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Biography of

Jean Sibelius

8 dec 1865 (Hämeenlinna) - 20 sep 1957 (Ainola)
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Portrait of Jean Sibelius from 1913

Jean Sibelius (About this sound pronunciation ) (8 December 1865 – 20 September 1957) was a Finnish composer of the later Romantic period whose music played an important role in the formation of the Finnish national identity. His mastery of the orchestra has been described as "prodigious".[1]

The core of Sibelius's oeuvre is his set of seven symphonies. Like Beethoven, Sibelius used each one to develop further his own personal compositional style. Unlike Beethoven who used the symphonies to make public statements, and who reserved his more intimate feelings for his smaller works, Sibelius released his personal feelings in the symphonies.[citation needed] These works continue to be performed frequently in the concert hall and are often recorded.

In addition to the symphonies, Sibelius's best-known compositions include Finlandia, the Karelia Suite, Valse triste, the violin concerto, and The Swan of Tuonela (one of the four movements of the Lemminkäinen Suite). 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.

Sibelius composed prolifically until the mid-1920s. However, after completing his Seventh Symphony (1924), the incidental music to The Tempest (1926), and the tone poem Tapiola (1926), he produced no large scale works for the remaining thirty years of his life. Although he is reputed to have stopped composing, he in fact attempted to continue writing, including abortive efforts to compose an eighth symphony. He wrote some Masonic music and re-edited some earlier works during this last period of his life, and retained an active interest in new developments in music, although he did not always view modern music favorably.

The Finnish 100 mark bill featured his image.[2]


Life and work

Johan Julius Christian Sibelius was born into a Swedish-speaking family in Hämeenlinna in the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland, the son of Christian Gustaf Sibelius and Maria Charlotta Sibelius. Although known as "Janne" to his family, during his student years he began using the French form of his name, "Jean", inspired by the business card of his seafaring uncle.[citation needed] He is universally known as Jean Sibelius.

Against the larger context of the rise of the Fennoman movement and its expressions of Romantic Nationalism, his family decided to send him to a Finnish language school, and he attended the Hämeenlinna Normal-Lycée from 1876 to 1885. Romantic Nationalism was to become a crucial element in Sibelius's artistic output and his politics.

Sibelius in 1889.

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 (from 1889 to 1890 with Albert Becker) and in Vienna (from 1890 to 1891).

Jean Sibelius married Aino Järnefelt (1871–1969) at Maxmo on 10 June 1892; they were to be married for 64 years. Their home, called Ainola, was completed at Lake Tuusula, Järvenpää in 1903, and the two lived out the remainder of their lives there. They had six daughters: Eva, Ruth, Kirsti (who died at a very young age), Katarina, Margareta, and Heidi.

In 1911, Sibelius underwent a serious operation for suspected throat cancer. The impact of this brush with death can be seen in several of the works that he composed at the time, including Luonnotar and the Fourth Symphony.

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. On the subject of Sibelius's ties to nature, one biographer of the composer, Erik W. Tawaststjerna, wrote the following:

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. He savoured the spring blossoms every bit as much as he did autumnal scents and colours.[3]
Sibelius in 1939
The grave in the garden of Ainola
The Statue of Sibelius in Helsinki

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. Arguably the two most significant were incidental music for Shakespeare's The Tempest and the tone poem Tapiola. For nearly the last thirty years of his life, Sibelius even avoided talking about his music.

There is substantial evidence that Sibelius worked on an eighth numbered symphony. He promised the premiere of this symphony to Serge Koussevitzky in 1931 and 1932, and a London performance in 1933 under Basil Cameron was even advertised to the public. However, the only concrete evidence for the symphony's existence on paper is a 1933 bill for a fair copy of the first movement.[4] Sibelius had always been quite self-critical; he remarked to his close friends, "If I cannot write a better symphony than my Seventh, then it shall be my last." Since no manuscript survives, sources consider it likely that Sibelius destroyed all traces of the score, probably in 1945, during which year he certainly consigned a great many papers to the flames.[5]

"In the 1940s there was a great auto da fé at Ainola. My husband collected a number of the manuscripts in a laundry basket and burned them on the open fire in the dining room. Parts of the Karelia Suite were destroyed - I later saw remains of the pages which had been torn out - and many other things. I did not have the strength to be present and left the room. I therefore do not know what he threw on to the fire. But after this my husband became calmer and gradually lighter in mood."[1]

On 1 January 1939, Sibelius participated in an international radio broadcast which included the composer conducting his Andante Festivo. The performance was preserved on transcription discs and later issued on CD. This is probably the only surviving example of Sibelius interpreting his own music.[6]

His 90th birthday, in 1955, was widely celebrated and both the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Thomas Beecham gave special performances of his music in Finland. The orchestras and their conductors also met the composer at his home; a series of memorable photographs were taken to commemorate the occasions. Both Columbia Records and EMI released some of the pictures with albums of Sibelius's music. Beecham was honored by the Finnish government for his efforts to promote Sibelius both in the United Kingdom and in the United States.

Tawaststjerna also relayed an endearing anecdote regarding Sibelius's death:

[He] was returning from his customary morning walk. Exhilarated, he told his wife Aino that he had seen a flock of cranes approaching. "There they come, the birds of my youth," he exclaimed. Suddenly, one of the birds broke away from the formation and circled once above Ainola. It then rejoined the flock to continue its journey. Two days afterwards Sibelius died of a brain hemorrhage, at age 91 (on 20 September 1957), in Ainola, where he is buried in the garden. Another well-known Finnish composer, Heino Kaski, died that same day. Aino lived there for the next twelve years until she died on 8 June 1969; she is buried with her husband.[3]

In 1972, Sibelius's surviving daughters sold Ainola to the State of Finland. The Ministry of Education and the Sibelius Society opened it as a museum in 1974.

Musical style

Like many of his contemporaries, Sibelius was initially enamored of the music of Wagner. A performance of Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival had a strong effect on him, inspiring him to write to his wife shortly thereafter, "Nothing in the world has made such an impression on me, it moves the very strings of my heart." He studied the scores of Wagner's operas Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, and Die Walküre intently. With this music in mind, Sibelius began work on an opera of his own, entitled Veneen luominen (The Building of the Boat).

However, his appreciation for Wagner waned and Sibelius ultimately rejected Wagner's Leitmotif compositional technique, considering it to be too deliberate and calculated. Departing from opera, he later used the musical material from the incomplete Veneen luominen in his Lemminkäinen Suite (1893). He did, however, compose a considerable number of songs for voice and piano, whose early interpreters included Aino Ackté and particularly Ida Ekman.

More lasting influences included Ferruccio Busoni, Anton Bruckner and Tchaikovsky. Hints of Tchaikovsky's music are particularly evident in works such as Sibelius's First Symphony (1899) and his Violin Concerto (1905). Similarities to Bruckner are most strongly felt in the 'unmixed' timbral palette and sombre brass chorales of Sibelius's orchestration, as well as in the latter composer's fondness for pedal points and in the underlying slow pace of his music.

Sibelius progressively stripped away formal markers of sonata form in his work and, instead of contrasting multiple themes, he focused on the idea of continuously evolving cells and fragments culminating in a grand statement. His later works are remarkable for their sense of unbroken development, progressing by means of thematic permutations and derivations. The completeness and organic feel of this synthesis has prompted some to suggest that Sibelius began his works with a finished statement and worked backwards, although analyses showing these predominantly three- and four-note cells and melodic fragments as they are developed and expanded into the larger "themes" effectively prove the opposite.[7]

Portrait of Sibelius from 1894 by Akseli Gallen-Kallela

This self-contained structure stood in stark contrast to the symphonic style of Gustav Mahler, Sibelius's primary rival in symphonic composition. While thematic variation played a major role in the works of both composers, Mahler's style made use of disjunct, abruptly changing and contrasting themes, while Sibelius sought to slowly transform thematic elements. In November 1907 Mahler undertook a conducting tour of Finland, and the two composers had occasion to go on a lengthy walk together. Sibelius later reported that during the walk:

I said that I admired [the symphony's] severity of style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motifs... Mahler's opinion was just the reverse. 'No, a symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.'[8]

However, the two rivals did find common ground in their music. Like Mahler, Sibelius made frequent use both of folk music and of literature in the composition of his works. The Second Symphony's slow movement was sketched from the motive of Il Commendatore in Don Giovanni, while the stark Fourth Symphony combined work for a planned "Mountain" symphony with a tone poem based on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven". 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.

Over time, he sought to use new chord patterns, including naked tritones (for example in the Fourth Symphony), and bare melodic structures to build long movements of music, in a manner similar to Joseph Haydn's use of built-in dissonances. Sibelius would often alternate melodic sections with noble brass chords that would swell and fade away, or he would underpin his music with repeating figures which push against the melody and counter-melody.

Sibelius's melodies often feature powerful modal implications: for example much of the Sixth Symphony is in the (modern) Dorian mode. Sibelius studied Renaissance polyphony, as did his contemporary, the Danish composer Carl Nielsen, and Sibelius's music often reflects the influence of this early music. He often varied his movements in a piece by changing the note values of melodies, rather than the conventional change of tempi. He would often draw out one melody over a number of notes, while playing a different melody in shorter rhythm. For example, his Seventh Symphony comprises four movements without pause, where every important theme is in C major or C minor; the variation comes from the time and rhythm. His harmonic language was often restrained, even iconoclastic, compared to many of his contemporaries who were already experimenting with musical Modernism. As reported by Neville Cardus in the Manchester Guardian newspaper in 1958,

Sibelius justified the austerity of his old age by saying that while other composers were engaged in manufacturing cocktails he offered the public pure cold water.[9]


Sibelius has fallen in and out of fashion, but remains one of the most popular 20th century symphonists, with complete cycles of his symphonies continuing to be recorded. In his own time, however, he focused far more on the more profitable chamber music for home use[citation needed], and occasionally on works for the stage[citation needed]. Eugene Ormandy and, to a lesser extent, his predecessor Leopold Stokowski, were instrumental in bringing Sibelius's music to American audiences by programming his works often; the former developed a friendly relationship with Sibelius throughout his life. Later in life he was championed by critic Olin Downes, who wrote a biography of the composer.

However, Sibelius has sometimes been criticized as a reactionary or even incompetent figure in 20th century classical music. Despite the innovations of the Second Viennese School, he continued to write in a strictly tonal idiom. Because of its alleged conservatism, Sibelius's music is thus sometimes considered insufficiently complex, but he was immediately respected by even his more progressive peers.

In 1938 Theodor Adorno wrote a critical essay about the composer, notoriously charging that

If Sibelius is good, this invalidates the standards of musical quality that have persisted from Bach to Schoenberg: the richness of inter-connectedness, articulation, unity in diversity, the 'multi-faceted' in 'the one'.[10]

Adorno sent his essay to Virgil Thompson, then music critic of the New York Herald Tribune, who was also critical of Sibelius; Thompson, while agreeing with the essay's sentiment, declared to Adorno that "the tone of it [was] more apt to create antagonism toward [Adorno] than toward Sibelius"[1]. Later, the composer, theorist and conductor René Leibowitz went so far as to describe Sibelius as "the worst composer in the world" in the title of a 1955 pamphlet.[11]

However, critics who have sought to re-evaluate Sibelius's music have cited its self-contained internal structure, which distills everything down to a few motivic ideas and then permits the music to grow organically, as evidence of a previously under-appreciated radical bent to his work. The severe nature of Sibelius's orchestration is often noted as representing a "Finnish" character, stripping away the superfluous from music.

Perhaps one reason Sibelius has attracted both the praise and the ire of critics is that in each of his seven symphonies he approached the basic problems of form, tonality, and architecture in unique, individual ways[who?]. On the one hand, his symphonic (and tonal) creativity was novel, but others thought that music should be taking a different route. Sibelius's response to criticism was dismissive: "Pay no attention to what critics say. No statue has ever been put up to a critic."

In the latter decades of the twentieth century, Sibelius began to be re-assessed more favourably: Milan Kundera dubbed the composer's approach to be that of "antimodern modernism", standing outside the perpetual progression of the status quo[1]. In 1990, the composer Thea Musgrave was commissioned by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra to write a piece in honour of the 125th anniversary of Sibelius's birth: Song of the Enchanter was premiered on 14 February 1991.[12] In 1984, American avant-garde composer Morton Feldman gave a lecture in Darmstadt, Germany, wherein he stated that "the people you think are radicals might really be conservatives - the people you think are conservatives might really be radical," whereupon he began to hum Sibelius' Fifth Symphony[1].

Political criticism

Research by T. L. Jackson of the University of North Texas, in which he investigated the composer's connections to Nazi Germany, led him to conclude that the composer's associations with and benefits from National Socialism mounted to active support. This runs counter to the standard view, that the composer was an apolitical observer of the rise of Nazism[13]. Other scholars have said such conclusions, which fail to account for the exclusively German origin of their source material, are simplistic: "[Jackson is attempting to make] Nazi out of a man who needed to deal with the Third Reich to earn his living, and who, along with most of the world, was perhaps too complacent about the rise of Hitler."[13]

It has also been noted that, though Sibelius was happy to enjoy the Third Reich's "financial arrangements for artists", he also denounced Nazism's "bad social prejudices" in his diary.[13] Veijo Murtomäki, professor of music history at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, stated of Jackson's claims: "[H]e is constructing with the pieces is rather strange for us who know better the cultural and political situation of Finland during the Third Reich ... Sibelius was selfish and flattered by his fame in Germany and wanted the money. I am sorry for that. But it does not make him a Nazi or a great friend of any SS person or acts made by them."[13]


Selected works

These are ordered chronologically; the date is the date of composition rather than publication or first performance.

Orchestral works

  • Kullervo, Symphonic Poem for soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra, Op. 7 (1892)
  • En Saga, Tone Poem for orchestra, Op. 9 (1892/1902)
  • Karelia Overture for orchestra, Op. 10 (1893)
  • Karelia Suite for orchestra, Op. 11 (1893)
  • Rakastava (The Lover) for male voices and strings or strings and percussion, Op. 14 (1893/1911)
  • Lemminkäinen Suite (Four Legends from the Kalevala) for orchestra, Op. 22 (1893) - these legends, which include The Swan of Tuonela, are often performed separately
  • Skogsrået (The Wood Nymph), Tone Poem for orchestra, Op. 15 (1894)
  • Vårsång for orchestra, Op. 16 (1894)
  • Kung Kristian (King Christian), Suite from the incidental music for orchestra, Op. 27 (1898)
  • Sandels, Improvisation for chorus and orchestra, Op. 28 (1898)
  • Finlandia for orchestra and optional chorus, Op. 26 (1899)
  • Snöfrid for reciter, chorus and orchestra, Op. 29 (1899)
  • Tulen Synty (The Origin of Fire), Op. 32 (1902)
  • Symphony No. 1 in E minor for orchestra, Op. 39 (1899/1900)
  • Symphony No. 2 in D major for orchestra, Op. 43 (1902)
  • Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47 (1903/1905)
  • Kuolema (Valse triste and Scene with Cranes) for orchestra, Op. 44 (1904/06)
  • Dance Intermezzo for orchestra, Op. 45/2 (1904/07)
  • Pelléas et Mélisande, Incidental music/Suite for orchestra, Op. 46 (1905)
  • Pohjolan tytär (Pohjola's Daughter), Tone Poem for orchestra, Op. 49 (1906)
  • Symphony No. 3 in C major for orchestra, Op. 52 (1907)
  • Svanevit (Swan-white), Suite from the incidental music for orchestra, Op. 54 (1908)
  • Nightride and Sunrise, Tone Poem for orchestra, Op. 55 (1909)
  • Dryadi (The Dryad) for orchestra, Op. 45/1 (1910)
  • Two Pieces from Kuolema for orchestra, Op. 62 (1911)
  • Symphony No. 4 in A minor for orchestra, Op. 63 (1911)
  • Scenes Historiques, Suite No. 2, Op. 66 (1912)
  • Two Serenades for violin and orchestra, Op. 69 (1912)
  • Barden (The Bard), Tone Poem for orchestra and harp, Op. 64 (1913/14)
  • Luonnotar, Tone Poem for soprano and orchestra, Op. 70 (1913)
  • Aallottaret (The Oceanides), Tone Poem for orchestra, Op. 73 (1914)
  • Impromptu, Op. 78 (1915)
  • Symphony No. 5 in E flat major for orchestra, Op. 82 (1915, revised 1916 and 1919)
  • Oma Maa (Our Fatherland) for chorus and orchestra, Op. 92 (1918)
  • Jordens sång (Song of the Earth) for chorus and orchestra, Op. 93 (1919)
  • Valse Lyrique, Op. 96 (1920)
  • Symphony No. 6 in D minor for orchestra, Op. 104 (1923)
  • Symphony No. 7 in C major for orchestra, Op. 105 (1924)
  • The Tempest, Incidental music for soloists, chorus and orchestra, Op. 109 (1925)
  • Väinön virsi (Väinö's song) for chorus and orchestra, Op. 110 (1926)
  • Tapiola, Tone Poem for orchestra, Op. 112 (1926)
  • Andante Festivo for string orchestra (1925/30)

Other works

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e Ross, Alex (2009) [2007]. "5". The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (3rd ed.). Harper Perennial. ISBN 978-1-84115-476-3 
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b Tawaststjerna, Erik; Robert Layton (Translator) (1976–1986). Sibelius. London: Farber & Farber.  Vol. I, 1865–1905. ISBN 0-571-08832-5; Vol. II, 1904–1914. ISBN 0-571-08833-3
  4. ^ Kari Kilpeläinen. ""Sibelius Eight. What happened to it?"". Finnish Music Quarterly 4/1995. 
  5. ^ ""The war and the destruction of the eighth symphony 1939-1945"". 
  6. ^
  7. ^ Pike
  8. ^ Burnett-James, p. 41
  9. ^ Burnett-James, p. 94
  10. ^ Adorno, Theodor (1938). "Törne, B. de, Sibelius; A Close Up". Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung 7: 460–463 . Later reprinted as "Glosse über Sibelius". Cited and translated in Jackson, Timothy L. (2001). "Preface". in Jackson, Timothy L.; Murtomäki, Veijo. Sibelius Studies. Cambridge University Press. xviii. ISBN 0521624169. 
  11. ^ Leibowitz, René (1955). Sibelius, le plus mauvais compositeur du monde. Liège, Belgium: Éditions Dynamo. OCLC 28594116. 
  12. ^ Song of the Enchanter, Thea Musgrave.
  13. ^ a b c d Monaghan, Peter (29 November 2009). "A Composer's Ties to Nazi Germany Come Under New Scrutiny". The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved 26 June 2010. 


  • Burnett-James, David (1989). Sibelius. London, New York: Omnibus Press. ISBN 0711916837. 
  • Pike, Lionel (1978). Beethoven, Sibelius and 'the Profound Logic': Studies in Symphonic Analysis. London: The Athlone Press. ISBN 0 485 11178 0. 

Further reading

  • Layton, Robert. Sibelius. New York: Schirmer Books, 1993. Master Musicians Series. ISBN 0-02-871322-2.
  • Ekman, Karl. "Jean Sibelius, His Life and Personality". New York, Tudor Publishing Co., 1945.
  • Levas, Santeri. Sibelius: a personal portrait. London, Dent, 1972. ISBN 0460039784.
  • Tawaststjerna, Erik. "Sibelius". London, Faber & Faber, vol.1 (1976), vol.2(1986).
  • de Gorog, Lisa (with the collaboration of Ralph de Gorog) "From Sibelius to Sallinen: Finnish Nationalism and the Music of Finland". New York, Greenwood Press, 1989.
  • Tomi Mäkelä: "Poesie in der Luft. Jean Sibelius, Studien zu Leben und Werk". Wiesbaden, Breitkopf & Härtel, 2007. 978-3-7651-0363-6
  • Barnett, Andrew. Sibelius. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-300-11159-0
  • Minnesota Orchestra's showcase concert magazine, May 6, page 44
  • Morgan, Robert P. (1991) [1990]. "Other European Currents". The Norton Introduction to Music History: Twentieth-Century Music (1st ed.). New York: W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 121–123. ISBN 0-393-95272-X. 
  • Goss, Glenda Sibelius: A Composer’s Life and the Awakening of Finland. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2009. ISBN 0-226-30477-9
  • Goss, Glenda Jean Sibelius: Guide to Research. New York: Garland Press, 1998. ISBN 0-8153-1171-0

External links

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