Portrait of Jean Sibelius
|December 8, 1865
|September 20, 1957
Johan Julius Christian "Jean" Sibelius (December 8, 1865 – September 20, 1957) was a Finnish composer of European classical music, and one of the most popular composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. His music and genius have also played an important role in forming the Finnish national identity.
On his views about composing he once stated, "Music is for me like a beautiful mosaic which God has put together. He takes all the pieces in his hand, throws them into the world, and we have to recreate the picture from the pieces."
Sibelius was born into a Swedish-speaking family in Hämeenlinna in the Russian Empire 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, from a stack of visiting cards used by his seafaring uncle.
Significantly, against the larger context of the rise of the Fennoman movement and its expressions of Romantic Nationalism, his family decided to send him to an important Finnish language school, and he attended The Hämeenlinna Normal-lycée from 1876 to 1885. Romantic Nationalism was to become a crucial part of Sibelius's artistic output and his politics.
In the 1890s Sibelius joined with other revolutionary artists, musicians and writers to protest the increasingly tyrannical repression of Russia in his native Finland. This led to a renaissance of Finnish culture and national pride and in so doing awakened a national consciousness that inspired Finns to reexamine their heritage.
His musical setting of the Finnish saga “Kalevala” is a particularly apt demonstration of how programmatic music can affect the political landscape of a nation. The hero/messiah of “Kalevala,” Vainamoinen, was not a warrior, but rather ruled by wisdom and singing.
The core of Sibelius's music is his collection of seven Symphony|symphonies. Like Beethoven, Sibelius used each one to work out a musical idea and/or to further develop his own personal style. These continue to be popular in the concert hall and in recording.
Among Sibelius's most famous compositions are 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 including pieces inspired by the Kalevala, over 100 songs for voice and piano, incidental music for 13 plays, an opera (Jungfrun i tornet, translated The Maiden in the Tower), chamber music, piano music, 21 separate publications of choral music, and Freemasonry|Masonic ritual music. Until about 1926 he was prolific; however, although he lived into his 90s, he completed almost no compositions in the last 30 years of his life after his seventh symphony (1924) and the tone poem Tapiola (1926).
Sibelius graduated from high school in 1885. He started to study law at Aleksander's Imperial University in Helsinki, but music was always his best subject at school and Sibelius 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. Jean and Aino Sibelius's home Ainola was completed at Lake Tuusula, Järvenpää in 1903, where they lived for the rest of their long lives. They had six daughters: Eva, Ruth, Kirsti (who died at a very young age), Katarine, Margaret, and Heidi.
In 1911 he underwent a serious operation for suspected throat cancer. This brush with death colored several works he composed at the time, including Luonnotar and the Fourth Symphony.
Sibelius loved nature; the Finnish landscape largely informed the 'natural' style of his music. Regarding his Sixth symphony, he said, "It always reminds me of the scent of the first snow." It has been said that the forests surrounding Ainola largely influenced his composition of Tapiola. Erik Tawaststjerna, a Sibelius biographer, has said:
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 savored the spring blossoms every bit as much as he did autumnal scents and colors.
Tawaststjerna also 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 hemorrhage.
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.
Sibelius was part of a wave of composers who accepted the norms of late nineteenth century composition. Like many of his contemporaries, he admired the operas of Wagner, but only for a time, ultimately choosing a different musical path. Believing that opera would be the primary aspect of his career, Sibelius began studying the scores of Wagner's operas and eventually traveled to [[Bayreuth] where he heard Parsifal, which made a profound impression. He wrote to his wife shortly thereafter, "Nothing in the world has made such an impression on me, it moves the very strings of my heart." Sibelius then began work on an opera entitled Veneen luominen (The Building of the Boat).
However, his appreciation for Wagner waned and soon thereafter Sibelius rejected Wagner's Leitmotif compositional technique, saying that it was too deliberate and calculated. Departing from opera, the musical material from the incomplete Veneen luominen eventually became the Lemminkäinen Suite (1893).
Other primary influences included Ferruccio Busoni, Anton Bruckner and Tchaikovsky. The latter's is particularly evident in Sibelius's Symphony No. 1 in E Minor of 1899, and as late as his Violin Concerto of 1905. The influence of Bruckner is most strongly felt in Sibelius's orchestration, with its 'unmixed' timbral palette and sombre brass chorales, but may also perhaps be detected in more general aspects of the composer's style, such as his fondness for pedal points and the underlying slow pace of his music.
Sibelius progressively stripped away formal markers of sonata form in his work and, instead of multiple contrasting themes, he focused on the idea of continuously evolving cells and fragments culminating in a grand statement. In this way, his work can be seen as an unbroken development, with permutations and derivations of the themes driving the work onward. This synthesis is often so complete and organic that it has been suggested that he began from the finished statement and worked backwards in a kind of reverse sonata form.
Sibelius is often seen as purely reactionary compared to many of his contemporaries (through writing in a strictly major:minor tonality|tonal idiom, unlike the Second Viennese School, Debussy, Vaughan Williams or Ives for example, whilst avoiding the melodic, harmonic and temporal expansiveness of, say, Mahler, Strauss or Puccini). Thus Sibelius can be seen as a direct descendent of Beethoven. However, he was radical in that he made the internal structure of his music as simple and as self-contained as possible, distilling everything down to a few motivic ideas, then permitting the music to grow organically. Like Antonín Dvořák, this led him to seek idiomatic melodies with an identifiably national character, but Sibelius brought a unique and idiosyncratic approach to developmental technique as well.
This was an important period in Sibelius's career, as the rejection of his earlier influences allowed him the freedom to compose with the evolving melodies and organic musical form that became the basis of his later works.
This was in stark contrast to the symphonic style of Mahler. While both appreciated the economy of variation, Mahler's style was much more disjunct, contrasting themes abruptly instead of shaping them slowly into something different. Sibelius related one account of a conversation with him: "I said that I 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 embrace everything.'" However, he did garner Mahler's respect, and they did share some common musical ground.
Like Mahler, Sibelius made frequent use of national or folk music and literature to inform his compositions. The Second symphony's slow movement was sketched from the motive of the statue in Don Giovanni sneaking by moonlight, while the stark Fourth symphony combines work for a planned "Mountain" symphony with a tone poem based on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven (Edgar Allen Poe)|The Raven." He also wrote several tone poems based on Finnish poetry, beginning with the early En Saga and culminating in the late Tapiola (1926), his last major composition.
However, relative to Mahler, Sibelius's orchestration was much less elaborate, further affecting his evocation of what some commentators have noted as representing a "Finnish" character, one that strips away all that is superfluous. Also, unlike Mahler, he did not quote specific material, but rather styled his melodies after folk music, characteristically using stepwise motion, diatonic and modal harmony, and small melodic ranges. He also made frequent use of pedal points. He stated that "music often loses its way without a pedal."
Yet Sibelius's melodies often have very powerful modal implications. Like his contemporary, the Danish composer Carl Nielsen, he studied Renaissance polyphony. Also, he made use of the inherent qualities in Fenno-Karelian folk melodies. This accounts for much of the melodic and harmonic "feel" of his music. He often varied his movements in a piece by changing the note values of melodies, rather than the conventional change of Tempo|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 is comprised of 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 laud 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 chordal 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 consonance and dissonances. Sibelius would often alternate melodic sections with blaring Brass instrument|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.
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 twentieth 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).
These are ordered chronologically; the date is the date of composition rather than publication or first performance.
All links retrieved May 1, 2018.
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