Jean Sibelius: Karelia Suite

It’s well known that Sibelius held fervent views about his country’s position under Russian dominance. He also, in his late twenties and early thirties, became passionate about the micro-nationalist importance of one particular area of Finland, said to be the home of the oldest and most respected aspects of Finnish culture.

This area was the Karelia region and the movement campaigning for the area became known as Karelianism.

Much of Karelia lay in Russia, but the fact that part of it was in Finland’s eastern tip (focused on Vyborg) was one of the reasons Sibelius accepted a commission to provide music for the students of Helsinki University, in Vyborg. Sibelius mentioned in a letter that "You couldn’t hear a single note of the music – everyone was on their feet cheering and clapping".

They were staging a historical tableau, and, from the music, Sibelius salvaged three pieces to form an orchestral suite. In the 1990s, a Finnish composer and academic reconstructed more music, which, when recorded, brought the Karelia Suite to eleven movements. Most recordings, such as the bright and majestic one below include just the traditional three movements.

Recommended Recording

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra; Okko Kamu (conductor). Deutsche Grammophon: 4803297.

Illustration: Mark Millington