Karelia and Finnish nationalism

Borderlands are rich in history and often bitterly contested. Karelia, in the east of Finland, is a region of astonishing natural beauty and 18th century wooden churches. Its tranquillity belies its turbulent history.

Karelia stretches from the White Sea coast of Russia to the Gulf of Finland and contains the two largest lakes in Europe, Lake Ladoga and Lake Onega. In 1323 Karelia was divided up between Sweden and the medieval Russian Novgorod Republic. Wars between Russia and Sweden in the 18th century twice led to the occupation of Finland by Russian forces. To Finns these wars are poetically known as the Greater Wrath (1714-21) – after which most of Karelia was ceded to Russia – and the Lesser Wrath (1742-43). In 1923, with the end of the Russian Civil War and the establishment of the Soviet Union, Russian Karelia became the Karelian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic.

During World War II, Finland twice fought the Soviet Union: in the Winter War of 1939-40 after the Soviets had attacked Finland and during the Continuation War of 1941-44, joining Germany to invade the Soviet Union. For more than a year, German and Finnish armies besieged Leningrad. Then, in a reversal of fortune, in mid-1944 the Finns found themselves facing a major Soviet offensive which they fought to a standstill. Signing an armistice with the Soviet Union, Finland was obliged to fight the Lapland War in order to force the Germans out of the country. As a result, in 1945, West Karelia remained part of Finland, with the eastern Republic of Karelia staying in Soviet hands and subsequently joining the Russian Federation in 1991.

Karelia is the source of the Kalevala, a 19th century work of epic poetry compiled by botanist and philologist Elias Lönnrot from Finnish and Karelian folklore and mythology. It is regarded as the national epic of Finland and is one of the most significant works in Finnish literature. The first version of the Kalevala (called the Old Kalevala) was published in 1835. A longer version, the one most usually read today, came out in 1849, consisting of 22,795 verses, divided into 50 songs. The Kalevala was instrumental in the consolidation of Finnish national identity and the revival of the national language.

The Kalevala begins with traditional stories of the creation of the earth, plants, creatures, and the sky. The stories often involve characters hunting or requesting lyrics (spells) to acquire a skill such as boat-building or the mastery of iron-making. There are many tales of derring-do, romance, kidnapping and seduction. The protagonists often have to accomplish feats that are unreasonable or impossible, which they fail to achieve leading to tragedy or humiliation.

Much of the music of Finland is influenced by traditional Karelian melodies and lyrics, as contained in the Kalevala. Karelian culture is perceived as the purest expression of Finnish myths and beliefs, less affected by Germanic influences than the Nordic folk dance music that largely replaced the kalevaic tradition. In 1891 Sibelius traveled to Karelia, visiting a renowned folk singer and transcribing the pieces she performed. Several concert works grew out of that trip, including the Karelia Suite and the Kullervo Symphony. The Karelia Suite originated in short orchestral works written for a historical pageant to be presented by students of the University of Helsinki in Viipuri, Karelia. From the set of eight or so incidental pieces he wrote, Sibelius subsequently chose three to form a suite for concert performance.

The suite opens with an Intermezzo depicting 14th century woodsmen processing proudly and defiantly on their way to pay taxes to a Lithuanian duke. The second movement, a melancholy Ballade, was originally a vocal piece. The pageant represented a deposed 15th century king, Charles Knutsson Bonde, sitting in his castle and listening to a minstrel. The suite concludes with a festive march. It followed a call to battle issued by Pontus de la Gardie, a 16th century soldier who became Swedish high commander in a war against Russia. An ardent supporter of nationalism, Sibelius knew very well how to exploit the power of musical propaganda!

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