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Learn About the Finnish Composer, Jean Sibelius' Works and Life

Jean Sibelius: Overview

  • Born: 1865 - Hämeenlinna, Finland (then, Russian Empire)
  • Died: 1957 - Järvepää, Finland 
  • Historical Period: Romantic & Early Modern 
  • Musical Media: orchestra, chamber music, violin, opera, choral, songs

Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius

Jean Sibelius: Exploring the Aura of a Romantic Nationalist

Johan Julius Christian, better known as Jean Sibelius, was one of the most celebrated symphonic composers of Scandinavia. Born on December 8, 1865 in Hämeenlinna, Finland, he is considered Finland’s greatest export in the field of melody.  

Early Life

He was born in subjugated Finland, an autonomous part of the Russian Empire. Jean started his education at the Finnish Normal School, which was the first Finnish-speaking institution in the country. He plunged into Finnish literature, notably Kalevala, the mythological epic which will later become a constant source of inspiration for his works. Later, he went to Helsinki to pursue a legal career but ended up becoming the brightest young composer and violinist in the entire city. He started under the guidance of Martin Wegelius, composing instrumental and chamber music in his early twenties. Here, he adopted the name Jean, which he would later use throughout his professional career.    

He was later offered a grant to study music in Berlin and Vienna, where he became an apprentice to renowned composers Karl Goldmark and Robert Fuchs. He marked his return to Finland with the Kullervo Symphony In 1892. It was his first performance with a large-scale orchestra and made him an overnight sensation. His subsequent works, “The Four Legends,” “The Karelia music” and “The En Saga” confirmed his position as Finland’s leading composer. The Swan of Tuonela (1893), the 3rd of the four poems in Four Legends attracted the most adulation among them. 

The Music

In 1897, the Finnish Senate offered him an annual grant to remove any financial complications that might become a hindrance to his work. He created the “Symphony No. 1 in E Minor” in 1899 along with the tone poem “Finlandia.” His works throughout 1890s depict a romantic tradition with an added pinch of nationalism. Sibelius’ work created a ripple across Europe in the early 20th century. In 1901, pianist-composer Ferruccio Busoni, his fellow student from Helsinki conducted his “Symphony No. 2 in D Major”. Granville Bantock, a British composer, followed suit, commissioning his “Symphony No. 3 in C Major” in 1907. Next, Sibelius turned his attention toward the more uncompromising mode of utterance, creating the “Symphony No. 4 in A Minor” and “En Saga” in 1911.     

The post-World War I saw the birth of his last three symphonies, “Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major”, “Symphony No. 6 in D Minor”, and “Symphony No. 7 in C Major”. This period concluded with “Tapiola (1925)”, cementing his legacy. The 1930s experienced a further surge in his popularity, prompted by writers like Constant Lambert and Cecil Gray in England and Olin Downes in the USA.    

His Best Works                                   

Kullervo (Op 7)

An early work of his career, this piece narrates the life episodes of Kullervo, a tragic character in Finnish mythology.

En Saga 

En Saga” can be roughly translated to a fairy tale. It depicted the musical rendering of his early life, his inner thoughts, and the feelings that he experienced before embarking on a remarkable journey. 

Seven Symphonies

They are concocted of the main elements of his life works. The first piece garnered him international plaudits, while the seventh piece exuded his ingenious talents. Jean had utilized each symphony to evolve and alter the structure of his musical approach. 

Karelia Suite (Op. 11)

It was inspired by the folk melodies of the Finnish countryside, comprising a bunch of small orchestral pieces. Sibelius deliberately crafted a rustic and rough feel throughout the pieces, which later became one of his most popular compositions. 

Sibelius Finlandia (Op. 26)

Sibelius's most distinguished work, the poem offers a grand orchestral tone - a protest against Russia’s stranglehold of Finland. His inner nationalist is symbolized through this, illustrating Finland’s struggle via a raging and dramatic resonance.         

Tulen Synty (Op. 32)

Featuring an orchestra and a baritone singer, “Tulen Synty” means “The Origin of Fire.” A somber, it is one of his most powerful compositions, representing classic Sibelius. 

Sibelius Violin Concerto (Op. 47)

His only concerto, it is considered slightly disturbing even after boasting of an impressively flashy violin segment.

The Polarizing genius

To date, Sibelius's symphonies loom like a brooding, dark enigma over the entire orchestral repertoire. 90 years have passed since the influential and radical seventh piece was completed, still presenting a challenge to the modern conductors exploring the brave new depths of sound. Sibelius’s symphonies have realms that music has never visited before, touching the outer limits of the orchestral plane. From the evocation of breathtaking landscapes to the subtle glint of string writing, his musical lens zooms through every spectrum of Finland.  

He progressively stripped away from multiple contrasting themes, focusing on the idea of various fragments culminating into a grand statement. His work can be widely regarded as an unbroken development, with constant permutations and combinations of contrasting themes. The organic nature of his synthesis often suggests that he might have started from the finishing statement, working his way backward in some form of the reverse sonata. His Finnish saga “Kalevala” offers an apt demonstration of how pragmatic music can affect the political landscape of a nation. This pragmatism sometimes labeled his work as irrevocable and complex. He attracted compliments and criticism alike. The most significant reason is, his unique and individual approach towards the tonality, form, and architecture of each of his seven symphonies.      

The Nationalist

A staunch nationalist, he composed Finlandia in 1899, which was later adopted as the country’s second national anthem. When the county was under siege, his piece immediately became a grand symbol of resistance, encouraging the patriotic fervor of that time. The impact was tremendous, with Finlandia offering a rallying for an ailing country fighting for its independence. That the piece was created and performed amidst harsh political repression and censorship further embodies Sibelius’s gravity and strength of character.           

His Personal Life

He married Aino Järnefelt on June 10, 1892, at Maxmo. The couple soon shifted to their new home Ainola, situated at Lake Tuusula in Järvenpää, where they spent the rest of their lives with their six daughters; Heidi, Margaret, Katarine, Kirsti, Ruth, and Eva.   

The Cult Hero 

The younger Sibelius was more of a bon vivant, a charismatic hard-drinker who lived his life with a desperate intensity evident in his pieces. However, as his music grew adventurous, his demeanor became more conservative and patriarchal - a contradiction at the heart of the cult. He underwent a serious operation for suspected throat cancer in 1911. He chose to shy away from the limelight for a while and live privately. 

He crafted no major pieces during the last 30 years of his life, becoming as silent as a rock. He finally passed away in 1957, with no manuscripts surviving his death.  

Today, one cannot pass through Helsinki without bumping into a conservatoire, monument, or concert hall named after Finland’s most famous composer. Finland now consistently produces composers, conductors, and performers per capita than any other nation. Herein lies the cult of Jean Sibelius. 


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