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02. From blissful backwater to cultural beehive

New as Seppo Nummi’s vision of a Finnish cultural summer was it sprang from home soil nonetheless. Behind it was the nationalistic cultural heritage of the 19th century.

The romantic, almost mystical idealization of the northern summer, of light and the midnight sun, was to be coupled with art of the highest quality available. The Finland Festival would be an event to rival any festival in Europe, while reflecting a distinctly Finnish characteristic: the complex, vital union of landscape and spirit. Finland would enter the Modern Era, and make sure that the rest of the world took notice.

In those days Finns were sensitive to criticism from foreigners (they may still be), as was amusingly shown in 1959, when a critic in Edinburgh wrote that Finland was a cultural backwater. Arvi Kivimaa, director of the National Theatre, grumbled that things could hardly be otherwise: “Finland has voluntarily, of her own free will, taken the stance that the rest of the world doesn’t need to know anything about us.” Nummi was horrified at the mere thought of a cultural vacuum.

Jean Sibelius, Alvar Aalto and the designers of the 1950s – Tapio Wirkkala, for example – were quite widely known in the world. To the annoyance of Finns, however, that was all. Nummi played his festival card with perfect timing, just when everyone else was running out of ideas. The spark caught fire immediately.

Seppo Nummi was a member of the Modernist generation, to whom the autonomy of the arts was all in all. His elder brother Lassi Nummi made his début as a poet in 1947; his eldest brother Yki Nummi was a designer. The Nummi home was a rendezvous for the cultural crème de la crème of Helsinki, and Seppo lapped it up to the very start.

Reminiscing about what his younger brother was like when still under school age. Lassi Nummi said: “Seppo liked to play at being Emperor, and was generous about handing out administrative work to us – our brother Yki was the commander of the army; if I remember rightly, I managed to secure the post of archbishop as well as the command of the Imperial Guard.”

Perhaps you have to be born with the talents of a festival director: maybe the spirit must be there before school and university smooth it out.

As a composer, Seppo Nummi got off to a head start. His songs were performed on the radio in 1948, when he was only sixteen. But why should a song composer and hardworking music critic devote himself heart and soul to organizing the county’s cultural world? Lassi Nummi believes that the choice was above all due to his brother’s social nature, his ‘greed for people’.

Viewed from a greater distance, one has the impression that Seppo Nummi wished to recreate the family and intellectual circle of his youth, but on the national – or, preferably, on the global – scale.

The young organizer may also have had the soul of an educator. He had no qualms about evoking the somewhat antiquated idea of ‘civic education’ even as an angry young Modernist. In the article “The idea of chamber music” (Uusi Suomi, December 16, 1955) he wrote about civic education in something like 19th-century spirit: “Music is sadly neglected in our civic education at present. Somewhat paradoxically, but adhering strictly to the truth, I claim that there can hardly be any more effective tool for social education than music. The wonderful treasury of chamber music passes down to us the most refined profundity of Western music, teaching us to hear ‘voices intimae’ and at the same time to feel a perfect, harmonious solidarity with humanity. Let this article contribute to the discussion of the past autumn concerning the significance of music to the totality of our society.”

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