Dinner Topics for Friday
Be Still My Soul
Listen to this Lovely Hymn, Be Still My Soul, music by Sibelius (text by Katherine von Schlegel b. 1697)
Jean Sibelius 8 December 1865 – 20 September 1957) was a Finnish composer of the later Romantic period. His music played an important role in the formation of the Finnish national identity. His mastery of the orchestra has been described as “prodigious.”
The core of Sibelius’s oeuvre is his set of seven symphonies. Like Beethoven, Sibelius used each successive work to further develop his own personal compositional style. His works continue to be performed frequently in the concert hall and are often recorded.
In addition to the symphonies, Sibelius’s best-known compositions include Finlandia, the Karelia Suite, Valse triste, the Violin Concerto in D minor and The Swan of Tuonela (one of the four movements of the Lemminkäinen Suite). Other works include pieces inspired by the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala; over 100 songs for voice and piano; incidental music for 13 plays; the opera Jungfrun i tornet (The Maiden in the Tower); chamber music; piano music; Masonic ritual music; and 21 separate publications of choral music.
Sibelius composed prolifically until the mid-1920s. However, after completing his Seventh Symphony (1924), the incidental music to The Tempest (1926), and the tone poem Tapiola (1926), he produced no large scale works for the remaining thirty years of his life. Although he is reputed to have stopped composing, he in fact attempted to continue writing, including abortive efforts to compose an eighth symphony. He wrote some Masonic music and re-edited some earlier works during this last period of his life, and retained an active interest in new developments in music, although he did not always view modern music favorably.
The Finnish 100 mark bill featured his image until it was taken out of circulation in 2002. Since 2011, Finland celebrates a Flag Day on 8 December, the composer’s birthday, also known as the ‘Day of Finnish Music’.
Johan Julius Christian Sibelius was born in Hämeenlinna in the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland, the son of Swedish-speaking doctor Christian Gustaf Sibelius and Maria Charlotta Sibelius née Borg. Although known by the typical Finnish and Swedish name “Janne” to his family, during his student years he began using the French form of his name, “Jean”, inspired by the business card of his seafaring uncle. He is now universally known as Jean Sibelius.
On 10 June 1892, Jean Sibelius married Aino Järnefelt (1871–1969) at Maxmo. Their home, called Ainola, was completed at Lake Tuusula, Järvenpää in 1903. They had six daughters: Eva, Ruth, Kirsti (who died at a very young age), Katarina, Margareta and Heidi. Eva married an industrial heir Arvi Paloheimo and later herself became the CEO of the Paloheimo Corporation. Ruth Snellman was a prominent actress, Katarina Ilves wife of a banker, and Heidi Blomstedt a designer, her husband Aulis Blomstedt being an architect. Margareta married the conductor Jussi Jalas, previously Blomstedt, Aulis Blomstedt´s brother.
In 1908, Sibelius underwent a serious operation for suspected throat cancer. The impact of this brush with death has been said to have inspired works that he composed in the following years, including Luonnotar and the Fourth Symphony.
Sibelius spent long periods abroad studying in Vienna and Berlin 1889-91 and 1900-1901 with family in Italy. He composed, conducted and socialized actively in Scandinavian Countries, UK, France and Germany. In 1914 he was the composer of the year at the Norfolk Music Festival in Conn., USA, premiering his symphonic poem The Oceanids commissioned by the millionaire Carl Stoeckel. Sibelius met ex-President Taft in Washington DC and also visited Canada briefly. He had five tours in England 1905-1922. After 1930 he did not travel abroad again. Instead he became a representative figure of the Finnish Music and received a constant flow of dignitaries and delegations in Ainola until his last days.
When freemasonry was revived in Finland, having been forbidden during the Russian sovereignty, Sibelius was one of the founding members of Suomi Lodge Nr 1 in 1922 and later the Grand Organist of the Grand Lodge of Finland. He composed the ritual music used in Finland (op 113) in 1927 and added two new pieces composed 1946. The new revision of the ritual music of 1948 is one of his last works.
Sibelius loved nature, and the Finnish landscape often served as material for his music. He once said of his Sixth Symphony, “[It] always reminds me of the scent of the first snow.” The forests surrounding Ainola are often said to have inspired his composition of Tapiola. On the subject of Sibelius’s ties to nature, one biographer of the composer, Erik W. Tawaststjerna, wrote the following:
Even by Nordic standards, Sibelius responded with exceptional intensity to the moods of nature and the changes in the seasons: he scanned the skies with his binoculars for the geese flying over the lake ice, listened to the screech of the cranes, and heard the cries of the curlew echo over the marshy grounds just below Ainola. He savoured the spring blossoms every bit as much as he did autumnal scents and colours.
On 1 January 1939, Sibelius participated in an international radio broadcast which included the composer conducting his Andante Festivo. The performance was preserved on transcription discs and later issued on CD. This is probably the only surviving example of Sibelius interpreting his own music.
Since 1903 Sibelius had lived in the country, but 1939-1944 Jean and Aino had again a residence in Helsinki. After the war he came to the city only a couple of times. The so-called “Silence of Ainola” appears a myth, knowing that in addition to countless official visitors and visiting colleagues also his grandchildren and great grandchildren spent their holidays in Ainola.
Sibelius avoided public statements about other composers, but Tawaststjerna and Sibelius´secretary Santeri Levas have documented his private conversations in which he considered Bartók and Shostakovich the most talented composers of the younger generations. In the 1950s he actively promoted the young Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara.
His 90th birthday, in 1955, was widely celebrated and both the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Thomas Beecham gave special performances of his music in Finland. The orchestras and their conductors also met the composer at his home; a series of memorable photographs were taken to commemorate the occasions. Both Columbia Records and EMI released some of the pictures with albums of Sibelius’s music. Beecham was honored by the Finnish government for his efforts to promote Sibelius both in the United Kingdom and in the United States.
Tawaststjerna also related an endearing anecdote regarding Sibelius’s death:
[He] was returning from his customary morning walk. Exhilarated, he told his wife Aino that he had seen a flock of cranes approaching. “There they come, the birds of my youth,” he exclaimed. Suddenly, one of the birds broke away from the formation and circled once above Ainola. It then rejoined the flock to continue its journey. Two days afterwards Sibelius died of a brain hemorrhage, at age 91 (on 20 September 1957), in Ainola, where he is buried in the garden. Another well-known Finnish composer, Heino Kaski, died that same day. Aino lived there for the next twelve years until she died on 8 June 1969; she is buried with her husband.