The Seattle Symphony celebrates the 150th birthday of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius this month with a “Sibelius Fest”, featuring performances of all seven of his symphonies, his Violin Concerto, Finlandia, and other works. Sibelius, a contemporary of Mahler, is known for his pictorial symphonic works, often equated with the landscape and climate of Finland. Music historians tend to group Sibelius with other ‘national hero’ composers such as Dvorak, Smetana, Bartok, Kodaly and Vaughan Williams, in a time period at the start of the twentieth century where increasing nationalism and collective identity started to play a major role in the unfolding of world events (with near-catastrophic conclusions).
This categorization makes sense. Sibelius was considered a national hero in Finland; as a schoolboy he did develop an interest in the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, and he was somewhat inspired by native folk songs. Yet he did not learn Finnish until later in life (growing up in a Swedish household), and his ‘patriotism’ was not as much a result of his love for the Finnish landscape and nation, as it was a pragmatic interest after marriage into a powerful and politically active family.
His reputation as Finnish national hero was cemented with his Finlandia, composed in 1899, giving rise to international fame while, simultaneously, becoming a rallying point for the Finns after decades of frustrating Russian rule. The work is characterized by its hymn-like qualities, continually rising and falling phrases and an exuberant ‘heroic’ finish, yet Sibelius’ intentions were not necessarily reflected in the public’s nationalistic reading thereof. Subsequent pieces such as his “Song of the Athenians,” which did not have direct references to Finland, were also considered defiant emblems for resisting Russian rule.
Lisa De Gorog, a leading musicologist on the subject of Finnish nationalism argues that Finns, “have a tendency toward hero-worship, and gladly embraced Sibelius as a symbol of national self-esteem.” Composer Simon Parmet said “…Sibelius filled a gap in the spiritual life of the country, translated its folklore into a universally-understood language that expressed the nation’s soul, made it an active participant in world culture and politics, and gave his countrymen tangible hope for a vibrant and independent future.”
Sibelius accepted a life-long pension from the Finnish government and relented when they commissioned the English Columbia Gramophone Company to record his first two symphonies in 1930, with press-releases filled with propaganda. The first symphony was composed one year after Finlandia and critics viewed this (and successive symphonies) through the same proto-patriotic sense. Yet some observers, such as Karl Edman, were able to see beyond this simplified interpretation into something much deeper—a human confession from a defiant composer, revealing “…his dreams, his melancholy, his longing, his undaunted acceptance of life, the indomitable will to assert himself… the struggle of a soul full of conflict for its salvation.”
Sibelius as a composer is far more interesting than the mere nationalist that history has painted him to be. He bridged the romantic period – with its conventions, lush harmonies and pictorial symphonic sketching – and the idioms of the twentieth century – with its innovation, restructuring of musical units and theory and the overall chaos and uncertainty that accompanied it. As a composer, Sibelius was often ahead of his contemporaries in this evolution, with his unique, rich sonorities and erratic forward momentum, and wished to be remembered for that rather than his role as national symbol:
“My symphonies are music – conceived and worked out as musical expression, without any literary basis. I am not a literary musician, for me music begins where words leave off. A symphony should be music first and last. I am particularly pleased to see it explicitly stressed that my symphonies are founded on form, and also that wholly misleading speculations about descriptions of nature and about folklore are being gotten rid of.”
George Bernard Shaw praised the composer in the Manchester Guardian in 1938:
“Sibelius is unquestionably a leader in the front rank of symphonic composers. He has got out of the ruts worn by his predecessors far more completely than Brahms got away from Beethoven, or even Richard Strauss from Wagner. If someone would only burn ‘Finlandia’ he would come to our young people as an entirely original inventor of a new art form and a new harmony technique.”
By focusing on the inner struggle of the man/human rather than the hero, the inner aggression, complexity and innovation of Sibelius’ music comes to the fore. His seven symphonies remain among the most challenging in orchestral repertoire, with soundscapes and techniques that had never been demanded before, regarded “at the outer limits of orchestral possibility” at the time. The symphonies juxtapose the large scale of evocative, grand landscapes—such as the final moments of the Second or Fifth— with the almost microscopic details of his orchestration. From his early days as a young composer (characterized by hard-drinking and depression) to the later days where he became more conservative in appearance and demeanor—yet more adventurous in composing—Sibelius’ music contains an urgent intensity, such as in the Violin Concerto and Kullervo Symphony, featured at the Sibelius Fest this month.
Sibelius’ portrayal in posterity depends on the narratives that musicians choose to weave around his works, with recent trends especially tending towards the dramatic and exaggerated. For Seattle audiences, the Sibelius Fest presents a unique opportunity to take in the vast majority of the composer’s output without prior bias.
For more information about Seattle Symphony’s Sibelius Fest and schedules, visit the website here.