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Martti Turtola
Head of the PR and Press Office

    150th Anniversary of the Finnish National Anthem

    Martti Turtola

    Considering the fact that from a nineteenth-century Central European point of view Finland was on the absolute periphery, it is surprising to note how rapidly the political and cultural trends of the time reached our country. On their way towards the North these trends and ideologies often lost their sharpest edge and radicalism, and soon acquired a distinctive Finnish flavour. A good example of such a development is the year 1848, the year of revolutionary uprisings in Europe, which did not pass without having a permanent impact on Finland as well.

    European nationalism fell on fertile ground among Finnish university students. For years students at the Imperial Alexander University in Helsinki had celebrated the arrival of spring by holding a festival on Flora Day on 13 May, but during the twelve-year period from 1836-1848 the repressive regime of Tsar Nicholas I had not allowed the students to hold the festival. In Flora Day the students found an excellent forum for expressing their patriotic enthusiasm. As new winds were refreshing the Finnish political climate in 1848, students were permitted to convene for the festival. This shrewd political move succeeded in channeling potential student radicalism into peaceful action and a rather unpolitical celebration of spring.

    The Flora Day of 1848 became more than just a memorable event with festive processions, for it also acquired lasting historical significance. The song "Vårt Land" (Our Country), which was later translated into Finnish as "Maamme" by Paavo Cajander and eventually became the Finnish national anthem, was performed in public for the first time. Four prominent cultural figures of Finnish history contributed greatly to the festival. Johan Ludvig Runeberg, the Finnish national poet, had written the lyrics for the song in Swedish (the poem "Vårt land" had appeared a few years earlier as part of the extensive, patriotic collection of poems The Songs of Ensign Ståhl). Fredrik (Friedrich) Pacius, a German-born teacher of music at the University, composed the melody, and Fredrik Cygnaeus, a lecturer and later Professor of Aesthetics and Literature, organized the festivities and gave an inspiring speech, which has unfortunately not been saved for posterity. The fourth important figure was Zachris Topelius, author, poet, journalist and academic, who documented the event for both contemporary readers and for generations to come.

    "Vårt land", with all its eleven verses, was sung in its entirety several times to make sure that the crowd learned the melody properly! The students, teachers and all other eager participants in the festival learned the inspiring song by heart and taught it to others.

    The Finnish national emblems date from very different ages. The coat of arms of Finland, depicting a crowned lion holding a sword, goes back to the mid-16th century, when it was chiselled on the sarcophagus of King Gustaf I Vasa in the cathedral of Uppsala. The present form of the blue-and-white flag was not confirmed until the spring of 1918, after the Finnish Civil War. The "birth date" of the national anthem, 13 May 1848, can also be considered the "birth date" of Finland. Ever since the 1809 Porvoo Diet, at which Tsar Alexander I gave Finland a special status as part of the Russian Empire, the Grand Duchy of Finland had existed with a number of autonomous institutions well before the concept of a nation properly emerged. Runeberg´s and Pacius´ song played a crucial role in the birth of the concept ´the Finnish nation´.

    Over the years "Maamme" has been criticized for various reasons, and some alterations have been made to the song. The critics of the song have noted that the Finnish national anthem was originally written in Swedish and that a German composer set it to music. Purists have suggested that the musical quality of the song is actually quite poor and have pointed out that it is in fact a rearrangement of a German drinking song. During the last 150 years there have been other candidates for the national anthem, such as Sibelius´ "Finlandia" and compositions by Armas Järnefelt and Yrjö Kilpinen. "Maamme" has, however, retained its position for very good reasons. The poem is a fine piece of literary art, and the melody is by no means a simple ditty, but an uplifting and inspiring tune. After all, Pacius wrote the song to inspire the students during their spring festival.

    "Maamme" has been celebrated every 50 years. During the 50th anniversary of the song in 1898, Finland was struggling through a period of intense russification; in 1948 a prostrate Finland was living under the fear of a Communist revolution and Russian occupation. In 1998 prospects are much brighter. The East presents no longer a threat, the economy is recovering from the recession of the early 1990s and Finland has established itself among the Western European nations.