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Sibelius

Category: Musician or composer

 

Jean Sibelius (8 December 1865 – 20 September 1957) was a Finnish composer. 

He produced a quite extraordinary number and variety of very high quality works of music, many of which have a special place in the hearts of not just his Finnish countrymen, but in those who love the soaring, emotional, expressive style of his music.

He wrote seven symphonies - Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39; Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43; Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52; Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63; Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82; Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op. 104; and Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105.

In addition to the symphonies he also wrote music for solo instruments and orchestra, for example, the much loved Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47; Two Serenades, for violin and orchestra, Op. 69 (D major; G minor); Two pieces for violin or cello and orchestra, Op. 77;  Six Humoresques for violin and orchestra Op. 87 and Op. 89; Suite for Violin and Orchestra in D minor, Op. 117; Country Scenery; Evening in Spring and In the Summer.

Sibelius by Akseli Gallen Kallela 1894

In addition to the symphonies he also wrote an extraordinary number of orchestral works, which include the Overture in E major; Ballet Scene; En Saga, Op. 9; the Karelia series which Overture, 8 Tableaux and 2 Intermezzi, Karelia Overture, Op. 10 and the Karelia Suite, Op. 11; Lemminkäinen Suite (Four Legends from the Kalevala), Op. 22 - these legends, which include The Swan of Tuonela, are often performed separately; Skogsrået (The Wood Nymph), Op. 15; Vårsång (Spring Song), Op. 16; Scènes historiques I, Op. 25; Finlandia, Op. 26; Overture in A minor; Cassazione, Op. 6; Romance for String Orchestra in C major, Op. 42; Valse triste and Scene with Cranes (from Kuolema), Op. 44; Dance Intermezzo, Op. 45/2; Pohjola's Daughter, Op. 49; Belshazzar's Feast, Op. 51, suite from the incidental music; Pan and Echo, Op. 53a; Nightride and Sunrise, Op. 55; Dryadi (The Dryad), Op. 45/1; Canzonetta and Valse romantique (two additional pieces added to Kuolema), Op. 62; The Bard, Op. 64; Scènes historiques II, Op. 66; The Oceanides, Op. 73; Three Pieces for Orchestra: Valse Lyrique, Autrefois, and Valse chevaleresque, Op. 96; and the Tapiola, Op. 112.

I have deliberately provided this long list because the names provide a huge clue as to where Sibelius’s heart lay.  There is not a religious name anywhere in this list, it shows a love of mythology, of Norse and Celtic, as well as Greek cultures and a sure knowledge of symbolism and mysticism.  The Fourth Symphony, for example, 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.

 

The same theme can be discerned in his Vocal/choral orchestral work.  Kullervo, the choral symphony for soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra, Op. 7 is based on the Finnish national epic.  Then we have Rakastava (The Lover), for male voices and strings or strings and percussion, Op. 14; Snöfrid (The Beloved Beauty), for reciter, chorus and orchestra, Op. 29; The Origin of Fire (Tulen Synty), Op. 32; Luonnotar (Spirit of Nature, Mother Earth), for soprano and orchestra, Op. 70; Oma Maa (My Own Land), for chorus and orchestra, Op. 92; Jordens sång (Song of the Earth), for chorus and orchestra, Op. 93; Maan Virsi (Hymn of the Earth), cantata for chorus and orchestra, Op. 95;  and Väinön virsi (Väinö's Hymn), for chorus and orchestra, Op. 110.

Other works include 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; Masonic ritual music;  and 21 separate publications of choral music.

Sibelius was in essence a composer with a sure knowledge of spiritualism and mystic thought.  When freemasonry was revived in Finland, having been forbidden during the Russian sovereignty, Sibelius was one of the founding members of Suomi Lodge Nr 1 in 1922 and later the Grand Organist of the Grand Lodge of Finland. He composed the ritual music used in Finland (op 113) in 1927 and added two new pieces composed 1946. The new revision of the ritual music of 1948 is one of his last works.

 

There is another interesting little snippet of information worth adding.  Sibelius' melodies often feature different modes to those ‘fashionable’ at the time, for example, much of the Sixth Symphony is in the Dorian mode and Sibelius studied Renaissance polyphony, and his compositions often reflect the influence of this early music. In a sense he was thus trying to recreate celestial music.  His melodies are also innovative and complex, not intellectually complex, not ‘clever’, but inspired.

Thus we know where his heart lay, but where did he get his inspiration?

Sibelius was born in Hämeenlinna in Grand Duchy of Finland in the Russian Empire, the son of Swedish-speaking doctor Christian Gustaf Sibelius. From 1885 to 1889, he studied music in the Helsinki Music Institute, he continued studying in Berlin from 1889 to 1890; and in Vienna from 1890 to 1891. 

Aino Sibelius(nee Järnefelt) 1891

On 10 June 1892, aged 27, Jean Sibelius married Aino Järnefelt (1871–1969) at Maxmo. Their home, called Ainola, was completed at Lake Tuusula, Järvenpää in 1903. Sibelius lived most of the time in Ainola, relishing the peace and the countryside round about.  From 1939–1944, the war years, Jean and Aino lived in Helsinki. But after the war he returned to Ainola.

Who Stopped the Music - How Jean Sibelius ran out of notes by Professor Mark McKenna
Notoriously fastidious and obsessive about the monastic silence he needed in order to compose, the strictures Sibelius placed on the family home were severe. The sound of running water was too distracting for him; all downpipes and gutters were made from wood to lessen the noise. Water for drinking and cooking had to be brought in from outside the house, usually hauled up from a nearby well in large oak barrels. Sibelius’ daughters, all of whom played musical instruments, were never allowed to practise when their father was at home. While the children slept, Sibelius composed into the early hours of the morning in his upstairs study, an enormous bust of Beethoven looking grimly over his shoulder and a bottle of whisky (“my most faithful companion”) close by his side. To secure inspiration, no trees were permitted to obscure his view down to Lake Tuusula. He and Aino lived in the house until their deaths, in 1957 and 1969 respectively.

Sibelius with Heidi and Margaret

They had six daughters: Eva, Ruth, Kirsti (who died at a very young age from typhoid), Katarina, Margareta and Heidi.  So we have love as an inspiration and a home that meant a great deal to him – a safe house.  But we also have grief on the death of his daughter.  Sibelius also 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 W. 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".

This all seems very straightforward, love, communing with nature, the safe house, but Sibelius was a very complex man and what follows perhaps more correctly shows what inspired him.

If you glance through the artists, the composers, the writers and poets on this site you will see that some of the most beautiful music, some of the most stunning art, and some of the most moving poetry was not produced by happiness but by appalling  misery.  Grief, loneliness, fear, insecurity, illness, unrequited love, all have produced creative output that is stunning.  By being in hell, the stick of agony, creative people produce heaven.  Happiness does not seem to produce works of artistic genius.  Sadness and insecurity does.  It is a fine balancing act, because a creative person who sinks down into true depression may become creatively paralysed, but a creative person balancing on a knife edge of fear and angst very high emotion, can produce works of genius. 

Ainola

The only act which produces euphoric happiness capable of producing equivalent works is passionate all-consuming love, being in love and making love.  Love to the point almost of obsession.

Sibelius was surrounded by love, but as far as we know he had no passionate all-consuming affairs.  He was content and contentment appears to produce very little in the art world.

But, in 1907, Sibelius underwent a serious operation for suspected throat cancer. The impact of this brush with death has been said to have been profound and inspired works that he composed in the following years.  So now we may be getting closer to the true sources.  And perhaps one other driver in Sibelius’s life was also insecurity of a major kind – financial insecurity – 7 mouths to feed, a big house to heat and maintain, [as you can see from the picture] and an income unequal to the demands placed on him.

We can see that this may have been a major driver when we compare what happened when his financial worries were removed.

After 1926, there was a sharp and lasting decline in Sibelius' output: after his Seventh Symphony he only produced a few major works in the rest of his life. 

Who Stopped the Music - How Jean Sibelius ran out of notes by Professor Mark McKenna

 

In the last 30 years of Sibelius’ long life, he produced very little music. While there were a handful of minor pieces and revisions of earlier scores, his prodigious output between World War I and the late 1920s ground to a halt. After composing from his teens, Sibelius fell silent. Although he worked on his Eighth Symphony from 1928 until his death, he became renowned for his silence as much as for his music. The fabled symphony never materialised. While his music was creating a sensation in the United States and Britain, he found himself unable to compose in a way that met his increasingly severe standards of self-criticism.
Although Sibelius began work almost immediately on his Eighth Symphony after completing the Seventh in the late 1920s, his increasing self-doubt and perfectionism had the cumulative effect of stalling his creative output. The Eighth was almost certainly ‘finished’ on many occasions throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The influential American music critic Olin Downes, who had championed Sibelius’ music as a counter to the likes of Stravinsky and Schoenberg, managed to arrange the Russian émigré Serge Koussevitzky to conduct the symphony’s premiere, first in Boston in 1932, and shortly afterwards in New York. On both occasions, Sibelius, after initially agreeing to the arrangement, declined at the final moment, telling Downes that the Eighth was not ready, despite the fact that he had sent at least part of the score to his copyist in 1933.

Jean Sibelius 1939

Three  Sibelius’ biographers have offered a range of explanations: his excessive reliance on alcohol (Sibelius developed a severe hand tremor that worsened with age, making it increasingly difficult for him to write); his crippling self-criticism; and, as his English biographer, Andrew Barnett, has perceptively remarked, the sudden absence of financial struggle:

The spectre of debt had pursued him throughout his adult life. But in early 1927 he finally paid off everything that he owed.

Aino, later in life

Now provided with a generous stipend from the Finnish government, Sibelius no longer needed to compose to secure an income. He celebrated by buying Aino a designer leather coat and travelling to Paris, elated at his newfound financial independence.

Now things are fine from a financial point of view, and I can concentrate on whatever I like. Isn’t it wonderful?

he wrote to his sister. In fact, far from ensuring his creative freedom, Sibelius’ financial security coincided with his creative inertia.

There is more to this story too that is worth expanding, his celebrity status.

Who Stopped the Music - How Jean Sibelius ran out of notes by Professor Mark McKenna
In the drawing room of his house, there was the Steinway piano given to Sibelius for his 50th birthday in 1915 by more than a hundred donors. Nearby, a bookcase contained the hundreds of petitions and scrolls of acknowledgement and appreciation that had poured in from across Finland, especially from the 1920s onwards. Then there were Sibelius’ many honorary doctorates and awards. One chest alone was not sufficient to hold them all. By 1938, the composer was receiving so much correspondence that he was forced to employ Levas as his full-time secretary.

Sibelius on a bank note

As Sibelius’ international fame spread in Britain and the US, Ainola became a mandatory stop on the VIP tour circuit. As Levas described it:

For many Americans, Sibelius was a kind of object on a sightseeing tour that one glanced at if one were in Finland.”

Visitors turned up unannounced: journalists, conductors, musicians, artists, writers, photographers and autograph hunters, publishers and agents with proposals. On one occasion, in 1955, Eugene Ormandy and the entire Philadelphia Orchestra dropped by.

Meanwhile, together with textiles, silks, Japanese dolls, dried flowers, sweets, alcohol, books and an entire record cabinet from Philips (with the gramophone Sibelius could now listen to recordings of his compositions at home), boxes of the finest Havana cigars arrived annually from the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture. When these were all smoked, Sibelius could always rely on the occasional delivery of cigars from VIP admirers like Dwight Eisenhower and John D Rockefeller. By the late 1930s, Ainola had become a de facto Finnish embassy of the most luxurious kind. When he was not posing for sculptors and photographers or receiving the latest round of dignitaries, much of Sibelius’ time was devoted to answering correspondence and responding to requests. Rather than composing, his days were spent managing the consequences of his fame. Sibelius busied himself with being Sibelius. While he performed this role willingly, he often felt besieged. When all the attention became too much he resorted to placing a sign on his front gate: “Professor Sibelius is not available.”

 

So stultifying was the fame and pressure on his creativity, that in later life, Sibelius even became hostile towards his own work, he took out his frustration on his creations.  His wife Aino recalled,

"In the 1940s there was a great auto da fé at Ainola. My husband collected a number of the manuscripts in a laundry basket and burned them on the open fire in the dining room. Parts of the Karelia Suite were destroyed – I later saw remains of the pages which had been torn out – and many other things. I did not have the strength to be present and left the room. I therefore do not know what he threw on to the fire. But after this my husband became calmer and gradually lighter in mood."

Who Stopped the Music - How Jean Sibelius ran out of notes by Professor Mark McKenna
Living at Ainola, Sibelius found himself a curator of the Sibelius museum, surrounded by the icons of a dead man – heroic sculptures and photographs of a composer whose time had already passed him by…..The effect of this flood of national memorialisation on his creative drive was stultifying ….. The silence of Sibelius is the din of his beatification. The Finnish state that raised Sibelius to the level of a national hero also played a large part in crippling his creativity. The nation not only found its hero, it succeeded in silencing him. Silence was, in fact, the only logical response Sibelius could make to his deification by the Finnish state. ….. It was clear that his status was secure. He needed to do nothing more but repay the state’s generosity by playing the great man he was employed to be.

His 90th birthday, in 1955, was widely celebrated and both the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Thomas Beecham gave special performances of his music in Finland. The orchestras and their conductors also met the composer at his home; a series of memorable photographs were taken to commemorate the occasions. Beecham was honored by the Finnish government for his efforts to promote Sibelius both in the United Kingdom and in the United States.

Erik W. Tawaststjerna related an endearing anecdote regarding Sibelius' 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 hemorrhage, at age 91 (on 20 September 1957), in Ainola, where he is buried in the garden. Aino lived there for the next twelve years until she died on 8 June 1969; she is buried with her husband.

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