Hannu Salmi

"Im fernen Norden":

Introducing Wagner in Finland

Richard Wagner never visited Finland, although it has been speculated that he may have visited the famous Imatra rapids during his stay in St. Petersburg in spring 1863. This speculation is not completely without grounds, because at that time a short text was found on the wall of a pavilion by the rapids and this French text was signed by a person who called himself "Richard Wagner". This interesting piece of evidence is undoubtedly a contemporary falsification. (1)

In addition to this might-have-been aspect, Wagner had almost no contacts with Finland, and the few contacts he had came after the first Bayreuth festival, that is, after 1876. A Finn of German origin, Richard Faltin, participated in the first festival and also had the chance to meet Wagner. He told the composer that there had been only few efforts to perform his works in Finland. The Meister answered: "Ach! kommen Sie lieber nach Bayreuth. Es freut mich aber sehr, daß es auch dort oben Leute giebt, die meine Musik gern haben." (2)

Faltin was right when he reported that only "few efforts" had been made concerning Wagner's operas. In this respect, Finnish musical culture was a long way behind that of Sweden or the Baltic countries. The first domestic Wagner performance in Sweden was as early as June 1865, when the Royal Opera in Stockholm took Rienzi onto its repertoire. Rienzi was a natural choice, because the opera tradition in Stockholm had a long history of French grand opera performances. In Riga, the first Wagner opera performed was Der fliegende Holländer in 1843, and in Tallinn Tannhäuser ten years later. The first Wagner piece to reach St. Petersburg was Lohengrin, which was staged in 1868.

It is, of course, very difficult to try to estimate how Wagner's music really spread, because it spread not only through opera performances but also through soiré concerts or home music. In Sweden, Gösta Percy has found the first Wagner piece from a symphony concert held in February 1856 under the conductor Jacopo Foroni. This piece was the overture of Tannhäuser. (3) Before this, Wagner's music was most probably played in private homes, because the Swedish music stores sold Wagner arrangements already at the beginning of the 1850s. Abraham Hirsch catalogues in 1852 included vocal notes to the song Les deux Grénadiers and the carnival song from the opera Das Liebesverbot. (4) The 1855 catalogue introduced the collection Lyrische Stücke from Lohengrin. (5) After that Tannhäuser arrangements appeared on the catalogues of the publishers. (6)

Music business of this type was an integral part of 19th century musical life. Arrangements were a considerable source of income for composers, and before the age of gramophone records, there was a need for a domestic musical environment. It might seem as though the idea of making arrangements of Wagner's music would be totally contradictory to his musical ideas. But, in fact, Wagner allowed his music to be arranged, although he often expressed his suspicion of the music business.

It is most probable that Wagner's music became known in Finland in exactly the same way as in Sweden. The arrangements that were sold in Sweden were also available in Finland and, as I presume, in the Baltic countries. But what was radically different in Finland was the concert scene. The European symphony concert tradition came to Finland rather late. The Musical Society in Turku organized regular concerts as early as the 18th century, but most of the orchestras in Finland were amateur ensembles. In Helsinki, the permanent professional symphony orchestra was born as late as 1882! Of course, there were many amateur orchestras before that, but their activities were on a casual basis.

In the field of opera, the situation was even more problematic. The first permanent opera stage had to wait until 1911, when the Finnish Opera was founded. Before that there was an opera section in the National Theater between 1873 and 1879. But, meanwhile, Finnish opera experience was fed by travelling companies, such as Falk's and Collin's companies from Tallinn or Müller's Italian company. (7) Typical of the situation was that after the Hornicke-Reithmeyer Opera Company had visited Helsinki in 1841, the doors of Thalia remained closed many years after that. (8) Interest in theater and opera increased, however, during the 1840s and 1850s. Some operas were staged as amateur performances, including works of Rossini and Donizetti. (9)

One of the leading figures in Finnish musical life during those decades was the German Friedrich Pacius, who had moved to Finland in 1835 and was a music teacher at the University of Helsinki. He gathered together amateur players and organized symphony concerts as well as opera performances. He also composed the first Finnish opera Kung Karls jagt (The Hunting of King Carl), which was premiered in 1852.

The first real opportunity to become acquainted with the latest novelties of opera came when the German opera of Riga under its leader Franz Thomé visited Helsinki during summer 1857. The significance of this visit cannot be overestimated as thery gave in sum 33 opera performances within six weeks. Thomé's ensemble performed an impressive variety of older and more recent operas. Its repertoire included e.g. Martha, Alessandro Stradella and Indra by Friedrich von Flotow, Ernani and Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi, Lucia di Lammermoor and Don Vincente by Gaetano Donizetti - and Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner. (10)

At that time, the German Opera of Riga was one of the leading opera houses in the Baltic Sea area. According to Wagner even Riga was "im fernen Norden", but it was open-minded to novelties and was among the firsts to perform Wagner's operas. The series of Wagner productions begun in 1843 with Der fliegende HolländerTannhäuser was staged, according to Julian calendar, on January 6, 1853. (11) Franz Thomé moved from Graz to Riga later in the same year. (12)

After having given some guest performances in Mitau earlier in the summer (13), Franz Thomé and his company arrived in Helsinki on July 7, 1857. They had travelled from Riga to Tallinn, wherefrom they continued on board the steamboat Fulton. (14) The company consisted of 10 soloists, a choir of 18 members and an orchestra of 24 members. The English dancer Lydia Thompson was to have taken part in some of the performances but, unfortunately, she arrived in Helsinki just after the departure of Thomé's company! (15) The size of the orchestra sounds perhaps quite petite, but it was actually not much smaller than the normal ensemble in Riga. Rigaer Theater-Almanach für das Jahr 1856 shows that the orchestra consisted of 29 musicians only. (16) In the premiere of Tannhäuser in 1853, the orchestra was however "durch mehrere geehrte Dilettanten und durch die Musik vom Hauptboisten-Korps des Neapolitanischen Regiments verstärkt". (17)

Tannhäuser was the opera that introduced Wagner to the Finnish audience. What is interesting is that this very opera also played a leading role later, when the first Finnish Wagner performance was organized in 1904. The production was conducted by Armas Järnefelt, the Finnish composer and conductor, who later specialized in Wagner at the Royal Opera in Stockholm. One of the singers who participated in the performance was Abraham Ojanperä, who had been a member of the Allegemeine Richard Wagner -Verein during the 1890s. (18) Enthusiasm for Wagner was at its heights. Tannhäuser was presented 11 times. Those who could, joined the choir and, finally, the choir grew so big that not everyone could get on the stage during the pilgrim chorus!

Another interesting fact is that Tannhäuser, although it had caused debate and controversy in Europe, seems to have been received rather approvingly.Tannhäuser played a crucial role for Wagner reception both in Finland and in the Baltic countries. This seems to differ from the situation in Sweden and Denmark, where Tannhäuser played no special role. On both sides of the Baltic Sea, the opera was well-known through popular arrangments, but somehow it appealed more to the Finnish and the Baltic taste. One factor might be that Wagner operas spread much earlier on the Eastern side of the Baltic Sea where German cultural influences were much more profound. During the 1860s, Wagner's position in the musical world was quite different, after his succesful tour of Russia and after his invitation to Munich. 

Histories of how composers are received have different rhythms. Wagner was part of the German culture, and obviously his position was established earlier in the older domains of German cultural influence. And because the reception of his music on the Western side of the Baltic Sea started later, it was also different in nature from his reception on the Eastern side.


1. Hannu Salmi: "Hat Wagner Finnland besucht?" The article is avaiable in World Wide Web. The address is http://www.utu.fi/~hansalmi/imatra.html

2. Richard Faltin: "En soirée hos Wagner",  Finsk Musikrevy 7/1905, p. 123.

3. Gösta Percy: "Något om Wagner-traditionen i Sverige", Jubelboken. Operan 200 år. Red. Klas Ralf. Stockholm 1973, p. 95.

4.  Abr. Hirschs Musik-Katalog. Stockholm 1852, p. 116. Musikaliekataloger, Svenskt Musikhistoriskt Arkiv (Stockholm).

5. Nya Musikalier från Utlandet, inkomna i December månad hos Abr. Hirsch. Stockholm 1855. Musikaliekataloger, Svenskt Musikhistoriskt Arkiv.

6. Förteckning N:o 2 öfver Musikalier i Abr. Hirschs musikhandel och musikaliska låne-institut i Stockholm. Stockholm 1859, p. 139. Musikaliekataloger, Svenskt Musikhistoriskt Arkiv.

7. Wäinö Sola kertoo. Porvoo 1951, p. 72-73.

8. Anders Ramsay: Muistoja lapsen ja hopeahapsen. I: 1836-1864. Suomentanut Antti Nuuttila. Juva 1987, p. 186.

9. Ibid., p. 191-192.

10. Helsingfors Tidningar 1.7.1857; Åbo Underrättelser 14.7.1857.

11. Theaterzettel 1843, 1853, in: The Library of the Latvian Academy of Sciences, The Misina Library.

12. Rigasche Stadtblätter 26.3.1853, 30.7. 1853.

13. Rigasche Stadtblätter 23.5.1857.

14. Finland Allmänna Tidning 9.7.1857.

15. Helsingfors Tidningar 1.7.1857.

16. Rigaer Theater-Almanach für das Jahr 1856. Allen hohen Freunden und Gönnern der dramatischen Kunst ehrfurchtsvoll gewidmet von A. Herbst und R. Kretschmar, Souffleure des Stadttheaters. Riga 1855, p. 6.

17. Theaterzettel 1853, in: The Library of the Latvian Academy of Sciences, The Misina Library.

18. Mitgliedsverzeichnis des Allgemeinen Richard Wagner-Vereins für das Jahr 1891. Leipzig s.a., Kungliga Biblioteket (Stockholm), Fredrik Vult von Steijerns Wagner-Samling 1.