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Robert Kajanus

Born December 2, 1856, Helsinki. Died July 6, 1933, Helsinki.

Composer, conductor and music teacher, 1897-1926, Imperial Alexander University (University of Helsinki from 1919)

Director, Helsinki Orchestral Association, 1882-1895
Director, Philharmonic Society, 1895-1914
Principal Conductor, Helsinki City Orchestra, 1914-1932

Conductor, Muntra Musikanter Choir, 1883
Singing Teacher, Helsinki private school, 1883-1884
Director, Orchestra School, 1885-1914
Music Teacher, Imperial Alexander University, 1897-1926
Principal Conductor, Tampere Orchestra, 1898-1899, 1900-1901

Member, Board of the Finnish Opera, 1916-1933
Chairman, Union of Finnish Composers, 1917-1933
Chairman, National Selection Committee for Composers, 1922-33

Professor, 1908
Honorary Professor, Hungarian Music University, 1925
Honorary Doctor, University of Helsinki, 1932

Named after Kajanus
Kajanuksenkatu street, Helsinki, 1954

Photo: Suomen Valokuvataiteen museo / Carl Klein, Atelier Universal
Written by Riitta-Ilona Hurmerinta
Translated by John Calton

Putting Finnish Classical Music on the Map

Robert Kajanus began studying music at the age of 12. The gifted student was offered opportunities to study abroad and so, between 1877 and 1882, went to Dresden, Leipzig and Paris. His dreams of being a violinist were dashed, however, on account of him being left-handed. Kajanus then directed his passion towards composing music and conducting. Whilst abroad, he met other Nordic composers who emboldened him in his decision to incorporate traditional folk music into his compositions. As a result, Kajanus became a pioneer of Romantic musical nationalism in Finland.

Kajanus applied for a teacher’s position at the Helsinki College of Music founded by Martin Wegelius, but was not hired. While vexed by the decision, Kajanus was not content to do nothing. He founded the Helsinki Orchestral Society in 1882, which performed under the name of the Helsinki Philharmonic Society between 1885 and 1914, since which it has gone by the name of Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. Kajanus served as the chief conductor of his orchestra for 50 years. He also founded an orchestra school in 1885 and a symphony chorus in 1888.

Jean Sibelius and Robert Kajanus served as models for their friend Akseli Gallen-Kallela for his painting ‘Symposion’ (1894).  Photo: Wikimedia Commons.​
Jean Sibelius and Robert Kajanus served as models for their friend Akseli Gallen-Kallela for his painting ‘Symposion’ (1894). Photo: Wikimedia Commons.​

A turning point in the life of Robert Kajanus came in 1889, when he heard chamber music composed by Jean Sibelius. Kajanus then put his career as a composer on hold, and concentrated on conducting and making the music of Sibelius known internationally. Their collaboration was mutually beneficial: it was Kajanus’ piece Aino that served as inspiration for the 1892 Sibelius symphony Kullervo.

In addition to the orchestras in Helsinki and Tampere, Kajanus served as a conductor abroad, including in Oslo, New York, Russia and Hungary. Kajanus was honoured to perform with his Philharmonic Society orchestra at the Exposition Universelle held in Paris in 1900. Meanwhile the orchestra undertook a long concert tour through the Nordic countries, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. With his international connections, Kajanus managed to persuade many leading artists of the day to perform in Helsinki.

Kajanus’ musical activities went beyond conducting. Between 1897 and 1926 he served as a music teacher at the Imperial Alexander University and subsequently the University of Helsinki. He was an active participant in the Nordic Music Festivals, and through various organisations campaigned on behalf of Finnish composers. He was also a member of several foreign musical societies and organisations as well as academies. Kajanus was made a professor in 1908, and in 1932 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Philosophy by the University of Helsinki.

Sources and more information on Robert Kajanus and his work:

  • Seija Lappalainen, ‘Kajanus, Robert (1856–1933)’. National Biography of Finland online. The Finnish Literature Society. Accessed June 2, 2015. Available through NELLI. (In Finnish)
  • Matti Vainio, “Nouskaa aatteet!” Robert Kajanuksen elämä ja taide. (‘“Arise Ideas, arise!” The Life and Art of Robert Kajanus’) Helsinki 2002. (In Finnish)
  • Yle Teema, Sininen laulu – Suomen taiteiden tarina (‘The Blue Song—The Story of Finnish Arts.’) Accessed on June 2, 2015. (In Finnish)
  • Wikipedia, Robert Kajanus Accessed June 4, 2015.



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