Oskar Merikanto was born in Helsinki, Finland, on August 5, 1868. Like Sibelius, his parents were Swedish speakers. The family name, too, Mattsson, was Swedish, which the father changed to the more Finnish-sounding Merikanto. Young Oskar divulged musical talent early on, with exceptional skills on the organ and piano.
In the period 1887-1888, Merikanto studied music at the Leipzig Conservatory. Even by this time, though, he was already active as a composer, with numerous piano works to his credit, including the Fantasia, for four hands (1885) and Two Träumerei (1887), as well as pieces for organ and songs.
Merikanto concluded his studies in Berlin in 1890-1891. In 1893 his son Aarre was born. He would also become a noted composer, his father being his first teacher and a profound influence in his life. In 1898 the elder Merikanto wrote the aforementioned opera Pohjan neiti, but it was not staged until 1908. From the early twentieth century Merikanto worked to promote opera in Finland, conducting and arranging many major performances.
Merikanto remained quite active in composition throughout his life. Perhaps his most popular sacred work, the hymn Thank you, Lord! from 1924, was among his last. But it still showed his usual mastery and inspiration. Merikanto died in Hausjärvi-Oitti on February 17, 1924.