Few composers dominate their country’s music more completely than Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). His emergence as a composer of international stature in the first decades of the 20th century went hand in hand with Finland’s struggle for self-determination and independence. If, in the decades after his death, his music was dismissed as conservative, he is now accepted as one of the greatest and most original symphonic composers since Beethoven.
The music you might recognise
The short tone poem Finland Awakens, renamed Finlandia after its first performance in 1899, quickly became the symbol of the Finnish struggle for nationhood and remains Sibelius’s best-known work.
The hymn with which it ends has also served as the basis of a Christian hymn, Be Still, My Soul – you might have also spotted it on the soundtrack of Die Hard 2: Die Harder, directed by the Finn, Renny Harlin.
The intermezzo from the 1893 Karelia Suite was the signature tune for ITV’s current affairs programme This Week, which ran from from 1956 to 1978, while At the Castle Gates, from Sibelius’s incidental music to Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas and Mélisande, continues to introduce the BBC’s The Sky at Night, as it has since 1957. And, 1980s teenagers have Strawberry Switchblade’s hit Since Yesterday to thank for introducing them to the famous main theme of the finale of the Fifth Symphony.
His life ...
Sibelius was born in Hämeenlinna, in the south of what was then the Grand Duchy of Finland, an autonomous part of the Russian empire. His father died when he was three, and he was brought up by his mother and grandmother. The family’s first language was Swedish, but from the age of nine he attended Finnish-speaking schools and was soon fascinated by Finnish mythology, particularly the folk stories collected in the Kalevala, first published in 1835.
By then he was having piano and violin lessons. He composed copiously through his teens, yet despite his obvious musical talent he began studying law, though at the same time he enrolled at the Helsinki Music Institute (now the Sibelius Academy). Very soon he abandoned law to study music full-time, and received his first formal composition lessons. (It was while he was a student, too, that he changed his first name from Johan to its French equivalent, Jean.) When the composer Ferruccio Busoni joined the institute as a piano teacher the two became friends. By then Sibelius was starting to realise that he would never become the violin virtuoso he aspired to be, and Busoni encouraged his composition. In his student years, he concentrated on chamber music, though he wrote only one mature string quartet, the five-movement Voces Intimae of 1909.
Further composition studies in Berlin and Vienna between 1889 and 1891 included an encounter with the symphonies of Anton Bruckner, perhaps as a result of which he began writing orchestral music that he conducted on his return to Helsinki. He also started work on a much more ambitious project, the choral symphony Kullervo, based on episodes from the Kalevala. It was a resounding success at its first performance, but Sibelius refused to allow the score to be published until after his death. He married in 1892, and he and his wife Aino spent their honeymoon in Karelia, the region of eastern Finland that is the source of many of the Kalevala stories, and which inspired several of Sibelius’s works that followed – the Karelia Suite, the set of four Lemminkäinen Legends (the second of which, The Swan of Tuonela, has acquired an independent life as an orchestral favourite) and the first of the tone poems, En Saga.
A symphonic or tone poem is, usually, a single-movement orchestral piece shaped by a literary or visual text, but Sibelius’s concept of the form (he wrote 16 of them altogether) was radically different from that of his contemporary Richard Strauss. From En Saga to the magnificently austere Tapiola of 1926, his approach was much more suggestive than narratively literal and naively descriptive, and the musical organisation always highly disciplined. In some of the poems, such as Pohjola’s Daughter (1906) and The Oceanides (1914), the structure verges on the genuinely symphonic.
The only opera Sibelius completed was the one-act The Maiden in the Tower, though its dramatically inert Swedish libretto meant that after its 1895 premiere he withdrew the score (it was not heard again until the 1980s). Perhaps some sense of what a mature Sibelius opera might have sounded like comes from the intense, 1913 tone poem Luonnotar, with its soaring soprano-setting of a Kalevala creation story.
But the sequence of works on which Sibelius’s reputation is founded begins with the first two symphonies, completed in 1899 and 1902 respectively. If the First (likewise the Violin Concerto of 1905) is sometimes a little too obviously indebted to Tchaikovsky, then the Second begins to reveal the terse voice of the mature Sibelius, which became ever more distinctive and original in the works that followed.
... and times
The premiere of the First Symphony and the final version of Finlandia coincided with a rising tide of nationalism, as Finland’s autonomy under Russian rule was threatened by Tsar Nicholas II, who tried to suppress the country’s language and culture. Sibelius’s music, alongside the paintings of Akseli Gallen-Kallela, was seen as a symbol of resistance, and his Second Symphony is sometimes interpreted as a depiction of the country’s struggle, though Sibelius himself always maintained that his symphonies were abstract works.
The first quarter of the 20th century was one of the most turbulent periods in musical history, but Sibelius’s music continued to follow its own independent path, hardly touched by the swirling currents of modernism across Europe, though he met many of the leading composers of the day – Debussy, Schoenberg, Strauss, and famously Mahler, with whom he discussed the symphony. Sibelius maintained his belief in the discipline and coherence of symphonic thinking, while Mahler declared that the symphony “must be like the world, it must embrace everything”.
It’s sometimes claimed that the dark, introverted Fourth Symphony, first performed in 1911, was Sibelius’s response to Schoenberg’s music and its erosion of tonality. But it seems more likely that the symphony’s pessimism was an expression of his personal circumstances. It was written while he was undergoing operations to remove a tumour from his throat, and which had obliged him to give up drinking, if only temporarily.
Certainly the optimism returned with the Fifth Symphony, premiered in 1915 as a four-movement work, and revised four years later into the three-movement form in which it’s known today. The famous rocking theme of its finale, one of the most memorable in all his works, was inspired by the sight of swans migrating over Ainola, the house in the Finnish countryside where Sibelius and his wife lived for more than 50 years. His Sixth Symphony, first performed in 1923, was different again: almost neoclassical in its transparency, use of modal harmonies and avoidance of traditional symphonic rhetoric, and sometimes seems closer in spirit to Renaissance polyphony than to anything in the symphonic tradition. And the Seventh took that reconfiguring of what a symphony could be still further, compressing all the functions of the form into an organic single movement, as though symphony and tone poem had finally fused.
The Seventh was Sibelius’s final symphony. Its premiere in 1924 was swiftly followed by the tone poem Tapiola, an evocation of Finnish forests, and by incidental music for a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but then there was 30 years of almost complete silence. The heavy drinking had taken its toll. There were a few miniatures – throughout his career Sibelius had written small-scale works, including more than 100 songs and 150 piano pieces – and rumours of an Eighth Symphony persisted. He may even have completed such a work, but burned the manuscript sometime in the 1940s. A few pages of sketches, though, survived, and have even been performed in recent years.
Why his music still matters
Although he was never regarded as an avant garde figure like his modernist contemporaries Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Bartók, Sibelius was a huge influence on many younger composers in the interwar years. In the UK, composers such as Vaughan Williams, Arnold Bax and EJ Moeran admired him for the originality and rigour of his symphonies, while in its thematic working and even the shape of several of its themes, William Walton’s First Symphony owes Sibelius’s music a huge debt. After his death in 1957, Sibelius’s reputation went into eclipse for several decades before his stature as one of the 20th century’s greatest composers was universally recognised, although he had continued to cast a huge shadow over music in Finland, where a generation of composers led by Kaija Saariaho and Magnus Lindberg struggled to rid themselves of his influence before eventually coming to terms with what his music could offer them.
The recordings conducted in the early 1930s by Sibelius’s close friend Robert Kajanus are the nearest we have to the composer’s own ideas on how his music should be interpreted. There’s no shortage of outstanding interpretations of the symphonies and tone poems from the 1950s and 60s by conductors including von Karajan, Bernstein, Barbirolli and Anthony Collins, while in the 1990s the BIS label embarked on a complete survey of Sibelius’s works with most of the orchestral works performed by the Lahti Symphony, conducted by Osmo Vänskä. In that series, too, Leonidas Kavakos’s performance of the Violin Concerto deserves a place alongside the classic accounts by Jascha Heifetz and Ginette Neveu.