Jean Sibelius (/, /; Swedish pronunciation (help·info); born Johan Julius Christian Sibelius; 8 December 1865 – 20 September 1957) was a Finnish composer of the late Romantic period. His music played an important role in the formation of the Finnish national identity.
The core of Sibelius' oeuvre is his set of seven symphonies. Like Beethoven, Sibelius used each successive work to further develop his own personal compositional style. His works continue to be performed frequently in the concert hall and are often recorded.
In addition to the symphonies, Sibelius' best-known compositions include Finlandia, the Karelia Suite, Valse triste, the Violin Concerto in D minor, Kullervo, and The Swan of Tuonela (one of the four movements of the Lemminkäinen Suite). Other works include pieces inspired by the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala; over 100 songs for voice and piano; incidental music for 13 plays; the opera Jungfrun i tornet (The Maiden in the Tower); chamber music; piano music; Masonic ritual music; and 21 separate publications of choral music.
Sibelius composed prolifically until the mid-1920s. However, after completing his Seventh Symphony (1924), the incidental music to The Tempest (1926), and the tone poem Tapiola (1926), he produced no large scale works for the remaining thirty years of his life. Although he is reputed to have stopped composing, he in fact attempted to continue writing, including abortive efforts to compose an eighth symphony. He wrote some Masonic music and re-edited some earlier works during this last period of his life, and retained an active interest in new developments in music, although he did not always view modern music favorably.
The Finnish 100 mark bill featured his image until it was taken out of circulation in 2002 when the euro was adopted as a cash currency. Since 2011, Finland has celebrated a Flag Day on 8 December, the composer's birthday, also known as the 'Day of Finnish Music'.
Sibelius was born in Hämeenlinna in Grand Duchy of Finland in the Russian Empire, the son of Swedish-speaking doctor Christian Gustaf Sibelius and Maria Charlotta Sibelius née Borg. As a boy he was nicknamed Janne, as is common in Finland. However, during his student years, he began preferring the French form Jean, inspired by the business card of his seafaring uncle. He therefore became known as Jean Sibelius.
The rapid rise of Romantic Nationalism in Europe was inspired by the philosophy of Hegel and had a profound effect on educational systems in Europe. The gradual demise of Latin was accompanied by opportunities to study more native languages. In Finland this meant either Finnish or Swedish, which became part of the syllabus, from elementary school up to university. Young Janne Sibelius went to the Finnish-speaking Hämeenlinna Normal-Lycee secondary school which he attended from 1876 to 1885, but his first language was Swedish. Romantic Nationalism was to become a crucial element in Sibelius' artistic output and his political leanings. From around the age of 15, he set his heart on becoming a great violin virtuoso, and he did become quite an accomplished player of the instrument, even publicly performing the last two movements of the Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in Helsinki.
After Sibelius graduated from high school in 1885, he began to study law at the Imperial Alexander University in Finland (from 1919 the University of Helsinki). However, he was more interested in music than in law, and he soon quit his studies. From 1885 to 1889 Sibelius studied music in the Helsinki Music Institute (now the Sibelius Academy). One of his teachers there was the founder Martin Wegelius. Sibelius continued studying in Berlin (from 1889 to 1890 with Albert Becker) and in Vienna (from 1890 to 1891 with Karl Goldmark). It was around this time that he finally abandoned his cherished violin playing aspirations: "It was a very painful awakening when I had to admit that I had begun my training for the exacting career of a virtuoso too late".
According to Sibelius' biographer Erik Tawaststjerna, he was an enthusiastic Wagnerian at the beginning of the 1890s but then began to feel disgust for his music, calling it pompous and vulgar.
On 10 June 1892, Jean Sibelius married Aino Järnefelt (1871–1969) at Maxmo. Their home, called Ainola, was completed at Lake Tuusula, Järvenpää, in 1903. They had six daughters: Eva, Ruth, Kirsti (who died at a very young age from typhoid), Katarina, Margareta and Heidi. Eva married an industrial heir Arvi Paloheimo and later herself became the CEO of the Paloheimo Corporation. Ruth Snellman was a prominent actress, Katarina Ilves the wife of a banker, and Heidi Blomstedt a designer, her husband Aulis Blomstedt being an architect. Margareta married the conductor Jussi Jalas, previously Blomstedt, Aulis Blomstedt's brother.
In 1907, Sibelius underwent a serious operation for suspected throat cancer. The impact of this brush with death has been said to have inspired works that he composed in the following years, including Luonnotar and the Fourth Symphony.
Sibelius spent long periods abroad studying in Vienna and Berlin 1889–1891 and 1900–1901 with family in Italy. He composed, conducted and socialized actively in Scandinavian countries, the UK, France and Germany. In 1914 he was the composer of the year at the Norfolk Music Festival in Connecticut, USA, premiering his symphonic poem The Oceanides commissioned by the millionaire Carl Stoeckel.
When freemasonry was revived in Finland, having been forbidden during the Russian sovereignty, Sibelius was one of the founding members of Suomi Lodge Nr 1 in 1922 and later the Grand Organist of the Grand Lodge of Finland. He composed the ritual music used in Finland (op 113) in 1927 and added two new pieces composed 1946. The new revision of the ritual music of 1948 is one of his last works.
Sibelius loved nature, and the Finnish landscape often served as material for his music. He once said of his Sixth Symphony, "[It] always reminds me of the scent of the first snow." The forests surrounding Ainola are often said to have inspired his composition of Tapiola. On the subject of Sibelius' ties to nature, one biographer of the composer, Erik W. Tawaststjerna, wrote the following:
"Even by Nordic standards, Sibelius responded with exceptional intensity to the moods of nature and the changes in the seasons: he scanned the skies with his binoculars for the geese flying over the lake ice, listened to the screech of the cranes, and heard the cries of the curlew echo over the marshy grounds just below Ainola. He savoured the spring blossoms every bit as much as he did autumnal scents and colours".
The year 1926 saw a sharp and lasting decline in Sibelius' output: after his Seventh Symphony he only produced a few major works in the rest of his life. Arguably the two most significant were incidental music for Shakespeare's The Tempest and the tone poem Tapiola. For most of the last thirty years of his life, Sibelius even avoided talking about his music publicly.
There is substantial evidence that Sibelius worked on an eighth symphony. He promised the premiere of this symphony to Serge Koussevitzky in 1931 and 1932, and a London performance in 1933 under Basil Cameron was even advertised to the public. However, the only concrete evidence for the symphony's existence on paper are a 1933 bill for a fair copy of the first movement and short draft fragments first published and played in 2011. Sibelius had always been quite self-critical; he remarked to his close friends, "If I cannot write a better symphony than my Seventh, then it shall be my last." Since no manuscript survives, sources consider it likely that Sibelius destroyed most traces of the score, probably in 1945, during which year he certainly consigned a great many papers to the flames. His wife Aino recalled,
"In the 1940s there was a great auto da fé at Ainola. My husband collected a number of the manuscripts in a laundry basket and burned them on the open fire in the dining room. Parts of the Karelia Suite were destroyed – I later saw remains of the pages which had been torn out – and many other things. I did not have the strength to be present and left the room. I therefore do not know what he threw on to the fire. But after this my husband became calmer and gradually lighter in mood."
On 1 January 1939, Sibelius participated in an international radio broadcast which included the composer conducting his Andante Festivo. The performance was preserved on transcription discs and later issued on CD. This is probably the only surviving example of Sibelius interpreting his own music.
Since 1903 Sibelius had lived in the country, but from 1939–1944 Jean and Aino again held a residence in Helsinki. After the war he came to the city only a couple of times. The so-called "Silence of Ainola" appears a myth, knowing that in addition to countless official visitors and visiting colleagues also his grandchildren and great grandchildren spent their holidays in Ainola.
Sibelius avoided public statements about other composers, but Erik W. Tawaststjerna and Sibelius' secretary Santeri Levas have documented his private conversations in which he considered Bartók and Shostakovich the most talented composers of the younger generations. In the 1950s he actively promoted the young Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara.
His 90th birthday, in 1955, was widely celebrated and both the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Thomas Beecham gave special performances of his music in Finland. The orchestras and their conductors also met the composer at his home; a series of memorable photographs were taken to commemorate the occasions. Both Columbia Records and EMI released some of the pictures with albums of Sibelius' music. Beecham was honored by the Finnish government for his efforts to promote Sibelius both in the United Kingdom and in the United States.
Erik W. Tawaststjerna also related an endearing anecdote regarding Sibelius' death:
[He] was returning from his customary morning walk. Exhilarated, he told his wife Aino that he had seen a flock of cranes approaching. "There they come, the birds of my youth," he exclaimed. Suddenly, one of the birds broke away from the formation and circled once above Ainola. It then rejoined the flock to continue its journey.
Two days afterwards Sibelius died of a brain hemorrhage, at age 91 (on 20 September 1957), in Ainola, where he is buried in the garden. Another well-known Finnish composer, Heino Kaski, died that same day. Aino lived there for the next twelve years until she died on 8 June 1969; she is buried with her husband.
Like many of his contemporaries, Sibelius was initially enamored of the music of Wagner. A performance of Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival had a strong effect on him, inspiring him to write to his wife shortly thereafter, "Nothing in the world has made such an impression on me, it moves the very strings of my heart." He studied the scores of Wagner's operas Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, and Die Walküre intently. With this music in mind, Sibelius began work on an opera of his own, entitled Veneen luominen (The Building of the Boat). However, his appreciation for Wagner waned and Sibelius ultimately rejected Wagner's Leitmotif compositional technique, considering it to be too deliberate and calculated. Departing from opera, he later used the musical material from the incomplete Veneen luominen in his Lemminkäinen Suite (1893). He did, however, compose a considerable number of songs for voice and piano, whose early interpreters included Aino Ackté and particularly Ida Ekman.
More lasting influences included Ferruccio Busoni, Anton Bruckner and Tchaikovsky. Hints of Tchaikovsky's music are particularly evident in works such as Sibelius' First Symphony (1899) and his Violin Concerto (1905). Similarities to Bruckner are most strongly felt in the 'unmixed' timbral palette and sombre brass chorales of Sibelius' orchestration, a fondness for pedal points, and in the underlying slow pace of the music.
Sibelius progressively stripped away formal markers of sonata form in his work and, instead of contrasting multiple themes, he focused on the idea of continuously evolving cells and fragments culminating in a grand statement. His later works are remarkable for their sense of unbroken development, progressing by means of thematic permutations and derivations. The completeness and organic feel of this synthesis has prompted some to suggest that Sibelius began his works with a finished statement and worked backwards, although analyses showing these predominantly three- and four-note cells and melodic fragments as they are developed and expanded into the larger "themes" effectively prove the opposite.
This self-contained structure stood in stark contrast to the symphonic style of Gustav Mahler, Sibelius' primary rival in symphonic composition. While thematic variation played a major role in the works of both composers, Mahler's style made use of disjunct, abruptly changing and contrasting themes, while Sibelius sought to slowly transform thematic elements. In November 1907 Mahler undertook a conducting tour of Finland, and the two composers had occasion to go have a lengthy bath together. Sibelius later reported that during the bath:
I said that I admired [the symphony's] severity of style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motifs... Mahler's opinion was just the reverse. 'No, a symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.'
However, the two rivals did find common ground in their music. Like Mahler, Sibelius made frequent use both of folk music and of literature in the composition of his works. The Second Symphony's slow movement was sketched from the motif of Il Commendatore in Don Giovanni, while the stark Fourth Symphony combined work for a planned "Mountain" symphony with a tone poem based on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven". Sibelius also wrote several tone poems based on Finnish poetry, beginning with the early En Saga and culminating in the late Tapiola (1926), his last major composition.
Over time, he sought to use new chord patterns, including naked tritones (for example in the Fourth Symphony), and bare melodic structures to build long movements of music, in a manner similar to Joseph Haydn's use of built-in dissonances. Sibelius would often alternate melodic sections with noble brass chords that would swell and fade away, or he would underpin his music with repeating figures which push against the melody and counter-melody.
Sibelius' melodies often feature powerful modal implications: for example much of the Sixth Symphony is in the (modern) Dorian mode. Sibelius studied Renaissance polyphony, as did his contemporary, the Danish composer Carl Nielsen, and Sibelius' music often reflects the influence of this early music. He often varied his movements in a piece by changing the note values of melodies, rather than the conventional change of tempi. He would often draw out one melody over a number of notes, while playing a different melody in shorter rhythm. For example, his Seventh Symphony comprises four originally sketched movements fused into telescopical and partly parallel functions without pause, where every important theme is in C major or C minor; the variation comes from the time and rhythm. His harmonic language was often restrained, even iconoclastic, compared to many of his contemporaries who were already experimenting with musical Modernism. As reported by Neville Cardus in the Manchester Guardian newspaper in 1958:
Sibelius exerted considerable influence on symphonic composers and musical life, at least in English-speaking and Nordic countries. The Finnish symphonist Leevi Madetoja was a pupil of Sibelius. In Britain, Vaughan Williams and Arnold Bax both dedicated their fifth symphonies to Sibelius. Furthermore, Tapiola is prominently echoed in both Bax's Sixth Symphony and Moeran's Symphony in G Minor. The influence of Sibelius' compositional procedures is also strongly felt in the First Symphony of William Walton. When these and several other major British symphonic essays were being written in and around the 1930s, Sibelius' music was very much in vogue, with conductors like Beecham and Barbirolli championing its cause both in the concert hall and on record. Walton's composer friend Constant Lambert even claimed that Sibelius was "the first great composer since Beethoven whose mind thinks naturally in terms of symphonic form". Earlier, Granville Bantock had championed Sibelius (the esteem was mutual: Sibelius dedicated his Third Symphony to the English composer, and in 1946 he became the first President of the Bantock Society). More recently, Sibelius was also one of the composers championed by Robert Simpson. Malcolm Arnold acknowledged his influence, and Arthur Butterworth also saw Sibelius' music as a source of inspiration in his work.
Eugene Ormandy and to a lesser extent, his predecessor Leopold Stokowski, were instrumental in bringing Sibelius' music to American audiences by programming his works often; the former developed a friendly relationship with Sibelius throughout his life. Later in life he was championed by critic Olin Downes, who wrote a biography of the composer.
In 1938 Theodor Adorno wrote a critical essay about the composer, notoriously charging that "If Sibelius is good, this invalidates the standards of musical quality that have persisted from Bach to Schoenberg: the richness of inter-connectedness, articulation, unity in diversity, the 'multi-faceted' in 'the one'." Adorno sent his essay to Virgil Thomson, then music critic of the New York Herald Tribune, who was also critical of Sibelius; Thomson, while agreeing with the essay's sentiment, declared to Adorno that "the tone of it [was] more apt to create antagonism toward [Adorno] than toward Sibelius". Later, the composer, theorist and conductor René Leibowitz went so far as to describe Sibelius as "the worst composer in the world" in the title of a 1955 pamphlet.
Perhaps one reason Sibelius has attracted both the praise and the ire of critics is that in each of his seven symphonies he approached the basic problems of form, tonality, and architecture in unique, individual ways. On the one hand, his symphonic (and tonal) creativity was novel, but others thought that music should be taking a different route. Sibelius' response to criticism was dismissive: "Pay no attention to what critics say. No statue has ever been put up to a critic."
In the latter decades of the twentieth century, Sibelius began to be re-assessed more favourably: Milan Kundera dubbed the composer's approach to be that of "antimodern modernism", standing outside the perpetual progression of the status quo. In 1990, the composer Thea Musgrave was commissioned by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra to write a piece in honour of the 125th anniversary of Sibelius' birth: Song of the Enchanter was premiered on 14 February 1991. In 1984, American avant-garde composer Morton Feldman gave a lecture in Darmstadt, Germany, wherein he stated that "the people you think are radicals might really be conservatives – the people you think are conservatives might really be radical," whereupon he began to hum Sibelius' Fifth Symphony.
Sibelius has fallen in and out of fashion, but remains one of the most popular 20th century symphonists, both in the concert hall and on record. Sibelius had spent much time producing profitable chamber music for home use, salon music, occasional works for the stage and other incidental music, all of which has now been systematically recorded on BIS Records' complete Sibelius Edition. This major editorial project to record every note Sibelius left us also encompasses surviving sketches and early versions of the major works.
These are ordered chronologically; the date is the date of composition rather than publication or first performance.
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