Sibelius, Jean (1865–1957)

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SIBELIUS, JEAN (1865–1957)


Finnish composer.

Jean Christian Julius Sibelius was born on 8 December 1865 into a middle-class Swedish-speaking family in Hämeenlinna (Tavastehus), a provincial town north of Helsinki. At this time, Finland was a grand duchy of the Russian Empire. Sibelius's father died of typhoid in 1868, and his mother raised him. Their summers were spent at the Baltic seaport of Loviisa. Sibelius began violin lessons with the local bandmaster in Hämeenlinna in 1880, and his earliest surviving composition, a duet for violin and cello called Vattendroppar (Waterdrops) dates from around this time.

Sibelius enrolled at Helsinki University to read law in 1885, but swiftly abandoned his studies and took up a place at the Helsinki Music Institute, founded by Martin Wegelius (1846–1906) in 1881. Among the teachers on staff was the Italian-German pianist and composer Ferruccio Benvenuto Busoni (1866–1924). Sibelius graduated in 1889 and spent the next academic year in Berlin, studying counterpoint with Albert Becker (1834–1899). After returning to Finland, he traveled to Vienna in 1890 to study with Robert Fuchs (1847–1927) and Karl Goldmark (1830–1915). His year in Vienna made a deep musical impression on the young composer. He heard the Third Symphony of Anton Bruckner (1824–1896), and, inspired by reading the Finnish national epic the Kalevala, he began composing his first large-scale orchestral work, the highly original choral symphony Kullervo. On his return to Finland, he heard the rune singer Larin Paraske (1833–1904) and incorporated stylized musical figures based on her singing in parts of Kullervo. The work was premiered on 28 April 1892, the same year that Sibelius married Aino Järnefelt, daughter of a prominent upper-class family with strongly nationalist leanings.

Throughout the 1890s tensions had been growing between the Russian authorities and popular demands for an independent Finnish state. Many of Sibelius's works from this period were associated with the struggle for national identity and draw on themes or characters from the Kalevala. The First Symphony was premiered on 26 April 1899, followed by Finlandia, one of Sibelius's most popular compositions, on 4 November. The symphony was subsequently performed at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1900, as Sibelius's musical horizons became increasingly international. The Second Symphony (1900–1901), often heard as a patriotic call for Finnish liberation, was actually written in Italy.

The Second Symphony received its first American performance in Chicago in 1904. Later that year, Sibelius moved out of Helsinki to a villa in the country, called Ainola. The change of scene coincided with a significant shift of aesthetic focus away from the rich Romanticism of the first two symphonies toward a leaner, more concentrated musical style. The Third Symphony of 1907 is strikingly compressed: the third movement combines the functions of scherzo and finale telescoped into a single unbroken musical span. The Fourth Symphony (1911) is even more epigrammatic and has since gained a reputation as being one of the most difficult and modernist of Sibelius's symphonic works.

Sibelius traveled to the United States in 1914, at the invitation of Carl Stoeckel (1858–1925), to conduct the premiere of his tone poem The Oceanides at the Norfolk Festival in Connecticut. The outbreak of World War I, however, isolated Sibelius from international musical markets, especially in Germany, and may have prompted a significant period of compositional reassessment that resulted in the first version of the Fifth Symphony (1915, rev. 1916–1919). During the Finnish Civil War of 1918, Sibelius's sympathies lay with the White Army led by Baron Carl Gustav Emil Von Mannerheim (1867–1951), rather than with the Communists. Sibelius's later diary entries, and often his music, are marked by an increasingly powerful mood of inwardness and withdrawal. James Hepokoski has argued that the final two symphonies (1923 and 1924, respectively) and the tone poem Tapiola (1926) can be heard as concentrated meditations upon aspects of the Nordic natural world. Though Sibelius worked on an Eighth Symphony in the 1930s, parts of which were professionally copied, he probably burned the manuscript, and no major new works appeared after the completion of Tapiola in 1926. Sibelius's reputation in the United Kingdom and North America was at its height, but he increasingly sought to withdraw from public view. Sibelius died on 20 September 1957.

Sibelius's critical reception has followed a cyclic trajectory through twentieth-century music. Initially celebrated in Finland as a national hero, his symphonies were later upheld as the model for a progressive post-Beethovenian modernism. His perceived right-wing political connections, and supposed association with the blood-and-soil ideology of Nazism, partly accounted for the decline in his reputation after World War II, principally at the hands of writers such as Theodor Adorno (1903–1969) and René Leibowitz (1913–1972). The end of the twentieth century, however, saw renewed interest in Sibelius and his innovative approach to musical texture and form from a broad range of scholars and composers, from members of the French spectral school such as Tristan Murail to leading lights of British contemporary music and American minimalists such as John Adams.

See alsoFinland.


Abraham, Gerald, ed. Sibelius: A Symposium. London, 1948.

Goss, Glenda Dawn. Sibelius: A Guide to Research. New York, 1998.

Goss, Glenda Dawn, ed. The Sibelius Companion. Westport, Conn., 1996.

——, ed. Jean Sibelius: The Hämeenlinna Letters. Helsinki, 1997.

Grimley, Daniel M., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Sibelius. Cambridge, U.K., 2004.

Hepokoski, James. Sibelius, Symphony no. 5. Cambridge, U.K., 1993.

Jackson, Timothy L., and Veijo Murtomäki, eds. Sibelius Studies. Cambridge, U.K., 2001.

Layton, Robert. Sibelius. 4th ed. London, 1992.

Murtomäki, Veijo. Symphonic Unity: The Development of Formal Thinking in the Symphonies of Sibelius. Translated by Henry Bacon. Helsinki, 1993.

Parmet, Simon. The Symphonies of Sibelius: A Study in Musical Appreciation. Translated by Kingsley A. Hart. London, 1959.

Tawaststjerna, Erik. Sibelius. 3 vols. Edited and translated by Robert Layton. London, 1976–1997.

Daniel M. Grimley