Composer of the Month: Jean Sibelius

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For the month of December, we’re going to focus our Composer of the Month series on fantastic 20th century composer, Jean Sibelius.  

Who is Jean Sibelius?

Sibelius isn’t just a brand of music notation software—it’s the last name of one of the world’s most significant composers. Jean Sibelius:

  • Was a Finnish composer and violinist

  • Is known as Finland’s greatest composer

  • Lived during the late Romantic and early Modern periods

  • Helped Finland identify itself as a nation

  • Found a wealth of inspiration in nature, mythology, and poetry

Early life 

Jean Sibelius was born on December 8, 1865 in what was then known as the Grand Duchy of Finland.  He took piano lessons from his aunt Julia starting at the age of seven.  One could make the argument that it was this period that sparked the boy’s interest in music. He learned to read music (certainly a valuable skill for any musician, particularly a future composer!), but he wasn’t necessarily fond of the piano.  While Sibelius didn’t necessarily enjoy playing the notes as written, he was interested in improvisation and interpreting the music in his own way. A few years later, at the age of ten, Sibelius’ uncle, Pehr, gave him a violin, which seemed to suit the young musician.  This same uncle encouraged him to try his hand at composing. You could say that Uncle Pehr played the role of father and music teacher in the live of young Sibelius. It wasn’t long before he was playing music in trios with his older sister Linda (a pianist) and his younger brother Christian (a cellist); he also played in quartets with other neighborhood youth.

Education

Sibelius graduated from high school in 1885 and went on to study law, believe it or not.  Still, he was much more interested in music and had experienced a high degree of success as a classical violinist, so he abandoned his law studies to pursue music. He enrolled in the Helsinki Music Institute, completing his course of study in 1889, during which time he took formal lessons in composition from Martin Wegelius, a renowned educator.

Claim to fame

Jean Sibelius is synonymous with Finland and his ode to his motherland, the patriotic symphonic tone poem known as Finlandia.  Whether you’re an avid NPR listener, you’ll probably recognize this tune:

You might be more familiar with this melody from the 9-minute masterpiece:


The composition is powerful for several reasons. First, Sibelius wrote the piece for the Press Celebrations of 1899, which was a secret protest against censorship from the Russian Empire (Finland was struggling for independence from Russia at the time).  In fact, censorship was so tight that the piece had to be performed under different names at different concerts. The piece is also written in seven tableaus, the last of which is titled “Finland Awakes.”  Essentially, Sibelius secured his spot as a national hero through the production of Finlandia.

In addition to this piece, Sibelius composed seven symphonies, such as Valse Triste, Karelia Suite (another symphonic tone poem), Kullervo, and The Swan of Tuonela. His violin concerto is still a favorite among violinists to this day.  Still, for reasons unknown, the great Sibelius ceased to produce any major works during the last third of his life—that is to say, he still wrote occasional pieces (such as some pieces of Masonic music), but he did not continue with the dramatic symphonic pieces of his earlier years. He burned whatever was left of his work on an eighth symphony.

Influences

A careful ear will detect influences of the following in Sibelius’ music:

  • Tchaikovsky 

  • Wagner

  • Ferruccio Busoni

  • Anton Bruckner

  • Liszt

Fun facts

  • The Helsinki Music Institute is now known as the Sibelius Academy

  • You can find museums, parks, monuments, and concert halls in Finland that all bear Sibelius’ name

  • The International Jean Sibelius Violin Competition began in 1975

  • An asteroid was named for Sibelius! (Asteroid 1405 Sibelius)

  • Sibelius’ image appeared on the Finnish 100 mark note until Finland adopted the euro

  • Finland celebrates Flag Day on December 8th—Sibelius’ birthday!

Sibelius clearly didn’t start out as a composer; he began his musical journey as a musician.  You can, too.  If you’re ready to take your music ability to the next level, or if you’re wondering if someone can help bring the music out of you, contact the California Conservatory of Music to enroll in piano lessons, guitar lessons, violin lessons, or cello lessons. We can’t wait to hear from you!