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07. Separated by song, united by song


Civic education was promoted in various ways in 19th-century Finland. Well-meaning gentlefolk advocated the equality of all citizens. As historian Henrik Stenius points out, however, despite good intentions, class distinctions often proved insuperable. When singing and dancing were involved, the gentry would not readily submit to contact with the proletariat. They thought the smell of the vulgar crowd offensive, they feared vermin, and they suspected that all working-class women were of easy virtue.

A.E. Taipale, a voice teacher and choir leader from Pori, gave an account of how the National Chorus of Pori, which he directed, was on the verge of being disbanded in the 1890s. A young woman applied to join, and Taipale accepted her. The fine ladies of the chorus rose up in arms, however, declaring that they refused to sing by the side of a woman who worked as a public sauna bath. The sauna was a reputable establishment, but the director was forced to retract his acceptance of the woman’s application. She sued, and Taipale was fined sixty marks.

The choruses and bands of voluntary fire brigades were more successful than others in establishing harmony between the classes. By the 1870s some fifteen percent of their members were students, and the class boundaries were gradually eroded.

In addition to class distinctions, Finland was split in two along language lines. The Swedish-speakers wanted a song festival of their own; to them, the ‘Fennoman’ manifesto of ‘One nation, one language’ was unacceptable. Some bilingual summer events were arranged, the last major effort being the Vaasa song festival, at which all the leading Finnish composers, from Robert Kajanus to Jean Sibelius and Armas Järnefelt, personally conducted their own works.

Art was included on the agenda after heated debate within the Society for Culture and Education in the 1890s concerning the need for additional programming. Solemn processions, historical tableaux, flags, armorial bearings and garlands built up visual impact. The industrial town of Tampere even included a sensational marksmanship contest in its 1888 festival. Weightlifting and running events were also started.

In the bilingual celebrations at the end of the 19th century, the blue-and-white colours were still favoured, but later Finnish and Swedish-language events sought to set their own visual tone. The Swedish-speakers favoured red and yellow; their favourite symbols were the lyre and the island landscape. The standard emblems of the Finnish-speakers were the Maid of Finland, the kantele (a traditional Finnish string instrument) and the lake landscape.

National costumes were in vogue at all festivals. Especially among the bourgeoisie, they were not merely party wear but symbolized the rising regionalist spirit. The costume instantly expressed the group, tribe or locality with which its bearer wished to be identified. Thus, the song festivals both united and separated the nation.

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