One Nation, Under Jean: Sibelius Made the Music Finland Had All Along

By Wynne Delacoma

It doesn’t happen often, but at a few crucial points in human history, musicians and composers have found themselves playing outsized roles in world politics.

Giuseppe Verdi certainly did. In the mid-19th century, he was an inspiration for Italian nationalists resisting Austria’s control over Italy’s fragmented states. “Viva Verdi!” became their rallying cry, a seemingly innocent homage to a revered composer. But many Verdi operas depicted oppressed people struggling against foreign overlords, and his last name was a backronym for “Vittorio Emanuele, Re D’Italia,” the Italian leader who ultimately defeated Austria and united the country.

In fall 1989, German conductor Kurt Masur was front and center in the political struggle that led to the destruction of the Berlin Wall. The highly respected director of Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra, he saw tensions rise as Leipzig protesters—at the forefront of a national pro-democracy uprising—condemned the repressive policies of East Germany’s Communist government. When Leipzig protesters and government forces prepared to face off in early October, Masur, along with a few other trusted Leipzig leaders, called for calm. They averted a bloody confrontation without derailing the protest movement that would prevail one month later.

But perhaps no composer has closer links to his country’s political life than Finland’s Jean Sibelius. Born in 1865, he gave musical voice to Finland’s long struggle to free itself from centuries of domination, first by Sweden, then by Russia. Finland finally won its independence on December 6, 1917, and to celebrate that 100th anniversary this summer, Ravinia has scheduled three evenings focused on Finnish music.

Dynamic Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki returns to Ravinia in July for back-to-back Chicago Symphony Orchestra programs featuring two of Sibelius’s most popular works—the Second Symphony on July 20 and the Violin Concerto with soloist Vadim Repin on July 21. From July 11 through 23, the composer’s Fifth Symphony will be at the center of the “Virtual Orchestra” VR experience at the Ravinia Tent on the lawn. And on August 3, singers from Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute will present a program devoted to Finnish vocal music in Bennett Gordon Hall.

No nation’s fight for independence is ever easy, but the Finns faced exceptionally daunting obstacles by the time Sibelius came on the scene in the late 19th century. Sweden had ruled the country from the 13th century until 1809, when the Russians moved in and established Finland as an autonomous Grand Duchy. The country’s official language was Swedish. Most middle- and upper-class Finns knew very little Finnish, which was considered a working-class language. Finland had its ancient folk tales, but they weren’t written down in any systematic way and were often told in Swedish. There was little Finnish-created music to speak of outside of folk music and the hymns of the Lutheran Church.

But hundreds of years of foreign rule had left Finns hungry to dig deeper into their own roots as a people. By the late 1800s, young Finnish visual artists, writers, musicians, and composers were determined to discover—and if need be, create—an artistic heritage that was distinctly Finnish. And they worked tirelessly to pass the language, art, and music of that heritage on to “the people.”

The time was right. Nationalism was upending political life all over the world, and Finland felt its tremors. For decades, Russia’s rule had been relatively benevolent. Determined to eradicate Sweden’s influence, successive tsars had actively encouraged Finns to explore their own culture. That changed in the 1890s when Russia began curtailing the rights of its non-Russian subjects. Finns resented the newly authoritarian government, and in 1917, when the chaos of the Russian Revolution offered them a chance to secede, they seized it.

Sibelius, with his vivid imagination, love of literature, and passion for Finland’s stark, natural beauty, was ideally suited to ride these turbulent waves. The pampered son of a relatively prosperous family in a cosmopolitan port city, he studied classical music. He dreamed of becoming a virtuoso violinist, but his limited technique wasn’t up to the task. Falling in with a group of ambitious, gifted artists known as the Young Finns, Sibelius found his calling as a composer.

And he found his musical voice in the Kalevala, a collection of thousands of ancient poems about Finnish heroes published in the mid-1800s. Organized into 50 runos, or “songs,” it became Finland’s epic poem, equivalent to Beowulf or the Iliad. For the Young Finns, it was a creative mother lode, their springboard to forge a national identity that would speak to Finns of every age and economic class.

In April 1892, after two years of study in Berlin and Vienna, Sibelius had huge success in Helsinki with Kullervo, a large piece for baritone, mezzo-soprano, male chorus, and orchestra. Based on the exploits of a tragic hero from the Kalevala, its rhythms echoed the meter of the Kalevala poems. For the first time, a Finnish audience in Helsinki heard orchestral music that sounded undeniably Finnish.

“The appearance of the Kullervo story in music was a spectacular coup,” writes Glenda Dawn Goss in her 2009 book, Sibelius: A Composer’s Life and the Awakening of Finland. The tale of a Hercules-like youth sold into slavery reflected the Finns’ lack of independence. It expressed in music the ancient tales Finns were discovering through the paintings and essays of the Young Finns. Sibelius never explicitly quoted Finnish folk music in his music, but its colors and shapes found their way into his numerous tone poems inspired by the Kalevala and his early symphonies. Reviewing Kullervo, one perceptive critic wrote, “We recognize [the melodies] as our own, even though we had never heard them before.”

Kullervo was primitive, it was raw, it was flawed—and it was utterly spellbinding,” writes Goss. “For the first time, the national movement had produced a musical achievement worthy of its high ideals.”

Sibelius’s ultimate goal was to write purely orchestral music. He wanted to compose symphonies that would take their place alongside those of Beethoven, Bruckner, Mahler, and Tchaikovsky. His seven symphonies clearly achieved that goal while still retaining an unmistakably Finnish weight and moody color.

But between 1892 and 1904 Sibelius also threw himself into the role of people’s composer. He wrote pieces, many based on the Kalevala, for popular concerts and songs for amateur choruses. He composed incidental music for plays and pageants. His stirring Finlandia, which quickly became Finland’s unofficial national anthem, was written for a pageant organized in November 1899 to raise money for journalists hit hard by Russia’s draconian press censorship. He became a national hero. Finland would rename its major music conservatory after Sibelius and put his image on their currency. He was a national icon, a role he would eventually both relish and despise. Though he lived until 1957, Sibelius wrote his last important works in the 1920s. Nevertheless, his music remains deeply embedded in Finnish life.

“If you speak with any Finnish musician,” says Mälkki, “I think we all feel a very strong connection to Sibelius. It’s not something that is imposed, that we have a national duty. It’s a genuine love for his music. I grew up hearing this music even before I knew it was Sibelius. It’s very, very strongly in the culture; we have the Christmas carols, the songs. And of course, there’s the symphonic music, which also has been used in films. It’s something we hear on Independence Day. It’s everywhere.”

Mälkki sees a more subtle side to Sibelius’s continuing influence in Finland. The country has one of the world’s most extensive music education systems. And for a small country, it has turned out an unusually high number of gifted conductors such as Mälkki, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Osmo Vänskä. Learning to conduct Sibelius’s deeply complex symphonies was a vital part of their conservatory training.

“Conducting is problem solving,” says Mälkki, who studied cello as a young musician. “You have to find solutions to allow the composer’s intentions to function. And [Sibelius’s] layered writing is challenging. You can’t just beat time; you have to manage these different moving parts. Your movements have to create an illusion of precision and constant flow at the same time.

“I played Sibelius’s music in orchestras for many years; I’ve been part of this machinery myself. We all become part of the same flow when things click. Sibelius was experimenting all the time with tempos. The only constant thing is the evolution of the meter. The change is happening all the time. That’s the challenge of conducting this music. It’s constantly evolving.”

Learning how to guide an orchestra through such shape-shifting music is excellent training for young, inexperienced conductors, Mälkki continues. “It’s very challenging if you confront these kinds of problems. You have to sit down and say ‘Wow, how am I going to do this?’ You’re suddenly trying to manage nature’s forces—you have water, you have gravity, you have wind. I’m saying all the clichés, but it’s not bricks. We are not building with bricks. We are trying to manipulate things that are not possible to manipulate.”

Equally difficult is figuring out how to express the emotional content of Sibelius’s music, whether it’s a symphony or tone poem, solo song or violin sonata. “You can’t just execute the notes or sounds,” Mälkki says. “This is something that instrumentalists and singers also need to think about it. When it’s technically challenging and then emotionally very loaded, it’s a lot to digest for a young conductor.”

As a young cellist, Mälkki performed Sibelius’s chamber orchestra works. She is especially fond of the tone poems The Oceanides and the Lemminkäinen cycles, and she calls the composer’s songs “absolute gems.” In the fall she conducts her first Sibelius symphony as chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, a post she assumed last season. “I’m doing the Second Symphony at Ravinia, in Berlin, and in Helsinki for the first time with my own orchestra. This is very exciting.”

Sibelius does not dominate Mälkki’s schedule. Her repertoire is wide, and she made her Metropolitan Opera debut last year with a contemporary work, L’Amour de loin, by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. But she hopes at some point to record a complete cycle of Sibelius symphonies.

“Sibelius’s music is very dear to me,” Mälkki says. “It’s music that I’ve always known. But I’ve noticed that my understanding of it has deepened, my interpretation is changing. I hope always to say more interesting things.” 

Wynne Delacoma was classical music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times from 1991 to 2006 and has been an adjunct journalism faculty member at Northwestern University. She is a freelance music critic, writer, and lecturer.