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Jean Sibelius

1865 - 1957

Jean Sibelius (8 December 1865 – 20 September 1957), was a Finnish composer and violinist of the late Romantic and early-modern periods. He is widely recognized as his country's greatest composer and, through his music, is often credited with having helped Finland to develop a national identity during its struggle for independence from Russia.

(b. Hameenlinna, December 8, 1865; d.Jarvenpaa, September 20, 1957)

Finnish composer. The most widely admired artist Finland has produced, he is recognized in England, America, and Scandinavia as one of the great composers of the 20th century. Christened Johan Julius Christian Sibelius and called “Janne” by his family, he took the name “Jean” after a seafaring uncle who had preferred the French form. He began to play the violin as a boy and started lessons when he was 14. Later he would write, “The violin took me by storm and for the next ten years it was my dearest wish, my greatest ambition to become a great virtuoso.”

Sibelius’s dearest wish died hard. He spent four years as a violin student at the Helsinki Music Institute (now the Sibelius Academy), performing several concertos, including the Mendelssohn, and formed a close bond with new faculty member Ferruccio Busoni. In 1889 he took ayear of study in Berlin and the following year did the same in Vienna. As late as 1891, the 25-year-old auditioned unsuccessfully for a spot in the Vienna Philharmonic.

But something more valuable did come Sibelius’s way in Vienna, and that was a sense of his own Finnishness and of the importance of writing Finnish music. He would find inspiration for a number of his works in the myths, sagas, and folklore of his native country. A particularly rich source was the national epic, the Kalevala. In 1892 he completed a sprawling symphonic cantata based on the story of Kullervo, one of the heroes of the Kalevala. During the years 1893-96, he composed four symphonic poems inspired by the tale of Lemminkainen (another hero from the Kalevala); these were published under the title Four Legends and include The Swan of Tuonela. Both early scores attest to his powers as an orchestrator and mark his developing command of symphonic form.

Key Works

The Finland where Sibelius was born and grew to adulthood was a grand duchy of Russia, having been ceded by Sweden in 1809. (Sibelius grew up speaking Swedish.) By the end of the 19th century, the appetite of most Finns for independence had become a raging hunger, and national sentiment regularly bubbled up despite tsarist censorship. In 1899 Sibelius made a memorable contribution to the protest movement by composing the music for a set of six “historical tableaux,” the performance of which was intended to benefit a national newspaper writers’ pension fund. The music Sibelius wrote for the tableau “Finland Awakes!” proved so stirring that he decided to publish it separately, as Finlandia. It was not the composer’s favorite piece, but it has remained so popular that it identifies him worldwide. 

The Finn’s first two symphonies were works of strong nationalist character as well. Like Brahms, Sibelius could hear the tread of giants behind him, and he hesitated until he was sure of his powers. He began fashioning his Symphony No. 1 in 1898, when he was 32. The work of Tchaikovsky was a particularly strong influence, especially the Pathetique Symphony. As Sibelius confided at the time to his wife, Aino, “There is much in that man that I recognize in myself.” But what sets the First Symphony apart are the propulsive rhythms and almost savage expressiveness of its best pages, along with the elemental quality of its motives and scoring. The volatile Finnish spirit is clearly present in the mix. The First Symphony made a powerful impression at its premiere, in 1899. The Second followed closely, occupying Sibelius through the end of 1901.

By 1903, the year in which he undertook his Violin Concerto, Sibelius’s hopes of becoming a concertizing artist had long since been abandoned. In their place stood the reality of being recognized as Finland’s leading composer, with a developing international reputation. At the same time, the composer’s heavy drinking took a toll on his creative capacities. Financial difficulties caused considerable domestic strain, even forcing Sibelius to set the date of the first performance of the concerto earlier than he would have liked. As a high-level violinist, he well knew how to get the most idiomatic and expressive effects out of the instrument. He also knew how to introduce virtuosic display into a serious work without cheapening it. But his first draft of the piece was prolix and loose-limbed, and it took Sibelius a year of brooding and a month of further hard, self-critical work to beat it into the powerful, tightly wound, splendidly dramatic concerto we have today. Richard Strauss led the premiere of the final version.

As Sibelius turned his back on both Romantic tradition and contemporary symphonic thinking, he began—in works like the Violin Concerto and the symphonic poem Pohjola’s Daughter (1905-06)—to pursue the formal concision and searching self-expression that had characterized the first two movements of the Second Symphony. The idyllic, aphoristic Third Symphony (1907) feels peculiarly neoclassical (Sibelius called it a “relapse”), but the grimly pessimistic Fourth Symphony (1910-11) is formidably compressed and emotionally intense.

Symphony No.1 in E minor, Op. 39

1.Andante ma non troppo - Allegro energico
2.Andante (ma non troppo lento)
3. Scherzo (Allegro)
4. Finale (Quasi una fantasia - Andante - Allegro motto)

Symphony No. 2, in D major, Op. 43

2.Tempo andante ma rubato - Andante sostenuto
3.Vivacissimo - Lento e suave
4.Finale. Allegro moderato - Poco largamente

Symphonie No 5 in E-flat op 82

Originally written in 1915 and presented as part of his 50th birthday celebrations, Sibelius was unhappy with performances of this symphony and immediately set about revising it.
The now familiar version appeared in 1919, having been altered in significant respects, most especially in the collapsing together of the first two movements. This piece remains probably Sibelius’s most popular and accessible symphony, a good-natured work that stands in total contrast to the stark, brooding Symphony No. 4.
FIRST MOVEMENT (TEMPO MOLTO MODEFATO -LARGAMENTE - ALLEGRO MODERATO 13:00) An opening section scored for wind, horns, and drum presents the main theme, which is subsequently developed before a toccata-like section brings the movement to a grandiose close.
SECOND MOVEMENT (ANDANTEMOSSO, QUASI ALLEGRETTO 8:00) The Andante is a set of variations on a simple, pastoral theme presented after a short introduction.

The finale is one of the most exciting movements in Sibelius’s symphonic oeuvre. Its second main theme, played by the horn, was likened by one critic to Thor swinging his hammer.

00.00 : Part 1 : Tempo molto moderato - Allegro moderato (ma poco a poco stretto) - Vivace molto - Presto - Più Presto
14.12 : Part 2 : Andante mosso, quasi allegretto - Poco a poco stretto - Tranquillo - Poco a poco stretto - Ritenuto al tempo I
22.38 : Part 3 : Allegro molto - Misterioso - Un pochettino largamente - Largamente assai - Un pochettino stretto

Violin Concerto in D minor, op 47

1. Allegro moderato
2. Adagio di molto
3. Allegro, ma non tanto


In 1899, Sibelius wrote music to accompany a series of patriotic tableaux depicting events in Finnish history, exhibited as part of the Press Celebrations and intended as a statement of Finnish nationalism. Parts of the work were performed in concert later in the year, and the stirring finale, originally tided “Finland Awakes”, soon became popular with audiences. The following year Sibelius revised the work as a stand-alone concert version.

Finlandia opens with dramatic swells of brass and rumbling timpani, immediately conjuring images of the wild Finnish landscape. This music is developed by the strings and woodwind, before trumpet fanfares usher in a livelier section derived from the opening theme. This leads to the famous “Finlandia Hymn”, sung first by the woodwind and then the strings, before the faster music returns to bring the work to a rousing conclusion.

The Swan of Tuonela

Sibelius in 1913

Akseli Gallen-Kallela (Continued): The Symposion - Jean Sibelius - Gustav Mahler


Karelia Suite op.11

00:00 1. Intermezzo
04:08 2. Ballade
10:09 3. Alla Marcia

Inspired in part by a trip to Koli, a lakeside retreat, the Fourth expressionistically paints an inner landscape with great, sustained masses of sound welling up from the brass, timpani,
and low strings, seemingly glacial in their flow. Throughout the astringent, restless work, Sibelius emphasizes the dissonant interval of the tritone, at times bringing his language to the edge of harmonic dysfunction. The third movement is one of the great slow movements of the 20th century, on a par with the best of Shostakovich, full of angst and despair drawn from the well of the composer’s own experience.


An early version of the Symphony No. 5 received its premiere at the end of 1915 in a concert marking Sibelius’s 50th birthday, which was proclaimed a national holiday. For some time the composer had been an international figure—the year before he had visited England and the U.S. to much celebration and been awarded a honorary doctorate at Yale. Still, he had to struggle artistically and financially while World War I raged in Europe. He heavily reworked the Fifth, completing it in its final form after the war and conducting that premiere in 1921. It had become a thing of stark beauty, strength, economy, and, with its famously powerful cadential chords at the close, affirmation.

Sibelius changed his approach yet again for the Sixth Symphony (1923). In its four slender, somewhat disembodied movements, Palestrina-style counterpoint informs strangely energetic, bass-shy musical ideas, apparently inspired by nature studies: “Pure spring water,” the composer said of it. Sibelius’s pursuit of concision in form culminated in the Seventh Symphony (1924) and the symphonic poem Tapiola (1926). Both are densely written singlemovement essays in which the principal ideas develop out of one another in almost stream-of-consciousness fashion. All that remains in these scores of conventional four-movement symphonic layout or sonata design is a submerged outline. The Seventh ends with a crescendo and a pileup of snarling dissonances, only resolving to C major at the very end. Tapiola, a great tone painting of the realm of the Nordic Forest God, has angry moments as well, and conveys an extraordinary picture of nature— human as well as woodland—at its most elemental. 

The perfectionist composer began working on an Eighth Symphony and continued into the 1930s, probably going through several drafts, but burned the manuscript a decade later. Sibelius’s wife reported that he looked happy and peaceful after feeding the fire. In any event, there was nothing more from him.

Sibelius spent his creative life struggling with personal demons: first alcohol, then throat cancer, then alcohol again. These struggles permeate much of his music, with its overcoming of obstacles, volcanic emotion below a bleak surface, and inexorable drive. He composed a large number of songs and piano pieces, choral works, chamber pieces (including the string quartet Voces intimae), and a considerable amount of incidental music. His symphonic works are his greatest contribution to the repertoire. What makes them important is their integrity, the way they build upon and develop from powerful, generative ideas, in a manner that is the musical equivalent of a biological process.

They illustrate, as Harry Halbreich has observed, “the possibilities of emancipating the technique of development from its inherited forms, with a concision unequalled since the classics.” Part of this process Sibelius achieved through his scoring, by treating the winds, brass, and strings as separate choirs, each with its own material, so various ideas could be presented simultaneously in different parts of the orchestra without losing their identity. The overlapping of material in separate strata of the score, often moving at different rates, creates climactic passages of extraordinary visceral intensity.

Valse Triste

String Quartet in D-Minor op. 56, "Voces Intimae"

1. Andante - Allegro molto moderato,
2. Vivace,
3. Adagio di molto,
4. Allegretto (ma pesante),
5. Allegro.


In stylistic terms, Sibelius's influence on later composers is difficult to gauge since - along with the Danish composer Carl Nielsen - he represents the very end of a long tradition. However, his impact on Scandinavian music in general, and Finnish music in particular, was inestimable, as was his contribution to the development of the tone poem.

The Sibelius Monument was unveiled on September 7th, 1967. Designed by Eila Hiltunen.

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