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: 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: Scènes Historiques, Etc / Gibson, Scottish Natl
Release Date: 08/11/1993   Label: Chandos Collect  
Catalog: 6591   Number of Discs: 1
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Franck: Psyché;  Sibelius: Symphony No 2 / Ahronovitch, Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra
Release Date: 10/28/2008   Label: Profil  
Catalog: 8040   Number of Discs: 1
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Sibelius: Lemminkäinen Legends, Etc / Gibson, Scottish Natl
Release Date: 12/08/1993   Label: Chandos Collect  
Catalog: 6586   Number of Discs: 1
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Nielsen: Symphony No 5, Etc;  Sibelius / Alexander Gibson
Release Date: 10/28/1992   Label: Chandos Collect  
Catalog: 6533   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Symphony no 6 in D minor, Op. 104

 

About This Work
Sibelius completed this work in February 1923, and conducted the premiere at Helsinki on February 19 of that same year. His first reference to the work, in 1918, described it as "wild and passionate in character. Dark with pastoral contrasts. Read more Probably in 4 movements...intensifying in a dark orchestral swell [until] the main theme is drowned." At the same time he cautioned that his plan could change -- and how it did! -- "depending on the way my musical thinking develops. I am always a slave to my themes and obey their demands." Some of that "wild character" found a home in the last version of Symphony No. 5 (1919). The Sixth, however, evolved as a virtual homage to Palestrina, the same Renaissance master honored in Hans Pfitzner's then young opera, Palestrina.

In common with the Seventh Symphony, his incidental music for Shakespeare's The Tempest, and the tone poem Tapiola (Sibelius' last orchestral works before he quit composing altogether in 1929), the Symphony No. 6 is nature-painting uncluttered by "civilized" detritus. Even the fauna indigenous to subarctic Finland are absent, leaving only some bird-like motifs. It is the purest, most inward, in many ways most fascinating of his symphonies. For some of us it is also the most hypnotic, to be heard countless times without ever revealing all of its secrets.

The first movement, Allegro molto moderato, nominally in D minor, more accurately can be said to inhabit the medieval D Dorian mode (that is to say, from D to D on the white keys of the piano, whereas "natural" D minor has a flatted B, and "harmonic" D minor has a sharped C). This lends the music an archaic character that nevertheless becomes passionate as it evolves, praising the presence of God and ghosts in a cathedral of sound. Sibelius shifts into C major, however, and mostly stays there until a radiantly calm coda in D Dorian, as if there had never been C major! Nicolas Slonimsky wrote of "thematic molecules" (Cecil Gray called them "cells"), played in thirds by pairs of instruments. While these may seem random on first hearing, their development integrates everything as if by alchemy.

The second movement, Allegretto moderato serves, as in Beethoven's Eighth, in place of a slow movement, although Sibelius at one time thought of retitling it Andantino (lest conductors play it too briskly, as Georg Schnéevoigt did in the first recording in 1934). After a soft bid for attention on a drum tuned to F, flutes and bassoons play free-floating chords that resolve in G Dorian. Subtly, a 3/4 rhythmic pattern takes over as notes-per-measure increase from three to six to nine to 12. Scalar passages ascend only to fall partway back, while a saucy motif repeats itself until the ear is haunted for days after. The Poco vivace third movement is a brief scherzo in jig time (thus spoke Slonimsky). But it has no trio, no B section; thematic molecules from earlier movements are adapted, reorganized, and become boisterous right up to the end.

In the Allegro molto finale, Sibelius completes the C major first half of the opening motif in D Dorian. This is the symphony's densest movement texturally, the closest it comes to the 1918 promise of passion (but it is never wild). Indeed, Sibelius here echoes the nature poems he wrote from the Fourth Symphony on -- as well as Tapiola to come. In structure this comes closest to a conventional sonata-rondo, yet it is never traditional or predictable. The word concludes with quiet, undecorated D Dorian chords.

-- Roger Dettmer
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