2017 saw the 60th anniversary of the death of one of the twentieth century’s great composers, Jean Sibelius; beginning as a major participant in the nationalist movement amongst composers such as Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Grieg and Smetana, Sibelius followed the former two in producing a symphony cycle which transcended its origins and developed into a universal utterance of huge importance in the history of music.
Sibelius was born into the family of a doctor in a small village in the south of Finland and until he went to school spoke Swedish, as it was the language of his social class. Having begun to learn Finnish he developed a huge interest in the legends and folk culture of his country, although Swedish remained his first language for some while. At this time Finland was a Grand-Duchy of Russia, the result of defeat late in the eighteenth century, and in his early years Sibelius, in common with many of his compatriots, came to resent bitterly the oppressive laws imposed by the Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, a new tranche arriving in 1898.
As with Berlioz we have reason to thank Fate for its intervention in the career of Sibelius. His early musical development centred round the violin, and he became proficient enough to audition, though unsuccessfully, for the famous Vienna Philharmonic whilst studying composition in Vienna with Robert Fuchs. Had he achieved that seat in the VPO we might never have had Sibelius’s symphony-cycle, and perhaps not even his violin concerto, safely within the half-dozen greatest violin concertos of all. Many compositions were to spring from his deep literary interest and nationalist concern, including the Karelia Suite, the symphonic poem En Saga and the Lemminkainen Suite, which comprises four Legends based on the Finnish epic poem Kalevala and including the magical Swan of Tuonela.
Strangely, however, Sibelius laid down his pen following the Seventh Symphony and the symphonic poem Tapiola in 1926 and wrote no more until his death in 1957, although he enjoyed overseeing and appraising recordings of his works by conductors such as Robert Kajanus and Sir Thomas Beecham, one of his greatest champions.
Completed in 1900 to express the determination and national integrity of his beloved Finland, Finlandia has become perhaps the epitome of nationalist compositions. Not surprisingly the work met with the displeasure of the Russian authorities, and intriguingly it was performed, it seems, under a series of alternative titles, including the wonderfully inappropriate Happy feelings at the awakening of Finnish Spring!It begins with a defiant snarl in the brass and timpani, which is answered by reverent woodwind and then richly expressive strings. Shortly a serenely confident theme arrives in the flute and a woodwind choir, which leads into a volcanic Allegro, in which the ‘snarl’ reappears. Shortly the mood calms and a magnificently heartfelt melody ensues; this would soon be taken up as Finland’s national hymn. Finally the Allegro ends in a triumph of optimism.