Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

The fiftieth anniversary of the death of the great Finnish composer is being celebrated this year, his seven symphonies played around the U.K. by our major orchestras. So much a nineteenth century composer – he composed very little in the last thirty years of his life – it’s a surprise that he died only fifty years ago. It took him some time to shake off the influence of Tchaikovsky before he found his own style with its strong nationalistic flavour and wild and fervent northern grandeur. His orchestral music has an unmistakable sound and form, a style of thematic growth with a sense of organic development which totally absorbs the listener, so that you feel you are watching an action taking place as well as listening to a unique sound world that throws its arms around you and lifts you into a new place.

It took time for his music to be accepted by the musical intelligentsia of Europe and North America. There is the story of Toscanini giving the first American performance of, I think, his austere fourth symphony, which was received coolly by the audience.

So Toscanini repeated the performance! Only in more recent years has his music featured in the programmes of German orchestras, whereas he became immensely popular in Britain which he visited four times. Henry Wood and later John Barbirolli and Thomas Beecham pioneered his work here and Malcolm Sargent was conducting one of his symphonies in Helsinki on the day Sibelius died. Colin Davies recorded the symphonies with the Boston Symphony Orchestra – I once had the set of L.P’s, and still have the series played by the City of Birmingham orchestra in the early days of Simon Rattle’s direction.

During the last thirty years of his life, Sibelius never set foot outside Finland and repeatedly declined invitations to travel. Yet the image of the Nordic titan with the skull of granite – an image affirmed by the massive monument to him in Helsinki (which I saw on one freezing cold day in 2005) does less than justice to the truth.

His was a complex and many faceted personality: he was an artist, says the critic Robert Layton, who subjected his work to the most searching self-criticism and was plagued with self-doubts. He readily plummeted into bouts of deep depression and self-questioning. His music as it became more complex was out of fashion for some time but has never been more popular and played more frequently than it is today. And fifty years after his death Finland, once virtually an unknown country when Sibelius was born, must now be the most musical nation in the world. (See ‘Helsinki’ in my European Cities postings, July 19 2006).

This YouTube video is of the Finale of Sibelius 5th Symphony: