MM Since 1878 – a Presentation

Sällskapet MM rf or Muntra Musikanter – in English Merry Musicians – is a male choir with a long history that has experienced a substantial part of the Finnish music life. MM is Finland’s second oldest choir and despite the respectable age the choir is in good shape and energetic with several exciting projects on-going. Last year the choir participated in the song contest Cornwall International Male Choral Festival and won a gold medal in the class for choirs with over 40 singers. This year MM has released its newest record, “Prime” on Spotify. This is the first time MM has released a record in a totally digital distribution channel. At the same time MM has made music videos of all songs and published them on Youtube.

Petersburgs Concerten – Sångarkören MM – Sällskapet MM

The choir started as an elite breakout group from the oldest choir in Finland, Akademiska Sångföreningen – The Academic Male Choir – and was initially named PC, Petersburgs Concerten. The first project was to be a concert tour to St Petersburg, which however never materialized. The first concert was instead given in the Main Auditorium in Helsinki University in May 1878. The concert was succeeded by a tour to Viipuri, Turku and Hämeenlinna.

PC survived and assumed the name Sångarkören MM (Singer Choir MM) later the same year. MM stands for Muntra Musikanter, a Swedish translation of the choir’s favourite song Die lustigen Musikanten, a song from Germany. The song is now the choir’s song of honour. In 1897 the name was once again changed, this time to Sällskapet MM – literally the MM Society. But Muntra Musikanter prevails as the colloquial name of the choir. The choir’s anniversary is 19th of March, the birthday of Fredrik Pacius. Pacius was chosen as the choir’s first honorary member in 1881.

1878 – 1899

MM was established around an idea of a concert tour and concert tours would indeed be some of the most important activities on the choir’s agenda during all years. Tours have been made to Moscow in 1882, Stockholm 1886, St Petersburg 1888, Copenhagen and Kristiania (Oslo) 1888. MM was an esteemed choir and performed several times for czar Alexander III and his wife Dagmar, both in Helsinki and at the court in Peterhof.

In 1889 the choir travelled to Paris. The tour to Paris is a major milestone in the Finnish male choir history. During the trip, MM performed e.g. in Copenhagen with 15.000 people in attendance. When MM left Copenhagen for Lübeck on a steamboat, an estimated 40.000 people waved off the popular choir. In Paris MM gave several concerts in the famed Trocadéro Palace. MM also performed in the Finnish pavilion in the World’s Fair, whose entrée, the Eiffel Tower, had just been inaugurated. Among the audience was the president of France, Sadi Carnot, who thanked for the performance with the words: ”Parfait, mais comme c’est beau!”

The Finnish pavilion during the World’s Fair in Paris 1889. Photograph: The Finnish Heritage Agency’s image collection

During this period MM was conducted mainly by either the choir’s founder Gösta Sohlström or Oscar Mechelin with a number of brief stints made by e.g. Martin Wegelius and Robert Kajanus.

1900 – 1922

The new century introduced something very novel to MM: In 1904 MM made its first gramophone recording. This was done in the renowned hotel Kämp’s uppermost floor in the severe warmth that the then-used wax cylinder technique required and each voice having their own recording horn. The record still exists, and a recording can be found e.g. on the album that MM released on its 125th anniversary in 2003.

During this period MM actively arranged composition competitions. A certain Jean Sibelius had won a composition competition with the work Sandels already in 1898. MM premiered the composition with orchestra accompaniment in 1900. During this era MM premiered several male choir staples, such as Vill du komma med mig, by Armas Järnefelt, or Friseglarens sång, by Selim Palmgren.

During this epoch MM had two notable conductors: Carl von Knorring and Axel Stenius.

1923 – 1950

This was the era of MM’s conductor Bengt Carlson. He was the choir’s conductor for 27 years. During his years MM flourished. Highlights during this period were the concert tours to Sweden and Norway 1930 and Denmark 1931. After that, the choir did not make any more concert tours abroad during the depression years of the 1930s. On the other hand, the choir did arrange a magnificent 60 years anniversary in 1938 with a successful concert, festive evening program and a courtesy visit to Finland’s president Kyösti Kallio.

During the difficult years of war in the beginning of the 1940s, the choir saw it as its mission to actively collaborate with choirs in the other Nordic countries. Especially the concert tour to Stockholm, where the choir performed for e.g. the Swedish King Gustaf V in 1941 was a memorable highlight of these travels.

Under the leadership of Bengt Carlson MM took the definite step into the modern world. On the 10th of March 1925 MM gave its first radio concert. A new musical distribution channel for MM was born.

1951 – 1978

This was the era of Erik Bergman. Like Bengt Carlson, Erik Bergman was also MM’s conductor for 27 years. In addition to being a demanding and inspiring conductor, Erik Bergman was also a notable composer and a trail blazer for modern song and music. Often MM and Bergman’s other choir, The Academic Male Choir, were the guinea pigs for the master’s compositions. And among the compositions were many a favourite both among the singers and the audience. Perhaps most of all the work Rubayiat, premiered by MM during its 75th anniversary concert in 1953.

During this time new countries were visited by MM: Iceland in 1962 and 1976, Israel in 1967, Austria and Hungary in 1973 – in addition to the usual Nordic countries. The era of Erik Bergman’s grande finale was the choir’s magnificent 100th anniversary concert in 1978.

1979 – 2010

During this period MM started a highly appreciated tradition: the yearly Christmas concerts. Every year, just before Christmas, the Temppeliaukio Church in Helsinki is filled to capacity with people who want to achieve the real Christmas feeling – something that MM can induce with all the familiar Christmas songs and a visit by a newly crowned Lucia maiden.

During this era MM took the final step into the world of modern technology. Spurred by the driven conductor Markus Westerlund the choir started computer-aided learning long before other choirs. What seems like trivial today was something else altogether when the choir started with this in the beginning of the 1990s.

The choir again visited new worlds and countries: Wales in 1987, USA and Disney World in 1997. In 2000 the choir participated in a song contest on Malta (and achieved a bronze medal). In 2006 MM participated in a song contest in Italy (and achieved a silver medal). In 2004 MM together with the male choir Fóstbræður from Reykjavik visited St Petersburg and there performed Igor Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex together with the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra.

2011 –

Since 2011 the choir is conducted by Henrik Wikström. The choir has been exceptionally active with concert tours abroad, to Germany, Russia, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Romania and England. In England in 2019 MM participated in the song contest Cornwall International Male Choral Festival and won a gold medal in the class for choirs with over 40 singers. After a number of tries MM had finally achieved a gold medal!

The year 2020 is historical as MM released its first record – “Prime” – in a totally digital distribution channel, Spotify. At the same time all the songs were released as music videos on Youtube. MM has shown throughout the years, from 1878 to 2020, that the choir has the will and capacity for constant renewal and to lead the development – MM for all times!

Under the choir’s 142 years’ history MM has premiered almost 200 male choir songs. These are works that have been ordered by MM, participated in composition competitions arranged by MM, composed for MM or arranged for MM. A sample of these songs comprise the record “Prime” – as the name implies songs or arrangements that MM has premiered.

MM's 140th anniversary concert in cooperation with visual designer Stefan Lindfors. An example of how MM is renewing itself and art.

The Blue Book

In 1909 a decision was made in MM to publish a booklet with sheet music for male quartets. Its name was “132 older and newer quartet songs from MM’s repertoire collected and printed exclusively for MM”. As the years passed by the booklet became very popular. Despite its name it spread also outside MM. At the same time the repertoire developed, and it became increasingly necessary to renew the book. Thus, a decision was made in 1947 to publish a new edition of the book, also for external singers, this time with 165 songs. Some of the old songs were removed, others stayed in the book.

In 1958 MM once again published a new edition, this time with 200 songs. This edition was completed with 75 additional songs in 1984. These song books had a blue cover and the male choristers around Finland started to refer to the book with the name “The Blue Book”. In time for the choir’s 130th anniversary 2008 the repertoire was once again renewed, and a new edition was published with 250 songs. And an unmistakably blue cover. This song book has become something of a male choristers’ Bible especially in the Swedish-speaking parts of Finland. When the student choirs each year get new members the first tool in their song learning is the The Blue Book. The book has even spread to other Nordic countries and is used frequently. We are honoured and delighted that we have been able to contribute to the development of the male choir singing in this manner.

MM’s Record Releases

During its existence MM has released roughly ten records. The latest records are “Summer with MM” from 1997, “Christmas with MM” from 1998, “125 years with MM” from 2003 and “Tända ljus” (Lightened candles) from 2012 together with the Lucia choir. The newest record, “Prime” is being released on Spotify in 2020. This is the first time MM is releasing a record in a totally digital distribution channel. At the same time MM has made music videos of all songs and published them on Youtube.

The Oldest “Spex” Tradition in Finland

MM proudly owns the oldest “spex” tradition in Finland. Spex is an originally in Swedish student circles born art form, comedy plays with men often acting as women and singing familiar tunes with new lyrics. These comedy plays have been a regular tradition in MM at least since 1910. Back then the Merry Musicians put up a comedy play – maybe more like a revue – but anyway. The fact is that according to the yearbook from 1878 already then MM was inclined towards these entertaining habits. An excerpt from the yearbook tells us that during an “alluring evening” that autumn:

“Three of the first basses performed together a passage from the opera Norma. The passage was the duetto “Behold, o Norma, behold these skinny”, which was executed con amore and in falsetto by the two by no means skinny basses in women’s dresses, accompanied on an ocarina by the third one, wearing a light and picturesque oriental outfit.”

And the tradition is very much alive. Every other year a self-written spex is performed on MM. The innocent audience is subjected to ghastly caricatures and ludicrous song lyrics. So, when the spex bell rings the Merry Musicians, their wives and friends squeeze into the MM music hall to indulge themselves and for a while forget the everyday gloom.