Birth: Dec 8, 1865 in Hameenlinna, Finland
Death: Sep 20, 1957 in Jarvenpaa, Finland
Finland's Jean Sibelius is perhaps the most important composer associated with nationalism in music and one of the most influential in the development of the symphony and symphonic poem. Sibelius was born in southern Finland, the second of three children. His physician father left the family bankrupt, owing to his financial extravagance, a trait that, along with heavy drinking, he would pass on to Jean. Jean showed talent on the violin and at age nine composed his first work for it, Rain Drops. In 1885 Sibelius entered the University of Helsinki to study law, but after only a year found himself drawn back to music. He took up composition studies with Martin Wegelius and violin with Mitrofan Wasiliev, then Hermann Csillag. During this time he also became a close friend of Busoni. Though Sibelius auditioned for the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, he would come to realize he was not suited to a career as a violinist.
In 1889 Sibelius traveled to Berlin to study counterpoint with Albert Becker, where he also was exposed to new music, particularly that of Richard Strauss. In Vienna he studied with Karl Goldmark and then Robert Fuchs, the latter said to be his most effective teacher. Now Sibelius began pondering the composition of the Kullervo Symphony, based on the Kalevala legends. Sibelius returned to Finland, taught music, and in June 1892, married Aino Jarnefelt, daughter of General Alexander Jarnefelt, head of one of the most influential families in Finland. The premiere of Kullervo in April 1893 created a veritable sensation, Sibelius thereafter being looked upon as the foremost Finnish composer. The Lemminkainen suite, begun in 1895 and premiered on April 13, 1896, has come to be regarded as the most important music by Sibelius up to that time.
In 1897 the Finnish Senate voted to pay Sibelius a short-term pension, which some years later became a lifetime conferral. The honor was in lieu of his loss of an important professorship in composition at the music school, the position going to Robert Kajanus. The year 1899 saw the premiere of Sibelius' First Symphony, which was a tremendous success, to be sure, but not quite of the magnitude of that of Finlandia (1899; rev. 1900).
In the next decade Sibelius would become an international figure in the concert world. Kajanus introduced several of the composer's works abroad; Sibelius himself was invited to Heidelberg and Berlin to conduct his music. In March 1901, the Second Symphony was received as a statement of independence for Finland, although Sibelius always discouraged attaching programmatic ideas to his music. His only concerto, for violin, came in 1903. The next year Sibelius built a villa outside of Helsinki, named "Ainola" after his wife, where he would live for his remaining 53 years. After a 1908 operation to remove a throat tumor, Sibelius was implored to abstain from alcohol and tobacco, a sanction he followed until 1915. It is generally believed that the darkening of mood in his music during these years owes something to the health crisis.
Sibelius made frequent trips to England, having visited first in 1905 at the urging of Granville Bantock. In 1914 he traveled to Norfolk, CT, where he conducted his newest work The Oceanides. Sibelius spent the war years in Finland working on his Fifth Symphony. Sibelius traveled to England for the last time in 1921. Three years later he completed his Seventh Symphony, and his last work was the incidental music for The Tempest (1925). For his last 30 years Sibelius lived a mostly quiet life, working only on revisions and being generally regarded as the greatest living composer of symphonies. In 1955 his 90th birthday was widely celebrated throughout the world with many performances of his music. Sibelius died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1957.
- Robert Cummings (All Music Guide)
Finland's Jean Sibelius (1865 - 1957) is regarded as the foremost Nordic symphonist of the twentieth century. As the dominant figure in Finnish musical life, he almost single-handedly brought Finland to international musical prominence. Sibelius's music, including his numerous orchestral, chamber, vocal, choral and piano works, draws on the various resources of nationalism, nature, and the epic Finnish poetry of the Kalevala.
At the time of Sibelius' birth, Finland was governed by Russia, gaining independence only in 1917. Swedish was the most prominently spoken language, with Finnish used mostly by the peasants. Young Sibelius became aware of his nation's great literary tradition when, at the age of eleven, his parents enrolled him in the first Finnish-speaking school in Hдmeenlinna. Eventually he went to the University of Helsinki to study law, but ended up studying music, with the original intention of becoming a violinist. After his second year at the university, Sibelius decided on composition as a career. He studied there with Ferrucio Busoni, who had come to Finland to teach piano. In 1889, his studies also took him to Berlin, where he studied counterpoint with Becker. In 1892 he married Aino Jдrnefelt, the daughter of a distinguished family of Finnish artists, and later named their home Ainola, (in Jдrvenpдд) in honor of her. To this day, the Sibelius Academy (in Helsinki) - one of the world's foremost music conservatories - remains an ongoing testament to his stature in Finnish cultural life.
Sibelius's nationalist musical style was fueled more by feelings of patriotism stemming from the Russian oppression than by an inclination toward the quotation of folk melodies or themes. His music often depicts a close affinity with the natural world - easily understandable after a visit to the beautifully maintained Ainola - and he consistently referred to the image-laden mythology of the Kalevala for metaphoric themes and motives. Sibelius also drew creative energy from his tightly knit association with many Finnish authors and artists of his generation. His first important works include the symphonic poems The Swan of Tuonela (1893), and Finlandia (1899). During this period Sibelius composed in a familiar, Romantic style that was primarily tonal, with extensive gradations of color and much motivic development.
The development of Sibelius' musical language is distinguished not so much by originality of material as it is by the novel use of materials already known; an ethos that sets him apart from many of the prevailing currents in the first half of the twentieth century. His mature symphonic works are characterized by unprecedented groupings of instruments, striking harmonic shifts, and expressive declamations. His seven symphonies combine incisive formal plans with resonant orchestral colors and a rich emotional palette. With this in mind, it is regrettable that his only opera, Jungfrun i tornet (The Maiden in the Tower) was not published in his lifetime. By the time of his Fourth Symphony (1911), the subtle colorations of harmony and instrumentation become truly sublime. Completing the composer's oeuvre, the meditative Symphony No. 7 (1924), and the tone poem Tapiola (1926) strike many listeners as works that fully express Sibelius's most profound creative aspirations. Feeling isolated from the world and growing increasingly self-critical, Sibelius ended his career in the late 1920s, writing very little after Tapiola and basically remaining silent as a composer for almost three decades. Of considerable merit though less well known, Sibelius' chamber music, including numerous piano, choral and vocal works, remains notable and often performed, particularly in Finland.