When Finland’s culture is discussed, what is normally listed, alongside such national treasures as the lakeside sauna, Fiskars scissors, and Nokia cell phones, is “our Sibelius.”
Jean Sibelius (born in 1865) plays a prominent role in the formulation of the Finnish national identity. Regarded as a national icon, Sibelius is one of the most influential musicians in the development of the symphony and symphonic poem.
While his seven symphonies with a continuous development of a personal style form the backbone of his oeuvre, Sibelius is also revered for the ‘Violin Concerto in D minor,’ a number of tone-poems based on the Finnish national epic the ‘Kalevala,’ and theatre music. And his production was complemented by an opera, chamber music, piano works, occasional compositions, 21 choral works and over a hundred solo songs.
After completing his studies in Berlin and Vienna and returning to Finland, he created a flutter when at the age of 27 when he performed his first large-scale orchestral work, the ‘Kullervo Symphony;’ and followed it up with ‘En Saga’ the same year.
In fact, after the premiere of ‘Kullervo’ in 1893 which created a sensation, the status of Sibelius was elevated as the foremost Finnish composer. The ‘Lemminkainen suite,’ commenced in 1895 and premiered in 1896, has come to be regarded as the most important piece of music by Sibelius up to that time.
This was followed by the ‘Karelia’ music, and the ‘Four Legends,’ which effectively crowned Sibelius as Finland’s leading composer. At 28, came the well-known ‘The Swan of Tuonela’ which was the third of the four symphonic poems in ‘Four Legends.’ At 31, he produced his only complete opera, a one-act piece, ‘Jungfrun i tornet’ (‘The Maiden in the Tower’).
At the age of 34 appeared his ‘Symphony No. 1 in E Minor;’ Sibelius’ tone poem ‘Finlandia’ was also written and revised when he was just 35 years old. In essence, ‘Finlandia’ was a nationalistic call for Russia to keep its hands off Finland; Sibelius later reworked the central part of the piece into a ‘Finlandia Hymn.’ Today it is regarded as the country’s unofficial national anthem.
When he was 36, came the ‘Second Symphony,’ and at 38 he produced his only concerto for violin. He also travelled frequently to the Scandinavian countries, England, Germany, France and the USA. At 49, he visited Norfolk, CT, where he conducted his newest work ‘The Oceanides.’
Violin Concerto (excerpt)
In his early 50s, which were the war years, Sibelius spent in Finland working on his ‘Fifth Symphony.’ And he travelled to the UK for the last time at the age of 56. After World War I, he published, perhaps, his greatest work, the last three symphonies (‘No. 5 in E-flat Major,’ ‘No. 6 in D Minor,’ and ‘No. 7 in C Major’) and ‘Tapiola.’
Sibelius finished his ‘Seventh Symphony’ three years later, and his last work was the incidental music for ‘The Tempest’ when he was 60 years old. For the remaining 30 years Sibelius along with his family lived a quiet life, seeking solace in the lakes, pine trees and wildlife surrounding his home ‘Ainola’ in the Finnish landscape.
After Sibelius moved to ‘Ainola,’ his music acquired a more concise, classical tone—this is evident in the ‘Third Symphony.’ Sibelius was not really attracted to traditional religious music; he preferred to express his deeply held pantheistic convictions in works such as the songs ‘Hostkvall’ (‘Autumn Evening’) and ‘Pa verandan vid havet’ (‘On a Balcony by the Sea’).
While the Scandinavian landscape was a source of inspiration, it is not primarily as a nature poet that he is remembered. His achievement both in the symphonic poems and the seven symphonies lies principally in his remarkable mastery of form.
Symphony 5 (excerpt)
Sibelius was considered a national hero and was one of Finland’s most famous exports—with a set of postage stamps issued in his honour. In 1955, his 90th birthday was widely celebrated throughout the world with many performances of his music. Sibelius died when he was 92 years old on 20 Sep 1957.
Every year since 2011, Finland celebrates 8th December which is the birthday of Silebius, as ‘Flag Day’–also known as the ‘Day of Finnish Music.’