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Jean Sibelius

(1865—1957) Finnish composer


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(b Hämeenlinna (Tavastehus), 1865; d Järvenpää, 1957).

Finn. composer, the nat. mus. v. of his country. In boyhood was called Janne by his friends and later adopted first name of an uncle, Jean Sibelius. Comp. as a child before he had technical instruction. Learned pf. and vn., hoping to become virtuoso of latter. Studied comp. in text‐books. Entered Helsinki Univ. as law student 1885, taking special courses in mus. at Cons. and abandoning law in 1886. Studied comp. with Wegelius and vn. with Csillag at Helsinki Cons. 1886–9, being encouraged also by Busoni, in Berlin 1889–90 (comp. with A. Becker), and at Vienna Cons. 1890–1 (comp. with K. Goldmark and R. Fuchs). Taught vn. and theory, Helsinki Mus. Institute 1892–7. Inspired by nationalist feeling sweeping Finland in protest at Russ. domination, comp. choral sym. for soloists, male ch., and orch., Kullervo, based on Finn. nat. epic Kalevala had great success in Helsinki, 1892, but was withdrawn and not perf. again until after composer's death, when it was found to contain, amid immaturities, many indications of the later Sibelius. In the period 1893–7 he wrote the 4 Kalevala Legends about the hero Lemminkäinen and in 1892 the highly original tone‐poem En Saga, a theme of which was taken from a student str. octet. In 1897 the Finnish state voted Sibelius an annual pension (increased in 1926) to enable him to concentrate solely on comp. His tone‐poem Finlandia, which became almost a nat. emblem, dates from 1899, the year of his first visit to It. He had by then completed his 1st Sym., which blends Sibelian originality with a Slav romanticism derived from Tchaikovsky. The 2nd Sym. (1902), while still classical in outline, contains more of Sibelius's individual use of short themes gradually building into a larger whole, his fondness for ostinati, and his predilection for long, atmospheric str. passages (often inevitably likened to the Finnish wind) and for unusual and effective grouping of instr., esp. woodwind. The vn. conc. was written in 1903, its warm middle movt. reflecting the It. visit, and rev. 1905 when Strauss cond. it in Berlin. The 3rd Sym., often regarded as traditional but one of the most original of the 7, followed in 1904–7. It is ded. to Bantock, one of his earliest Eng. champions. Sibelius first visited Eng. in 1905, conducting the 2nd Sym. in Liverpool. In Nov. 1907 Mahler visited him in Helsinki and they had a famous conversation in which they expressed their contrasted views of the sym. For Mahler it was ‘the world—it must embrace everything’ for Sibelius, it was the ‘profound logic creating a connection between all the motifs’ and the ‘severity of style’ which were the attractions. His 4th Sym. (1911) is indeed the antithesis of the Mahlerian symphony, epigrammatic, austere (but not lacking passion), economically scored, the whole work severely concentrated. Its introspective character, like that of the str. qt. Voces Intimae of 1908–9, is possibly attributable to his fear that a throat ailment from which he suffered at that period might be cancer. In 1914 he visited the USA, conducting at the Norfolk Fest., Conn., and taking a new symphonic poem, The Oceanides. On return to Finland he was isolated by World War I but celebrated his 50th birthday by composing the 5th Sym., later much rev. This work, in the heroic key of E♭ major, is among his most popular works, summing up all the familiar Sibelian characteristics and possessing a strong emotional power. After the war he revisited London in 1921 and in 1923 completed his 6th Sym., the most ‘pastoral’ and elusive of the set, with modal harmonies and a flavour of his admiration for Palestrina. In 1924 he finished the 7th Sym., compressed into one movt, but with the conventional 4 symphonic movts. easily recognizable. This was followed by incid. mus. for The Tempest. Another tone‐poem, Tapiola, commissioned by the NY Sym. Soc., appeared in 1926. He wrote some male chs., and some pieces for vn. and pf., and 2 pieces for org. in 1931. Thereafter, although he wrote and destroyed an 8th Sym., he never pubd. another note in the remaining 26 years of his life. Yet despite this silence he remained a dominating figure, elevated to heroic status in his own country, in Eng., and the USA, but not in Ger. or Fr. In Eng. in the 1930s he was regarded by many composers as almost the only worthwhile figure in contemporary mus. and this effectively closed Eng. ears to Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, and to a large extent Stravinsky, until a rearguard action was fought on their behalf coincident with Sibelius's death. His reputation then suffered an exaggerated relapse, but a more balanced view of his highly original and rewarding style, particularly in the syms., now prevails. His mastery of the orch. has overshadowed the beauty of his choral works and his songs. Like Elgar, he wrote a good deal of lighter music of high worth and his incidental mus. is among the finest in existence. The picture of him as an ascetic, bleak figure is not supported by the facts of his far from austere life, nor is the mus. the ‘cold, forbidding’ art which some writers have portrayed. His place in symphonic development is assured, particularly if he is regarded as complementary to Mahler and the late romantics rather than as the antithesis. His songs, too, have been belatedly recognized as superlative examples of his art. Prin. works:

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Subjects: Music.


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