Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

Happy 150th birthday, Jean Sibelius!

The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius was born on 8 December 1865, in a country then under Russian rule and undergoing a tremendous cultural awakening. He became a symbol of his country's independence struggle, and lived to 1957, forty years after independence. His lifespan was longer than any two of Schubert, Mozart, Bizet, Gershwin, Mendelssohn, Weber, Chopin and Schumann combined; but his creative period was constrained to the middle of his life, roughly from 1890 to 1926; in 1940 he notoriously burned all of his unpublished music in the fireplace of his home, Ainola.

I've loved his music since I was a teenager, and I just want to share a few pieces with you all for a weekend celebration, with perhaps a bit more context than is sometimes given. The first piece was composed in part as a protest against media censorship by the Russian regime, and first performed in 1900; the Russians found it so incendiary that it was often put on concert programmes with a disguised title. So it's not only a stirring piece of music in its own right, but a statement in favour of free speech. It is Finlandia.



Finlandia is not a choral work in its original form, but the melody of the last third has had numerous lyrics attached to it, including at least three different hymns in English. In Finland it's not the national anthem but it's one of the most important national songs. Sing along, if you like:



Oi Suomi, katso, Sinun päiväs koittaa,
yön uhka karkoitettu on jo pois,
ja aamun kiuru kirkkaudessa soittaa
kuin itse taivahan kansi sois.
Yön vallat aamun valkeus jo voittaa,
sun päiväs koittaa, oi synnyinmaa.

Oi nouse, Suomi, nosta korkealle
pääs seppelöimä suurten muistojen,
oi nouse, Suomi, näytit maailmalle
sä että karkoitit orjuuden
ja ettet taipunut sä sorron alle,
on aamus alkanut, synnyinmaa.
Finland, behold, thy daylight now is dawning,
the threat of night has now been driven away.
The skylark calls across the light of morning,
the blue of heaven lets it have its way,
and now the day the powers of night is scorning:
thy daylight dawns, O Finland of ours!

Finland, arise, and raise towards the highest
thy head now crowned with mighty memory.
Finland, arise, for to the world thou criest
that thou hast thrown off thy slavery,
beneath oppression's yoke thou never liest.
Thy morning's come, O Finland of ours!


Going back a bit, Sibelius' first hit was with the symphonic poem Kullervo, first performed in 1892, which is based on an episode from the Finnish national epic the Kalevala (also the subject of a recently published translation by J.R.R. Tolkien). The whole thing is well over an hour, but if you can spare seven minutes to listen to the start of the third movement, where Kullervo unknowingly encounters his sister, I think you'll find it worth your while:



A lot of Sibelius' music evokes Finnish nature and landscape, and one favourite short piece that seems to me to sum up spring coming to a frozen winter landscape is the Alla Marcia from the 1893 Karelia suite, (Karelia being the eastern part of Finland, mostly lost to the Soviet Union in the 1940s) which some may remember being used by Rik Mayall as the theme tune for his character Kevin Turvey:



I think this isn't the right place to post long extracts from the seven completed symphonies, but I love them all; a few fragmets of the uncompleted Eighth Symphony escaped the composer's attention and survived the 1940 fire, and they were clearly taking him in a very different direction:



I'll end with another Finnish mythological piece from Sibelius' early years, this from a suite of pieces about the life of the hero Lemminkäinen. In the story, Lemminkäinen has been tasked to travel to Tuonela, the island of the dead, to kill the swan which swims the boundary between two worlds (spoiler: he dies instead). As we all know, swans supposedly sing only on the brink of death; the Swan of Tuonela sings for ever, in the haunting tones of the cor anglais:



Happy birthday, sir.
Tags: people: sibelius
Subscribe
  • Post a new comment

    Error

    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.
  • 10 comments