150th Birthday of Jean Sibelius

Composer Jean Sibelius was born December 8, 1865 in what is now Finland, at the time it was part of the Russian Empire. In 1955, his 90th birthday was celebrated around the world with performances in Finland and United States by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra and more. 

Now in 2015, we celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth.

We'll hear 7 great works by Sibelius during Morning Concert and Afternoon Concert starting Thursday afternoon, December 3rd.  On his actual birthday, December 8th, we'll play one piece during Morning Concert and two during Afternoon Concert.

Works will include his Karelia Suite, Symphony No. 2 and his Tapiola tone poem.

Pictured to the left, Jean Sibelius as a school boy, around age 10 or 11.

Not all composers are child prodigies. Sibelius didn’t even take a music lesson until he was nine. He took up the violin and, though he became a decent player, he was never as good as he wanted to be. He couldn’t even play his own violin concerto – though it stands as one of the greatest ever written. He auditioned once to play in the Vienna Philharmonic, but was rejected – so he put the violin aside and focused his attention on composing.

At almost 40 he would write his great violin concerto, taking 2 years to write the Concerto for Violin in D Major, Op. 47.  Some think he was thinking back on his earlier aspirations to be a virtuoso himself while writing this major work.

Many credit Sibelius with Finland’s national identity, the country had been under Russian rule and gained independence during Sibelius’ career.  Many of his pieces take inspiration from the Kalevala, a collection of Finnish folklore, poetry and mythology. The Kalevala is credited with creating a sense of nationality that grew and perhaps led to Finland’s independence from Russia in 1917.

Like so many 19th and 20th century composers, Sibelius was heavily influenced by Wagner. He once said of him after hearing an opera at Beyreuth: “Nothing in the world has made such an impression on me, it moves the very strings of my heart’. In fact, when Sibelius set out to write his Lemmenkainen Suite – which is also called ‘The Four Legends of Karavala’ – he imagined an enormous work like Wagner’s Ring Cycle, though based on Finnish myths. His feelings towards Wagner changed over time though, and as he grew older he found Wagner’s music to be vulgar, pompous and crude. The Lemmenkainen Suite became much more intimate, and includes the famous ‘Swan of Tuonela’.

Sibelius was very proudly Finnish. His tone poem Finlandia was the piece that put Sibelius on the map, so to speak. It was written with nationalistic pride when imperialist Russia threatened.

Today Finlandia is like a second national anthem in Finland. Sibelius was a national hero, receiving numerous awards and prizes. The country even issued a set of Sibelius stamps.

They were lucky to have him around for as long as they did though – a smoker, he was diagnosed with throat cancer in his fourties. The treatment was successful though and he went on to live another 50 years!


"Sibelius's music is vulgar, self-indulgent, and provincial beyond description." --Virgil Thompson

"Pay no attention to what the critics say; no statue has ever been put up to a critic" --Jean Sibelius

Thanks to the Hither and Thither website for the photos of the Sibelius statue.

Photo: René & Peter van der Krogt

Photo: René & Peter van der Krogt

To learn more about Sibelius, listen during Morning Concert and Afternoon Concert for the history and story behind the music.

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