• Jean Sibelius

    Finnish composer Jean Sibelius was born in the middle of one century (December 8, 1865, ten days before the 13th Amendment was passed, banning slavery) and died well into the next (September 20, 1957, five days before nine African American students started school at Little Rock Central High). As a young man, he dreamed of becoming a violin virtuoso, taking up the instrument at 15 years old, but never made it as a concert artist. Sibelius auditioned for the Vienna Philharmonic, which judged his playing "not at all bad" and declined to seat him. His focus then shifted to composing.

    Though now proclaimed a national hero in Finland, Sibelius grew up speaking Swedish, the language of the cultural and political elite.

    Though now proclaimed a national hero in Finland, Sibelius grew up speaking Swedish, the language of the cultural and political elite.

    He studied music at the Helsinki Music Institute and while there developed a greater interest in the Finnish language as well as Finnish history and literature. After a sojourn in Vienna, he committed himself to forging a Finnish national music with such works as the First Symphony (1899) and Finlandia (1900). The latter is an unabashed call-to-arms against Russian rule and found fame as an unofficial national anthem.

  • Notes on the Piece

    Jean Sibelius tends to be described, like most Nordic composers, as a nationalist (though this same description seems never to be applied to Richard Wagner, who had much more definite and dangerous notions of nationhood than his colleagues to the north). Sibelius is also perceived as having a strong interest in representing the landscape of his homeland, which has inspired critics to find within his works musical images of the forest, cold, and even silence. His final large-scale orchestral work, Tapiola, has been adopted by environmentalists as a metaphor for present-day concerns about the destruction of nature.

    The Finnish nation and its landscape are different things, however, and it could be argued that Sibelius was less interested in being reduced to a cultural ambassador or musical portraitist than in reinventing orchestral music.

    His First Symphony of 1899–1900 is pivotal in this respect. It is part of a cluster of scores associated with Finnish struggles for political freedom from the Russian Empire. (At the time of its composition, Helsinki was the capital of an autonomous Grand Duchy of Russia. The Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, sought to exert greater political control over Finland, which sparked a long struggle for independence.) Musicologist James Hepokoski notes these factors in claiming that the First Symphony finds Sibelius forging “a stubbornly separatist, regionally resonant musical idiom.” Yet Sibelius also freely borrows from the techniques of non-Finnish composers like Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and even Wagner.

    The original version of the First Symphony does not survive. A perfectionist obsessed with revision, the composer is thought to have burned the manuscript, leaving little information as to his first thoughts about the score, other than mention of the writers who inspired its odd assemblage of nature scenes (northern pines seeking the weather enjoyed by southern palms, for example). The “regional” elements Hepokoski identifies in the revised version include references to the rhythmic recitation formulae of Finnish epic tales and the minor-mode, five-note (pentatonic) collection found in many folk genres.

    The marvel of the score—and what distinguishes Sibelius from other symphonists of his generation—is the intricate and innovative structure of the four movements. The symphony begins with a striking, brooding clarinet solo, the first of several aphoristic passages in the woodwinds. The harmonic underpinning of the melodic writing tends to be static, suspended, as though the composer wanted us to focus on each chord as a single sonority rather than part of a progression; this practice is most evident in the pedal points of the second movement andante and pizzicatos of the third movement scherzo. Most notably, the symphony is cyclical: The fourth movement reprises the melodic material of the first three, albeit with different orchestration. And it relies on orchestral timbre and texture, rather than harmonic patterns, as structural supports.

    Listeners should also note Sibelius’s inside-out approach to form. Instead of presenting melodies in expositions, fragmenting them in middle development sections, and then reassembling them in recapitulations, the process is inverted: Sibelius tends to begin and end with fragments, finding cohesion in the middle. The audience is asked to listen to the music from another perspective. For Sibelius, the symphony was less a vehicle for dramatic storytelling—with a triumphant or tragic conclusion—than a way to explore different modes of being in the world.
     

  • Watch

    Jeremy Geffen explains the political and musical background to Sibelius's First Symphony: Finnish nationalism and Tchaikovsky.

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    Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker in a performance of Sibelius's Symphony No. 1.

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