“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.”