Died September 20, 1957
Julius Christian "Jean"/"Janne" Sibelius (pronunciation
(help·info); December 8, 1865 – September 20, 1957) was
a Finnish composer of classical music and one of the most notable composers
of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His music played an important
role in the formation of the Finnish national identity.
Sibelius was born
into a Swedish-speaking family in Hämeenlinna in the Russian Grand
Duchy of Finland. Although known as "Janne" to his family,
during his student years he began using the French form of his name,
"Jean", inspired by the business card of his seafaring uncle.
Against the larger
context of the rise of the Fennoman movement and its expressions of
Romantic Nationalism, his family decided to send him to a Finnish language
school, and he attended The Hämeenlinna Normal-lycée from
1876 to 1885. Romantic Nationalism was to become a crucial element in
Sibelius's artistic output and his politics.
The core of Sibelius's
oeuvre is his set of seven symphonies. Like Beethoven, Sibelius used
each one both to develop a single musical idea and to further develop
his own personal compositional style. These works continue to be performed
frequently in the concert hall and are often recorded.
In addition to the
Symphonies, Sibelius's best-known compositions include Finlandia, Valse
Triste, the Violin Concerto, the Karelia Suite and The Swan of Tuonela
(one of the four movements of the Lemminkäinen Suite). Other works
include pieces inspired by the Kalevala, over 100 songs for voice and
piano, incidental music for 13 plays, the opera Jungfrun i tornet (The
Maiden in the Tower), chamber music, piano music, 21 separate publications
of choral music, and Masonic ritual music. Sibelius composed prolifically
until the mid-1920s. However, soon after completing his seventh symphony
(1924) and the tone poem Tapiola (1926), he went into a 30-year period
of near artistic silence, which lasted until his death in 1957.
Family and personal
After Sibelius graduated from high school in 1885, he began to study
law at Aleksander's Imperial University in Helsinki. However, music
interested more than law and he soon quit his studies. From 1885 to
1889, Sibelius studied music in the Helsinki music school (now the Sibelius
Academy). One of his teachers there was Martin Wegelius. Sibelius continued
studying in Berlin (from 1889 to 1890) and in Vienna (from 1890 to 1891).
Jean Sibelius married
Aino Järnefelt (1871–1969) at Maxmo on June 10, 1892. Their
home, called Ainola, was completed at Lake Tuusula, Järvenpää
in 1903, and the two lived out the remainder of their lives there. They
had six daughters: Eva, Ruth, Kirsti (who died at a very young age),
Katarine, Margaret, and Heidi. He has a great-great-great-great-great-grandniece
named Kristine Sibelius.
In 1911, Sibelius
underwent a serious operation for suspected throat cancer. The impact
of this brush with death can be seen in several of the works that he
composed at the time, including Luonnotar and the Fourth Symphony.
Sibelius loved nature,
and the Finnish landscape often served as material for his music. He
once said of his Sixth Symphony, "[It] always reminds me of the
scent of the first snow." The forests surrounding Ainola are often
said to have inspired his composition of Tapiola. On the subject of
Sibelius' ties to nature, one biographer of the composer, Erik Tawaststjerna,
wrote the following:
Even by Nordic standards,
Sibelius responded with exceptional intensity to the moods of nature
and the changes in the seasons: he scanned the skies with his binoculars
for the geese flying over the lake ice, listened to the screech of the
cranes, and heard the cries of the curlew echo over the marshy grounds
just below Ainola. He savoured the spring blossoms every bit as much
as he did autumnal scents and colours.
His 90th birthday, in 1955, was widely celebated and both the Philadelphia
Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
under Sir Thomas Beecham gave special performances of his music. The
orchestras and their conductors also met the composer at his home; a
series of memorable photographs were taken to commemorate the occasions.
Both Columbia Records and EMI released some of the pictures with albums
of Sibelius' music. Beecham was honored by the Finnish government for
his efforts to promote Sibelius both in the U.K. and the United States.
relayed an endearing anecdote regarding Sibelius's death:
[He] was returning
from his customary morning walk. Exhilarated, he told his wife Aino
that he had seen a flock of cranes approaching. "There they come,
the birds of my youth," he exclaimed. Suddenly, one of the birds
broke away from the formation and circled once above Ainola. It then
rejoined the flock to continue its journey. Two days afterwards Sibelius
died of a brain haemorrhage.
He died at age 91 on September 20, 1957 in Ainola, where he is buried
in a garden. Aino lived there for the next twelve years until she died
on June 8, 1969; she is buried with her husband.
In 1972, Sibelius's
surviving daughters sold Ainola to the State of Finland. The Ministry
of Education and the Sibelius Society opened it as a museum in 1974.
Like many of his contemporaries, Sibelius was initially enamored with
the music of Wagner. A performance of Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival
had a strong effect on him, inspiring him to write to his wife shortly
thereafter, "Nothing in the world has made such an impression on
me, it moves the very strings of my heart." He studied the scores
of Wagner's operas Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, and Die Walküre
intently. With this music in mind, Sibelius began work on an opera of
his own, entitled Veneen luominen (The Building of the Boat).
However, his appreciation
for Wagner waned and Sibelius ultimately rejected Wagner's Leitmotif
compositional technique, considering it to be too deliberate and calculated.
Departing from opera, he later used the musical material from the incomplete
Veneen luominen in his Lemminkäinen Suite (1893).
More lasting influences
included Ferruccio Busoni, Anton Bruckner and Tchaikovsky. Hints of
Tchaikovsky's music are particularly evident in works such as Sibelius'
First Symphony (1899) and his Violin Concerto (1905). The influence
of Bruckner is most strongly felt in the 'unmixed' timbral palette and
sombre brass chorales of Sibelius's orchestration, as well as in the
latter composer's fondness for pedal points and in the underlying slow
pace of his music.
stripped away formal markers of sonata form in his work and, instead
of contrasting multiple themes, he focused on the idea of continuously
evolving cells and fragments culminating in a grand statement. His later
works are remarkable for their sense of unbroken development, progressing
by means of thematic permutations and derivations. The completeness
and organic feel of this synthesis has prompted some to suggest that
Sibelius began his works with their finished statement and worked backwards.
Sibelius has often
been criticized as a reactionary figure in 20th century classical music.
Despite the innovations of the Second Viennese School, he continued
to write in a strictly tonal idiom. However, critics who have sought
to re-evaluate Sibelius' music have cited its self-contained internal
structure, which distills everything down to a few motivic ideas and
then permits the music to grow organically, as evidence of a previously
under-appreciated radical bent to his work. The severe nature of Sibelius'
orchestration is often noted as representing a "Finnish" character,
stripping away the superfluous from music.
Portrait of Sibelius from 1894 by Akseli Gallen-KallelaThis self-contained
structure stood in stark contrast to the symphonic style of Gustav Mahler,
Sibelius' primary rival in symphonic composition. While thematic variation
played a major role in the works of both composers, Mahler's style made
use of disjunct, abruptly changing and contrasting themes, while Sibelius
sought to slowly transform thematic elements. The Finnish composer wrote
that he "admired [the symphony's] severity of style and the profound
logic that created an inner connection between all the motifs...Mahler's
opinion was just the reverse. 'No, a symphony must be a world. It must
However, the two
rivals did find common ground in their music. Like Mahler, Sibelius
made frequent use both of folk music and of literature in the composition
of his works. The Second Symphony's slow movement was sketched from
the motive of the Commandatore in Don Giovanni, while the stark Fourth
symphony combined work for a planned "Mountain" symphony with
a tone poem based on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven". Sibelius
also wrote several tone poems based on Finnish poetry, beginning with
the early En Saga and culminating in the late Tapiola (1926), his last
often feature powerful modal implications. Sibelius studied Renaissance
polyphony, as did his contemporary, the Danish composer Carl Nielsen,
and Sibelius's music often reflects the influence of this early music.
He often varied his movements in a piece by changing the note values
of melodies, rather than the conventional change of tempi. He would
often draw out one melody over a number of notes, while playing a different
melody in shorter rhythm. For example, his Seventh symphony comprises
four movements without pause, where every important theme is in C major
or C minor; the variation comes from the time and rhythm. His harmonic
language was often restrained, even iconoclastic, compared to many of
his contemporaries who were already experimenting with musical Modernism.
As reported in the Manchester Guardian newspaper in 1958, Sibelius summed
up the style of his later works by saying that while many other composers
were engaged in the manufacture of cocktails for the audience and public,
he offered them pure cold water.
Because of this
conservatism, Sibelius's music is sometimes considered insufficiently
complex, but he was immediately respected by even his more progressive
peers. Later in life he was championed by critic Olin Downes, who wrote
a biography, but he was attacked by composer-critic Virgil Thomson.
Perhaps one reason Sibelius has attracted both the praise and the ire
of critics is that in each of his seven symphonies he approached the
basic problems of form, tonality, and architecture in unique, individual
ways. On the one hand, his symphonic (and tonal) creativity was novel,
but others thought that music should be taking a different route. Sibelius's
response to criticism was dismissive: "Pay no attention to what
critics say. No statue has ever been put up to a critic."
Over time, he sought
to use new chord patterns, including naked tritones (for example in
the Fourth Symphony), and bare melodic structures to build long movements
of music, in a manner similar to Joseph Haydn's use of built-in dissonances.
Sibelius would often alternate melodic sections with blaring brass chords
that would swell and fade away, or he would underpin his music with
repeating figures which push against the melody and counter-melody.
The year 1926 saw
a sharp and lasting decline in Sibelius's output: after his Seventh
Symphony, he only produced a few major works in the rest of his life.
Arguably the two most significant were incidental music for Shakespeare's
The Tempest and the tone poem Tapiola. For nearly the last thirty years
of his life, Sibelius even avoided talking about his music.
There is substantial
evidence that Sibelius worked on an eighth numbered symphony. He promised
the premiere of this symphony to Serge Koussevitzky in 1931 and 1932,
and a London performance in 1933 under Basil Cameron was even advertised
to the public. However, the only concrete evidence for the symphony's
existence on paper is a 1933 bill for a fair copy of the first movement
. Sibelius had always been quite self-critical; he remarked to his
close friends, "If I cannot write a better symphony than my Seventh,
then it shall be my last." Since no manuscript survives, sources
consider it likely that Sibelius destroyed all traces of the score,
probably in 1945, during which year he certainly consigned (in his wife's
presence) a great many papers to the flames.
Sibelius has fallen
in and out of fashion, but remains one of the most popular 20th century
symphonists, with complete cycles of his symphonies continuing to be
recorded. In his own time, however, he focused far more on the more
profitable chamber music for home use, and occasionally on works for
the stage. Eugene Ormandy and, to a lesser extent, his predecessor Leopold
Stokowski, were instrumental in bringing Sibelius's music to the American
audience by programming his works often, and the former thereby developed
a friendly relationship with Sibelius throughout his life. Currently
Paavo Berglund and Colin Davis are considered major exponents of his
work. Other classic sets of recordings of the symphonies are by John
Barbirolli, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Leonard Bernstein, Simon Rattle and
Lorin Maazel. Herbert von Karajan was also associated with Sibelius,
recording all of the symphonies except the Third, some several times.
Recently Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra released
a critically acclaimed complete Sibelius cycle, including unpublished
or retracted pieces such as the first versions of the Fifth Symphony
(1915) and the Violin Concerto (1903).
Sibelius's birthplace in Hämeenlinna.
Johan (Jean) Julius Christian was born on December 8th, 1865 in Hämeenlinna,
a small garrison town some hundred kilometres north of Helsinki. When
the boy was only two, his father died, heavily indebted, and the family
had no choice but to live with Sibelius's maternal grandmother. The
five-year-old "Janne", as he was called as a child, sat by
the piano, tickling out melodies and chords from it. At the age of ten,
he played by heart parts from a concerto. From that time, c. 1875, comes
his first composition: "Vesipisaroita" (Drops of Water) for
violin and cello. In the spring of 1880, he started taking violin lessons,
and thus the violin cast its spell on him.
Janne's sister Linda
played the piano, and their little brother Christian the cello, together
amounting to a piano trio. At first, they played pieces from the Viennese
classical and romantic repertoires, but soon chamber music composed
by Janne. This picture shows the sibling-trio in the 1870s. Janne came
from a Swedish-speaking family, but he went to a Finnish-speaking school.
This way, he became familiar with the heritage and culture of the Finnish
language. At school he was often in a world of his own. He finished
school, taking the matriculation examination, in the spring of 1885.
Jean Sibelius, the student of music.
In the autumn of 1885, Sibelius moved to Helsinki, to study law at the
University. At the same time, he enrolled in the Helsinki Music Institute,
the present Sibelius Academy. Sibelius abandoned his legal studies,
when music took up all his time - initially by the violin and then increasingly
by composition. The oeuvre from this time at the music institute, culminated
in Sibelius's first masterpiece, the String Quartet in A minor, performed
for the first time on the 29th of May, 1889. During 1889-90 he continued
his studies in Berlin, and 1890-91 in Vienna, where he made the first
sketches of Kullervo.
Before composing became his main aspiration, Sibelius dreamt of career
as a violin virtuoso. His violin tutor at the music institute was Mitrofan
Wasileff(center), surrounded here by his pupils, Sibelius on the far
At the music institute,
Sibelius became well acquainted with one of the teachers, the pianist
and composer Ferruccio Busoni. The friendship lasted until Busoni's
death in 1924.
Sibelius in Berlin
in 1889, where under the guidance of his teacher Albert Becker, he laboured
with contrapuntal studies. "What a bore, not being allowed to do
anything else". In the spring of 1892 Sibelius conducted his extensive
five-movement Kullervo for soloists, choir, and orchestra in Helsinki.
With it began his career as an orchestral composer. It was also the
occasion for his debut as a conductor. The following year he finished
the orchestral work En Saga, and in 1895 the Lemminkäinen suite.
Sibelius led a frenzied life: he composed, taught, conducted, played
chamber music - and made merry !
In the summer of 1892, Sibelius married the artistically inclined Aino
The central artistic
figures in the Helsinki of the 1890's - Sibelius (right), conductor
R.Kajanus who had his hand in making Sibelius's music known (centre),
painter Axel Gallén (left) - and certain others, formed a so
called Symposium-circle. This is where the delirium of life and imminence
of death, was aroused to its highest intensity during the symbolistic
With the turn of
the century, a new phase began in Sibelius's life. Thus far he had been
a national composer, but now he started conducting his works aboard,
foremost in Britain and Germany. Other conductors included his music
in their repertoires as well, as far as the USA. The first two symphonies
were completed in 1899 and 1902, and the Concerto for Violin was under
The statue of Finland's
national poet J.L.Runeberg on the Helsinki Esplanade in the late 1890s.
Runeberg was one
of the poets whose work Sibelius loved and set to music most. The building
on the far left housed the famous restaurant Kämp, which Sibelius
frequented both around this time and later on.
Together with premiere
performance of the Symphony no. 1 in the spring of 1899, Aténarnes
sång (The War Song of the Tyrtaeus) was also performed for the
first time. The song was Sibelius's patriotic comment against the harsh
Russianization policy of the Czarist regime, and from this moment on
Sibelius was to be identifield at the forefront of nationalist feeling.
one of the signs of growing fame. Drawing from 1904.
In 1904, Sibelius
moved with his family to Villa Ainola, the house they had built in Järvenpää,
some 40 km north of Helsinki. The change from the restless city life
full of temptations, to the peace of the countryside, proved auspicious
for Sibelius work, "In Helsinki, the song died within me".
The Concerto for Violin was completed in 1904-05. After that he gradually
moved away from the national romantic style, a change that can already
be seen in Symphony no. 3 (1907). Villa Ainola in winter. There was
no electricity, and the house was heated by log fires. Winter storms
blew in and around the corners at night. Every spring, summer, and autumn
Sibelius, to whom nature was like a sanctuary, watched the birds and
listened to their song.
Valse Triste is
a piece of music for the theatre that was played all over Europe, and
that has been arranged in numerous ways. It made Sibelius's name even
better known than Finlandia (1900). The right kind of publishing contract
would have made the forever indebted Sibelius a rich man, but he sold
the rights of the piece for a petty sum.
In the summer of
1908, Sibelius was operated on for a tumour in the throat, after which
he refrained from alcohol for seven years. after the operation, the
musical expression of many of his works became more introverted. This
development can already be traced in the String Quartet in D minor ("Voces
intimae", 1909), and it culminates in Symphony no. 4 (1911), taken
to the utter realms of tonality.
Axel Carpelan was friend and patron of Sibelius, from the turn of the
century. He was also one of the first to speak for the "difficult"
language of the Symphony no. 4. After Carpelan's death in 1919, Sibelius
wrote in his diary: "For whom will I compose now?"
In 1914, Sibelius
travelled to the USA to conduct the first performance of The Oceanides.
During the same visit, he received an honorary doctorate from Yale University.
The picture shows the artist S. Wetterhovi-Aspa's vision of Sibelius
in the Yale doctoral robe. Sibelius himself thought that his friend's
painting was "all wrong". The start of the first world war
in 1914 forced Sibelius into giving up foreign concert performances;
moreover, Germany, where his main publisher was, had become the enemy.
During the war, to relieve his financial troubles, Sibelius composed
and sold several small pieces to Helsinki publishers. Most of the pieces,
nonetheless, were not published until after the war. Symphony no. 5
was completed in 1915, and revised in 1916 and 1919.
Sibelius's 50th birthday on December 8th, 1915, was the occasion for
a great national celebration. At the anniversary concert Sibelius conducted,
among other works the first version of Symphony no. 5.
Sibelius had six
daughters, one of whom died shortly after birth.
its independence on December 6th, 1917. In the spring of 1918, civil
war broke out. Sibelius had to seek refuge in the war-famished Helsinki.
The pictures shows German reinforcements of the Whites in Helsinki,
a scene of some of the battles. After the war, life slowly returned
back to normal; international connections were reopened, and Sibelius
was again able to travel, to the Nordic countries, Britain, Italy ...
Years 1923-24 saw the completion of Symphony nos. 6 and 7. Never ending
financial troubles - made worse by inflation, and Sibelius's way of
handling money, made it necessary for Sibelius to go on composing numerous
little pieces, mainly for the piano.
Sibelius was famous for his cigars and the deep folds on his brow. On
top of that, even though he was amusing company and laughed a lot, he
usually looks stern in photographs. The caricature "the Symphonies
of Sibelius or the story of the cigar and the seven folds" alludes
to the special nature of Symphony no. 4.
In the autumn of
1926, Sibelius stopped conducting and around this time, his last major
works were composed: music to Shakespeare's play, The Tempest (1925),
which Sibelius turned into two orchestral suites (1927), and the tone
poem Tapiola (1926). In addition, he started working on an Eighth Symphony.
By now Sibelius was an internationally acknowledged composer, especially
in the Anglo-Saxon world. With the foundation in 1928 of the Finnish
composers' copyright bureau, even his economic situation began to improve.
As in Kullervo, the inspiration for Tapiola draws upon the Finnish national
epic, Kalevala. Tapio is a forest king, and it has been said of the
composition that it is like a forest converted into music. For foreign
listeners, Sibelius completed the score of Tapiola with a four line
At the end of the
1920s he still wrote some pieces for the piano, as well as for violin
In the 1930s, the
world waited for a Symphony no. 8 - in vain. From the early 30s, Sibelius
retired into the so called "Silence of Järvenpää".
Independent of him, his music went on conquering the world. In his home
country, he had been permanently dubbed into one of the biggest national
In 1935, on his 70th birthday, Sibelius appeared in public for the final
time. 7000 listeners attended his birthday concert, among them three
former president of the country and other notable personalities. Aino
and Jean Sibelius are in the front now, on the right.
himself no longer participated in musical events, he followed curent
affairs carefully by reading the papers, and listening to the radio
in his armchair in the Ainola library.
Sibelius continued composing his Symphony no. 8 well into the 1930s,
most likely up until 1938. During the mid 40s he burnt the work. This
sketch is all that is known of it. From 1938 Sibelius released new works
again. He did not compose much more than a few minor pieces, but he
made arrangements of earlier works. A few months prior to his death
he arranged the song "Kom nu hit, död" (Come Away, Death!).
Sibelius remained active until the very end, following world news in
During the 1940s and 50s, many famous musicians came to Ainola to visit
Sibelius. The pictures shows Sibelius accompanied by the American conductor
Eugen Ormandy in 1951.
Sibelius died at Ainola on the evening of september 20th 1957, at the
same time as his Symphony no. 5 was being performed in the University
of Helsinki hall. At his death, the country went into mourning. When
the funeral procession proceeded from the church towards Ainola after
the memorial service, thousands of mourners lined the roadside, and
candles burnt at the windows. Sibelius was buried in his beloved Ainola.
The central part of Sibelius' work consist of his symphonies and other
orchestral works, but he composed piano, chamber, choral, and incidental
music, as well as an opera. Sibelius became the symbol of Finnish music
and of Finland. Above that, he reached a level of universality in his
music, in particular through his symphonies, achieved by the greatest
spirits in western music have.