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10. The friction between high art and amateurism


The friction between amateur and professional, folklore and foreign influence has always chafed festivals of music and culture. At the song festivals of yore, the conflict brewed for years, until Heikki Klemetti, one of the key figures of the Finnish music world, resolved the problem in one fell swoop.  Disgusted with the performances he had heard at the Viipuri song festival in 1908, he stormed in his inimitable style:

“Still the same performances, ignorant of all singing technique, fumbling in the darkness of incertitude; the same lack of consistent, natural phrasing; false notes; a tasteless selection of songs. What in God’s name is the use of these great annual goings-on, this dreadful din and braying of brass, if we are never to rise above this musical vale of tears?”

Klemetti led the Finnish choral movement to a new rise. A keen-eared, vigorous, truculent individual like him was no doubt needed for the project. The story goes that the Ostrobothnian master suffered from musical discord so much that he could not bear to listen to birdsong – the birds in his yard were in the habit of warbling out of tune.

The Society of Culture and Education gave up its role as chief organizer of song festivals when Klemetti took over the directorship of the Choral Association in 1929, and was enlarged in the early 1930s to form the Finnish Amateur Music Association. The new organization arranged its first choral festival in 1934.

The swansong of the old type of festival was the Kalevala centenary celebration in 1935. The entire Finnish elite graced the principal event (in Helsinki’s Fair Hall) with its presence. The other main venue was the town of Sortavala on Lake Ladoga (ceded to Russia after the Second World War), where a rune-singer’s statue by Alpo Sailo was unveiled with pomp and circumstance. Kyösti Kallio, then Speaker of Parliament and later President, gave the keynote address. The musical climaxes of the event were a performance of Erkki Melartin’s opera Aino and a concert by the Helsinki City Orchestra.

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