Sibelius: An Appreciation

Sibelius was the finest composer ever to emerge from Finland and Scandinavia and a musical visionary.

Is it true that the essence of Sibelius can be found in his symphonies? 

Between 1899 and 1926 Sibelius composed seven symphonies, which stand at the pinnacle of his output. In the first two you can sense him looking back to Tchaikovsky, yet the gentle neo-Classicism of the Third was way ahead of its time. The nerve-shreddingly introspective Fourth forms a marked contrast with the Fifth’s unforgettable horn calls. The transcendental Sixth offers a stream of sublime musical poetics, while the Seventh is structured in one majestic movement. 

Sibelius wasn’t exactly a jet-setter, was he? 

Sibelius was a thoroughly conventional man at heart. Like Rachmaninov, he was essentially out of kilter with his times and had very little interest in pushing back the musical barriers in the manner of a Stravinsky or Schoenberg. 

Was Sibelius a Nationalist composer? 

Only by default. Although much of his inspiration was effectively drawn from the Finnish soil (the epic poem Kalevala in particular), he insisted that when composing one thing is paramount – “The profound logic which binds together all the inner motifs”. 

Is it true that Sibelius really wanted to be a violin virtuoso? 

Initially, yes. He got as far as an audition with the Vienna Philharmonic but his failure to get in put paid to any further ambitions. His fiendishly difficult Violin Concerto was effectively composed for the virtuoso he never became. 

Didn’t he suddenly stop composing? 

Sibelius’s last major work was the orchestral tone poem Tapiola (1926), which tantalisingly points towards a new period of creative mastery. However, and with more than 30 years of his life remaining, Sibelius virtually laid his composing pen to rest. 

So what happened after that? 

For several years Sibelius worked secretively on an Eighth Symphony, but this was later consigned to the fire. Otherwise he enjoyed going for long walks in the forests, entertaining friends, and indulging himself in his favourite cigars and beer.