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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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.

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