Life and Works
Jean Sibelius is the Titan of Finnish music. Many also consider him one of the greatest 20th-century symphonists. When he met his contemporary Gustav Mahler in 1907, the two discussed symphonic form. Sibelius stated that what he admired most was the 'profound logic' by which it connected musical ideas. Mahler disagreed vehemently. The symphony, he insisted, must be like the world: 'It must embrace everything.' ['Es muss alles umfassen'.]
Yet it is wrong to regard the two composers simply as opposite poles. Just as Mahler cared more about symphonic 'logic' than he sometimes cared to admit, Sibelius's symphonies also chart a very personal journey. In fact he called them 'confessions of faith from the different stages of my life'. Both men also had a passionate love of nature, and drew inspiration from it repeatedly in their works.
Sibelius was born to a cultivated, middle-class, Swedish-speaking family in a provincial garrison town. He only began to learn Finnish when his mother enrolled him at a Finnish-speaking grammar school - the country's first - at the age of 11. Soon, however, he was enthralled by stories by the Nordic poets Johan Runeberg and Viktor Rydberg from the national folk epic, the Kalevala. He also fell in love with the spacious Finnish landscape, with its seemingly endless forests and lakes.
Sibelius showed early promise as a composer. But it was on the violin that he shone initially. At the Helsinki Conservatory there was talk of him becoming a concert soloist. However, he suffered a crisis of confidence, and his playing suffered. He abandoned the idea of a virtuoso career, but not without lasting regret. Some of his later diary entries suggest that he even saw composition as a second-best option.
Even so, Sibelius's development as a composer was impressive. While studying in Vienna he had the first ideas for what was to become his programmatic Kullervo symphony, based on a story from the Kalevala. Encounters with Finnish folk singing in its purest, most ancient 'runic' form also had a galvanising effect. The premiere of Kullervo in Helsinki in 1892 was a sensation. Sibelius was established overnight as a major force in Finnish national culture.
In those days the country still belonged to Russia, and the Russian authorities were anxious to suppress nationalist activities. Sibelius's musical contributions to a series of defiantly Finnish historical pageants elevated him to the status of national hero. The most famous of them, the orchestral Finlandia (1900), made him an international name. Another Kalevala-inspired product of the 1890s was the four-movement Lemminkäinen Suite (including the superbly atmospheric 'Swan of Tuonela'). It showed him still intent on fusing symphonic and programmatic styles. But with his First Symphony (1899), Sibelius began to separate the symphony from the illustrative tone poem.
From then on he refused to concede that his symphonies were 'about' anything other than music. But many heard the Second Symphony (1901-02) as a 'symphony of liberation', even though its slow movement started life as a tone poem about Don Juan and Death. Sibelius's extreme commitment to 'absolute music' came in his partly neo-Classical Third Symphony, completed in 1907. It was partly influenced by the notion of 'Youthful Classicism' developed by Sibelius's friend, the composer-pianist Feruccio Busoni. But something new was born here. In this symphony the finale doesn't so much follow on from the scherzo as emerge from it.
This idea of seamless organic transition increasingly preoccupied Sibelius. In the Fifth Symphony (completed 1919) it is hard to say where the moderately paced first movement gives way to an accelerating scherzo. Sibelius wrote that he saw the symphony as a form 'like a river'. In the first movement of the Fifth the experience is like slipping gradually from a steady current into white-water rapids.
The economy and self-discipline found in Sibelius's symphonies and his masterly tone poems were not matched in the man himself. Insecure and prone to extreme mood-swings, he became alarmingly dependent on alcohol. After an operation to remove a throat tumour in 1909 he managed to give it up for a while. But the withdrawal symptoms were dreadful for him and his heroically devoted wife Aino.
Yet from this period emerges one of Sibelius's supreme masterpieces, the Fourth Symphony (1910-11). The need to come to terms with this crisis pushed him to extend his stylistic resources as never before. The harmonic language is often very dissonant. And in the slow movement Sibelius effectively creates a new musical form: variation-like, but with a theme that grows from (and eventually collapses back into) a tiny motivic seed.
In the mid-1920s Sibelius produced three masterpieces in the forms he had made his own: theatre music (The Tempest), symphony (no.7) and tone poem (Tapiola). Although he lived for another three decades, he never released another major work. It now seems more than likely that he finished an Eighth Symphony some time around 1930. But if so, he destroyed it, possibly in the same bonfire on which he sacrificed several other significant scores.
It has been suggested that Aino's efforts to curb Sibelius's drinking eventually deprived him of the means to silence the harsh critic in his own head. Whatever the cause, one of Sibelius's daughters stated that once he stopped composing he became more at peace with himself. In any case we can be grateful that he left so much fine music. Some of it - like the tone poem The Wood Nymph (1895) - has only recently been rediscovered.
Apart from the symphonies, tone poems and theatre scores, Sibelius also composed a large number of beautiful and powerful songs. Some exist in alternative versions with piano or orchestra. In the years after World War Two, Sibelius was dismissed by many as a Romantic reactionary. But his popularity never dwindled in the concert hall. And in the late 1970s he also began to be seen as intellectually respectable once more.
Sibelius's exploratory, organic attitude to form and orchestral sound, and his complex 'layered' musical textures have been an inspiration for many of today's younger composers. This is important, but his enduring popularity owes at least as much to his powerful lyricism, rooted deep in his country's musical soil.