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: 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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Sibelius: Songs / Katarina Karneus, Julius Drake
Release Date: 12/10/2013   Label: Helios  
Catalog: 55471   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Karelia Suite, Op. 11

 

About This Work
Sibelius' work on the incidental music to Karelia was borne on the rising tide of nationalism that swept through Finland in the 1890s. During this era, many considered education to be the best means of preserving cultural identity and thus opposing Read more Russia's encroachment on Finland. Sibelius' score, composed in a frenzied rush in 1893, was a natural response to this outlook and to the Finnish people's fondness for historical tableaux.

The work was commissioned by the Viipuir Students' Association of the University of Helsinki -- a student organization that was prevalent across the province of Viipuri (now part of Russia) -- and was premiered at a November 1893 gala event. Proceeds from the ticket sales were to go to "improving the social and cultural life of the Eastern border districts." The work was a rousing success; as Sibelius noted in a letter to his brother Christian, "You couldn't hear a single note of the music -- everyone was on their feet cheering and clapping."

Buoyed by this popular acclaim, Karelia got off to a promising start and was performed a handful of performances to similar acclaim. The composer, however, was less convinced of its musical value, and soon his excitement for the piece waned, likely from a belief that it was too loosely constructed and "tableaux-like" for a concert setting. He later condensed the eight scenes into the three-movement work now familiar as the Karelia Suite, Op. 11.

In its original form, after a patriotic overture, the work's first tableau ("Karelian Home -- Runic Song, interrupted by War Music, 1293") features a stylized "Karelianist" interpretation of rune singing from the Karelia region. In the second tableau ("The Founding of Viipuri Castle, 1293"), Sibelius incorporates a fugato based on Gregorian chant, followed by a chorale-like subject intended as a reference to the blessing of the foundation stone by Bishop Petrus. Following this lofty subject matter, the third tableaux ("Narimont, the Duke of Lithuania, levying taxes in the Province of Käksim, 1333") somewhat prosaically depicts the collection of taxes; appropriately, it begins with clamorous battle music, followed by a central march section. The subject of the fourth tableau ("Ballade -- Karl Knutsson in Viipuri Castle, 1446") is the famed King, who after being deposed in 1446 withdrew to Viipuri Castle to lick his wounds; in Sibelius' score, he seeks solace in the singing of a troubadour. The distinctly warlike fifth tableau ("Pontus de la Gardie at the Gates of Käkisalmi, 1580") includes several fanfares, some wildly dissonant in relation to a pedal bass, leading to a central Alla marcia. The sixth tableau ("The Siege of Viipuri, 1710") hints at Sibelius' characteristic mature style, an exciting combination of brisk motion and static, block-like harmonies. The seventh and eight tableaux ("The Reunion of Old Finland with the Rest of Finland, 1811" and "The Finnish National Anthem 'Our Land'") are allegorical renditions, the latter of which elevates the Finnish national anthem to new dramatic heights. As Jouni Kaipainen, who in 1997 edited and reconstructed parts of the original work, noted, "The nature and message of the tableau was so stunningly obvious that it is actually interesting to wonder how the Czarist censor ever managed to let it through."

-- Brian Wise
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