Finnish Music in Canada

The first Finnish immigrants to Canada arrived via the USA and Alaska during the mid-19th century. Many worked in construction, on such projects as the Welland Canal and the CPR.

The first Finnish immigrants to Canada arrived via the USA and Alaska during the mid-19th century. Many worked in construction, on such projects as the Welland Canal and the CPR. More substantial waves of immigration occurred during the 1920s (following the establishment of a Finnish republic in 1917) and the 1950s. In 1986 there were more than 90,000 people of Finnish descent in Canada and more than half were Finnish-speaking. The majority lived in Sault Ste Marie, Sudbury, Thunder Bay, Toronto, and Vancouver. Among Finnish-Canadians Lutheran is the most common religious denomination. Finnish newspapers were established in Sudbury in 1917, Thunder Bay in 1915, and Toronto in 1931, and schools were set up to teach the Finnish language.

Until the late 19th century Finnish folksongs usually were performed to the accompaniment of the violin, the clarinet, or the kantele, the last of which resembles an autoharp and is considered the national instrument of Finland. By this time, however, choirs and brass bands had superseded earlier traditions in popularity.

In Canada, Finnish cultural associations have sponsored visits by Finnish groups and provided support for performances by local choirs. A Finnish-Canadian choir of 24 appeared 1 Jul 1938 at the CNE, Toronto, in a folk festival sponsored by the Native Sons and Daughters of Canada. Finnish-Canadian choirs of the 1970s included the Sault Finnish Choir, the Kaleva Men's Choir of Sault Ste Marie, the Sudbury Finnish Male Chorus, the Otava Male Choir of Thunder Bay, and the Toronto Finnish Male Chorus. While male choirs have predominated in the Finnish tradition, female and mixed choirs started to become more common in the 1970s.

Frequently performed repertoire included the choral arrangement of the chorale from Sibelius' Finlandia, 'Terre Suomeni Maa' (a patriotic song), and 'Poika Ajo Punaruunilla' (a folksong). Central to Finnish vocal and choral music, and an inspiration for instrumental composition, is the national epic poem Kalevala, a 19th-century compilation of ancient folk lyrics which has been translated into 30 languages.

Works by Finland's most famous composer, Sibelius, were played in Canada as early as 1909 when the Welsman TSO performed Finlandia. That work soon became a staple of the orchestra's repertoire. Under MacMillan, the TSO gave the Canadian premiere of Symphony No. 2 in 1932 and presented an all-Sibelius program in 1935. The Montreal Orchestra (1930-41) gave the Montreal premieres of four major works of Sibelius: Symphony No. 1, En Saga, Tapiola, and Pohjola's Daughter. By the 1970s most major Canadian orchestras had performed at least Symphony No. 2 and the Violin Concerto; Valse Triste and The Swan of Tuonela were pop-concert items and community-orchestra favourites; and the other symphonies had occasional performances. In 1977 Franz-Paul Decker conducted the complete Four Legends from the Kalevala for the 'Grands Concerts' of the CBC French network. Monuments to Sibelius have been erected on St Helen's Island, Montreal, and in Jean Sibelius Park on Kendal Avenue in Toronto. In December 1965, at a concert sponsored by the Toronto Finnish Advancement Society to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the composer's birth, the Finnish ambassador to Canada presented the scores of 230 Sibelius compositions to the University of Toronto music library on behalf of Canadians of Finnish origin.

Finnish-born musicians who have been active in Canada include Matti Holli (1916-77), the founder and until his death the conductor of the Windsor Symphony Orchestra, and Whitey Glann, one-time drummer with the rock group Mandala. The composer Jan Jarvlepp is of Finish descent. Finnish visitors to Canada have included Tauno Hannikainen (who appeared as guest conductor of the Promenade Symphony Concerts in 1952), the soprano Anita Valkki (who sang with the MSO in 1963 and again at an Expo 67 Scandinavian Gala, where she was heard in Sibelius' rarely performed Luonnotar, Opus 70), the baritone Kalle Ruusunen, the Helsinki University Chorus, which was heard in Toronto in 1938 and 1953, and the baritone Jorma Hynninen, who appeared in an all-Sibelius program with the Toronto Philharmonic Orchestra in 1991. In 1960 Olavi Pesonen represented Finland at the International Conference of Composers at Stratford, Ont; in 1975 Pekka Gronow presented a paper at World Music Week, held in Canada under the auspices of the International Music Council. The Tapiola Choir and its conductor Erkki Pohjola were participants in the 1989 International Choral Festival.

The violinist and conductor Lasse B. Pohjola (b Kotka, Finland 1922, d Windsor, Ont 1975), who came to Canada as an infant, was concertmaster of the Windsor SO from its inception until his death, and also conducted the Essex County Concert Orchestra and the Windsor Regimental Band. His son Larry (bassist, b Windsor 1946), was principal bass of the Windsor SO in the 1960s, of the NYO 1962-6, and played with the TS 1966-7. He then turned to popular music, and continued to be active in that area in 1991. The composer Jan Jarvlepp is of Finnish descent.

Canadians who have visited Finland include the soprano Bertha Crawford, who sang in Helsinki in 1917, and the pianist Jacinthe Couture, who taught at Helsinki's Sibelius Academy in 1976. In July 1977 the 38th annual Finnish Canadian Grand Festival took place in Sudbury, Ont. Events included dances, sports activities, gymnastics, a play, and performances by several choirs.

By 1975 the archives of the Canadian Museum of Civilization held 138 Finnish songs and 150 instrumental works, collected by Helen Creighton in New Brunswick, Kenneth Peacock in Ontario, and Burt Feintuch in British Columbia.

Further Reading

  • Feintuch, Burt. 'Sointula, British Columbia: aspects of a folk music tradition as a social phenomenon,' CFMJ, vol 1, 1973

    Finnish-Canadian Historical Society of Copper Cliff, Ont. Microfilms of archives. Laurentian University Library.