By Inge Kjemtrup | From the May-June 2023 issue of Strings magazine
The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius defies the neat categorizations of music history. Perhaps this is because his life span (1865–1957) straddles the 19th and 20th centuries. He certainly is not part of the club of late-19th-century monumental Romantics like Mahler, Bruckner, and Strauss. Nor can he be said to have been in the forefront of the early-20th-century modernists like Debussy, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg.
Some might be inclined to file Sibelius under the category of nationalist composers. His music often reflects the legends and landscape of his beloved Finland, and his Finlandia is one of the most popular national hymns. His tone poems drew upon epic poems, like the Kalevala, and crystallized the national identity as Finland emerged as an independent country from the Russian Empire. To be sure, he is a national hero in Finland and the leading reason for that nation’s extraordinary music culture, but this, too, is reductive.
His music, after all, took little directly from Finnish folk music. In an interview, the Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo compared Sibelius to Janáček: “They both I think were influenced by the language, which means the music they wrote was influenced by the language. However, Sibelius was different to Janáček in one aspect—he never used a single folk tune in his music, never ever.”
Sibelius’ symphonies, tone poems, and the great violin concerto are frequently heard in concert halls. His catalog of works includes tone poems, a small but piquant collection of chamber music—including the Voces Intimae string quartet—choral and vocal works, and seven symphonies. Of the latter, the Fourth and the Fifth are among the most played. He completed the Seventh Symphony in 1924. Yet, with a handful of exceptions, including the tone poem Tapiola (1926), he wrote little else of significance until his death in 1957. Rumor had it that he was at work on an eighth symphony. He even promised imminent completion to orchestras and conductors around the world. But that last symphonic utterance was never realized.
Who was this perplexing and brilliant composer, so beloved in Finland, both during his lifetime and now, that his birthday on December 8 is celebrated as Finnish Music Day?
Johan Julius Christian Sibelius was born in 1865 in Hämeenlinna in the southern part of what was then the Grand Duchy of Finland, a part of the Russian Empire. His father, a medical doctor, died of typhoid when the boy was two years old, an early tragedy that some feel accounts for his moody nature and his long periods of dependence on alcohol. His pregnant mother was forced to sell the home and move her small family in with her mother.
Young Jean, as he became known, found a father figure and a first musical mentor in an uncle, Pehr Ferdinand Sibelius, who bought him a violin. Jean studied the instrument seriously and considered making a career as violinist. His growing interest in composition predominated, however. Guided by Helsinki Music Institute founder Martin Wegelius, he expanded his horizons beyond Finland, studying in Berlin and Vienna.
In 1892, he married Aino Järnefelt. They spent much of their married life in a home they built on a lake north of Helsinki (today it is a museum to Sibelius), keeping him close to the Finnish landscape he loved.
It seems that the composer’s greatest ideas came to him when he was alone and immersed in nature, as Daniel M. Grimley writes in his biography of Sibelius, Life, Music, Silence: “His intensely felt response to nature and environment was not merely a well-worn trope in his critical reception; it was a more drastic way of rethinking human subjectivity and our relationship with the natural world.”
Aino came from a family with a strong feeling for Finland’s unique culture, views that would prove problematic. For by the first decades of the 20th century, the Russian Empire collapsed, the Revolution set Russian rule into disarray, and Finland was one of the battlegrounds in the conflict between the Reds and the White armies. The Sibelius home was searched, and the family was escorted to safety in Helsinki. It was in the aftermath of this turbulent period that Sibelius began work on what would become his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies.
Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony, Op. 104, received its premiere one hundred years ago this year. That first performance took place in Helsinki on February 19 by the Helsinki City Orchestra with the composer conducting. The Sixth is a departure from the rest of his symphonic works, and yet a culmination at the same time. Its subdued yet multifaceted personality calls to us across the seasons, and across time, cherishing the natural world that meant so much to Sibelius. Perhaps it is the perfect climate change symphony.
One of the first times I heard the Sixth, I happened to be in a car with friends driving through the New Jersey countryside on our way to an apple farm. It was autumn, and sharp pangs of winter air cut through the warm temperatures. The gentle burbling sounds of the Sixth’s opening seemed to capture the bucolic surroundings we were passing through.
The Sixth had a long gestation. It was conceived in the final years of the First World War, along with the Fifth Symphony, a grander work that has made more frequent appearances in the concert hall. The Sixth is so descriptive, so lacking the heroic direction of his other symphonies, that it is rather astonishing it didn’t end up as a tone poem.
In an era when the symphony had fallen out of fashion, Sibelius kept to the form. As Grimley writes, “. . . in its quiet, understated manner, it is no less formally innovative than either of its predecessors. And as a testament to the consolatory power of musical reflection, in the wake of a period of unimaginable violence and trauma, it is a particularly eloquent and sustained study.”
Sketches for the Sixth demonstrate that nature was the focus—“Talvi” (“Winter”) and “Hongatar ja tuuli” (“Pine-tree Spirit and the Wind”). The composer set himself a deadline of January 1923 to finish the work.
The Sixth packs a lot into its approximately 25 minutes, and does so in a very unflashy manner. As Guardian writer Tom Service noted, “the dynamic of the symphony rarely rises above mezzo forte. The high peaks and low valleys are absent.”
Sibelius himself remarked of the Sixth: “Whereas most other modern composers are engaged in manufacturing cocktails of every hue and description, I offer the public pure cold water.” According to Service, a less-than-impressed Benjamin Britten threw cold water on that comment by remarking that Sibelius must have been drunk when he wrote the symphony!
The first movement, Allegro molto moderato, opens with a sense of yearning with strings alone. Gradually the strings are joined by flute and clarinet, all the new instruments adding a sense of motion. It is, at the beginning, the quietest of dynamics (turn up the volume if you are listening in a car). There are sharp turns from major to minor, and the common description of the symphony as being in D minor (though the score itself does not specify the work’s key) seems like a random choice. The movement’s end feels abrupt and forlorn.
The winds begin the second movement, Allegretto moderato, with another quiet entrance. There’s something dreamlike about it, as an extended section of flautato for strings flutters underneath the bird sounds of the winds. Grimley remarks, “It is a strangely haunting passage of gentle forest sounds that seemingly suspends any regular feeling of time or motion.”
The third movement, Poco vivace—a swirling 6/8 dance that is interrupted by an emphatic statement from the strings—has the strongest pulse of all the movements. Grimley describes it as being “a compact burst of cyclic energy.”
As noted earlier, are no extended sections of forte or ff in this symphony. Instead, there are brief outbursts or interruptions, but the eight-bar ending of the third movement is one exception.
The final movement, Allegro molto, opens with another nostalgic melody from the winds. While it seems over the course of the movement that it might be heading toward the traditional triumphant ending at loud volume, instead the music fades away in the valley of quiet. “To face the world with such a restrained and gracious equilibrium at the time of the work’s premiere in Helsinki on 19 February must have demanded considerable creative courage,” writes Grimley.
There are many recordings of the Sixth, often in the context of complete symphonic cycles led by Finnish and Scandinavian conductors including Paavo Berglund, Sakari Oramo, Osmo Vänskä, Leif Segerstam, Thomas Søndergård, and Klaus Mäkelä. Beyond conductors from the northern lands, distinguished Sibelius interpreters include Colin Davis and Herbert von Karajan.
Alas, Sibelius seemed to have rarely been fully satisfied with his own music. Honors and awards and accolades from orchestras and audiences around the world (including the United States, where he traveled in 1914 to receive an honorary doctorate from Yale University) did not assuage his feeling of inadequacy.
As he wrote in his diary in 1910, “The most beautiful moment is when I finally have a particular composition planned and I have it in my heart. Work is a battle between ‘life and death.’ And this is because of self-criticism or deficient talent.”
It was, in the end, only the creative process that brought this complex composer true satisfaction.