Tonight I am planning on attending the New York Philharmonic‘s performance in Central Park, presented by Didi and Oscar Schafer. I’m not a classical music buff but I have clearly heard of Tchaikovsky and Beethoven the first two composer’s on the bill. The third though, Sibelius gave me pause. So I turned to the new Oxford Music Online gateway which led me to The Oxford Companion to Music’s biography of Jean Sibelius, which I have excerpted below. Enjoy- and if you are in New York come listen tonight!
Sibelius, Jean (Julius Christian) [Johan Julius Christian Sibelius] (b Hämeenlinna, 8 Dec. 1865; d Järvenpää, 20 Sept. 1957).
Finnish composer. He was unquestionably the greatest composer Finland has ever produced and the most powerful symphonist to have emerged in Scandinavia. His father was a doctor in Hämeenlinna, a provincial garrison town in south-central Finland. Until he was about eight years old Sibelius spoke no Finnish. However, when he was 11 his mother enrolled him in the first grammar school in the country to use Finnish as the teaching language instead of Swedish and Latin. Contact with Finnish opened up to him the whole repertory of national mythology embodied in the Kalevala. His imagination was fired by this, as it was by the great Swedish lyric poets J. L. Runeberg and Viktor Rydberg and, above all, by the Finnish landscape with its forests and lakes.
In his youth Sibelius showed considerable aptitude on the violin and composed chamber music for his family and friends to play. There were few opportunities to hear orchestral music: even Helsinki did not have a permanent symphony orchestra until Robert Kajanus, later one of his staunchest champions, founded the City Orchestra in 1882. At first Sibelius studied law, but he soon abandoned it for music, becoming a pupil of Martin Wegelius. At about that time he decided to ‘internationalize’ his name (following the example of an uncle who had Gallicized his name, Johan, to Jean during his travels). It was not until he left Finland to study in Berlin and Vienna that he measured himself for the first time against an orchestral canvas.
It was in Vienna that the first ideas of the Kullervo symphony came to him, and it was this work, first performed in 1892, that put Sibelius on the musical map in his own country. The music that followed in its immediate wake is strongly national in feeling: the Karelia Suite, written for a pageant in Viipuri in 1893, has obvious patriotic overtones. So too has the music he wrote six years later for another pageant portraying the history of Finland which became a rallying-point for national sentiment at a time when Russia was tightening its grip on the country. One of its numbers, Finlandia, was to make him a household name; its importance for Finnish national self-awareness was immeasurable. From the time of Finlandia onwards, Sibelius was undoubtedly the best-known representative of his country, and many who would never otherwise have become aware of Finland’s national aspirations did so because of his music. (His birthday was a national event each year, and in 1935 his 70th culminated in a banquet at which were present not only all the past presidents of Finland but the prime ministers of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden.)
If the 1890s had seen the consolidation of Sibelius’s position as Finland’s leading composer, the next decade was to witness the growth of his international reputation. In 1898 he acquired a German publisher, Breitkopf & Härtel. (He later sold Valse triste to the firm on derisory terms, a decision he regretted to his dying day.) But his fame was not confined to Germany: Henry Wood included the King Christian II Suite at a Promenade Concert as early as 1901, and during the first years of the century his works were conducted by Hans Richter, Weingartner, Toscanini, and—in the case of the Violin Concerto—by no less a figure than his contemporary Richard Strauss. The Violin Concerto was very much a labour of love, as one would expect from a violinist manqué who had nursed youthful ambitions as a soloist.
Sibelius’s early compositions show the influence of the Viennese Classics, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky, and by the middle of the first decade of the 20th century, when Sibelius entered his 40s, his star had steadily risen. The Third Symphony (1907), however, brought a change in direction and showed Sibelius as out of step with the times. While others pursued more lavish orchestral means and more vivid colourings, his palette became more classical, more disciplined and economical. It was while he was in London working on his only mature string quartet, Voces intimae, that Sibelius first felt pains in his throat, and in 1909 he underwent specialist treatment in Helsinki and Berlin for suspected cancer. For a number of years he was forced to give up the wine and cigars he so enjoyed, and the bleak possibilities opened up by the illness served to contribute to the austerity, depth, and focus of such works as the Fourth Symphony (1911) and The Bard (1913). For tautness and concentration the Fourth Symphony surpasses all that had gone before. It baffled its first audiences and was declared ultra-modern; in Sweden it was actually hissed.
Although each of the symphonies shows a continuing search for new formal means, in none is that search more thorough or prolonged than in the Fifth (1915). Sibelius was a highly self-critical composer who subjected his music to the keenest scrutiny. In the early years of the 20th century En saga and the Violin Concerto were completely overhauled, and the Lemminkäinen Suite (1895) was revised twice, in 1897 and 1939. The Fifth Symphony gave him the most trouble of all: in its original form it was in four movements, and was first performed on his 50th birthday. It was turned into a three-movement work in the following year and entirely rewritten in 1919.
After World War I Sibelius’s music struck ever stronger resonances in England and the USA, and (perhaps because of that) fewer in Germany and the Latin countries. None of the symphonies is more radically different from the music of its time than the Sixth (1923), especially when compared with the music composed in the same year by Bartók, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Hindemith, and the members of Les Six. The one-movement Seventh Symphony (1924), which can be seen as the culmination of a search for organic unity, demonstrates the truth of the assertion that Sibelius never approached the symphonic problem in the same way. Tapiola (1926) crowns his creative achievement, evoking the awesome power of nature with terrifying grandeur. Of all his works this is the one that makes the most astonishingly original use of the orchestra.
Sibelius’s inner world was dominated by his love of the northern landscape, and of the rich repertory of myth embodied in the Kalevala. The classical severity and concentration of his later works was not in keeping with the spirit of the times, and after World War I he felt an increasing isolation. As he himself put it, ‘while others mix cocktails of various hues, I offer pure spring water’. For more than 30 years after the completion of his four last great works—the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, the music for The Tempest, and Tapiola—Sibelius lived in retirement at Järvenpää, maintaining a virtually unbroken silence until his death in 1957. Although rumours of an Eighth Symphony persisted for many years, and its publication was promised after his death, nothing survives apart from the sketch of the first three bars. Near completion in 1933, it fell victim to his increasingly destructive self-criticism during World War II, probably in 1943.
Sibelius’s achievement in Finland is all the more remarkable in the absence of any vital indigenous musical tradition. Each of his symphonies is entirely fresh in its approach to structure, and it is impossible to foresee from the vantage point of any one the character of the next. His musical personality is the most powerful to have emerged in any of the Scandinavian countries: he is able to establish within a few seconds a sound world that is entirely his own. As in the music of Berlioz, his thematic inspiration and its harmonic clothing were conceived directly in terms of orchestral sound, the substance and the sonority being indivisible one from the other. Above all he possessed a flair for form rare in the 20th century; in him the capacity to allow his material to evolve organically (what one might call ‘continuous creation’, to adapt an image from astronomy) is so highly developed that it has few parallels. His mature symphonies show a continuing refinement of formal resource that (to quote the French critic Marc Vignal) makes him ‘the aristocrat of symphonists’. Vignal was referring to the sophistication of his symphonic means, but late Sibelius is also aristocratic in his unconcern with playing to the gallery and in his concentration on the musical and spiritual vision.