This is the third article in in the series, where TCG Nordica every week introduce a famous Scandinavian artist’s life and work.
Of the Scandinavian composers Finnish Jean Sibelius is today the most well-known and his symphonic works are regularly played in concerts halls all over the world.
Johan Julius Christian Sibelius (later he changed Johan to the more fashionable French Jean) was born in 1865 in what was then the Grand Duchy of Finland, an autonomous part of the Russian Empire. His father died when Sibelius was only four years old, and it was his aunt Julia who started his music education by teaching him piano and beating his fingers every time he played a mistake. No wonder then, that he preferred to play the violin his uncle Pehr gave him when he was ten. Sibelius quickly took a liking to the violin and decided to make a career out of it.
In spite of some success on the violin he had to give it up in the beginning of the 1890’s:
“My tragedy was that I wanted to be a celebrated violinist at any price. Since the age of 15 I played my violin practically from morning to night. I hated pen and ink – unfortunately I preferred an elegant violin bow. My love for the violin lasted quite long enough and 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.” Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for us, he had to overcome this hate for “pen and ink”.
He never lost his love for the violin though, and his wonderful Violin Concerto is the most performed Violin Concerto composed in the 20th century.
Composing music was not foreign to Sibelius. His first extant composition was written already in 1881, and from 1885 to 1889 when he studied at the Helsinki Music Academy (later renamed the Sibelius Academy) he started lessons in composition. These continued in Berlin and Vienna in 1889-90 where he met the cusp of European composers. It was also here he acquired his lifelong habit of drinking too much champagne and smoking too many cigars (only broken from 1908-1914 after a spell with throat cancer, caused by this last habit).
In 1892 his first big compositional success came with the tone poem “En Saga”. This was one of many “tone poems” and other compositions inspired by Nordic and Finnish legends. Sibelius was closely connected to groups of artists who promoted Finnish culture and advocated for independence from the Russian Empire. His 1899 tone poem “Finlandia” is the most famous in this respect. It was composed as a protest against increasing Russian control, and with its menacing brass opening it heralds the rising up of the Finnish people against Russian oppression. 18 years later independence finally came on the heels of the Russian revolution, and Sibelius’ music has been credited with helping to create a Finnish national identity in this formative period.
Since he was very small Sibelius had always loved nature. His biographer Tawaststjerna writes:
“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 [Sibelius’ home]. He savoured the spring blossoms every bit as much as he did autumnal scents and colours.”
This love for nature is present in all of his music: one good example is the ever-invigorating Karelia Suite, inspired by the landscapes of eastern Finland. Of all Sibelius works it is however his Fifth Symphony where the nature most poignantly appears.
The fifth symphony was written during the World War I years, when Sibelius had to stay at home most of the time and there were no orchestras to play his music. One day in April 1915 he saw 16 swans flying over his house, inspiring him to write the last movement of the symphony. He described the sight as “One of the great experiences of my life!”. This “swan theme” is an almost ridiculously simple little melody. Sibelius opens the movement by stirring up a storm in the strings. After about a minute in the recording recommended below the swan theme is foreshadowed in the cellos and double basses, and after a couple more bars the tempestuous strings retreat and the Swans (represented by the French horns) emerge from the black clouds. Sibelius is not finished yet though and in a stroke of genius he adds yet another theme in the woodwinds on top of the swan theme. Magnificent!
Nature is a part of Sibelius’ music not only in content but also in form. Especially his later music was “metamorphotic” in its structure. Sibelius’ music often starts with a single idea that organically changes and evolves throughout the music. Though the original idea might be lost in the process there is no hard breaks. This was a change away from what had long been the prevailing style of composing that contrasted multiple different themes. Thus, Sibelius occupies a Janus-like position in Western classical music, at once being one of the last in a long line of Romantic composers (inspiration from composers like Bruckner and Tchaikovsky is found in his music), but also looking forward with innovative new ways of composing that would exercise great influence on later composers.
From 1927 and until Sibelius’ death in 1957 he didn’t compose any major works. We know that he worked on an eight symphony but was apparently never satisfied (his earlier music was a high standard to live up to) and in 1945 he burned whatever he had written down of it.
It is said that a couple of days before his death he saw a flock of cranes. “There they come, the birds of my youth” he said, and as he said it one of the birds left the others and circled above Ainola before it continued its journey with the others.
Symphony No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 82. Here in a recording with Alexander Gibson conduction the London Symphony orchestra.
Most of Sibelius’ other major works can be found in this excellent recording with Leif Segerstam conducting the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra.
Text: Skjold Andreas Arendt
Translation: Zhang Yu