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Jean Sibelius and “Finlandia”

      Johan Julius Christian or Jean Sibelius (December 8, 1865 –September 20, 1957) was a Finnish composer of the later Romantic period whose music played an important role in the formation of the Finnish national identity.  He was orn in Hämeenlinna in what was then the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland, the son of Swedish-speaking doctor Christian Gustaf Sibelius and Maria Charlotta (née Borg) Sibelius.   Young Jean went to a Finnish-speaking school from 1876 to 1885. 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 Violin Concerto in Helsinki.

     After Sibelius graduated from high school in 1885, he began to study law at the Imperial Alexander University of Finland (now 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 school (now the Sibelius Academy). One of his teachers there was Martin Wegelius. Sibelius continued studying in Berlin with Albert Becker (from 1889 to 1890) and in Vienna (from 1890 to 1891). It was around this time that he finally abandoned his cherished violin playing aspirations.  On June 10, 1892, he married Aino Järnefelt (1871–1969) at Maxmo. Their home, called Ainola, was completed at Lake Tuusula, Järvenpää in 1903. They had six daughters.

     According to Sibelius’s 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.  In 1908, 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 1889-91 and 1900-1901 with family in Italy. He composed, conducted and socialized actively in Scandinavian Countries, UK, France and Germany. In 1914 he was the composer of the year at the Norfolk Music Festival in Conn., USA, premiering his symphonic poem The Oceanids commissioned by the millionaire Carl Stoeckel.

      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.  The year 1926 saw a sharp and lasting decline in Sibelius’s output.  After his Seventh Symphony he only produced a few major works in the rest of his life.  Two of the 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, but since no manuscript survives, sources consider it likely that Sibelius destroyed most traces of the score, probably in 1945.  Sibelius died of a brain hemorrhage, at age 91, on  September 20, 1957, in Ainola, where he is buried in the garden.

      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.  The core of Sibelius’s oeuvre is his set of seven symphonies.  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, including Finlandia and The Swan of Tuonela which is one of the four movements of the Lemminkäinen Suite.  In addition to the symphonies, Sibelius’s best-known compositions include the Karelia Suite, Valse triste, and the Violin Concerto in D minor. 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.

     Works by Sibelius in my collection include the following:

                En Saga, Tone Poem, op. 9. 

                Finlandia (1899), Symphonic Poem, op. 26. 

                Karelia Suite, op. 11.  Vienna Phil. Orch., Malcolm Sargent; Sibelius/Saargent, trs. 4-6

                Pohola’s Daughter, Symphonic Fantasy, op. 49. 

                Pelleas et Melisande, op. 46: Suite. 

                The Swan of Tuonela (No. 3 of Lemminkainen Legends, op. 22). 

                Symphony No. 2 in DM, op. 43. 

                Symphony No. 5 in EbM, op. 82 (1915). 

                Symphony No. 6 in dm, op. 104. 

                Valse Triste, op. 44. 

                Violin Concerto in dm, op. 47 (1903).


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