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: Suites - Pelleas et Melisande, King Christian II, Swanwhite / Sakari
Release Date: 07/29/2014   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 10828   Number of Discs: 1
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Sibelius: Violin Concerto / Jennifer Pike, Andrew Davis, Bergen Philharmonic
Release Date: 03/25/2014   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 5134   Number of Discs: 1
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Sibelius: Complete Symphonies / John Storgards, BBC Philharmonic
Release Date: 04/29/2014   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 10809   Number of Discs: 3
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Sibelius: Scènes Historiques, Etc / Gibson, Scottish Natl
Release Date: 08/11/1993   Label: Chandos Collect  
Catalog: 6591   Number of Discs: 1
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Karajan: Sibelius, 1976-1981
Release Date: 05/27/2014   Label: Warner Classics  
Catalog: 633619   Number of Discs: 4
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Work: Symphony no 3 in C major, Op. 52

 

About This Work
Jean Sibelius' reputation rests more squarely on the shoulders of his orchestral music than does that of almost any other major composer. He is certainly one of the most important symphonic composers to emerge in the post-Beethoven era, and yet one Read more can make no sweeping statement in which all of his seven essays in the form are summed up concisely. While his highly individual techniques of motivic development and interconnection are present, to some degree, in the pair of popular and unabashedly lush symphonies with which he began his explorations of symphonic form, it is arguably with the Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52, that Sibelius' powers first display themselves in full regalia.

The Third Symphony is occasionally referred to as the "English" Symphony, because of Sibelius' extended trip to Britain in late 1905 which seems to have affected to some degree the outlines of the still-gestating work. Completed by 1907, it is a work whose lean textures, orchestration, and dimensions continue to be disconcerting to listeners whose familiarity with the composer comes from the thicker, more epic Second Symphony.

The Symphony commences with a vigorously rhythmic statement by the lower strings. The primary "theme" is really an assortment of related (but at this point still disconnected) motivic fragments: the opening idea in the cellos and basses, a following sprightly woodwind tune, a dotted figure in the violins, and a noble idea in triplets first asserted by the horns and woodwinds as the opening passage reaches its climax. Sibelius makes a sudden dramatic shift to B minor to begin his secondary theme material. However, this fine cello melody soon disintegrates into running sixteenth notes that derive from the sprightly woodwind tune mentioned above. Sibelius cunningly overlaps the development and recapitulation. Now, after a slightly extended presentation of the opening motivic group, the second theme is played out in E minor against a harsh, fortissimo woodwind background. Once again the running sixteenths ensue, but before they have a chance to take over completely Sibelius makes another unusual transition, this time to a noble coda.

Even more interesting is the second movement, marked Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto and set in the key of G sharp minor. The gentle, fragmented dance tune first presented, quite shyly (pianissimo dolce), by the flutes, is perfect in its blend of gracefulness and melancholy. As this theme plays out Sibelius makes effective use of a brief connecting figure in the clarinets and of an attractive cross-rhythm. The elaborated repetition of all this material winds down to a mournful G sharp minor close to prepare the way for a schizophrenic central section.

Formally speaking, the Finale is entirely unprecedented: it cannot be described as any of the standard forms, and, indeed, it seems in many ways to defy even the very principles on which those forms were originally based. This energetic movement takes some time to get moving, first running through some scherzando string passages and a brief reprise of the second movement tune before finally arriving at the steady Allegro eighth notes that will carry the rest of the movement. After a thrilling climax in A flat major, a new and robust theme emerges in the lower strings. Soon this idea comes to dominate the proceedings, and little thought is given either to any other material or, indeed, save for two brief digressions to E minor, to any triad other than C major. The motoric drive persists to the very end.

-- Blair Johnston
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