double time, and the maanitus a dance closely related to the ripatska.  Väisänen's collection also contains more typically Western European dances, such as polkas, waltzes, mazurkas and polskas (a Polish dance in three beats, quite common around the Baltic).  The largest portion of the collection are dances, so it may be assumed that at the time Väisänen did his fieldwork, the carved kantele was primarily a dance instrument.

            In the early decades of this century, carved kantele playing came very near extinction in Finland, but it never died out completely.  There has always been someone in Finland who played carved kanteles, such as Antti Rantonen and his niece Ilona Porma from Haapavesi.  Nevertheless, carved kantele playing became a rare phenomenon, in part because the instrument lacked the resources for playing art music.  As the music culture changed, so did the structure and use of the kantele. 

            In recent years, however, the carved kantele has had a very strong revival in Finland.  Today there are literally hundreds of five‑string kantele players and the number of players is increasing all the time.  How has such a drastic turn about taken place?  One person who has had a significant impact on this revival is Martti Pokela. 


                               Martti Pokela's Five-String Kantele Playing [1]


            Martti Pokela was born January 23, 1924, not far from Haapavesi, where kantele building and playing was a thriving tradition.  He was born into a musical family, which was active in the musical life of the community.  Martti's father built a twenty‑nine string, left‑handed kantele, which became Martti's first kantele.  He learned to play it at quite a young age, remembering his first playing experience at perhaps the age of six or seven.  He learned from his father and later from Anni Kääriäinen, his father's cousin.  Martti had an uncle who played fiddle, so he also learned to play violin and read music. 

            Martti graduated from compulsory school at the height of the Second World War and served in the Finnish army.  After the War he decided to study agronomy at Helsinki University, moving to Helsinki in 1945, and becoming very involved in the musical life of the university fraternities.  At the time, Martti was living with his cousin, Jorma Tolonen, a guitar player who accompanied singers.  Martti also began playing the guitar and, with his cousin and a third guitar player, Aapeli Vuoristo, formed a singing group called Hilpeat trubaduurit [The Merry Troubadours].  They performed almost exclusively at fraternity activities.

            During the university years, Martti also met his wife‑to‑be, Marjatta Nikula.  She sang songs similar to those of Martti and had even composed some songs.  They were married in 1948, soon after she had graduated from the Athenium Art College.  In 1949 the Hilpeat trubaduurit got a chance to audition for Finnish radio, but for some reason had to cancel.  In their place went Martti and Marjatta Pokela, each playing guitars and singing.  That first radio performance was in October or November of 1949.  After that, they were invited back to do a Christmas program and soon they became a regular feature on Finnish radio called "Folksongs and Folk Ballads performed by Marjatta and Martti Pokela, playing Guitars."  They became quite successful and well‑known performers in Finland, in 1952 receiving the radio's most popular performers' award.  They began touring widely giving evening concerts, in which they wore black formal wear.  In spite of their popular success, they were criticized because they accompanied Finnish folk songs with guitars.

            In the early 1950s, Martti Pokela became acquainted with the five‑string kanteles made by Armas J. Koivisto for Fazer Music Store in Heksinki.  This type of kantele fascinated Martti, particularly because as a boy in Haapavesi he had seen the same type of kantele played by Antti Rantonen.  Martti wanted to see what kind of possibilities the instrument had, so he began to experiment and teach himself to play.  He used those things he could remember from Rantonen's playing and then tried to develop the style further.  In a relatively short period of time, he became a master five‑string kantele player.  He developed a virtuoso playing technique by adopting a free fingering which would allow the playing of very rapid and complex passages.  He also developed the use of harmonics, by pressing the node of the string with the inside of his thumb, plucking with his forefinger and quickly lifting the thumb.  He made his first radio programs with the five‑string kantele late in 1952 or early in 1953.

            The five‑string kantele also proved to be a fine instrument for accompaniment.  There began to be a gradual change in the Marjatta‑Martti duo from guitars to kanteles, and from formal wear to folk costumes.  A significant turning point came in 1954, when Marjatta and Martti went to Belgium to play in a Finnish Festival.  At that time the five‑string kantele became an important part of their performances.  As Martti said to me:


            [In 1954 we took a trip to Belgium ... and we took the five‑string kantele along.  We arranged a program where Marjatta accompanied and I played solos and we sang to the accompaniment of a five-string kantele.  I took along the kantele because a critic chided me since I sang Finnish folk songs with guitar accompaniment.  It was a pretty radical fuss at that time.  So I took along the most traditional of Finnish instruments.  I also took along the large kantele, which is a real tradition for me since I have played it from the time my father made one for me ... We also had violin, accordion, guitars and other instruments along.  Of course, the kantele was probably the most unusual and interesting of these instru-ments.  Those songs we could not do with kantele accompani-ment, we did with guitar accompaniment]  (Pokela 1983b).


            Martti believes that people were not used to hearing this type of music from the concert stage.  It was truly a unique thing at the time and perhaps people were a little curious.  The Pokelas continued to be popular, but now as kantele players clad in folk costumes.  In the early sixties, the Pokelas added their daughter Eeva‑Leena to the family group.  They continued to tour Finland and the rest of Europe and also performed on radio and television up to the early seventies when, according to Martti, they tired of the performing life.  The group recorded several records during the sixties.[2]  Eeva‑Leena became a very accomplished kantele player and musician.  Today she is a lecturer in music theory and composition at the Sibelius Academy.

            Although it came at a late stage in his development as a performer, Martti Pokela's five‑string kantele playing still had its roots in Haapavesi, going back to Antti Rantonen.  As Martti explained in an interview with me:


            [...I had heard [Antti Rantonen] play five‑string kantele from the time I was very young. ... his five‑string playing interested me the most since I heard so much of the large kantele at home and with relatives.  This five‑string kantele [playing] stayed with me as a mental picture.  It was a kind of learning; symbolic, but without the instrument.  I always thought about playing it and the first time I played it was when I got my own [five‑string] kantele.  I never played Uncle Antti's kantele.  But when Antti was already very ill, half a year before he died, he was in Oulainen and I went to visit him.  I had already started playing in Helsinki, so I asked if he would still play for me ... and he took his old kantele and played ...  He went through his repertoire.  I listened very carefully and memorized certain things, but I didn't play his kantele and also my own wasn't along.  But one time he did hear my playing and was surprised because I played harmonics and so on.  I went through his traditional playing in my mind and developed it somewhat from there.  I had a very good relationship with Antti and he was happy that I continued playing [the five‑string kantele]] (Pokela 1983b).


            It can be said then that Martti was a passive tradition bearer of the Haapavesi five‑string kantele playing style, who did not become an active player until it was expedient.  He was not content playing in the old style; he had to develop it further to suit his own needs and gain the maximum potential from the instrument. 


            [...I experimented and played Uncle Antti's pieces in the traditional style at first. `Brush, Sock in the Shoe,' `the Bear Feast Polka' and those, I went completely through them in the traditional style.  Anyway, I thought that certainly I have to get more shadings [gradations or subtleties].  Then those harmonics and [other] techniques just came, where I use more of the right hand] ...


            [It could perhaps seem that these harmonics and so‑ forth are taken a little bit too far, but I say that certainly you have to get as much as possible out of the instrument....and I have gone through all these traditional styles.  For example, with Teppo Repo I went through all these [styles] played in the lap, accompaniments and those kinds of things] (Saha 1982:27-28).


Illus. 37.  Martti Pokela playing carved kanteles for a recording session at Radio Finland, 1983.


            Martti Pokela ensured that five‑string kantele playing was widely heard again in Finland, not as a living part of everyday life, but on radio, television and sound recordings.  Still the five‑string kantele was not a popular instrument, since it was not widely played.  Martti was very well aware of this fact, so shortly after ending his full‑time performing career he began another great task:  that of promoting kantele playing.  He joined forces with Finland's Professor of Folk Music, Erkki Ala‑Könni, who was interested in promoting all Finnish folk music.  They both felt that the best way to begin promoting Finnish folk music was to promote the carved kantele, the "most Finnish of all musical instruments" and resurrected an idea which had been proposed by Elias Lönnrot more than a century earlier:  That the kantele should be used as a school instrument in Finland. 

            At the time, the schools in Finland were using recorders, bells and other rhythmic instruments to teach the basics of music.  In some other European countries, small psalteries were also used.  For example, in Germany they used Tischharfe [Table harps] which were very close to the kantele in structure.  Ala‑Könni argued that perhaps the kantele was known and favored more in foreign countries than in Finland and began an active campaign to have the kantele recognized in the Finnish school curriculum. 

            Pokela and Ala‑Könni commissioned Oiva Heikkilä to develop the instruments, then they published a method book for these instruments called Pienoiskanteleen opas [Small Kantele Guide] (1971); the first book since Väisänen's (1928a) dealing with carved kantele playing.  It contained a total of forty‑four pieces; eighteen for five‑string kantele and twenty‑six for nine‑string kantele.  They differed from Väisänen's book in that they are prescriptive, not descriptive, and were meant to be used as material for learning and performance.  The book began with a short history of the kantele and its playing styles, followed by a description of the style developed by Pokela.

            For the five‑string kantele, basic directions are given, such as placing the instrument horizontally on a table or in the lap, with the shortest string closest to the player.  The basic finger position is the same as the first one given by Väisänen, but there is no mention that the same finger should always play the same string.  In fact, some of the pieces would be impossible to perform if this rule were strictly followed.[3]  The kantele is tuned in perfect fourths and fifths, with a major or minor third in the middle.  The lowest string can be anywhere from d' to g'.

            Pokela shows that there are ten possible pitches and three possible timbres which can be obtained on a five-string kantele.  The first five pitches are the basic open strings.  Then for each of the strings there is a harmonic called huiluääni [literally "flute sound"] which is produced by touching the middle of the string lightly with the left forefinger, then plucking the string with the right forefinger.  The third type of sound possible with each of the strings is another type of harmonic produced by touching the middle of the string with the inside edge of the right thumb, plucking the string with the right forefinger and quickly lifting the thumb.  Pokela calls this the kaksois [double] sound.  The flute sound is notated with a single diamond and the double sound with a double diamond over the pitch which is sounding.  Both of these sound one octave above the open string pitch.

            Little is mentioned about improvisation or adding additional sounds to the melodies, although these are evident from recordings of Pokela's own performances of the pieces.  For some of the pieces there are notated accom-paniments and some feature accompaniment by a second five‑string kantele.  The covering technique is also mentioned, where two strings are covered by fore and middle fingers of the left hand while the right forefinger strums the strings, making tonic or dominant chords for accompaniment.  A backstroke strumming is also mentioned, where the nail of the right forefinger strums the strings backwards, away from the player, producing a brighter timbre.

            The playing position of the nine‑string school kantele has the longest string closest to the player.  This change from the traditional playing position was done with the idea that students may eventually wish to study art music playing which would require the new position.  The finger arrangement again follows Väisänen's descriptions and is basically in the together position.  It is mentioned that perhaps the tuning should be done to a piano, harmonium, accordion or other tempered keyboard instrument, because it will not necessarily play well with these instruments in perfect tuning.  The special harmonic sounds are not mentioned for this instrument and the techniques are not notated in any of the selections for this instrument.


                                 The Carved Kantele as a School Instrument


            The publication of Pienoiskanteleen opas marked the beginning of a renaissance in carved kantele playing, but the movement was slow to gain momentum.  Although the Finnish Government provided a cultural grant to aid the publication of the playing guide, the kantele was still not recognized as a school instrument.  Perhaps the resistance to the kantele then, as now, has come from school teachers, students and administrators who feel unsure about its use.  

            In discussions with recent secondary school graduates, I found surprising resistance to the carved kantele.  They mentioned that the kantele is difficult to tune properly and, if there are many students in a class, getting all of the instruments in tune could take the major portion of the period.  This is not a problem with the recorder or bells.  Many had the perception that the kantele was severely limited in what it could play and that if one wanted to play really well, like Martti Pokela, it was too difficult.  Also, the kantele was seen as being a relatively expensive instrument compared to the recorder.  Finally, the kantele's symbolic value as the national instrument of Finland seemed to be a detriment in some cases.  It was seen as being "old" and "Väinämöinen's instrument," which had little to do with life in our day and age.  One student even told me, "Other countries do not use their 'national' instruments in schools.  Why should we?"  Similar prejudices had to be overcome among teachers and administrators. 

            In spite of these prejudices, the carved kantele playing movement gained real momentum in the late 1970s when, for the first time, students could study folk music at the Sibelius Academy.  All music education students take courses in Finnish folk music, so that when they go anywhere in the country to teach, they will be familiar with these Finnish styles of music.  At the very foundation of the program is learning to play and to teach carved kantele playing.  The influence of the Sibelius Academy program is beginning to be felt around the country as young music teachers begin using the carved kantele in their teaching.



Illus. 38.  Anu Rummukainen teaching a five-string kantele class at the 1983 Lahti Kantele Camp.


            The carved kantele movement has also been helped by the Folk Music Institute and annual Folk Music Festival at Kaustinen.  The Festival had the kantele as its theme in 1975 and the Folk Music Institute's journal, Kansan-musiikki, published a special kantele issue.  In 1982, they published a special issue on the five‑string kantele with the express purpose of providing information, telling about past progress and setting goals for the future.  In the main article, Heikki Laitinen makes these goals clear:


            [The five‑string kantele into every school!  Why?  Because every Finn already in early childhood should be able to see, hear and touch a Finnish instrument, that the knowledge and identification of this instrument would become a part of every Finn's general education, an instrument which for hundreds of years was his ancestors' only instrument. ...


            The five‑string kantele as a school instrument!  Why? Because it is an instrument which is fun, versatile, easy to play, inspires creativity, gets the immagination going, forces you to invent melodies, develops your harmonic sense, frees rhythms, can be tuned in many ways, can be played in dozens of ways, which everyone should learn ... [to] enrich music learning in [our] schools ... [as] an instrument among other instruments]  (Laitinen 1982:9).


            An instructional guide called "Viisikielinen kantele soitto‑opas" [A Guide to Five‑String Kantele Playing] by Heikki Laitinen and Hannu Saha (1982) was originally published as a part of the five‑string kantele issue of Kansanmusiikki.[4]  This guide has since become the standard starting point for teaching the five‑string kantele in schools throughout Finland.  It tries, as much as possible, to teach the old Karelian five‑string playing style as described by Väisänen in his book of 1928.  At the same time it does not prescribe what the ideal of the style should be; it teaches that each student should use improvisation and experimentation to develop their own unique styles of playing. 

             The guide reproduces the basic rules, tunings, and finger positions mentioned by Väisänen.  The kantele is played in a horizontal position with the shortest string closest to the player and each string has its own finger.  The students decide which finger positions and playing positions suit them best.  They begin by playing scales and simple children's songs.  The guide goes on to teach the very important additional concepts of polyphony and improvisation.


            [In five string kantele playing it is characteristic that there be polyphony [multiple sounds] which come by plucking other strings at the same time.  It can therefore be said that in pieces there are melodic pitches as well as accompanying pitches.  In addition, this polyphony appears [because], during the playing time generally the strings are not dampened.] (Laitinen‑Saha 1982:13).


            The students practice this polyphony by plucking the highest pitched string together with each note of the scales and melodies they have learned thus far.  All the exercises begin with a very slow tempo and gradually work up to fast tempos, so that the playing becomes automatic.  The students are encouraged to try plucking some of the other strings together with the familiar melodies and to do this by experimentation and improvisation.  They are also encouraged to make rhythmic changes and to add other notes to the basic melodies.  The guide teaches improvisation as a fundamental aspect of five‑string kantele playing.


[Also typical of five‑string playing is a creative playing manner, [where] the same piece is not played exactly the same way twice, rather it receives small (or even large) rhythmic or melodic changes ...


Improvisational playing, or the creative playing  manner, is difficult and it requires practice for a musical style.  A large portion of ancient Finnish kantele music is founded upon creation and variation.  The five‑string kantele is an outstanding medium to practice the creative playing manner, because the usable pitches and harmonic foundation are sufficiently limited]  (ibid:13‑14).


            The students participate in a kind of improvisational round, where the entire group plays a melody in unison, then in between the playing of the melody, each person in turn tries two measures of solo free improvisation.

             The guide also teaches accompaniment with the five‑string kantele, using the covering technique to get the dominant and tonic chords.  The tonic is a full, three part chord produced by covering the second and fourth strings with the fore and middle fingers of the left hand, then strumming with the forefinger of the right hand.  A backward strum using the fingernail will give a brighter tone.  The dominant (minus the third) is obtained by moving the fore and middle fingers to the first and third strings.  Once the students learn to produce chords, they learn to improvise over a harmonic foundation of I I V I.  The subdominant is produced by covering the second, third and fifth string and allowing the first and fourth to ring.

            The guide contains transcriptions of eight practice pieces, four in major and four in minor, in addition to the familiar children's melodies and scales.  It also presents the well-known "Kalevala melody," and two short pieces for tuning and testing the tuning of the kantele. 

            The guide ends by describing many other possibilities, such as different tunings, harmonics, rapid playing using the fore fingers (as developed by Martti Pokela), using a plectrum, bow, or slide (like a pill bottle), and attaching a bridge to the center of the instrument just under string level.  By pressing down on the string, half of it will sound an octave higher.  It adds this statement at the end:  "Assignment: Invent new playing methods and techniques!  Creating the new is just as important as preserving the old!"




[1] The information on Martti Pokela comes from my interviews with him in March and November of 1983 and the published interviews he had with Hannu Saha (Pokela 1982b) and Ismo Sopanen (Pokela 1984a).

[2] These records include Kantele (Sävel SÄLP 623, 1969); Kantele of Finland (Scandia SLP 531, 1969); Keskiyön auringon lauluja (Finnlevy SFLP 8500, 1969); and Karjalan Kunnailla ‑‑ lauluja Karjalasta (Sävel SÄLP 703, 1972).

[3] When Martti Pokela adapted free fingering and other technical advances to five-string kantele playing, the old support system of the hands holding the instrument securely in the lap or on a table began to break down.  Pokela tried various means of securing the kantele to the table on which it was played.  The best of these methods proved to be a type of adhesive clay, sinitarra, which was applied to the four corners on the bottom of the kantele.  When a kantele was attached to a table in this way, the table acted as a resonator and the sound was amplified.  Many players still use this method of securing the carved kantele.

[4] The Folk Music Institute has also published a playing guide for ten-string carved kanteles (Saha 1986).

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