Jean Sibelius – composer and patriot

Jean Sibelius died on 20 September 1957 at home in Järvenpää. On 29 September, his coffin was carried to the Helsinki Cathedral, and from nine o’clock in the evening until midnight, 17000 people filed past the coffin to pay their respects. Next day, after the funeral service, people formed a guard of honour at the roadside from the centre of Helsinki to Järvenpää, where the coffin was laid in the earth.

Helsinki had seen something similar six years earlier, on 4 February 1951, at the funeral of Marshal Mannerheim. But Mannerheim was Commander-in-Chief of Finnish Defence Forces during the two wars against the Soviet Union in 1939-1940 and 1941–1944 and former President, and Sibelius was a composer! How did a composer deserve such a funeral, normally reserved for royalties and great leaders of a nation?

No-one of Sibelius’s great contemporaries, Elgar (1857), Puccini (1858), Mahler (1960), Debussy (1862), Strauss (1864), Glazunov (1865), Nielsen (1865) or Busoni (1866) reached a similar position in their respective countries. And it is very unlikely that another composer ever will. In his obituary notice, the composer Joonas Kokkonen (1921–1996) emphasised the uniqueness of his feat:

“Jean Sibelius position in the thoughts of the Finnish people has been very special for decades already: there are probably only a few even remotely similar cases in the history of Western culture, in which an artist becomes almost a legend during his lifetime and is so unequivocally counted among the nation’s great men.” (Ilta-Sanomat, 21 September 1957).

Sibelius’s story can only be understood against the background of another parallel story, that of Finnish people becoming a nation and Finland an independent state.

Sibelius’s story began to evolve in Vienna in 1891. In 1889, he had accomplished three years of studies at the Helsinki Music School, founded by Martin Wegelius in 1882. The academic year 1890–1891 he spent in Berlin, where he refined his skills in harmony and counterpoint under Albert Becker. In Vienna, while studying with Robert Fuchs and Karl Goldmark, he decided to write a symphony. He finished two movements but soon realized that he had to gain more experience in handling the form of a large-scale composition. He sent the two movements to Robert Kajanus, founder and conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Society, who performed them as an Overture in E major and a Scène de ballet.

Then, inspired by the Kalevala, he began a new symphony, this time in an “entirely Finnish spirit”, as he wrote to his fiancée Aino Järnefelt. Following the example of Beethoven’s Ninth, he decided to use text and the human voice in this new work, a symphony for mezzo-soprano, baritone, male voice choir and orchestra based on the Kullervo story in the Kalevala.

The movements are

• Introduction
• Kullervo’s Youth
• Kullervo and His Sister
• Kullervo Leaves for War
• Kullervo’s Death

The action tightens in the third movement. Kullervo is driving a sleigh in the woods when a maiden comes across. He asks her to join him on the sleigh; the maiden accepts, and he seduces her or (possibly) takes her by force. Afterward, the dreadful fact is unveiled that the maiden is his sister. She jumps into the rapids and drowns, and Kullervo, suffering from remorse, leaves for war and finally, after having destroyed his enemies, commits suicide.

Kullervo is a hybrid work. The scene between the two sisters is like an operatic scena. The male voice choir comments the tragic events like the chorus in an antique drama. The framework is symphonic and reminiscent of the program symphonies of Berlioz and Liszt. But the single work that spiritually comes closest to the Kullervo Symphony is a much later one, Stravinsky’s opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex (after Sophocles) from 1927. In both works, the protagonist is a tragic hero who commits an act of violence against a person subsequently disclosed as a close relative. Kullervo throws himself on his sword, and Oedipus blinds himself and begs to be exiled from the city of Thebes as soon as possible.

The first attempt at a symphony that Sibelius abandoned was strictly in German tradition he had acquired through education. In Kalevala and the primitive modal rune-singing originally associated with this poetry, he had encountered an otherness that set his imagination free. Kullervo is not ’German music’ anymore, as practically all the music hitherto composed in Finland. It brings a new voice into the multinational fabric of European music. It is far from perfect, in the technical sense, but the strength of its vision makes it an epochal work. In its time, it also had a consolidating function in Finnish cultural life. A composer belonging to the Swedish-speaking educated class had chosen to use traditional Finnish poetry in his first major work, a fact that his former teacher Martin Wegelius and other Swedish party supporters strongly disapproved.

The first performance of Kullervo took place on 28 April 1892 in Helsinki under the composer’s baton. The audience and the critics immediately understood the importance of the event. Sibelius had taken the first step on his path to becoming a national hero, a genuine successor of Väinämöinen, Kalevala’s legendary singer. Well aware of the weaknesses the work Sibelius, however, withdrew it after a few performances and did not allow any further during his lifetime.

Many other Kalevala-based compositions followed suit over the years, notably the Lemminkäinen legends Op. 22, Origin of Fire Op. 32, Pohjola’s Daughter Op. 49, Luonnotar Op. 70 and an important set of songs for male voice choir Op. 18. But the profound influence of the ancient rune-singing on Sibelius’s musical thought is not restricted to the Kalevala-based compositions. It penetrates his more abstract symphonic music as well and constitutes an essential part of his musical identity that not only connoisseurs of his music but the public at large immediately recognize from a few bars.

The next event that strengthened Sibelius’s position in the nation’s consciousness occurred unexpectedly. On 15 February 1899, Tsar Nicolai II released the so-called February Manifesto, an imperial proclamation that abrogated Finland’s autonomy within the Russian Empire. In Finland, the Manifesto was interpreted as violating the sovereign pledge the Tsar had given when enthroned. The response was swift and overwhelming. Protest petitions circulated rapidly throughout Finland, and they gathered more than 500,000 signatures. In March 1899, these petitions were collected and submitted to the tsar, who chose to ignore this so-called Great Address.

Sibelius reacted by composing the Song of the Athenians Op. 31 No. 3 for boys’ and male voices and orchestra. The text is an adaptation of the War Song of Tyrtaeus by the Swedish poet Viktor Rydberg. It is a battle song that praises the beauty of death for the sake of the fatherland. The first performance of the song took place in a concert with Sibelius’s works on 26 April 1899. In this political situation, this simple song readily overshadowed the premiere of the First Symphony in the same concert. The Song of the Athenians became a symbol of freedom and was performed in every conceivable arrangement. Another political composition from the same years was a setting of Topelius’s poem Islossningen i Uleå älv (The Breaking of Ice on the Oulu River) Op. 30.

Whose thrall am I that in the strength of my youth
I should blindly worship an eternal winter?
Noble son of Finland’s blue lakes
I was born free and free I will die.

In the fall, the Russian government further tightened the grip on the annoyingly separatist Grand Duchy by censorship and temporarily suspending newspapers that had published anti-government material. A gala performance was set up for the benefit of pension funds of journalists, the real purpose of which was to give moral and material support to a free press. Sibelius contributed by writing music for a set of Historical Tableaux staged by Kaarlo Bergbom, with texts by Eino Leino and Jalmari Finne. There were six scenes, each of which described an era in the history of Finland.

1. Vänämöinen’s Song (prehistorical time)
2. The Finns are baptized (The Middle Ages)
3. Duke Johan at Åbo Castle (The Renaissance)
4. The Finns in the 30-Years War (first half of the 17th century)
5. The Great Unrest (beginning of the 18th century)
6. Finland Awakes! (modern times)

One of the symbols of modern times was the locomotive. The railroad revolutionized the transfer of people and goods in the latter half of the 19th century, and in Finland Awakes we can hear a locomotive set in motion. Next year, in view of the first European tour of the Philharmonic Society Orchestra, Sibelius revised the piece and gave it a new name. The new name was not of his invention, however; it was suggested in an anonymous letter by Mr. X alias Baron Axel Carpelan. That name was Finlandia.

Finlandia is one of those pieces of music the name and symbolic value of which is greater than the music itself. After a performance of it in Berlin in 1911, Sibelius noted in his diary: “Strange that all the critics who admire my music have disapproved of Finlandia being performed in Berlin. But everybody else cheers what, compared with my other work, is this relatively insignificant piece.”

At regular intervals, say, every ten to fifteen years, somebody in Finland suggests that the Finnish national anthem by Runeberg and Pacius from 1848 should be replaced by the solemn hymn section of Finlandia. To this section, words were first written in 1907 by Jalmari Finne and in 1919 by Yrjö Sjöblom, a Finnish immigrant living in the U.S. The first to suggest, in 1937, the adaptation of the Finlandia hymn as the national anthem was the opera singer Wäinö Sola, who also wrote a text to it. Sibelius then made an arrangement for male voice choir. To Yrjö Sjöblom, who visited him in 1938, he said, however: “It was not meant for singing, for it is orchestral music. But if the world wants to sing, what can I do.”

Patriotic music of symbolic significance often relates to fateful periods in a nation’s history: times of oppression, threat or war. In addition to the pieces already discussed, the March of the Finnish Jaeger Batallion from 1917 must be mentioned. It is a battle song like the Marseillaise, the original name of which was Chant de guerre pour l’armée du Rhin, and it served its purpose during the civil war of 1918.

Musically speaking all these pieces that had such an impact on the Finnish society at hard times are minor works. But they are minor works of a major composer. They are responsible for Sibelius’s unique position in the national consciousness, not his symphonic music that, for most citizens, is utterly esoteric and hard to understand.

Symphonic music, seven symphonies and ten symphonic poems, and a violin concerto are works for which Sibelius is known in the world of music. They constitute his real achievement, and they represent what can be called the public Sibelius. They are mentioned and discussed in books on the history of Western music and world’s leading orchestras play them on a more or less regular basis. Most popular are the Second Symphony and the Violin Concerto.

The leading idea of 19th century Europe was nationalism. The idea was so strong and all-embracing that even compositions that had nothing to do with it were interpreted as nationalist. This is what happened to Sibelius’s Second Symphony from 1902. Responsible for this nationalist interpretation was Robert Kajanus, the founder and conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, who put it in words:

“The Andante strikes one as the most broken-hearted protest against all the injustice that threatens at the present time to deprive the sun of its light and our flowers of their scent. […] The scherzo gives a picture of frenetic preparation. Everyone piles his straw on the haystack, all fibers are strained and every second seems to last an hour. One senses in the contrasting trio section with its oboe motive in G flat major what is at stake. […] [The finale] develops towards a triumphant conclusion intended to rouse in the listener a picture of lighter and confident prospects for the future.”

According to the German music historian Carl Dahlhaus virtually every symphony after Beethoven—at least everyone of any historical importance—was best understood primarily in relation to Beethoven. This holds true even for Sibelius’s Second. It lines up with other struggle-victory type symphonies, the archetype of with is Beethoven’s Fifth and that include (for example) Brahms’s First, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth, Mahler’s Eighth and Elgar’s First.

After the Second Symphony, a stylistic change takes place in Sibelius’s music, a change from Romantic opulence toward a kind of classicism. The duration of more than 40 minutes of the Second Symphony reduces to less than 30 minutes in the Third from 1907, and the number of movements from four to three. A redefinition of what a symphony is begun to take shape in his mind. In 1907, shortly after he had finished the Third Symphony, Mahler visited Helsinki. 25 years later, Sibelius told his sectary Santeri Levas:

“Mahler and I spent much time in each other’s company. Mahler’s grave heart-trouble forced him to lead an ascetic life and he was not fond of dinners and banquets. Contact was established between us in some walks, during which we discussed all the great questions of music thoroughly.

“When our conversation touched on the essence of symphony, I said that I admired its severity and style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motifs. This was the experience I had come to in composing. Mahler’s opinion was just the reverse:

“’Nein, die Symphonie muss sein wie die Welt, Sie muss alles umfassen’ (No, symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.)”

Mahler died in 1911. At this time, a sort of earthquake known as the emancipation of the dissonance occurred in music, notably in the music of Arnold Schoenberg. Tonality, the unquestionable basis of Western music since Johann Sebastian Bach, was at stake. In the music of the so-called Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern) the twelve tones of the chromatic scale do not relate to one centre, as they do in tonal music. Instead, they relate to each other only, which means that such music is atonal. Symphonic forms are so firmly rooted in tonality that an atonal symphony is inconceivable. For this reason, the Schoenberg school of composers declared the symphony dead. For them and the ideologues of atonality (Theodor W. Adorno, René Leibowitz, and others) Mahler was the fulfillment of the tradition of German symphony.

In his Fourth Symphony (1911), Sibelius arrived at the utmost edge of tonality, but unlike Schoenberg, he did not abandon it. Instead, he concentrated in the renewal of symphonic form within a tonal framework. The Fifth Symphony (1915) that he revised twice (1916, 1919) evolved from a four-movement first version to three-movement final version, in which the two first movements of the original had grown together. The Sixth Symphony (1923) is, as the British musicologist Arnold Whittall has put it, “the symphony par excellence about tonality”. The concentration went further. The Seventh Symphony (1924) is in one movement only. At its first performance in Stockholm, its name was Fantasia sinfonica No. I, but Sibelius finally decided to call it a symphony in spite of its form that radically deviates from the tradition of the genre. After the Seventh Symphony, he still composed one large orchestral work, the symphonic poem Tapiola (1926). In these works, the difference between two traditions, that of the multi-movement symphony and the single-movement symphonic poem, has disappeared. Sibelius had reached the final goal. In my mind, this synthesis of two generic principles plausibly explains, why he could not finish an Eighth Symphony, although he gave it a good try.

Sibelius’s symphonies enjoyed a huge popularity in the UK and the U.S. in the 1930s. In Nazi-Germany, he was the most often performed non-German composer of orchestral music, which was fatal for his post-war reputation. As the American musicologist Richard Taruskin puts it, Sibelius “fell into a trough of disdain for a couple of decades and only regained full respectability in the 1970s.” In Germany, Sibelius is still suspicious. When Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic performed all Sibelius’s symphonies and the Violin Concerto in Berlin for a couple of weeks ago, the review of the Tagesspiegel was headlined “So nah, so fremd” (So close, so strange). When they repeated the cycle at the Barbican in London, the critic of The Guardian wrote on the final concert:

“The Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Symphonies make an extraordinary triptych, arguably the most extraordinary in the symphonic canon after Beethoven, and the Berlin performances of them … provided the opportunity to wonder again at the originality and irresistible logic of Sibelius’s musical thinking.”

A talk at the monthly meeting of the IWCH on 3/10/2015

About Ilkka Oramo

Professor of Music Theory, emeritus
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