Jean Sibelius (1865 – 1957)

Jean Sibelius was a Finnish Nationalist composer of the late Romantic era. He has been one of the most popular 20th Century composers with concert audiences and orchestras.

He studied the violin in his youth and became an accomplished performer. After starting out as a law student, he switched to music and studied at the Helsinki Academy of Music (now renamed after him.) He later studied in Berlin and Vienna.

Sibelius was influenced by the music of Wagner and Tchaikovsky, as well as the folk music, mythology, and poetry of his native Finland. He fused these elements into a distinctive, personal style in such early orchestral works as Kullervo, En Saga, the Karelia Suite and especially the Lemminkäinen Suite, whose four movements are based on sections of the Kalevala, the national epic poem of Finland. (One movement, The Swan of Tuonela, is often performed separately and features a solo English horn to depict the fabled swan).

Sibelius’ most famous work is Finlandia, which is celebrated as a virtual second national anthem in Finland and was used to inspire his countrymen in their struggle for independence from Russia. The hymn tune which makes up the principal theme at the end of the piece is familiar as the church hymn Be Still, My Soul. Another of his most important and frequently performed pieces is the Violin Concerto, which rivals the Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky concertos in popularity. It is an emotional showpiece for the violin and reflects the composer’s familiarity with it from his own performing background.

Sibelius composed seven symphonies and was, along with Mahler, the main symphonic composer of the Post-Romantic period. He also composed many other orchestral showpieces and tone poems, such as the poignant Valse Triste, Pohjola’s Daughter, and the orchestral song Luonnotar. Although he is primarily remembered as an orchestral composer, Sibelius composed over a hundred songs for voice, as well as an opera, choral pieces, chamber music, and works for piano.

As the influence of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School grew, Sibelius’ relatively conservative tonal music was viewed as out of step with the age. His final compositions included incidental music for Shakespeare’s Tempest, the tone poem Tapiola, and the Andante Festivo, which he conducted for a recording. Although he lived for another thirty years after this, he gave up composing for the most part, although he did revise earlier works and begin sketches for an Eighth Symphony. Although he was often looked down on by more “modern” composer and music critics, Sibelius brushed aside these criticisms, saying:

“Pay no attention to what critics say. No statue has ever been put up to a critic.”

Leopold Stowkowski and Eugene Ormandy were important champions of his music in the United States, as was Thomas Beecham in England. Both Ormandy and Beecham gave concerts and made recordings of his music to celebrate his 90th birthday in 1955. Sibelius died two years later.

Suggested Listening:

Suggested Viewing:

Sibelius: Early Years/Maturity & Silence (2 part documentary exploring the beginning and end of Sibelius’ career. Contains footage of the composer conducting.)

Suggested Reading:

Glenda Dawn Goss. Sibelius: A Composer’s Life and the Awakening of Finland.

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