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06. “Finnish flags fluttered joyfully in the evening breeze”


After returning from Tallinn, Granfelt set out to find out how many choral and orchestral societies there were in Finland. Everyone who was someone was invited to the musical gala meeting of the Society for Culture and Education in Jyväskylä. The date was set for summer 1881.

Negotiations with Nestori Järvinen, religion teacher at the Jyväskylä Seminary, and E. A. Hagfors, the school’s music teacher, were marked by perfect harmony. Uno Cygnaeus (1810-88), head of the National Board of Education, was sour, however, predicting: “You and your festival: all you’ll get for your pains is a fiasco!”

In the 19th century, civic assemblies always entailed political risk and trouble with the authorities. Nor could anyone be sure when drunken pandemonium would break loose. Granfelt was a temperance advocate, and it was no doubt largely his doing that no alcoholic beverages were ever served at the song festivals of the Society of Culture and Education. “Moderate indulgence is the mother of excess”, he declared.

In the early 19th century, the main groups to sing in the streets were students. Even their activity was watched closely, as music – the most emotional and abstract art – could be used as a channel for radical patriotism. Not only the authorities but religious leaders as well looked askance at song festivals, considering them a frivolous abuse of leisure time.

Granfelt’s festival plan was carried out, though in a format somewhat reduced from his original intention. The Society’s platform was raised on Jyväskylä ridge, and at 7 a.m. on Saturday, June 1881 the ceremony opened in an orderly manner.

The speakers could not forbear some paternal admonitions to the public. Agathon Meurman, the leading light of the “Fennoman” movement, which preached a national awakening, hoped that the organizing society would teach the people to celebrate in a way “apt to elevate the mind and to prevent it from sinking into the indecency which has so often brought discredit to folk amusements”. Does one hear echoes of his speech in the discussion of the behaviour of the rock generation on the grass of Ruissalo one hundred years later?

Despite the odd discordant note, the song festivals burst into full bloom in the 1890s. The closer the watch kept by the Russians on activities threatening the unity of the Empire, the more vehement the defensive posture assumed by Finnish culture.

During the ‘Russification’ of Finland during the early years of this century, the song festivals came under particularly heavy surveillance. Governor-General Nikolai Bobrikoff (1839-1904) banned large-scale public events in 1901, but Finns stubbornly kept arranging local festivities under the title of ‘summer festivals’.

Control was fairly slack, after all, as a reminiscence of the author F. E. Sillanpää (1888-1964) indicates. At the Kyröskoski song festival in 1904, the news that the hated Bobrikoff had been assassinated spread like wildfire. The celebrations continued, as Sillanpää described: “Finnish flags fluttered joyfully in the evening breeze, though ‘Poprikoffi’ lay on a stretcher in Helsinki. It was all so very liberal.”

In 1905, song festivals were again permitted. Bobrikoff was dead.

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