Jean Sibelius

Biography

Born: Dec 8, 1865; Finland   Died: Sep 20, 1957; Finland   Period: 20th Century
Finland's Jean Sibelius is perhaps the most important composer associated with nationalism in music and one of the most influential in the development of the symphony and symphonic poem. Sibelius was born in southern Finland, the second of three children. His physician father left the family bankrupt, owing to his financial extravagance, a trait that, along with heavy drinking, he would pass on to Jean. Jean showed talent on the violin and at age Read more nine composed his first work for it, Rain Drops. In 1885 Sibelius entered the University of Helsinki to study law, but after only a year found himself drawn back to music. He took up composition studies with Martin Wegelius and violin with Mitrofan Wasiliev, then Hermann Csillag. During this time he also became a close friend of Busoni. Though Sibelius auditioned for the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, he would come to realize he was not suited to a career as a violinist.
In 1889 Sibelius traveled to Berlin to study counterpoint with Albert Becker, where he also was exposed to new music, particularly that of Richard Strauss. In Vienna he studied with Karl Goldmark and then Robert Fuchs, the latter said to be his most effective teacher. Now Sibelius began pondering the composition of the Kullervo Symphony, based on the Kalevala legends. Sibelius returned to Finland, taught music, and in June 1892, married Aino Järnefelt, daughter of General Alexander Järnefelt, head of one of the most influential families in Finland. The premiere of Kullervo in April 1893 created a veritable sensation, Sibelius thereafter being looked upon as the foremost Finnish composer. The Lemminkäinen suite, begun in 1895 and premiered on April 13, 1896, has come to be regarded as the most important music by Sibelius up to that time.
In 1897 the Finnish Senate voted to pay Sibelius a short-term pension, which some years later became a lifetime conferral. The honor was in lieu of his loss of an important professorship in composition at the music school, the position going to Robert Kajanus. The year 1899 saw the premiere of Sibelius' First Symphony, which was a tremendous success, to be sure, but not quite of the magnitude of that of Finlandia (1899; rev. 1900).
In the next decade Sibelius would become an international figure in the concert world. Kajanus introduced several of the composer's works abroad; Sibelius himself was invited to Heidelberg and Berlin to conduct his music. In March 1901, the Second Symphony was received as a statement of independence for Finland, although Sibelius always discouraged attaching programmatic ideas to his music. His only concerto, for violin, came in 1903. The next year Sibelius built a villa outside of Helsinki, named "Ainola" after his wife, where he would live for his remaining 53 years. After a 1908 operation to remove a throat tumor, Sibelius was implored to abstain from alcohol and tobacco, a sanction he followed until 1915. It is generally believed that the darkening of mood in his music during these years owes something to the health crisis.
Sibelius made frequent trips to England, having visited first in 1905 at the urging of Granville Bantock. In 1914 he traveled to Norfolk, CT, where he conducted his newest work The Oceanides. Sibelius spent the war years in Finland working on his Fifth Symphony. Sibelius traveled to England for the last time in 1921. Three years later he completed his Seventh Symphony, and his last work was the incidental music for The Tempest (1925). For his last 30 years Sibelius lived a mostly quiet life, working only on revisions and being generally regarded as the greatest living composer of symphonies. In 1955 his 90th birthday was widely celebrated throughout the world with many performances of his music. Sibelius died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1957. Read less
Sibelius: The Essential Orchestral Favourites With Photo Album
Release Date: 11/11/2014   Label: Ondine  
Catalog: 12652   Number of Discs: 2
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Sibelius: Songs / Katarina Karneus, Julius Drake
Release Date: 12/10/2013   Label: Helios  
Catalog: 55471   Number of Discs: 1
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Sibelius: Symphonies 1, 2, 5 & 7 / Bernstein, Vienna Philharmonic
Release Date: 05/25/2010   Label: C Major  
Catalog: 702208   Number of Discs: 2
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Smetana: String Quartets No 1 & 2; Sibelius: Voces Intimae  / Dante Quartet
Release Date: 05/10/2011   Label: Hyperion  
Catalog: 67845   Number of Discs: 1
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Stravinsky: Rite of Spring; Sibelius: Symphony No 5 / Bernstein
Release Date: 09/25/2012   Label: Ica Classics  
Catalog: 5082   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Symphony no 5 in E flat major, Op. 82

 

About This Work
Sibelius composed three versions of this work between 1915 and 1919, and led the premiere of the last one on October 21, 1921, in Helsinki. It is abstemiously scored: double winds, brass without tuba, tympani, strings. In time for his 50th birthday, Read more which was celebrated as a national holiday in Finland, Sibelius completed and conducted a first version of his Fifth Symphony, in four movements -- startlingly longer than the final version and comparatively inchoate. (Persons curious to compare them may consult a recording of 5/i on the BIS label.) Only string bass parts have survived a revision begun immediately after the premiere. Still not satisfied, Sibelius rethought and reworked it over two years. What eventuated (5/iii) has become the most popular of his seven symphonies: a triumph of structural ingenuity, and a validation of non-programmatic music when Lisztians of every stripe -- most notably Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler -- were deconstructing "absolute" art.

What finally evolved in the first movement is a structure that begins with the double exposition of two theme-groups, the second of them in G (where the strings enter). Sibelius didn't just restate his basic materials; his range of mood extended to a passage marked lugubre for bassoons. Through a variety of keys he reaches a long development section, which builds toward recapitulation whereupon 12/8 time, after a slow acceleration, suddenly switches to 3/4, E flat changes to B major, and Allegro moderato becomes the new basic tempo. What follows was salvaged from a separate Scherzo movement in the 1915 version -- complete with Trio -- but one that segues into the tonic recap of theme-groups one and two, followed by a coda that quickens to Presto.

The Andante mosso, quasi allegretto is as simple, structurally, as the first movement is complex, but hardly simplistic: in effect, there are several variations on a rhythm -- two groups of five quarter notes separated by a quarter note rest. This "theme" is played first by violas and cellos after a motif for clarinets, bassoons, and horns that returns as a countermelody. Sibelius creates "six tunes" (Michael Steinberg's diction), more or less tranquil on the surface but underneath mysterious, even briefly turbulent, with a translucent passage (violins divided into eight parts) that bespeaks pure genius. Also beneath the surface is a first statement (by low strings) of the proclamative theme that will dominate the finale.

Strings play the first theme in what some Sibelians have called a rondo, but others insist is sonata-structure, a whirring, buzzing business that culminates in the heroic second theme for pairs of horns, playing whole notes, in thirds. Momentum is sustained while the two subjects pursue a complex course through various keys and mass dissonances that only the horn theme, reassigned to trumpets, can finally cut through, like a machete through jungle growth. Trombones and horns join in, until Sibelius decrees silence, followed by six chords that bring his odyssey into a safe and happy harbor.

-- Roger Dettmer
Read less

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