The Magazine

The Finlandian

The composer whose name and homeland were indistinguishable.

Mar 22, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 26 • By GEORGE B. STAUFFER
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Sibelius

The Finlandian

A Composer’s Life and the Awakening of Finland
by Glenda Dawn Goss
University of Chicago, 549 pp., $55

On a wintry day in January 1920, Alf Klingenberg, the recently appointed director of the newly formed Eastman School of Music in Rochester, offered Jean Sibelius a position as professor of composition. Klingenberg wanted to make a bold move that would mark the young school as a music conservatory of distinction, one with a European pedigree. Klingenberg explained to Sibelius that he would “teach composition to the up-and-coming geniuses in America.” At the same time he assured him that “the number of those will certainly not make your workload too heavy.”

Sibelius was 54 and at the peak of his fame. He had composed Finlandia, numerous symphonies, a greatly admired violin concerto, and many other works. He was known as the father of Finnish music and hailed in his homeland as a national hero. It was Sibelius, after all, who had helped to shape the culture of the emerging nation that had proclaimed its independence from Russia just three years before. His picture was displayed in homes, shops, and institutions throughout Finland. His music was performed throughout the world. Who could possibly be in a better position to put the Eastman School on America’s cultural map?

Sibelius considered the matter for a year before cabling Klingenberg “Yes” in January 1921. But then he wavered. Friends urged him to stay true to his country and not squander his energies on “young Americans,” in an environment that was both “strenuous and inartistic.” His British supporter and early biographer Rosa Newmarch, in particular, discouraged him from entering into the wilds of the New World. In the end, Sibelius reversed himself, declined Klingenberg’s offer, and remained “a good patriot” (as he himself expressed it), living out the remaining 37 years of his life at his country villa, where he died in 1957 at the age of 91.

But the steady flow of works ceased soon after the Eastman decision. Sibelius lapsed into bouts of depression and drunkenness that resulted in one of the longest and most famous periods of compositional silence in music history. Charles Ives abruptly stopped composing in 1918 at age 53, telling his wife, Harmony, that “nothing sounded right.” He lived for another 27 years. Gioachino Rossini stopped writing operas in 1829 at the age of 37, just after the immense success of William Tell. He lived for another 39 years. But it is Sibelius’s retreat into the Finnish woods, at the height of his international popularity, that has caught the imagination of modern music historians. What caused such creative angst—angst that seems to have been exorcized only by the ritualistic burning of unfinished pieces in front of his wife in the 1940s? What produced Sibelius’s grand compositional funk?

Getting to the bottom of this mystery is the goal of this magisterial new book. Glenda Dawn Goss, former editor in chief of the Sibelius critical edition, states from the outset that her objective is to unearth the roots of the composer’s withdrawal from the world, which she believes can be found in the cultural changes that took place in Finland during the century that led up to the Russian Revolution and the subsequent liberation of Finland. “To understand Sibelius, to try to fathom the mystery of his lost creativity, mortifyingly played out on an international stage, requires understanding more fully the world from which he came,” she writes in the introduction. She accomplishes this through a fascinating study of Finnish culture and politics, devoting 442 pages, 32 figures, 12 plates, and an extensive research apparatus to the task of putting us in Sibelius’s dandified shoes (no native clogs for this Scandinavian, we quickly learn). While psychobiographies of composers have become increasingly popular in recent years (one thinks of Maynard Solomon’s studies of Mozart and Schubert), Goss provides instead a cultural biography, a genre that seems entirely appropriate for a nationalistic composer such as Sibelius.

The basic signposts of his life are well known. Born the son of a military physician in 1865, he showed a natural affinity for music. He began piano at age nine before moving to violin and composition, and after a brief flirtation with law studies, enrolled in the Helsinki Music Institute, where he majored in violin and composition. Additional study in Berlin and Vienna led to the composition of his first great work, Kullervo, an immense, sprawling symphonic poem based on a tale from the Finnish folk epic, Kalevala. Completed in 1892, it made Sibelius an instant national hero at age 27. 

Kullervo was followed by an extensive series of Finnish works—En Saga, Lemminkäinen’s Return, The Swan of Tuonela, and many others, often employing the locally popular male chorus and texts from the Kalevala. Then in 1900 came his nationalist pièce de résistance, Finlandia. Granted an annual stipendium by the Finnish senate, Sibelius built a rustic country villa, Ainola, in Järvenpää near Lake Tuusula, and in 1904 settled into a quiet life in the forest with his wife, Aino, and their children. He remained there the rest of his life. Although Sibelius wrote symphonies for orchestra in an effort to win international recognition, it was the works on Finnish legend that earned him an adulation within his country rarely accorded living composers. The Helsinki Institute was renamed in his honor, a postage stamp bearing his likeness was issued, and his birthdays were celebrated as state events.

Lurking behind Sibelius’s success was a national identity crisis, however. As Goss points out, Finland in the 19th century was a land of clashing cultures. A Swedish territory from the 13th century to 1809, Finland could not easily shake the deeply entrenched influence of Sweden’s linguistic, religious, and political traditions. Finnish may have been the language of the people, but Swedish was the principal means of scholarly and written communication. The intelligentsia and leaders of the Finnish freedom movement (including Sibelius) came from Swedish-speaking households, and the Lutheran heritage of the 16th-century Swedish monarch Gustav Vasa, who embraced the Reformation from his throne in Stockholm in 1527, remained fully in force. Indeed, the influence of the Lutheran church, via Swedish liturgical rites, can be seen in the chorale-like main theme of Finlandia.

Finland became a grand duchy of the Russian empire in 1809 after the successful invasion of Alexander I during the Napoleonic Wars. It was ruled benevolently and granted considerable auto-
nomy—so much that Finns affectionately expressed allegiance to the czars until the 1890s, when Russia began to impose stricter control. True Finnish culture emerged only in the 19th century in the midst of this Swedish-Russian mélange, with a national “awakening” spurred by native developments in art, music, and literature. The literary epics of Finland—the “Pillars of Finnish Identity,” as Goss puts it—that provided the subjects and images for the country’s nationalistic artists and musicians were not written until the Russian period with the blessing of czars, who viewed the development of native culture as anti-Swedish. Kalevala, Elias Lönnrot’s collection of national legends; Tales of Ensign Stål, Johan Ludvig Runeberg’s passionate patriotic poetry with images of “pure” country life; and The Book of Our Land and Scènes historiques, Zachris Topelius’s series of children’s stories, were issued between 1835 and 1875. Only the first was written in Finnish; the others were in Swedish.

Sibelius was caught in the cultural crossfire. He relied heavily on these newly created Finnish myths for many of his most important musical works, which were premiered at political lotteries and tableaux of native culture. But by the time the nationalist movement reached its peak in the first decade of the 20th century, most Finns had moved beyond the dark and misty legends of the Kalevala to more practical concerns, such as governmental and social reform. Independence did not bring peace but rather a five-month civil war in 1918. Sibelius, who based so many of his works on Kalevala tales, seemed frozen in bronze, unable to adjust to 20th-century realities.

Take his defining masterpiece, Kullervo, for instance. The text is drawn from Cantos 31-36 of the Kalevala, which describe the maraudings of Kullervo, a bloodthirsty young fighter. While collecting taxes for his father, Kullervo takes advantage of a young woman who turns out to be his sister. She commits suicide, and he leaves for battle. One day, years later, he finds himself in the woods where the violation occurred. Kullervo talks to his sword, inquiring what kind of blood it would like to taste. The sword says the blood of a guilty man, whereupon Kullervo eviscerates himself with the blade.

“Men do not laugh in the Kalevala,” Goss reminds us, and then cites Arnold Bax’s observation that Sibelius “gave the impression of never having laughed in his life.” While the somber tales of the Kalevala enthralled Finns in the 1880s and ’90s, their appeal faded in the new century. Nor did they translate well to the outer world: Kullervo was never performed outside Finland during Sibelius’s lifetime. Unlike Bach’s Mass in B-Minor, with its universal Latin text, or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with its broad message of worldwide brotherhood, Kullervo addresses issues of myth that are of interest mainly to Finns, who seem ready to contemplate the nefarious undertakings of legendary forebears during the long nights of the Nordic winter. Few outside Finland appear willing to take the time and trouble to study the text of Kullervo to understand how it is enhanced by Sibelius’s meandering but remarkable 80-minute score.

To make matters worse, Sibelius remained committed to a conservative musical language, the tonal idiom of Wagner, Brahms, and other Romantic composers. By the second decade of the 20th century the three other S’s—Schoenberg, Scriabin, and Stravinsky—were introducing progressive forms and idioms that would have a global impact on musical language. Sibelius seemed hopelessly provincial by comparison, and he was painfully aware of the fact. As Alex Ross notes in his marvelous overview of 20th-century music, The Rest Is Noise, Sibelius confessed in his diary that “not everyone can be an ‘innovating genius’ ” and hoped that he would have a “small, modest place” in history.

The plight of Sibelius and other nationalist composers is nowhere clearer than in the realm of the symphony, which reigned as the supreme measure of musical stature in the 19th century. One could write virtuosic piano sonatas, witty quartets, or charming songs, but the symphony stood as the ultimate test of greatness. In this instrumental world, Beethoven at the beginning of the century and Mahler at the end set the gold standard, creating immense, highly integrated, architectonic symphonies against which all other large musical works were judged. Schumann and Brahms delayed writing symphonies until they were well advanced in their careers. Schubert feared competing directly with Beethoven and, in his last years, experimented with an innovative, highly lyrical type of work that resulted in an extended series of incomplete symphonies, of which the famous “Unfinished” is but one.

Sibelius fully recognized the problem and, like Schubert, tried to find a new way. Instead of writing works with a straightforward classical structure, he turned instead to creating symphonies that act as vast musical landscapes, with themes and transitions that float before the listener like states of mind. But by the time Sibelius began issuing symphonies in 1899, he was so firmly linked with the Finnish national awakening that even his abstract works were given patriotic programs. As Goss points out, commentators explained the perplexing, rapid mood changes of the Second Symphony by assigning it a patriotic program relating to Finland’s drive for independence. One writer gave it the epithet “Finland’s Struggle for Freedom” and labeled its four movements “Development before the Conflict,” “The Storm,” “National Resistance,” and “Free Fatherland.” This may have won favor among the Finns, but it held little meaning abroad. Even in America, critics viewed the music of the Second Symphony as “gruesome” and “neurotic,” with too much “meaningless repetition.” At best, they praised its “attractive weirdness,” and even Olin Downes, a strong Sibelius supporter, pronounced it “gloriously rude.” In light of such criticism, one can understand why Sibelius could not complete the Eighth Symphony, which he labored over for years before finally abandoning. Here Goss speculates: If Sibelius had accepted the Eastman post in 1920 and had come to the Land of the (ideologically) Free, might matters have ended differently?

Sibelius’s most successful instrumental work may be the Violin Concerto of 1904, with its classical forms and
Mendelssohn-like features. Here the dazzling cadenzas, figurative passagework, and heroic themes overcome dark, brooding Finnish melancholia and divert the listener’s attention from the less conventional formal aspects of the piece. The jury remains out on the symphonies, however, and they continue to spur spirited debate among Sibelius’s supporters and detractors. Goss cites the German critic Julius Meier-Graefe on Finnish painting: “In Finland, art is a cry of oppressed self-confidence. We do not understand the pictures because we do not have time to read the Kalevala or the other Finnish epics.” 

That may be the central issue of the music of Jean Sibelius. Do we have the time, or interest, to fully understand it?

George B. Stauffer, dean of the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers, is general editor of the Music Masterworks Series at Yale University Press.


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