The first week of December has been a smorgasbord for readers of this blog who are lovers of classical romantic movement as we celebrated the singing majesty of Maria Callas and José Carreras. And now we enter the second week with one of the great romantic composers, Johan Julius Christian Sibelius, born 151 years ago on 8th December. Jean Sibelius is the most famous of Finnish composers mainly through the universal recognition of Finlandia.
Yet this fine Finn, who lived through the dark winters and the never ending summer days of his homeland, brought Finland to life through his symphonies and tone poems. ‘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 (his home). He savoured the spring blossoms every bit as much as he did autumnal scents and colours’ (Ref: Tawaststjerna 1976). In my opinion, that Finnish life force comes through even more in his symphonies which I discovered just about 15 years after his death in 1957.
The symphonies that beckon most attention are No. 5 and No. 2. Whereas Beethoven found a name for each of his symphonies, for Sibelius, just Symphony No. 2 will do. This work has an intensity that creeps under your guard and won’t let you go promising to reach its climax on many occasions before the ultimate crescendo. The ‘Never Ending Symphony’ is a ‘must listen to’ work.
So, I have given my game away, yet each of the symphonies merits an armchair ride with a glass or two of wine, that you can share with his spirit. Please save a good drop for the famous 5th with its exciting clipped finale. Then revitalise yourself with the Violin Concerto, referred to as the most performed violin concerto composed in the 20th century, so it has a good pedigree.
Along with Richard Strauss, Sibelius was the second great symphonic (or tone) poem composer after Liszt. Of the 13, Finlandia, the tune of Finland, floats a little above the other 12 ‘disciples’. Another sip from the cup of fine compositional wine of Sibelius is, for me, the Karelia Suite that demands attention to its haunting horns and well known theme . But I will not argue with anyone who claims that I am not doing other works justice, it is just a matter of space in this little blog.
Jean Sibelius lived till his 91st year watching the geese and cranes circling above his home, and being kindly tended and tolerated by his wife whom he met when she was a 17 year old belle in 1888. She preserved Jean Sibelius from his not uncommon habit for a composer of excessive drinking. Much more may be owed to her soul than has been merited. Jean and Aino lay together in Ainola (Aino’s Place) and his music can still be heard everywhere in the forests and lakes of Finland.
Sibelius was a greatly respected composer in his lifetime and since, and even though he did not publish much in his past 30 years, it was likely due to his increasing devotion to nature and grandchildren as well as making his own decision that new compositions were not up to his high standards.
Jean Sibelius produced a grand body of haunting and inspirational music with the symphony as the bed on which his other creations lie.
Spend an evening or several visiting Finland and admiring its nature through the sounds left for our pleasure by Jean Sibelius. Even better, visit the Sibelius monument, and feel his music in his home.