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Classical Composers A-Z: Jean Sibelius

Peter Wintersgill summarises the life of Jean Sibelius, the great Finnish composer.

Born
8th December, 1865, in Hameenlina, South Finland.

Father
Christian, army medical officer; died of cholera when Jean was two.

Mother
Maria, brought him up at her own mother's house.

Family
Second of three children.

Childhood
Paid many visits to a eccentric bachelor uncle, who was very keen on music and astronomy. His ancestry was mixed Finnish and Swedish, those speaking Finnish were thought to be second class citizens. He showed early musical ability. Aged ten, he wrote a piece called Water Drops for violin and cello. He developed an early love of the local countryside, like Beethoven before him and Elgar after him. This had a considerable bearing on his music. He had a few close friends, but was essentially a solitary child.

Adolescence
When aged 15 he acquired a violin and became a proficient player; later on he had an audition for the Vienna Philharmonic.

He left school at 20 to read law at Helsinki, music not being regarded as a respectable profession. However he read music part-time, later like Handel changing to become a full-time music student. He was taught by Martin Wegelius in violin and composition, and by Ferrucio Busoni, a man of his own age, for piano. He became very friendly with the latter, also with Adolf Paul and Arnas Jarnefelt.

Early Adult Life
Went with Adolf to Berlin in 1889 to continue his studies, as it had a good reputation. There he met Robert Kajanus, director of the Helsinki Philharmonic, who was there to conduct his new work the Aino Symphony, based on the Finnish epic Kalevala. This meeting and his introduction to the Kalevala were to influence his musical development considerably.

He was rather disappointed with the teaching in Berlin, but at least was able to attend a great many concerts there. Returning to Helsinki the following year, he went to stay there with the Jarnefelt family, where he became engaged to their only daughter Aino, whose father was a general. He went to Vienna later that year for further studies under Karl Goldmark and Robert Fuchs.

Returning home in 1891, he got involved in the nationalist movement which was sweeping the country, now rather tired of domination by Imperialist Russia. He started composing a series of patriotic works, starting with a setting of part of the Kalevala entitled Kullervo; this had its premiere in Helsinki on the 29th April, 1892, Sibelius conducting, and was a great success.

In June he married Aino Jarnefelt, with whom he had a brief honeymoon in Karelia, before settling in Helsinki. His subsequent works included En Saga (1892), the Limmingkainen Legends (1893), the 3rd of which is The Swan of Tuonela, the Karelia Suite (1893), the 1st Symphony (1898), Finlandia (1899), Valse Triste (1903) and Polyola's Daughter (1906).

He went on a concert tour of Italy in 1900 with the Helsinki Philharmonic. Started work on the 2nd Symphony, which had its premiere in Helsinki in 1902, where it was widely acclaimed. In 1903 he finished his violin concerto, his only concerto. He came to dislike living in Helsinki after a while and bought a house in Jarenpaa, a village 20 miles north of Helsinki.

Later Adult Life
He travelled abroad a lot around this time (1905-08), including several trips to England. In 1908 he conducted his 3rd Symphony, the premiere having been in Helsinki in 1907.

He suffered from throat trouble about this time, for which he was sent to see a specialist in Berlin, who diagnosed cancer; this was removed by operation and he was forbidden alcohol and tobacco. This experience made him aware of his own mortality, a feeling which is reflected in a string quartet, Voces Intimae, (1909), and the 4th Symphony (1912). In 1914 he went to the USA and stayed with a millionaire who had built a concert hall in the grounds of his house in Connecticut where he held a festival every summer. While there he wrote the Tone Poem Oceanides.

He travelled about a good deal with his host and saw Niagara Falls. He was awarded an Hon. Mus. Doc. by Yale University. On his return home he celebrated his 50th birthday in spite of World War One and conducted the premiere of his 5th Symphony, which was well received.

Despite the popularity of some of his nationalistic works, e.g. Finlandia and Valse Triste, Sibelius's main claim to fame were his seven Symphonies, especially numbers four, six and seven. He wrote a few chamber works and piano pieces, but apart from these and one or two songs he wrote nothing in the last 30 years of his life. He may have written an 8th Symphony, but if so he destroyed it.

He had five daughters who all married and had children, so eventually there were numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren. He died on 20th September, 1957, at his home "Ainola" from a stroke, at the grand old age of 91.

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