“Finlandia” is a tune most people probably recognize from hearing it as a hymn or as background music. It is melodic, slow, pleasing to the ear, and not difficult. The words most commonly used are “Be Still my Soul” or “This is my Song” one of the lowest-key “patriotic” hymns in the hymnals I’m familiar with. Most people assume it is one of the folk-tune hymns, arranged by Jan Sibelius. It has a rather more turbulent history. It was composed for a covert anti-Russian protest pageant.

Finland had the unhappy fortune to be between ambitious neighbors since the Middle Ages. It was one of the last areas officially converted to Christianity, so it was fought over by competing forces – Teutonic Knights, Russia, Sweden, the Livonian Order. Russia and Sweden emerged as the main rivals. Sweden was a major naval and military power, and Rus had expanded north and west from its core around Kiev and Novgorod. After tussling back and forth, the Swedes won, and in 1323 Novgorod recognized most of what is now Finland as being in the Swedish sphere of control. Control was rather loose, but it was there. German traders also settled in the region.

Fast-forward to the late 1700s. Sweden had begun to decline, in part because of the terrible financial and population costs of the Thirty Years War and later conflicts. It had lost the Great Northern War to Russia. Finns remained under Swedish control, and Swedish law. They were not enserfed or tied by feudal rules, but were always free peasants. Not always well treated and often highly taxed, but they were allowed to speak their own language and do their own things within the limits set by the distant Crown of Sweden. The area was a group of counties or provinces inhabited by Finns, rather than a state per se. The Russians challenged Sweden more than once, with Finns caught in the middle and flattened, especially by the Russians.

In 1808-09 Russia kicked Sweden out. Yes, Russia was almost fighting Napoleon and the Swedes at the same time. Russia established stricter controls over the Grand Duchy that was established in the region. Even so, Emperor Alexander I had other priorities and he allowed a great deal of local autonomy. It wasn’t until the 1860s that Russia began cracking down on self-rule. Nationalism in its Romantic form was sweeping Europe during this period and Finland was no exception. Interest in folklore grew, and the Kalevala was compiled and published for the first time. Finns were forming a self-defined nation within the larger Russian state.

Things rolled along until the 1890s, when Russia began one of its swings hard toward centralization. This included language. A glance at Poland would have warned the Finns what was coming, as the Russians tried to erase Polish language and traditions. In 1899 Russia ordered all official business to be conducted in Russian. This stirred up waves of anger, but the Finns couldn’t strike out against Russia directly. They remembered too well what had happened in the 1720s, when Russia burned and trampled everything in their path during the war with Sweden. Instead they held a musical pageant.

Jan Sibelius was already a well-known composer by this time, and he organized the music festival. It was based on tableaux, which were popular at the time. A group of people in costume got on stage and enacted a famous scene from history or mythology, and froze. They held the pose as music played or a narrator declaimed appropriate poetry. Then the scene changed and another group of people did a different scene of theme. Sibelius composed a piece that started with a roar, showing the horrors of the 1720s ‘Great Hate” and the dreadful fate of Finns. Then the music shifts, grows quieter, and the melody known today as “Finlandia” emerges. It was a symphonic tone poem, and so Sibelius titled it later.


Finland gained independence after WWI, but not for long. The Winter War against the Soviets would be one of the greatest, and least-known battles of WWII, and one that the Soviets should have won handily. They didn’t. The second round was almost as rough on the Soviets, even though they finally won and Finland was forced to cede territory. Finland was neutral, but… The Finns and their neighbors have long memories.

What Sibelius could not have imagined, was that 80 or so years later, the Estonians in turn would sneak popular resistance to Soviet rule into a musical festival, keeping their own traditions alive under Soviet noses until 1989, with the “Singing Revolution.”


5 thoughts on “Finlandia

  1. I really like “Be still my soul” set to that tune, and it is something sung fairly regularly at my current place of worship. But I recall “This is my Song” from a child as being set to a much more dramatic and upbeat beat. That isn’t quite the right description but though I can hear it in my head and even sing it (albiet horribly) I don’t have enough musical knowledge to describe it properly. But the “This is my Song” hymn I remember from my childhood was sung full throated like a native victory song and accompanied with foot stomping and hand clapping. In fact I recall it often being done with only a drum accompaniment setting the beat and the words bellowed out at full volume, almost like the lead singer of a metal band screaming the lyrics acapella, rather than restful and relaxing “Be still my soul”.

    • I suspect if you go digging, the words have been set to more than one tune. The current combo dates to the 1960s, as best I can tell from my hymnal collection and talking with organist friends, and was added as a “counterweight” to things like “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Which isn’t fair to the text or tune, but people do strange things to perfectly lovely songs when they get a wild idea in their minds.

      • First off let me state that “Battle Hymn of the Republic” NEVER needs a counterweight! 🙂

        I was thinking about this during the singing at the service this morning, and had some more thoughts on it. I think at least version of “This is my Song” I am familiar with was probably developed with children in mind, a song to get them involved and enjoy. Something to get the blood pumping so to speak. And screaming the lyrics isn’t accurate either, although bellowing comes close. About the closest comparision I can think of is how the words, “We will, Rock you!” are sung, particularly at things like homecoming games where the crowd gets into it with a thunder of stomping feet on the bleachers.

        I’ve never heard another Christian worship song done quite like it, and I haven’t heard it since I moved away from my childhood home, so it very well may have been a local version.

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