Jean, Julius Christian Sibelius (1865-1957) was one of the leading postromantic composers and Finland's greatest musician. His music is both nationalistic and universal and is most effective in conveying mood or atmosphere.
Jean Sibelius—he adopted the French form of his first name as a student—was born on Dec. 8, 1865, in the garrison town of Hämeenlinna, where his father was a military doctor. The family was a musical one, and Sibelius learned the rudiments very early. Destined for the law, he found the attractions of music so strong that he overcame family opposition and began formal conservatory training by 1886. His goal was to become a violin virtuoso—a dream which later found possible sublimation in the only concerto he composed, that for violin (1903), plus some shorter solo pieces.
As the star pupil of the conservatory's founder, Sibelius found his path directed increasingly toward composition. He studied in Berlin, Leipzig, and Vienna (1889-1891). He won his first public triumph in 1892 with his symphonic poem Kullervo, for voices and orchestra, based on parts of the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic which inspired so many of his works. That year he married Aino Järnefelt.
Sibelius became an active member of a circle of artists and writers in Helsinki fired by nationalistic spirit. This spirit was reflected in some evocative scores he composed to accompany a series of patriotic and historical stage tableaux in 1899, among them the famous Finlandia. Other important works of this period were his first great symphonic poem, En Saga (1893); the Four Legends of Lemminkäïnen (finished 1895), one of which is The Swan of Tuonela; and his only opera, The Maiden in the Tower (1896).
In 1897 Sibelius won a state pension, which made it possible for him to devote the balance of his career to unhindered composition. He composed the flamboyantly romantic First Symphony (1898-1899) and the richly scored Second Symphony (1901-1902). In 1904 he built a villa in the forest near the town of Järvenpää which he named Ainola after his wife and where he lived for the rest of his life.
Sibelius's mature years became a regular alternation of steady composition and international travel. He composed another Kalevala -inspired symphonic poem, Pohjola's Daughter (1906), his only published string quartet, entitled Voces intimae (1909); and three more Symphonies—the transitional Third (1904-1907), the austere and enigmatic Fourth (1910-1911), and the confidently triumphant Fifth (1914-1915). His tours brought him particular attention and success in Germany, England, and the United States. In 1922-1924 he wrote the serene and pastoral Sixth Symphony and the Seventh Symphony, a terse, economically developed one-movement fantasia. Tapiola (1926) is his spare evocation of the Finnish forests.
This proved to be Sibelius's last major work, and only a few trifles followed in what came to be called "the silence from Järvenpää." He was internationally famous, especially in the English-speaking countries, where many regarded him as the savior of the symphonic form and the champion of the faction which rejected the radical doctrines of atonalism. Why he withdrew from active composition has been much debated. One explanation is that he became increasingly fearful that he might not be able to go on living up to his own reputation. A living legend and a national monument in his own land, he persevered in his strict retirement for the remaining 32 years of his life. He died on Sept. 20, 1957.
Sibelius's output was extensive, including a large number of piano pieces, mainly short, and nearly 100 solo songs, most of them to texts in Swedish, Finland's old literary language. Like most northern composers, he wrote many incidental scores for stage plays, the most noteworthy being those to Adolf Paul's King Christian II (1898), to Arvid Järnefelt's Kuolema (1903: source of the Valse triste), to Maurice Maeterlinck's Pelléaset Mélisande (1905), to Hjalmar Procopé's Belshazzar's Feast (1906), and, perhaps the finest of all, to Shakespeare's The Tempest (1926).
Further Reading on Jean Julius Christian Sibelius
There are numerous studies on Sibelius, many reflecting the adulation heaped on him in his late years and the mythology about him, which Sibelius himself often encouraged. Good examples of this are the quasi-official biography by Karl Ekman, Jean Sibelius: The Life and Personality of an Artist (trans. 1935); Cecil Grey's more concise Sibelius (1931); and Nils-Eric Ringbom, Jean Sibelius: A Master and His Work (1948; trans. 1954). Sections in Constant Lambert, Music Ho! (1934), illustrate the assessments of Sibelius as herald of the true "music of the future." A critical attempt to penetrate the myths and deflate the adulation is Harold E. Johnson, Jean Sibelius (1959). Robert Layton, Sibelius (1966), offers a balanced, if still admiring, perspective at greater distance.
Additional Biography Sources
Goss, Glenda Dawn, Jean Sibelius and Olin Downes: music, friendship, criticism, Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1995.
Gray, Cecil, Sibelius, Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press, 1979.
James, Burnett, Sibelius, London; New York: Omnibus Press;New York, NY, USA: Exclusive distributors, Music Sales Corp., 1989.
Johnson, Harold Edgar, Jean Sibelius, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978, 1959.
Ringbom, Nils-Eric, Jean Sibelius: a master and his work, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977.
Tawaststjerna, Erik, Sibelius, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976-1986.