top of page
  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Composers of 1865, Part 4: Jean Sibelius

Keys To Music often used anniversaries as a rationale for some of the topics I chose, and, to be honest, they were often an excuse for me to explore composers or music about which I knew very little. This was certainly the case in 2015 when the sesquicentenary (150th anniversary) of the birth of not one but four important composers was celebrated. The four-part series called "The Composers of 1865" was the result.


Our posts paying tribute to four important composers born in 1865 has so far covered Carl Nielsen, Alexander Glazunov and Paul Dukas. In this instalment we'll complete the series with possibly the most famous of them all, Jean Sibelius.

I do say that with some qualification, though. I mean, it's likely that of these four composers, more people will have heard of Sibelius than the other three. But how famous is Sibelius outside his native Finland? Beyond a handful of works - Finlandia, a couple of the symphonies, the violin concerto, Valse triste - how much of his music is well-known?

As is often the case, although he's far from being a "one hit wonder", outside of Finland the majority of Sibelius's output is known only to specialists. Given his importance - and uniqueness - this is a shame. Here's hoping this brief survey of his life inspires you to dig a little deeper.

Johan Christian Julius Sibelius was born on 8 December, 1865 in the town of Hämeenlinna, about 100 km north of Helsinki. Neither of his parents was a musician and the composer was the middle of three children. Even though his baptismal name was Johan, during his childhood he was known as Janne.

In 1868, before Sibelius turned three, his father died, and the family rapidly fell into debt. They were supported by relatives during these difficult years, and it was another member of the family who helped ignite the boy's love of music. His uncle, Pehr Sibelius, lived in Tuurku, about 150 km away. He was a seed merchant by profession, and an enthusiastic amateur violinist. He and the boy corresponded frequently during the 1880s and they often discussed music in their letters.

Sibelius the year he turned 11 (1876)

As a boy, Sibelius studied the piano and violin, and it was on the violin that he became most proficient. During his late teens, he started to compose works which were imitations of late classical and early romantic composers, like Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. But the turning point came in 1885, the year he turned 20, when he enrolled in law at the University of Helsinki and also began studying violin at the new Helsinki Music Institute. His law studies ended after six months, but he kept on at the Music Institute for four years. It was also at the age of 20 that he consciously decided to be known as Jean rather than Janne, and he called this his "music name".

In 1887 Sibelius began studying composition with Martin Wegelius (founder of the Helsinki Music Institute, now known as the Sibelius Academy) and over the next two years wrote a large number of student works which, while they showed progress, he still didn't regard as worthy of publication. One of these was a string quartet in A minor written in 1889. [listen] Another was a violin sonata in F. [listen]

Martin Wegelius

In 1888, the year before writing this sonata, Sibelius became a published composer, with his song Serenad appearing in print. He wrote an enormous number of songs throughout his life; but Serenad is the earliest to survive. [listen]

By 1889, Sibelius had decided that he would make composition his career. In his final year at the Institute he met the brothers Armas and Eero Järnefelt. Armas (a composer) and Eero (a painter) were involved in lobbying for greater prominence for Finnish history and literature, and they communicated almost exclusively in the Finnish language. Sibelius had been raised as a Swedish speaker, which at the time was the language of the educated and moneyed classes; Finnish language, culture and history were regarded as inferior. This was a legacy of Sweden's domination of Finland from the 12th century until 1809.

The effect of this on Sibelius - exactly at the time of greater agitation for Finnish autonomy - was that he started to immerse himself more in Finnish culture, and to learn to speak and write Finnish better. At the time he wasn't at all fluent in the language, struggling with it for many years.

The other outcome of his connection with the Järnefelt brothers was that he met and fell in love with their sister, Aino, who would later become his wife.

In 1889 Sibelius went to Berlin, where he studied composition for two years. The mind-broadening experiences of this period for the young composer can't be overestimated. Being out of Finland and in a foreign country made him identify more strongly as Finnish, which propelled his adoption of a nationalist, Finnish identity. The major work to come from this period was a large-scale piano quintet in G minor, written in 1890. While this reflects the strict Germanic nature of his training in Berlin, the occasional exotic inflexions of his melodies and harmonies show that, even at this early stage, he was keen to sound different to the European mainstream. [listen]

From late 1890 to mid 1891, Sibelius lived in Vienna. The Grove article on the composer (my primary source for this overview) describes this experience as "the turning point of his musical life". It was in these few months that he became far more self-critical, was forced to confront new composers (he became a Bruckner devotee), and identified even more strongly with Finnish nationalism. And, germane to his subsequent reputation, he largely turned away from chamber music and started to write for orchestra. His earliest orchestral works date from his time in Vienna; originally planned as the first two movements of a symphony, they were split into two separate works: an Overture in E and a Scène de ballet. [listen]

Jean Sibelius (1891)

While in Vienna, Sibelius's process of immersion in Finnish nationalism was enhanced by his study of the Kalevala, a 19th century collection of epic Finnish folk poetry. He found it enthralling and ideas began to form for a major work based on its stories. The result was Kullervo, a suite (sometimes referred to as a symphony) for mezzo, baritone, male chorus and orchestra. Sibelius himself conducted the premiere in Helsinki in April 1892 and it was a major success for the 26 year old composer. [listen]

In mid-1892 Sibelius married Aino Järnefelt; they would eventually have six daughters together. In the early years of the marriage he taught violin and theory in Helsinki, but was still able to undertake occasional travel. An 1894 visit to the centre of the world of Wagner - Bayreuth - led to a crisis in his creative views. Up to that time he'd been strongly influenced by Wagner's philosophy, but now he questioned these views and found himself more drawn to the ideas of Franz Liszt. The aspect of Liszt's craft which particularly appealed to the Finnish composer was his development of the symphonic poem. In 1892 Sibelius had already written a symphonic poem, En Saga, yet another manifestation of his stronger alliance with a pro-Finnish aesthetic, despite its Swedish title. [listen]

More works followed in the 1890s - all orchestral - which strengthened his commitment to Finnish nationalism. A set of musical tableaux for the Karelian Student Association in 1893 later became the Karelia Overture and Suite; the suite is one of the composer's best-known works today. [listen]

A tone poem called The Wood Nymph was written in 1895 but never published; it was only rediscovered in 1996. [listen]

And perhaps most famously, the Lemminkäinen Suite was completed in 1895 and revised in subsequent years. This set of four tone poems includes the famous Swan of Tuonela, one of Sibelius's best-known creations, and with one of the most famous cor anglais solos in the repertoire. [listen]

One of the elegant triumphs of the early 1890s are the songs setting texts by J L Runeberg, published in 1892, the first time Sibelius's name had appeared on the title page of a publication. Given his enduring (and deserved) reputation as a composer of orchestral music, it's a shame that his exquisite talent for song writing should be forgotten so easily. [listen]

Isojärvi, Pomarkku

The years from 1898 to 1904 saw Sibelius move, as a professional composer with a major reputation, onto the international stage. His reputation within Finland was secure; now he felt able to move further afield. In 1898 his incidental music for Adolf Paul's play King Christian II was a major hit at home and quickly published. But it was then taken up by German publishers and some of the movements were performed in Leipzig.

The reviews were negative, causing the composer great embarrassment, but it led to interest in his other works, and he revised two of the Lemminkäinen pieces for the German market. These were successful, and his fame in Germany - and beyond - had begun.

Hand-in-hand with these developments was Sibelius's overt identification with the cause of Finnish nationalism. Since 1809, Finland had been an autonomous duchy within the Russian empire, effectively under Russian rule. Russian policy towards Finland in the 1890s had become harsh and repressive, stoking the fires of Finnish nationalism even further. Sibelius openly identified with anti-Russian sentiment and his short tone poem composed in 1899, called Finland Awakes (renamed Finlandia in 1900) became a focus for the political mood of the people. It remains his most famous work. [listen]

Between 1899 and 1902 Sibelius wrote his first two symphonies. Part of a calculated move to garner respectability on the wider international stage, these works also show the composer grappling with the problem of what to do with the symphonic form in the era after Brahms, Dvořák and Tchaikovsky. His concentrated motifs and powerful climaxes have been identified with the struggle to find a new means of expression, and the struggle for Finnish independence, even though neither of the first two symphonies has a deliberate program or extra-musical "story" behind it. These works were published by major publishing houses and they certainly made people take notice. [listen]

The violin concerto soon followed, again one of Sibelius's most frequently-performed works. The premiere of the original version was given in Helsinki in 1904. The revised version of 1905 is the one played today, and it's the first major violin concerto of the 20th century, a worthy follower to the four "milestone" violin concertos of the 19th century: by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Tchaikovsky. [listen]

Despite his increasing professional reputation, things were not going well for Sibelius personally. His drinking, especially, had become dangerously heavy, so much so that his family decided to take action. The composer was persuaded to move with his family to a specially-built home in the forest at Järvenpää, near Lake Tuusula, about 40 km north of Helsinki. This was thought to be far enough away from the temptations of the city but close enough for him to travel there when required for his work. For his part, Sibelius had already developed the dangerous habit of finding the influence of alcohol creatively liberating for composition and the move was an attempt by his family to moderate this while providing an alternative inspiration - in this case, the beautiful environment in which the new house was built. It was named after Sibelius's wife, Aino, and called "Ainola", meaning "Aino's dwelling place". It was the composer's home from 1904 for the rest of his life.

Ainola (1915)

In 1905 Sibelius made his first visit to Britain, where he was an immediate success. This was significant and crucial to his later fame, not only in Britain but also in other English-speaking countries; at the same time, his popularity in Germany began to wane as he was increasingly viewed as out of step with European modernism. While in Berlin in 1905 he heard Richard Strauss conduct some of his tone poems, an experience which led him to return to tone poem composition himself. The first fruit of this was Pohjola's Daughter, written in 1906. [listen]

The third symphony followed in 1907, a very different work to its two romantically-connected predecessors and a clear indication that Sibelius had no intention of merely repeating the successful formulas of earlier works. The third symphony is pared back, almost neo-classical in spirit if not letter, and it marks a new phase in the composer's creative life. [listen]

Jean and Aino Sibelius in the dining room at Ainola

The years 1907 to 1912 saw Sibelius alternate in his moods between confidence and despair. He had a financial crisis with crippling debts, and on top of this his prolonged alcoholism and smoking had led to serious health concerns. The early stages of a throat tumour led him to become haunted for some years by the thought of death. Part of the result of this was his abstinence from drinking from 1908 until 1915.

Jean Sibelius (1913)

These experiences fed into his composition, or rather, lack of composition during this time. He became increasingly self-critical, and among the few works to emerge from the years before 1910 are the tone poem Night Ride and Sunrise [listen] and the D minor string quartet known as Voces intimae (Intimate Voices).

The quartet is another important milestone in Sibelius's life, showing him turning away from audiences and writing music which seems to express isolation and despair. [listen]

This quartet set the scene for the fourth symphony, described in Grove as the "climactic utterance of his modern-classical style". While writing the piece, Sibelius himself noted in his diary: "A symphony, after all, is not a 'composition' in the usual sense. It's more like a declaration of faith at various stages of one's life." The fourth is the most austere of the symphonies and - for those only familiar with the "popular" works - it's a shock. It confronts dark emotions and is, as the composer implied, reflective of his own life at the time it was written. It was premiered in Helsinki in April 1911 and it puzzled those who heard it. It has a similar effect on audiences today, one of the reasons I find it fascinating. [listen]

The last stage of Sibelius's compositional career covered the years 1912 to 1926. He made several international trips, including a visit to the United States in 1914 where he was greeted as a celebrity. European audiences and critics, though, were repelled by his later works - he was seen as too conservative by some, and just impossible to categorise by others - but these were the very factors which made him attractive to audiences and critics in Britain and the US. For his part, Sibelius saw composition - in words from his diary - as akin to "wrestling with God". The tone poems Luonntar and Oceanides appeared in 1913 and 1914, after which came the magnificent series of the final four major works: the fifth, sixth and seventh symphonies and the tone poem Tapiola.

The first version of the fifth symphony appeared in 1915, the year in which he suddenly started drinking again. It went through two major revisions to arrive at its final version in 1919. Along with the first and second, it's the other most frequently performed of his symphonies. [listen]

The sixth symphony of 1923 is completely different. It returns to the "modern classicism" of the third symphony but does so more fearlessly, taking no prisoners. It's one of my favourite Sibelius works, because it keeps me wondering what's going to happen next while at the same time managing to keep my attention. Of this work Sibelius wrote that his contemporaries gave audiences "gaudy cocktails", while he gave them "pure water". [listen]

Jean Sibelius (1923)

The seventh symphony followed quickly and dates from 1924. The shortest and most concentrated of the composer's symphonies, the seventh is unique. It's in a single movement which takes the listener on a completely new journey, not that of a symphony nor that of a tone poem. The arrival at the final chord of C major provides a powerful catharsis for an attentive audience. [listen]

Two years later, in 1926, Sibelius completed his final work. Tapiola is arguably his greatest tone poem, a magnificent evocation of Finnish landscape and legend which seems to summarise his entire life's work. [listen] The tragedy was that in the remaining thirty years of his life, he wrote nothing more of any consequence. He attempted an eighth symphony, and may have even completed the first movement, but whatever he wrote of that was destroyed, probably in the 1940s. He seems to have come to feel that the end of the seventh symphony was an emphatic conclusion to all he had to say in that form. A few very small works remain from the period after Tapiola, but the silence was self-imposed and more or less completely upheld.

Jean Sibelius died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 20 September, 1957, aged 91, and was buried at Ainola. The composer's widow, Aino, lived there for another twelve years. She died in 1969 and is buried alongside her husband, which is now open to the public as a Sibelius museum.

Today Sibelius still arouses strong passions. He has always been regarded as a national hero in Finland; elsewhere he has passionate supporters and detractors. I like that. Art needs to be provocative because it makes us think and feel, and thinking and feeling makes us more human. Perhaps that's what's so special about Sibelius's music: its humanity.

Your correspondent in Helsinki in 2012. This 1967 sulpture, by Eila Hiltunen, is called "Passio Musicae" and forms part of the Sibelius Monument.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in November, 2015.

335 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page