Jean Sibelius

Composer Jean Sibelius

Finnish symphonist considered a national hero in his homeland. His music spans an enormous emotional range, and many of his innovations remain influential on contemporary composers.

Vital Statistics
Hämeenlinna, Russia (Grand Duchy of Finland), December 8, 1865
Järvenpää, Finland, September 20, 1957
Late Romantic/Early 20th Century
Performed As:
During Lifetime:
Finland achieved independence from Russia in 1917, although, as in Russia, a civil war ensued between the “Whites” and “Reds.” After World War II, Finland maintained relatively close relations with the Soviet Union while yet adopting a successful, socialistic, market economy.
Biographical Outline
  • Education, 1885-91: Enters the new Helsinki Music Institute as a violinist, eventually becoming a composition student under the school's founder, Martin Wegelius. Completes studies abroad in Berlin and Vienna.
  • Breakthrough, 1891-92: Partly due to his secret engagement to Aino Järnefelt, whose family are nationalists, he becomes enamored with Finnish folk music and poetry, especially the national quasi-epic poem, the Kalevala, portions of which he sets to music in a large symphonic-choral work, Kullervo. Its successful premiere establishes his nationalist credentials.
  • Maturing as a composer, 1893-1904: Sibelius solidifies his style through a series of compositions, many revised and published later. The series culminates in the premieres of works that introduce him to a wider European audience, and become world famous, the symphonic poem Finlandia and the first two symphonies. The violin concerto (1904, rev. 1905), conducted by Richard Strauss, is a major success in Berlin, marking a high point of Sibelius' European reputation.
  • Depression and isolation: 1904-1915: His progressive alcoholism prompts friends and family members to encourage a move away from Helsinki, and a specially designed retreat, named Ainola, is built in the forest near Järvenpää. But his musical style turns brooding and inward, and he fails to complete a publishing contract. In 1909, his financial situation becomes dire and he has to be rescued by wealthy Finnish supporters. A life-threatening throat tumor results in several operations and puts Sibelius on the wagon. Meanwhile, in visits to England (1905, 1909) and the U.S. (1914), he is welcomed as a celebrity, and his music enjoys a huge vogue in those countries.
  • Later masterpieces, 1915-1926: Sibelius completes his last major compositions, Symphonies 5-7 and the tone poem Tapiola. He takes up drinking again, which impairs his work and causes marital discord.
  • Crisis, 1927-1933: Another crisis of confidence delays completion of his Eighth Symphony. Despite the pleas of Serge Koussevitzky, the conductor who was to premiere the work, and his closest friends, Sibelius never releases it. In 1945, he burns the manuscript, along with a basketful of personal papers.
  • Silence, 1934-1957: Essentially ceases composition and suffers various alcohol-related disorders. While he is the most famous man in Finland, with every birthday celebrated, his music becomes a lightning rod for ideological battles over Modernism, which damages its critical reception. Sibelius dies with his music in temporary eclipse.
Fun Facts
  • Symposiums, or stuporiums?: In the 1890s, Sibelius participated in "spirited" aesthetic debates with fellow nationalist intellectuals for days straight-with plenty of drink on hand. One member of the "symposium" circle, as Sibelius dubbed it, painted a famous picture of an inebriated, blurry-eyed Sibelius outlasting another member, who lies unconscious on the table.
  • No Finnish at the Start: Sibelius' native tongue was actually Swedish, the language of the aristocratic and professional classes. (His father was a doctor). Sibelius didn't seriously study Finnish until his 20s.
  • Stark Makeover: Around the end of World War I, Sibelius began shaving his skull, projecting a strong, severe impression, like much of his best music, that persisted until his death.
  • Sibelius on critics: "Pay no attention to what the critics say. No statue has ever been erected in honor of a critic."
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Explore the Music

Although critical disrepute in modernist circles obscured recognition of Sibelius' unique innovations, the elemental power of his music has outlived past controversies, especially in the U.S. and England.

  • Sounds of Nature: Sibelius' orchestral music is famous for its stark, outdoorsy sound. This is achieved in part by the use of extremely long, slowly changing notes in horns and strings, providing a bedrock-like "fundamental" to the music.
  • Evolving Musical Structures: Sibelius often jettisoned convention central-European instrumental forms. Instead, thematic fragments recur many times and progressively become full-blown themes, fostering a sense of organic development.
  • Dramatic Tension: Sibelius' music shows internal tension, which has been traced to the composers deep-rooted, conflicting desires to rebel, and to please. Nowhere is this more evident than in his violin concerto, merging flashy showmanship with his stripped-down, no frills musical style.
  • Smaller works: Though not as famous as the symphonic works, Sibelius' songs and solo piano pieces are also wonderful.
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