Sibelius: a Musical Confession

With the constant stream of bad news we are inundated with on a daily basis, I thought I would write about music and one of my favorite composers. I have to confess that I am an ardent admirer of Jean Sibelius, the Finnish composer, whose music has haunted me since I was eleven (the other two are Rachmaninov and Mozart). It started with “Valse Triste”, a rather somber, short piece of music which was included in a collection titled “The best of Romantic Tunes of the 20th Century”. I was hooked. I must have played that track thousands of times over the next years, possibly boring to death those around me. Then I came across “Finlandia” playing on the wireless, his signature composition, a stirring, nationalistic work that was designed to rouse Finnish’s anti-Russian sentiments. A few years later, as a young man immersed in rock music and jazz, I stumbled across a box of cassettes containing his seven symphonies and became an aficionado for life. I couldn’t help liking the man who wrote this about the start of his 4th symphony: “the first chord must be struck hard, like destiny!”

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Nowadays I am the only one that listens to him in the household so I bought a separate stereo system which I have placed in the almost soundproof conservatory where I can turn up the volume while I attempt to write and entertain the local bird population. And what a strange “bird” this man was.
I can’t think of a composer so closely identified with his political views as is Sibelius with Finland. Of course the Finland into which he was born, was at the time an outlying province of Tsarist Russia, during a period of strict rule and at a time when Swedish was most commonly spoken in his country.

His music played an important role in the formation of the Finnish national identity. His great achievements as a symphonist tend to overshadow his output in other fields such as incidental music for plays, choral work, tonal poems and an astonishing catalogue of well over 150 short orchestral compositions (one of which was Valse Triste, sold for pennies to an unscrupulous publisher, a decision he regretted for the rest of his life) .

From one of the numerous sites dedicated to the great man:

Sibelius was born in 1865 at Hämeenlinna, a provincial garrison town in south-central Finland, where his father was a doctor. Until he was about eight years old, Sibelius spoke no Finnish. However, when he was eleven, his mother enrolled him in the Hämeenlinna Normaalilyseo, which was one of the first schools in the country to use Finnish as the teaching language instead of Swedish and Latin. It was far-sighted of the family to take the then unusual step of sending him to this particular school, for the Finnish language opened up to him the whole repertory of national mythology embodied in the Kalevala. His imaginaton was fired by this, as it was by the great Swedish lyric poets, Runeberg and Rydberg, and above all, by the Finnish countryside with its abundance of forests and lakes.

An accomplished violinist, he began his career as an orchestral composer and shortly after made his debut as a conductor. According to what I’ve read of him, Sibelius led a frenzied life: he composed, taught, conducted, played chamber music – and had time to party! (shades of Mozart). It was not until he left Finland to study in Berlin and Vienna that for the first time he measured himself against an orchestral canvas. It was in Vienna that the first ideas of the Kullervo Symphony came to him. It was this symphony, first performed in 1892, that put Sibelius on the musical map in his own country and alerted the world to the presence of a new voice in music. Kullervo shows the emerging nationalist as well as the symphonist. The music that followed in its immediate wake is strongly national in feeling. The Karelia Suite written for a pageant in Viipuri in 1893 has obvious patriotic overtones.

Sibelius returned to Finland at a time when it was concerned about its future under Russian control. A strong sense of nationalism had swept the country, and he was overcome by a need to express Finland’s identity through his music. A Finnish epic, the Kalevala, largely inspired the patriotic works that followed. The work that brought Sibelius instant fame was performed in 1892 and was called Kullervo, a five-movement symphonic poem based on Finnish mythology.

After his marriage, Sibelius taught at the Helsinki Academy of Music and at Kajanus’ Orchestral School. For the next seven years, he composed many Kalevala-inspired works, including En Saga, the Karelia Suite, the Lemminkainen Suites, and Finlandia. The latter was performed after the Russians greatly reduced the morale of the Finnish by practically abolishing the right of free speech. The Russian authorities banned the work due to its enormous effect on the people of Finland.

He married and moved to the village of Järvenpää, some 40 kilometers north of the capital. It was here on the wooded hill near the center of Finland that the composer chose to build a house and live there for almost half a century. Sibelius called his property “Ainola” in honor of both his wife and the legendary heroine of the Kalevala.


“He celebrated his 50th birthday by conducting his Fifth Symphony for the first time, during World War 1. Three years later, he was forced to leave Finland due to the dangers of the Russian Revolution. He returned with his wife when Finland was finally granted independence from Russia. His last major work was the tone-poem Tapiola (1926), and for the next 31 years, his life was clouded in silence. His retirement marked the end of his compositional career. He died on 20th September, 1957, aged 91.”

Around 1928 Sibelius began to plan his 8th Symphony, the premiere of which the music world awaited with impatience. According to one story, the work, which is still something of a mystery, was completed, but it is claimed that the musical genius burned the symphony score and its drafts in ‘Ainola’s’ fireplace in 1945.

During his long life Sibelius became a national figure in almost the same way as was Churchill in Britain. For most people he was Finland. Already by the beginning of the century he had become the symbol of national self-determination and his fame penetrated areas of the world which had only a vague idea where Finland was. His musical personality is the most powerful to have emerged in any of the Scandinavian countries. He is able to establish within a few seconds a sound world that is entirely his own. Above all he possessed a flair for thematic inspiration rare in the twentieth century. His capacity for the organic evolution of his material, and his for what I call “alliterative music” is so highly developed that it has few parallels in our time.
Listen to how extraordinarily original are the haunting A minor chords that well up from the strings at the beginning of The Swan of Tuonela.

Writing of the first movement of the Third Symphony in the 1930s Gerald Abraham went so far as to say:

In clearness and simplicity of outline, it is comparable with a Haydn or Mozart first movement. Nevertheless, the organic unity of the movement is far in advance of anything in the Viennese classical masters, and even the general architecture is held together in a way that had classical precedents but had never before, I think, been so fully developed.

In my mind, Tapiola crowns Sibelius’s creative achievement and is to the northern forest what Debussy’s La mer is to the sea. In 1960 Herbert von Karajan made it one of the conditions of his appointment as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic that the Sibelius Fourth Symphony was to appear at his inaugural concert, such was the level of hostility to him in Germany.

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