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Jean Sibelius was the premiere figure in the history of Finnish classical music. He is unique in that he found a voice for Finnish music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His most significant works are his symphonies, his violin concerto and several large-scale tone-poems. A lot of his compositional style is based on the most significant piece of Finnish folk literature, the Kalevala and using unorthodox placing of triadic harmony, neo-primitive musical ideas, orchestral colour and musical structure.
Sibelius was born in Hämeenlinna, 100km north of Helsinki, the second of three children. His father was a military physician and the town doctor, who died when Sibelius, known as Janne back then, was three, causing the family to plunge into debt. The family was hugely helped by relatives and it was from his aunts and uncles that he grew a love of music.
During Sibelius’s youth, Finland was a country going through change, which Sibelius came to be associated with. Finland had been ruled by Sweden from the 12th to the 19th centuries but from 1909 had become a grand duchy, controlled by Russia. The Finnish-speaking majority possessed little or no influence or social power, whereas the Swedish-speaking minority were seen as the elite, dominating commerce, education and the arts. Sibelius himself came from a Swedish-speaking family and only began to learn Finnish from the age of ten. He was fortunate in that he had the opportunity to attend the first ever Finnish-language secondary school in his hometown of Hämeenlinna.
At the age of 15 he began taking violin lessons with Gustaf Levander in 1881 and within the next decade became a competent violinist, playing in a string quartet in Hämeenlinna as well as a piano trio, with his brother Christian on the cello and his sister Linda at the piano. In these years he regarded himself mainly as a violinist but was veering towards compositon. His earliest surviving works are Vattendroppar (Raindrops), a three-movement Trio and a minuet in F for two violins and piano. He gradually began to write chamber works mildly derivative of the Viennese classical or early romantic style, more like that of Haydn, Schubert or Beethoven than any of his contemporaries.
In autumn 1885, Sibelius went to study law at the Helsinki University, which he discontinued after a year, and more successfully, at the newly-founded Helsinki Music Institute, which lasted four years. His violin technique improved an extraordinary amount in the years that he studied with Mitrofan Vasil’yev and Hermann Csillag but nevertheless, he found himself more drawn towards composition, which he studied privately with Martin Wegelius. Sibelius’s final two years at the institute were crucial in that he was beginning to form the idiom for which he became known. His first published work came in 1888:Serenad was printed in an anthology,Det sjungande Finland 2 and by this stage his career path as a composer was clear.
In his final year as a student, he formed a group of composers called the Leskovites, exchanging ideas in Helsinki cafes. It consisted of Sibelius, Feruccio Busoni, who had recently been hired to teach piano at the institute and three other young Finnish contemporaries, the composer Armas Järnefelt and his brother, the painter Eero Järnefelt as well as the pianist and writer Adolf Paul. Before long, Sibelius, who was now known as Jean, rather than Janne, fell in love with the Järnefelt’s younger sister, which would lead to a 65-year marriage. The Järnefelt’s strong support of Finnish nationalism and the pro-Finnish-speaking cause greatly influenced Sibelius and it would deepen in the intervening years.
After graduation, Sibelius received a stipend from the state to spend a year studying composition in with Albert Becker in Berlin, whom Sibelius described as an ‘old fogey from head to foot’. He was disappointed overall with Berlin, and disillusioned with his composition, and took to spending and drinking frivolously before returning to Finland and then Vienna for a few months, which turned out to be a turning point for him.
In Vienna, while he became more self-critical, hard-working and seeking out a new style, he turned his back on the Brahmsian academic chamber composition style and moved closer to orchestral writing. At the time, Bruckner was his symphonic hero, declaring him ‘the greatest of all living composers’, and after attending a performance ofSiegfried, joined the Wagner Society.
In 1891, Sibelius was deeply involved in educating himself on Finnish language and culture, improving his language skills and reading theKalevala, the Finnish national folk epic, whose poems about nature, creation, the gods and heroes were the epitome of Finnish culture. He wrote in a letter to Aino Järnefelt, to whom he was secretly engaged by this stage, that he found theKalevala remarkably modern in its repetition and sameness of the poetry, likening it to new music, regarding its distinct rhythms, moods and images – for him, this embodied ‘pure music’.
After moving back to Finland in 1891, Sibelius started work on Kullervo, a large-scale symphonic work based on the Kalevala, the Finish folk epic tale, fashioning this renewed Finnish image. He did not directly cite folksongs, but instead derived the general essential feeling from Finnish folk music. He was also caught up with Karelianism, an artistic and political feature of the ‘National Romanticism’ of 1890s Finland. The Karelianists wished to preserve the most authentic traditions of Finnish music and poetry, as the region of Karelia had been the birthplace of much of theKalevala.
The premiere of Sibelius's Kullervo took place on 28 April 1892 in Helsinki, conducted by Sibelius himself, and was immensely successful, establishing him overnight as the main musical voice of a whole generation of pro-Finnish cultural activists.Kullervo is an unsympathetic mythical tale of hardship, incest and tragedy, containing texts from theKalevala.
Sibelius’s first international success was on tour of northern Europe with the Helsinki Philharmonic to Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and France. The tour concluded with a performance at the Finnish pavilion at the World Exhibition in Paris. The subtext of these concerts was the political struggle of Finland against the increasingly powerful and oppressive Russia – political metaphors were not difficult to identify in the first performances of Finlandia, for instance, as well as in the First Symphony.
After the European tour, Sibelius’s performances throughout Europe increased and various German publishing houses began to publish works by Sibelius. The turn of the century was the period in which Sibelius was at his most overtly political. In the late 1890s, Finland faced some harsh repression and the Tsar Nicholas II ordered for severe ‘Russification’ in Finland and a limit to freedom of speech, which drew huge resistance from the pro-Finnish activists. The most politically charged of Sibelius’s pieces came from this era, such as Atenarnes sång (‘Song of the Athenians’, 1899), Islossningen i Uleå älv (‘The Breaking of the Ice on the Oulu River’, 1899), Isänmaalle (‘To the Fatherland’, 1900) andHar du mod? (‘Do you have courage?’, 1904). Sibelius’s Second Symphony also sang of victory, rich in motifs and very modern in character, compared to the first one.
Sibelius’s dark, expressive violin concerto was composed in 1903-1904 and performed in Helsinki in February 1904. It is his one work that merges the virtuosic with the sober, deep thought, which would be out of place in his tone-poems. One of its unusual features is its extended cadenza that acts as a development section. It was premiered in Berlin in 1905. Sibelius was so dissatisfied with certain passages of the Violin Concerto that he would not allow it to be published, however, this original version was recovered and not published until 1990.
Sibelius and his family moved into Ainola in 1904, a house in the rugged Finnish countryside, where he lived with his wife Aino and his many children, until his death.