Written by Hedi Viisma
Co-writers Hannu Koistinen and Olga Shishkina
Hedi Viisma, the main author of this article, is currently doing her doctoral studies with Estonian chromatic kantele* at Sibelius Academy by challenging herself and the instrument to new technical limits through expanding the repertoire never played before on kantele. She has been working with a lot of different composers and commissions new music regularly. Transcriptions from baroque to romantic music is also a big part of her repertoire. Viisma plays both solo and chamber music.
Throughout the centuries Estonian kannel has been going through different stages of development. From the earliest versions with 5, later 6-7 strings to simmel or simbel (18th-19th centuries) which was based on the idea of German and Austrian zithers; later rahvakannel with bourdon strings that form 3-5 chords and 24-25 metal strings used both in solo and ensemble performances. In the end of the 19th century harmony kannel (saatekannel, akordkannel, duurkannel) spread in Estonia. The instrument had strings grouped into major chords and was used to provide accompaniment.
The development of Estonian kannel continued in the middle of the 20th century. As the level of playing was growing, there appeared a need to improve the instrument and introduce it into wider repertoire than what earlier diatonic versions allowed.
Builders started to add chromatic tones to the set of strings and eventually in 1952 Väinö Maala constructed a chromatic kantele with a cross-strung layout which became a standard for chromatic kantele builders in Estonia. Maala's instrument originally had 46 strings with a separate string for each pitch and its range was c-a3. The set of strings with diatonic pitches is higher on the right side of the instrument and descends to the left side. Chromatic pitches however are higher on the left side and descend to the right side. In the middle of the instrument the strings are on the same level.
This type of strings layout is similar to a keyboard and provides a familiar concept of diatonic and accidental pitches to a player. In the end of the 19th century Gustav Leon, the head of Pleyel company in Paris, produced a cross-strung harp, with the identical idea.
Another similar concept existed also in Russia where in 1730s-1850s a chromatic gusli was a largely popular instrument of imperial court circles. However, the instrument had a different layout of strings where diatonic and accidental pitches were placed parallel to each other.
The emergence of the chromatic kannel opened new musical possibilities for a player. It became possible to perform a wide repertoire of music from different genres and periods. The idea behind that was quite similar to Salminen's or later Koistinen's development of Finnish kantele, which was to invent an instrument with a chromatic range and bring it to a new academic level - however in Finland and Estonia this was fulfilled by different means. Today the high level of playing as well as growth of instrument's popularity abroad clearly prove the value of the idea. The chromatic kantele can be seen as one of the developing forms of kantele instruments which can find new friends and players from different instrumental backgrounds.
From 1953 until 1990s chromatic kannels with 46 strings were manufactured by Tallinn Piano factory. "The mother of kannel"- Els Roode - as kantele people call her in Estonia, was the first person to start playing and teaching the instrument. She got her Masters degree at Latvian Music Academy, where her teacher was a harmonica player. There was a lot of work to be done to find out the possibilities of kannel. Nowadays all Estonian kantele players and teachers are either Els' students or students of her students.
As her student, I liked her attitude the best: a good teacher is good only if her students are better players than the teacher herself at the end. This kind of attitude from a teacher was the only way to develop kantele playing, in my opinion.
In the beginning of 1990s Tallinn Piano factory stopped producing chromatic kanteles and a renown Finnish kantele builder Otto Koistinen continued the work on developing the instrument further. He built his first chromatic kannel in 1993 which had additional 4 bass strings and also had innovations in its construction. Nowadays almost all the professional kantele players in Estonia play Koistinen's chromatic kanteles. In 2009 a kantele performer Hedi Viisma made a request to build an instrument with a full five octave range C-c4. Due to the cooperation between a builder and a performer a new standard of the chromatic kantele with 61 strings was created in 2010.
A fully chromatic instrument can be thought as a small piano by it's possibilities. Because an octave on kantele is about same distance as on piano, all piano pieces are at least in theory, transcribable for kantele. The biggest challenge, however, is damping. Chromatic kantele does not have any pedals or damping boards but still has a long decay, as common to all the kantele related instruments. Damping is done by hand, fingers, arm or wrists and therefore some fast staccato scales could be very challenging. The chromatic kannel is played with fingertips. It gives the instrument a unique sound quality, that could be described as something between harp, cembalo and guitar all mixed together.
These days the chromatic kannel is presented at all levels of music education in Estonia, from a music school to Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre. Several kannel artists extensively perform both in Estonia and abroad. One of Els Roode's students, Kristi Mühling was the first Estonian player to get her masters degree in kantele playing at Sibelius Academy, Finland. Mühling is now one of the main teachers in Estonia on both conservatory and academy level. She also is an active performer of mostly contemporary music and has a few different chamber music ensembles.
The chromatic kantele is an instrument with a big capacity which makes it possible to include it in different ensembles. Its unique sound and fully chromatic range offer new opportunities to a kantele player. These days interest to the instrument is growing even outside Estonia and there are signs that it will keep on getting more friends both in Finland and abroad.
* In this article both Kannel and Kantele are used as interchangeable words which mean different versions of the same instrument.