Tuesday, December 8, 8865

Jan Sibelius (1865-1957) - Symphonies

The music of Johan Julius Christian "Jean" / "Janne" / "Jan" Sibelius (December 8, 1865, Hämeenlinna, Finland - September 20, 1957, Järvenpää, Finland) played an important role in the formation of the Finnish national identity.

The core of Sibelius's oeuvre is his set of seven symphonies. Like Beethoven, Sibelius used each one to develop further his own personal compositional style. These works continue to be performed frequently in the concert hall and are often recorded.

Sibelius composed prolifically until the mid-1920's. However, soon after completing his Symphony No. 7 (1924) and the tone poem Tapiola (1926), he produced no large scale works for the remaining thirty years of his life. Although he is reputed to have stopped composing, he did attempt to continue writing, including abortive attempts to compose an eighth symphony.

He wrote some Masonic music and re-edited some earlier works during this last period of his life, and retained an active interest in new developments in music, although he did not always view contemporary music favorably.

Sibelius was born into a Swedish-speaking family in Hämeenlinna in the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland, the son of Christian Gustaf Sibelius and Maria Charlotta Sibelius. Although known as "Janne" to his family, during his student years he began using the French form of his name, "Jean," inspired by the business card of his seafaring uncle. In Finland he is known as Jean Sibelius.

Against the larger context of the rise of the Fennoman movement and its expressions of Romantic Nationalism, his family decided to send him to a Finnish language school, and he attended The Hämeenlinna Normal-lycée from 1876 to 1885. Romantic Nationalism was to become a crucial element in Sibelius' artistic output and his politics.

[Sibelius in 1889]

After Sibelius graduated from high school in 1885, he began to study law at Aleksander's Imperial University in Helsinki. However, he was more interested in music than in law, and he soon quit his studies. From 1885 to 1889, Sibelius studied music in the Helsinki music school (now the Sibelius Academy). One of his teachers there was Martin Wegelius. Sibelius continued studying in Berlin (from 1889 to 1890) and in Vienna (from 1890 to 1891).

Jean Sibelius married Aino Järnefelt (1871–1969) at Maxmo on June 10, 1892.

Sibelius wrote several tone poems based on Finnish poetry, beginning with the early En Saga (1892) and culminating in the late Tapiola (1926), his last major composition.

Like many of his contemporaries, Sibelius was initially enamored with the music of Wagner. A performance of Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival had a strong effect on him, inspiring him to write to his wife shortly thereafter, "Nothing in the world has made such an impression on me, it moves the very strings of my heart." He studied the scores of Wagner's operas Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, and Die Walküre intently. With this music in mind, Sibelius began work on an opera of his own, entitled Veneen luominen (The Building of the Boat).

However, his appreciation for Wagner waned and Sibelius ultimately rejected Wagner's Leitmotif compositional technique, considering it to be too deliberate and calculated.

Departing from opera, he later used the musical material from the incomplete Veneen luominen in his Lemminkäinen Suite (1893).

[Portrait of Sibelius from 1894 by Akseli Gallen-Kallela]

Finlandia (1899)

Symphony No. 1 (1899)

Influences on Sibelius's music included Ferruccio Busoni, Anton Bruckner and Tchaikovsky.

Hints of Tchaikovsky's music are particularly evident in works such as Sibelius' First Symphony (1899). Similarities to Bruckner are most strongly felt in the 'unmixed' timbral palette and sombre brass chorales of Sibelius' orchestration, as well as in the latter composer's fondness for pedal points and in the underlying slow pace of his music.

Sibelius progressively stripped away formal markers of sonata form in his work and, instead of contrasting multiple themes, he focused on the idea of continuously evolving cells and fragments culminating in a grand statement. His later works are remarkable for their sense of unbroken development, progressing by means of thematic permutations and derivations. The completeness and organic feel of this synthesis has prompted some to suggest that Sibelius began his works with their finished statement and worked backwards, although analyses showing these predominantly three- and four-note cells and melodic fragments as they are developed and expanded into the larger "themes" effectively prove the opposite.


Symphony No. 2 (1902): II

The Symphony No. 2's slow movement was sketched from the motive of Il Commendatore in W.A. Mozart's Don Giovanni.


The Sibelius's home, called Ainola, was completed at Lake Tuusula, Järvenpää in 1903, and the two lived out the remainder of their lives there. They had six daughters: Iva, Ruth, Kirsti (who died at a very young age), Katarine, Margaret, and Heidi.


Violin Concerto (1905)

Symphony No. 3 (1907)


Theself-contained musical structures of Sibelius stood in stark contrast to the symphonic style of Gustav Mahler, Sibelius' primary rival in symphonic composition. While thematic variation played a major role in the works of both composers, Mahler's style made use of disjunct, abruptly changing and contrasting themes, while Sibelius sought to slowly transform thematic elements. In November 1907 Mahler undertook a conducting tour of Finland, and the two composers had occasion to go on a lengthy walk together. Sibelius later reported that during the walk:

“ I said that I admired [the symphony's] severity of style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motifs... Mahler's opinion was just the reverse. 'No, a symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.'”

However, the two rivals did find common ground in their music. Like Mahler, Sibelius made frequent use both of folk music and of literature in the composition of his works.


Symphony No. 4 (1911)

The stark Symphony No. 4 combines work for a planned "Mountain" symphony with a tone poem based on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven."

Over time, Sibelius sought to use new chord patterns, including naked tritones (for example in Symphony No. 4), and bare melodic structures to build long movements of music, in a manner similar to Joseph Haydn's use of built-in dissonances. Sibelius would often alternate melodic sections with blaring brass chords that would swell and fade away, or he would underpin his music with repeating figures which push against the melody and counter-melody.


In 1911, Sibelius underwent a serious operation for suspected throat cancer. The impact of this brush with death can be seen in several of the works that he composed at the time, including Luonnotar and the Symphony No. 4.

[Sibelius in 1913]

Symphony No. 5 (1915)

Symphony No. 6 (1923)

Sibelius's melodies often feature powerful modal implications: for example much of Symphony No. 6 is in the Dorian mode. Sibelius studied Renaissance polyphony, as did his contemporary, the Danish composer Carl Nielsen, and Sibelius' music often reflects the influence of this early music.

Sibelius loved nature, and the Finnish landscape often served as material for his music. He once said of his Symphony No. 6, "[It] always reminds me of the scent of the first snow." The forests surrounding Ainola are often said to have inspired his composition of Tapiola. On the subject of Sibelius' ties to nature, one biographer of the composer, Erik Tawaststjerna, wrote:

"Even by Nordic standards, Sibelius responded with exceptional intensity to the moods of nature and the changes in the seasons: he scanned the skies with his binoculars for the geese flying over the lake ice, listened to the screech of the cranes, and heard the cries of the curlew echo over the marshy grounds just below Ainola. He savoured the spring blossoms every bit as much as he did autumnal scents and colours.

Symphony No. 7 (1924)

Sibelius often varied his movements in a piece by changing the note values of melodies, rather than the conventional change of tempi. He would often draw out one melody over a number of notes, while playing a different melody in shorter rhythm. For example, his Symphony No. 7 comprises four movements without pause, where every important theme is in C major or C minor; the variation comes from the time and rhythm.

The year 1926 saw a sharp and lasting decline in Sibelius' output: after his Symphony No. 7, he only produced a few major works in the rest of his life. Perhaps the two most significant were incidental music for Shakespeare's The Tempest and the tone poem Tapiola. For nearly the last 30 years of his life, Sibelius even avoided talking about his music.

[Sibelius in 1939]

There is substantial evidence that Sibelius worked on an eighth numbered symphony. He promised the premiere of this symphony to Serge Koussevitzky in 1931 and 1932, and a London performance in 1933 under Basil Cameron was even advertised to the public. However, the only concrete evidence for the symphony's existence on paper is a 1933 bill for a fair copy of the first movement.

Sibelius had always been quite self-critical; he remarked to his close friends, "If I cannot write a better symphony than my Seventh, then it shall be my last." Since no manuscript survives, sources consider it likely that Sibelius destroyed all traces of the score, probably in 1945, during which year he certainly consigned (in his wife's presence) a great many papers to the flames.

His 90th birthday, in 1955, was widely celebrated and both the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Thomas Beecham gave special performances of his music in Finland. The orchestras and their conductors also met the composer at his home; a series of memorable photographs were taken to commemorate the occasions. Both Columbia Records and EMI released some of the pictures with albums of Sibelius' music. Beecham was honored by the Finnish government for his efforts to promote Sibelius both in the United Kingdom and in the United States.

Tawaststjerna also relayed an endearing anecdote regarding Sibelius' death:

[He] was returning from his customary morning walk. Exhilarated, he told his wife Aino that he had seen a flock of cranes approaching. "There they come, the birds of my youth," he exclaimed.

Suddenly, one of the birds broke away from the formation and circled once above Ainola. It then rejoined the flock to continue its journey. Two days afterwards Sibelius died of a brain hemorrhage, at age 91 (on September 20, 1957), in Ainola, where he is buried in a garden.

Another well-known Finnish composer, Heino Kaski, died that same day. Aino lived there for the next twelve years until she died on June 8, 1969; she is buried with her husband.

In 1972, Sibelius' surviving daughters sold Ainola to the State of Finland. The Ministry of Education and the Sibelius Society opened it as a museum in 1974.

His harmonic language was often restrained, even iconoclastic, compared to many of his contemporaries who were already experimenting with musical modernism. As reported by Neville Cardus in the Manchester Guardian in 1958,

“ Sibelius justified the austerity of his old age by saying that while other composers were engaged in manufacturing cocktails he offered the public pure cold water.”

Because of its alleged conservatism, Sibelius' music is sometimes considered insufficiently complex [!], but he was immediately respected by even his more progressive peers. Later in life he was championed by critic Olin Downes, who wrote a biography, but he was attacked by composer-critic Virgil Thomson.

Sibelius has sometimes been criticized as a reactionary or even incompetent figure in 20th century classical music. In 1938 Theodor Adorno wrote a critical essay about the composer, notoriously charging that

“ If Sibelius is good, this invalidates the standards of musical quality that have persisted from Bach to Schoenberg: the richness of inter-connectedness, articulation, unity in diversity, the 'multi-faceted' in 'the one'.”

Composer and theorist René Leibowitz went so far as to describe Sibelius as "the worst composer in the world" in the title of a 1955 pamphlet.

Despite the innovations of the Second Viennese School, he continued to write in a strictly tonal idiom. However, critics who have sought to re-evaluate Sibelius' music have cited its self-contained internal structure, which distills everything down to a few motivic ideas and then permits the music to grow organically, as evidence of a previously under-appreciated radical bent to his work. The severe nature of Sibelius' orchestration is often noted as representing a "Finnish" character, stripping away the superfluous from music.

Perhaps one reason Sibelius has attracted both the praise and the ire of critics is that in each of his seven symphonies he approached the basic problems of form, tonality, and architecture in unique, individual ways. On the one hand, his symphonic (and tonal) creativity was novel, but others thought that music should be taking a different route. Sibelius' response to criticism was dismissive: "Pay no attention to what critics say. No statue has ever been put up to a critic."
Sibelius has fallen in and out of fashion, but remains one of the most popular 20th century symphonists, with complete cycles of his symphonies continuing to be recorded. In his own time, however, he focused far more on the more profitable chamber music for home use, and occasionally on works for the stage. Eugene Ormandy and, to a lesser extent, his predecessor Leopold Stokowski, were instrumental in bringing Sibelius' music to American audiences by programming his works often, and the former thereby developed a friendly relationship with Sibelius throughout his life.

[8866 Satie / 8865 Sibelius / 8865 Dukas]