“If several talented and witty people meet, all they need to do to amuse themselves is open their mouths; if several serious and ungraceful people meet, they must organize an entertainment. Amusement is a necessity, and if it does not arise by itself, our will fills in the gap with artificial entertainments. Therefore the peoples who lack the inclination or the sense of humour to amuse themselves naturally are the ones with the best and most varied theatrical performances. Through its organizing ability, the Finnish nation, which is one of the saddest in the world, paradoxically turns into one of the world’s most joyful and entertaining nations.” thus wrote in the Granada newspaper El Defensor the Spanish consul and writer Angel Gavinet y Garcia, who sent home a series of travel descriptions from Finland in the years 1896-1898.
Perhaps Gavinet was not too far from the truth? At any rate, he had experienced, perhaps without realizing it, a significant economic and cultural boom period in Finnish history. Many a seed germinated and the Finnish outlook widened in the last years of the 19th century, despite – or perhaps because of – harassment from the expansionist Pan-Slavic movement in Russia. No wonder that the Finns had developed into a nation of festivals: there was a demand for ideological celebrations.
What is more, the economic base was there. Trade had been liberalized and the guild system abolished. Capital began to move when joint-stock companies were legalized in 1864. The next year, the Czar granted the Grand Duchy of Finland the right to issue its own currency, giving Senator Johan Vilhelm Snellman (1806-81) one of the greatest victories of his political career.
At least as important was the success of Snellman’s cultural programme. The Finns increasingly put faith in his idea that culture is the strength of a small nation, equated with patriotism.
The rural landowners grew rich as the rise of the sawmill and papermaking industries increased the value of forests. Communications improved: the Helsinki – St. Petersburg railway opened in 1870, shipping was promoted. The statistics for the 1890s reveal a momentous change: Finland had less trade with the mother country Russia, than with Germany. The economic upswing was backed up by the introduction of a national education system. Finland had 146 elementary schools in the early 1870s; by the turn of the century, there were two thousand.
Money, time and creative energy were invested into international public relations. One of the notable cultural projects of the period was the Finnish pavilion at the 1900 World Fair in Paris. Finland had gone international.
Finland in the 19th-century was a promising land of associations as well as of festivals. The national temperance movement strengthened its grip and called for social reform. Other mass organizations followed suit – workers’ organizations, women’s organizations, agricultural societies, and above all the youth association movement, which developed into an influential education force in theatre and singing. New choral societies sprang up everywhere. In fact, Henrik Stenius believes that choral singing, with its far-reaching organizational aspects, was the most important form of aesthetic expression at the time.
The Spanish consul Ganivet noted: “There is a great vogue for music and talent is aided; yet there are no composers of stature apart from Pacius, who is a second-class figure.”
The Finn is quick to growl: “And what about Sibelius, señor Gavinet?”
Perhaps our Spanish informant had the same attitude to Jean Sibelius as to Akseli Gallen-Kallela, a painter “whose imagination and ability are somewhat disordered”.
But had the right honourable consul ever heard of K. G. Streng, the parson of Lemi, who in the 1850s had trained his entire congregation to sing in four-part harmony? It is said that the farmers went around with a tuning fork in the leg of one boot, and at home families practiced their voice parts to the accompaniment of the kantele.