The Kantele (or kannel) and rune-singing both symbolise ancient Finnish culture. In the Kalevala, Elias Lönnrot had constructed an image of a mythic kantele, made of the jawbone of a pike, as the typically Finnish musical instrument of the epic hero Väinämöinen. In the final stages of the work, the kantele is an essential part of the power of Väinämöinen's song. It was thus, through the Kalevala, that the kantele became, in the 19th century, the Finns' national instrument.

The kantele is the oldest Finnish folk instrument, and is classed as a cordophone, that is, an instrument whose sound arises from a string stretched between two fixed points. The other Finnic tribes of the Baltic used similar instruments, as did a few Finno-Ugrian peoples, in addition to the Balts and the Russians.

The history of kantele stretches back a couple of thousand years. There is no accurate information as to its age. The older type of instrument was made by hollowing out the trunk of a pine, spruce or alder. The strings, of which there were usually five, were attached at one end to tuning pegs and at the other to a metal shank. The instrument was tuned to a diatonic scale between its bass and top notes which could , depending on the tuning of the central string, be either major or minor

The kantele player held the instrument in his lap or on a table, with the shorter side toward him.There were various methods of fingering. Common to them all was that the shortest string was played with the thumb of the right hand, and that the forefinger of the left hand was used for the next shortest string.The fingers were interspersed , so that each string was played with a particular finger. Thus the melody and accompanying chords were constantly interleaved, and the sound of the accompaniment could appear above the melody. The player created a tonal world, moving within a narrow range but constantly varying. Playing did not result in pieces as such; instead, it produced freely flowing music that progressed through small variations and was based largely on improvisation.

In the eastern parts of the country, particularly in Karelia, five-stringed kanteles were still in use in the early 19th century, but at the same time changes took place in construction techniques. Larger instruments were made from thin planks of wood, and it became possible to increase the number of strings. In the mid 19th century, kanteles of 10 to 14 strings were being played. More strings were later added, and in the end of 19th century big kanteles had 20-30 strings. At this point, changes in playing style also took place. The instrument was turned so that the longest strings were closest to the player; the melody was always played by the right hand, and the accompanying chords by the left.

Some areas developed damping technique in which the left hand was used to damp strings while the right hand played the undamped strings. In this case, the instrument was held with the sounding board vertical, not horizontal as traditionally. With the new instruments and instrumental styles, the music, too, changed, and in the second half of the 19th century contemporary dance music was generally played in those few places where the kantele had survived as a folk instrument.

In the 1920s a 36-string chromatic kantele was developed, furnished with a mechanism that made it possible to change key easily. Amateurs of folk music today, however, use instruments of all kinds, for since the 1960s, with the new wave of folk music, the kantele has undergone a real renaissance

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