Personalities | Jean Sibelius | Late Romantic | Classical

(Zhan Se-bal-yoos) 1865–1957
Finnish composer

When Jean (Johan) Sibelius, Finland’s greatest composer, was born on 8 December 1865 at Hämeenlinna, his homeland had been ruled by Russia since Napoleon snatched it from Sweden. As a child he composed and played the violin, but he was 14 before taking up the instrument seriously.

He enrolled in 1886 at the Music Institute of Martin Wegelius, the pioneer of Finnish music education. His strongest impressions there came from a young teacher, the German-Italian composer-pianist Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924), and in 1889 he went abroad to study in Germany and then Vienna.

The Finnish Hero

On his return in 1891 to a Finland seething under mounting Russian repression, Sibelius made his living from teaching. Then, the success of Kullervo in 1892 made him a hero virtually overnight. This ambitious and accomplished choral symphony, based on the Kalevala, Finland’s national epic, revealed a new and original musical voice. It also proclaimed Sibelius’s commitment to the Finnish-language movement (he mastered the tongue only in adulthood), consolidated by his marriage that year to a leading nationalist’s daughter. During this decade he would focus on tone-poems (‘Here I can move freely without feeling the weight of tradition’) – including the Lemminkinen legends, also inspired by the Kalevala – and incidental music, including Karelia (1893; named for the Finns’ old cultural heartland, now largely in Russia) and composed what would become his most popular work, the stirring Finlandia.

The Public Figure

This phase of his development culminated in 1899 with his first numbered symphony. Performances on the Helsinki Philharmonic’s European tour the next year spread the composer’s name (and drew attention to his nation’s inten­sifying plight). But setbacks – including failure to be named Professor of Music in Helsinki in 1897 – had drained his resources. He would be plagued by debt well into the new century. The first of several gifts from a Finnish music-lover allowed him to travel to Italy, where he began the Second Symphony in 1901, completing it back in Helsinki and conducting its triumphant premiere by the Helsinki Symphony Orchestra on 8 March 1902. Further performances on the Continent and in England, and extensive travel by Sibelius in the years before the outbreak of World War I, widened and deepened his fame.

The Private Figure

Meanwhile, the increasingly private nature of his music was already manifested in the neo-classical Third Symphony, completed in 1907. He had begun it in 1904, the year of his retreat to a country home at nearby Järvenpää, where he would live for the rest of his life. Nature now stimulated his composition as Finnish culture and politics had done earlier. He reached an extreme of austerity and ‘modernism’ in the Fourth Symphony, whose brooding darkness may have reflected a diagnosis and operation for throat cancer (Sibelius was a heavy cigar-smoker). Its powerful formal concentration remained a feature of all his subsequent music: tone-poems like Luonnotar (with soprano) and The Bard, the heroic Fifth Symphony,...

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