Considering Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) had writers’ block for the last thirty years of his life (after he’d finished his Seventh Symphony), the Finnish composer was extremely prolific. The sound of his music is often nationalistic, evoking the sounds of nature (e.g. Symphony No. 5 final movement) and using the Kalevala, a nationalistic folk in Kullervo. He lived through the independence of Finland from Russia, a civil war in Finland and two World Wars.
Sibelius was extremely famous in his life, having his works performed consistently in Helsinki and in Europe – in London, Berlin and Norway. Sibelius often had the lifestyle of a popstar, being a heavy drinker and sometimes enjoying himself too much, racking up debts and enraging his wife, Aino Ackte. His talent is undeniable, and it is a tragedy that in the last thirty years of his life he was unable to write any music, even burning the plans for his Symphony No. 8. Enjoy the luscious and rich nature of his symphonic melodies and appreciate just how prolific he was over the course of his compositional career.
Discover the music of Sibelius
Jean Sibelius wrote in a predominantly classical style at a time of significant change in the music world at the turn of the twentieth century. Sibelius is known as a symphonic composer, writing seven pillars of the genre and also composing large-scale symphonic tone poems (he was influenced by both Wagner and Liszt). His Violin Concerto in D minor is said to be written in a symphonic style, with the orchestra and violin on equal terms. He loved nature and his music often evokes these sounds, in a similar way to Grieg in Norway and Carl Nielsen in Denmark.
Three Sibelius works you should know:
Symphony No 1 Movement I (Allegretto)
Sibelius’ arrival on the symphonic scene thirty-four years into his life; the catchy melody in the strings following the abstract opening sounds just like an arrival. The very opening evokes a dark, haunting atmosphere with the clarinet underpinned by a drum roll, conjuring an image of a lone animal in a forest looking for a companion. The theme which follows has a radiance and freshness, one of many instances in Sibelius’ symphonies where he writes a memorable tune. He started the work in 1898 and it was premiered by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra in 1899.
Finlandia, Op. 26, No. 7
Written in 1899 and revised in 1900, undoubtedly Sibelius’ most famous work. It was created as a protest at a time when Finland was occupied by Russia (Finland was eventually granted independence in December 1917). The work had to take various names to avoid Russian censorship. The music begins in a fraught, anxious way, followed by the famous, beautiful, serene hymn written by the composer. The way that Sibelius changes moods in the piece is perhaps an echo of the political situation in his beloved Finland.
Symphony No. 5 Movement III (Allegro Molto)
Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony was written in April 1915 and was comprised of just three movements when the normal structure for a symphony was four. This was perhaps a push towards modernism, as we know Sibelius was influenced by Schoenberg. The final movement was inspired by the sight of swans the composer saw flying overhead and the main theme in the movement denotes the sound of these creatures; calm, elegant and repetitive. Sibelius ends the symphony unusually with six chords broken up by rests, giving the conductor complete control over the ending of the work.
Sibelius, the man:
A love for his country
There is no doubt that Sibelius loved his country. He became a kind of musician spokesman for Finland’s independence and a fervent defender of Finnish nationalism against Russia. Music was a tool he used to represent the spectacular landscapes and thousand-year-old culture of his country. Much of his music takes inspiration from the Kalevala, a book of epic poetry based around Finnish myth and legend. This can especially be heard in one of his last works, a tone poem called Tapiola which was based around the forest spirit Tapio, who makes appearances throughout the Kalevala.
Husband and father
Sibelius was a family man, he even built a house named after his wife. With this abode, he combined two things he loved, his wife Aino and the nature of his homeland. Named ‘Ainola’ (Aino’s place), the house was built deep in the Finnish countryside away from the bustle of Helsinki, here Sibelius could focus in peace. He, his wife, and his 6 children lived in the house until his death in 1957.
Sibelius was a true perfectionist who never settled for mediocrity. He spent years trying to compose his eighth symphony without finding a version that he was satisfied with. Perhaps this was due to his high expectations for the piece, he told many people that this would be the climax of his composing career. In the end, he threw it, along with other unfinished works, into the fire unceremoniously. While some may see this as a tragedy, without this level of perfectionism, the world wouldn’t have some of Sibelius’ most celebrated pieces.
Born in 1865 into a family of doctors, Sibelius began playing violin and composing at the age of 10. He first studied law in Helsinki, before deciding to dedicate himself to music. He had early hopes for a career as a solo violinist and his love of the instrument is evident in his Violin Concerto. He was influenced by Tchaikovsky, Wagner and his lifelong friend, the pianist Ferruccio Busoni.
Give me the loneliness of the Finnish forest or of a big city...
Sibelius studied in Berlin and Vienna between 1889 and 1892. Upon his return to Finland, he married Aino Järnefelt, whose family were also professional musicians, artists and fervent activists for Finnish independence. In 1899, Sibelius first demonstrated his genius with his First Symphony, a work which attracted the attention of Gustav Mahler. His fame continued to grow as he composed symphony after symphony, each one fresh and different.
In 1907, he was diagnosed with throat cancer and discouraged from smoking cigars and drinking alcohol. Although he was not fanatical in his abstinence, Sibelius went on to live another fifty years, thirty years of which he would spend in comfortable retirement, mostly in the Finnish countryside that he admired.
Sibelius is so concentrated and exact. With Sibelius, you feel that if one drop touches your skin it would burn right through the bone.
By the time of his death, Sibelius was firmly established as a national hero. Finland’s lack of indigenous musical traditions made Sibelius’s cultural contribution all the more important, as he gave expression to Finland’s people and landscape when they had previously been without a voice. Sibelius died aged 92. The composer’s much-awaited eighth symphony never materialised and was likely destroyed by him.