Sibelius in his upstairs study in 1915

Jean Sibelius (1865–1957)

The music of Jean Sibelius (1865–1957) has had a unique and profound impact on Finnish culture and the image of Finland, upon which it opened up entirely new vistas. His earliest works were produced at a time when Finland needed powerful achievements and stirring feelings for its emergent culture. Sibelius drew on folk music and the folk poetry heritage for the subjects and stylistic materials that were transformed in his fruitful imagination into a highly personal form of artistic expression. In his approach to the European symphonic tradition, he incorporated his own formal solutions and bold tonal language.

The seven symphonies form the monumental core of Sibelius’s work, which orchestras and conductors have continually researched and re-interpreted to find new interpretative dimensions. Performers have also been encouraged by orchestral conducting competitions held every five years, in which young conductors show their skills with the symphonies, and at the violin competitions arranged at similar intervals, in which Sibelius’s Violin Concerto takes pride of place.

Among Sibelius’s other orchestral compositions, particular acclaim has been reserved for the Lemminkäinen Suite (four legends for orchestra), the tone poem En saga, the symphonic poem Tapiola and Finlandia, which has become a symbol of national resolve and integrity. There are many legends surrounding the genesis and fate of Sibelius’s eighth symphony, but the composer evidently destroyed this before it was completed.

Sibelius’s output includes a large quantity of chamber music, particularly vocal works, of which the most widely known include Sången om korsspindeln (Fool’s Song) from the music to Adolf Paul’s play King Christian II, Var det en dröm? (Was it a Dream? to words by J.J. Wecksell), Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte (The Tryst, to words by J.L. Runeberg), Säv, säv, susa (Sigh, Sigh, Sedges, to words by Gustaf Fröding) and the Christmas songs, particularly Giv mig ej glans, ej guld, ej prakt (Give me no Splendour, Gold or Pomp, to words by Zachris Topelius). Among his best-known choral works are Sydämeni laulu (Song of my Heart) and the March of the Finnish Jäger Battalion. Of his works for piano the three Sonatinas, the Kyllikki suite and a set of pieces named after types of tree – the best known of which is Granen (The Spruce) – deserve special mention.

In all, during his years at Ainola from the autumn of 1904 until the autumn of 1957, Sibelius composed around 310 works in their own right plus arrangements, sketches and lost or burned works. His productivity, especially the quarter-century from 1904 until 1929, was immense: in this period he produced more than 300 works.

Ainola is one of the best-maintained of museum homes. The Sibelius enthusiast who visits Ainola can see the room in which the composer wrestled with the Seventh Symphony. He can see the piano on which the composer quietly tried out new sonorities at night while the rest of the family was trying to sleep. Above Ainola he will see the sky in which the swans flew in April 1915, inspiring the theme of the Fifth Symphony’s finale. And he will see the fireplace where the composer’s last great work, the Eighth Symphony, was most probably destroyed.

Sibelius’s work at Ainola was rarely straightforward, but here the composer found it possible to surmount his difficulties, and the tribulations themselves brought the house a homely atmosphere. As he told his private secretary in the 1940s: ‘Sorrows make a house a home. All the problems that we have all had to surmount during our long life together have contributed to our beloved home.’

Vesa Siren: ‘Jean Sibelius’s Works Composed at Ainola’ (Ainola – the Home of Jean and Aino Sibelius, SKS 2004)