Santeri Levas/Finnish Museum of Photography
Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, photographed at Ainola, his home outside Helsinki, in the 1940s.
Santeri Levas/Finnish Museum of Photography
Jean Sibelius, born 150 years ago on Dec. 8, 1865, was the first Finnish composer to reach an international audience, but his popularity began at home. In the late 1890s, Finland was a part of the Russian empire and its people were striving for independence. Sibelius, who would struggle with alcoholism and loneliness, found a way to express their frustrations and hopes through patriotic pieces like Finlandia — and less obviously in his seven symphonies.
Sibelius' stature outside Finland swayed severely during the composer's long life (he died in 1957 at age 91). In 1940, critic and composer Virgil Thomson, writing in the New York Herald Tribune, called the Second Symphony "vulgar, self-indulgent, and provincial beyond all description," while conductors in England and America clamored to perform Sibelius' music.
Today, Sibelius provokes far less critical dissention. Michael Steinberg, author of the book The Symphony: A Listener's Guide, counted himself among the composer's legion of fans.
"He is one of the great symphonists," Steinberg, who died in 2009, told NPR seven years earlier. "And 'great' is a word I'm inclined to be fairly stingy with. I am so moved by the strength of the vision, the individuality of the vision. Here is an unmistakable voice that says, in virtually every phrase, 'Jean Sibelius was here.'"
Steinberg sat down to talk with NPR about Sibelius and his seven symphonies (an Eighth was composed but mysteriously disappeared). The audio excerpts that follow here are doubly satisfying — not only to recall Steinberg's enlightening yet down-to-earth way of explaining music, but also to hear the sounds of a composer whose symphonies evoke the great forests and fables of Finland and adventures far beyond and deep within.
Symphony No. 1 — Emerging from Traditions
Sibelius was becoming something of a national hero in Finland when his First Symphony debuted in 1899. He had already racked up a considerable success seven years earlier with Kullervo, an 80-minute symphonic work for chorus and soloists, based on Finland's national folk saga. Although the First Symphony bares traces of Tchaikovsky and Bruckner, Steinberg says the music contains Sibelius' stamp of individuality.
Symphony No. 2 — National Pride
When the Finnish people wanted freedom from Russian rule, Sibelius urged them on, and they loved him for it. He wrote outwardly patriotic music, anthems for the cause, but that's not really what his symphonies were about. Yet people looked for innate patriotism and sometimes thought they found it. That was the case with the Symphony No. 2. Steinberg says he can hear why some Finns felt the music told the story of their lives.
Symphony No. 3 — A Symphonic U-Turn
There's a famous quote by Gustav Mahler that says, "A symphony must be like the world; it must embrace everything." Mahler came up with that creed after a conversation with Sibelius, who told Mahler what he preferred in a symphony was "a severity of form" and an inner connection among the motifs. In other words, Sibelius didn't care about what the music said about the world, he wanted it to make sense as music. The Symphony No. 3 is quite different from its two predecessors, and when audiences first heard it in 1907, Steinberg says, they apparently didn't take too well to it.
Symphony No. 4 — Black Cigars and Whiskey
When Sibelius was in his mid-40s, he thought he was going to die. His doctors had found a growth in his throat and after several operations his prognosis was still not good. He was a hard-living, hard-drinking cigar smoker. For a time, he gave it all up and wrote his dark, inward-looking, modern-sounding Symphony No. 4, a work that baffled not only many listeners but conductors as well.
Symphony No. 5 — Swans in Flight
In 1915, on his 50th birthday, Sibelius was an acknowledged national hero of Finland. And on that night he conducted a new symphony, his Fifth, which in its final movement contains a vision of swans in flight over his country home — and one of the oddest of all symphonic endings.
Symphony No. 6 — Wondrous Strange
In talking about Sibelius' Sixth Symphony, Steinberg says, "It is as strange a symphony as I know and there are few after Schubert I love so much." Along with its "mysterious buzzings and silences," Steinberg points to the opening of the work, which unfolds like a piece of Renaissance choral music.
Symphony No. 7 — Intense Compression
One of the ideals of the Romantic era in classical music was to achieve unity, and it's been said that the Symphony No. 7 by Sibelius, first heard in 1924, consummates the 19th-century search for symphonic unity. It's in just one movement, shifting from tempo to tempo, idea to idea. Musicologist Donald Tovey wrote, "Sibelius has achieved the power of moving like aircraft." Steinberg says the conclusion of the Seventh Symphony, despite the fact Sibelius had composed an Eighth, seems to say, "The End."