Composer of the Week: Jean Sibelius

I have had some otherworldly experiences in my life. I’m grateful for them all, even the bad ones. I have always viewed the humdrum bourgeois banality of the stunted atheist with a certain horror (and pity). One of the most profound moments of my life occurred when I was about 21. I had the enviable opportunity to play Sibelius’ 4th Symphony in concert. A viola player fell ill a few days before the concert, and as a last resort they brought me in for the rehearsal. Before we get to the rest of the article, I’d like you to listen to the first few minutes of this:

This symphony frightens me, truly. It is, I think, the sound of the howling night that lies just behind the fragile veil of Christian culture. It premiered in 1911 AD, just a brief few years before Europe would immolate itself in a stupid and unnecessary war. In many ways, we still live in the shadow of this disaster. Like Ravel, Sibelius seems to have been keenly aware of the disintegration of civilisation that was taking place, inexorably, around him. When someone asked him about this 4th symphony of his, Sibelius responded: “one feels pity for human beings”.

I’ve approached the writing of this piece with some trepidation, because I think I love the music of Sibelius a little more than I should. It’s possible that I love it in the same way that children and illiterate people enjoy things like Game of Thrones: an unexamined outlet for my baser instincts. Nevertheless, I really couldn’t do without it and I’d like to share some of it with you.

Sibelius, Finland and God

Most people know the name “Sibelius” only as the world’s leading music notation software. There’s something appropriate about this; his genius for orchestration and instrumentation make Sibelius an obvious pick in this regard. But behind the rather peculiar name is a long and interesting story that begins in 1865 AD in the Finnish town of Hämeenlinna.

At the time, the Grand Duchy of Finland was part of the Russian Empire, but it was effectively ruled by a Swedish elite. Like most small state nationalisms, Finnish national consciousness rose up in the context of a long, arduous tussle between two giants. With his musical gifts, Sibelius came to embody the Finnish struggle for independence and statehood. This was, as with many small nations, a tragic and bloody ordeal. His birthday, December 8, even remains a “Day of Finnish Music” in Finland. Paradoxically, though, he lived a life of aristocratic ease. Most of it was spent here, at Ainola, named for the composer’s wife Aino:

But like many other people who have become totems of national or ethnic consciousness, Sibelius was actually, in some ways, an outsider. He was born into the Swedish-speaking caste that ruled the country, rather than the broad mass of the autochthonous folk. We’ve discussed a similar curiosity in the biography of Komitas.

Between Two Worlds

Like Komitas, I think that the times in which he lived shaped him. His country was torn between a very decadent form of Lutheranism (Sweden) and an equally decadent form of Eastern Orthodoxy (Imperial Russia). I think that the hideous sectarianism of so many Christian churches of the 18th and 19th centuries, culminating in the First World War, damaged the European people. The disenchantment drove them to look elsewhere for God – in the forests, lakes and mountains of Europe. And to be fair, look at Finland:

Of course, I say this as a Christian, and I feel personally responsible to deal with this history. There are many ravening wolves among the flock. In part, it was the malevolence of these men and women that drove people away from the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In our own times, we have the hustlers, the millionaire “preachers” in the style of used car salesmen, and “worship as entertainment”. All of this appalls people who see it – and rightfully so. I think the music of Sibelius is part of European man’s failed quest to for re-enchantment.

Among women

One curious fact about Sibelius’ life is that he spent most of it surrounded by women. His father died when he was still a child, leaving an uncle as the only paternal figure in his vicinity. He would go on to have six daughters and no sons, replicating the situation in which he grew up. By all accounts he was a dreamy, sensitive child who excelled at the violin and showed a flare for composition early on.

One of his biographers, who was also his secretary, Santeri Levas, tells us that he was afraid of the dark. He had lurid dreams in which black-clad monks entered his bedroom. In our own times, the figure of the corrupt monk is a horror trope. While it’s easy to read too much into these things, I think this is probably more evidence of the deep trauma of religious sectarianism.

He also had an intense love of nature. This isn’t extraordinary per se. After all, we all love the outdoors, and in Sibelius’ time, the late phase of Romanticism, landscape and primal forces preoccupied all the arts. But with Sibelius there is more to it. There is an element of nature worship, a kind of recrudescence of Baltic paganism. His later involvement in masonic circles is further evidence of this.

It’s quite difficult to pin him down, frankly. His biographers are obsequious in their praise of his character and gentle manners. His enemies are equally uniform and can never muster a good word. Adorno offers nothing but racial hatred. It’s hard to find balance in either his friends or foes. This makes me suspicious. But it’s beyond doubt that the strange occult-tinged firmament in which Sibelius and other late Romantic composers moved was artistically dynamic and produced works of staggering beauty. The painting on the left was painted by Sibelius’ friend and fellow icon of Finnish consciousness Akseli Gallen-Kallela.

Jean Sibelius: Major Works

So I think the safest way to proceed is to simply immerse ourselves in some of his greatest works. Many of these works have become indispensable parts of the symphonic repertoire. This is especially interesting because the composer himself was relegated to near oblivion after the Second World War due to his ant-Soviet sentiments. He fell from the status of international celebrity to persona non grata in a short space of time, but the power of his work was so great that it could survive even this.

The Swan of Tuonela

One of the most famous of all his works is his Lemminkäinen Suite, a four-movement symphonic poem inspired by The Kalevala, a collection of Finnish folklore. One of the movements, the Swan of Tuonela, depicts a swan gliding over the lake of Tuonela, the Underworld. The hero has to kill the sacred swan, but he himself dies by an arrow. The solo you hear in this excerpt is the English horn or cor Anglais, a double reed instrument that produces one of the most haunting sounds in the orchestra.

Violin Concerto

You can’t talk about Sibelius without talking about his violin concerto. Sibelius played the violin from a young age and enjoyed some success as a performer before committing to composition as his destiny. It’s no surprise, then, that his violin concerto, the only concerto he ever wrote, has claimed a place among the greatest of all time. Here is its third movement: Allegro ma non tanto – literally “Lively, but not too much”. The concerto follows the standard concerto form, with a slow movement nestled between two faster ones. But in every other respect, it is extraordinary. The percussive rhythm is especially distinctive. Unlike many concertos, the orchestra is not simply accompanying the solo – the two are integrated and have equal voices.


Perhaps the most famous work in Sibelius’ output is his patriotic symphonic poem Finlandia. We’ve spoken about the popularity of this genre before. He wrote this at the turn of the 20th century as a protest against the Russian Empire. The performers had to stage the premier under a false name to avoid the authorities. It begins with a heavy, rumbling introduction from the brass. This section evokes the oppression of the Finnish nation, gradually giving way to triumph. In the middle of the piece, there is a haunting, lyrical hymn reminiscent of a Lutheran Chorale. I have reduced this section to the piano for you in this short video:

I confess that I am never unmoved by this melody. I decided to end this article with this piece, because I believe that it connects to what I articulated at its beginning. We hear Sibelius hearkening back to the Christianity that seems to be receding all around. Christians all over the world have recognised this, almost subliminally, and used his melody to set hymns such as Be Still, My Soul. This particular song consoled the missionaries of Operation Auca before they met their cruel deaths. There’s somethings apt about this.

I often think about the men and women who lived through the disintegration of Christendom, especially those who contributed to it. Many of them, brilliant as they were, made the wrong choice amid that chaos. I like to imagine that, in the twilight of their years, they were given the clarity to see, and to repent. In the end, that is the best that any of us can hope to do.

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