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Karl Collan

Born January 3, Iisalmi. Died September 12, 1871, Helsinki

Master of Arts 1850, Licentiate 1860 and PhD 1864, Imperial Alexander University

Librarian 1866–71, Imperial Alexander University Library
Librarian 1858–64, Student Library
Lecturer of German 1859–66, Imperial Alexander University
Amanuensis extraordinary 1852–53, Imperial Alexander University Library
Teacher 1849, 1852–60, Helsingfors fruntimmersskola
Teacher 1845. 1856–57, 1859, Helsinki Lyceum

Acting curator of the Faculty of History and Literature 1859–60
Treasurer of the Finnish Literature Society 1856–62

Photo: Museovirasto
Written by Tomas Sjöblom
Translated by Matthew Billington

Technically adept composer and translator of poetry

Besides being a teacher and librarian, Karl Collan was also an author, translator, and composer. Of all his roles, today he is nevertheless best remembered as a composer.

In Collan's day there was no organised teaching of music in Finland. It was introduced by Martin Wegelius as late as 1882. Collan was a self-taught composer, whose first works were published while he was still a student. He represented the Early Romantic school, a style he had brought home from his travels on the Continent, where he had acquainted himself with the latest European fashions in music.

Collan’s closest influences were the Austrian Franz Schubert and the German Felix Mendelssohn. Familiar with their work, Collan became one of the leading lights of solo music in the Finnish Romantic period. Esko Häkli has described Collan as a “technically adept” composer, and Professor of Musicology Eero Tarasti has described Collan as vastly superior to his contemporary Axel Gabriel Ingelius. Heikki Klemetti, one of the greats of Finnish music, has said there is no such thing as a failed Collan piece.

Photo: National Board of Antiquities.

Collan's nationalistic works have remained particularly popular. He composed the music to Vaasan marssi ('The Vaasa March') by Zacharias Topelius, Savolaisen laulu ('The Song of Savonia') by August Ahlqvist, and Hurtti-Ukko-marssi ('The March of Old Man Hurtig') by Johan Ludvig Runeberg, the latter of which later became the regimental march of the Kainuu Brigade of the Finnish Defence Forces.

Yet by far Collan’s best-known composition is the Christmas carol Sylvian joululaulu (‘Sylvia's Christmas Song’), composed in 1855 to a poem by Topelius. It has been voted the most beautiful Finnish Christmas carol several times, among others in a poll conducted by the Finnish Broadcasting Company in the 1960s and again in 2002.

Karl Collan was also an author and translator interested in folk poetry, and the Finnish Literature Society financed his trip to collect folk poetry and music in the provinces of Savonia and Karelia in 1854. Collan made a name for himself as translator of poetry into Swedish. His greatest literary achievement is considered to be the first complete Swedish translation of the New Kalevala, published in two volumes in 1864 and 1868.

Karl Collan was the first to translate the New Kalevala into Swedish in its entirety. Photo: Internet Archive.


  • Tarja Lehtinen, Karl Collan (1828 – 1871) kulttuurivaikuttajana, ('Karl Collan as cultural figure'), unpublished Master's thesis, Helsinki 1987.
  • Esko Häkli, Collan, Karl, National Biography of Finland online publication. Accessed 14 December 2015.
  • Jari Tolvanen, Karl Collan. Maria Elisabeth Collan-Beaurain. Coll. 317, Introduction to the catalogue of Karl and Maria Collan Archives. Accessible through Doria Database. Accessed 14 December 2015
  • Collan, Karl”, Nordisk familjebok 1880, 466 – 467. Projekt Runeberg online publication. Accessed 14 December 2015.
  • Karl Collan, Wikipedia. Accessed 14 December 2015
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