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Jean Sibelius

From Academic Kids

Part of the Sibelius monument in Helsinki, Finland.
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Part of the Sibelius monument in Helsinki, Finland.

Johan (Jean) Julius Christian Sibelius (December 8, 1865September 20, 1957) was a Finnish composer of classical music and violinist. Together with the work of Johan Ludvig Runeberg, Sibelius's music is synonymous with Finnish national identity.

Jean Sibelius was born in 1865 into a Finland-Swedish family in Hmeenlinna in the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland. His family consciously decided to send Jean to an important Finnish language school. This should be seen as part of the larger rise of the Fennoman movement, an expression of Romantic Nationalism which was to become a crucial part of Sibelius' artistic output and politics.

His most famous compositions are probably Finlandia, Valse Triste, the violin concerto, the Karelia suite and The Swan of Tuonela (a movement from his Lemminkinen suite), but he wrote much else besides, including other pieces inspired by the Kalevala, seven numbered symphonies, over a hundred songs for voice and piano, incidental music for 13 separate plays, an opera (Jungfrun i tornet, which remains unpublished), chamber music including a string quartet, piano music, 21 separate publications of choral music, and Masonic ritual music.

Sibelius's musical style

Jean Sibelius was part of a wave of composers who accepted the norms of late 19th Century composition, but sought to radically simplify the internal construction of the music. Like Antonin Dvork this led him to seek idiomatic melodies with an identifiably national character; but he also brought a unique and idiosyncratic approach to developmental technique. He was influenced by Ferruccio Busoni and Peter Tchaikovsky; the influence of the latter is particularly evident in his un-numbered choral symphony Kullervo, from 1891, as well as his Symphony No. 1 in E Minor of 1899: indeed the influence of these two composers is evident as late as his Violin Concerto of 1903. However, he progressively stripped away formal markers of the sonata form in his work, and pursued the idea of continuously developing cells and fragments until coming to a grand statement at the end. The synthesis was often so complete that it was thought that he began from the finished statement and worked backwards.

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Photograph of Jean Sibelius

Sibelius built much of his music with melodies that have very powerful modal implications, and that are drawn out over a number of notes. His harmonic language is often restrained and reductive in comparison with that of many of his contemporaries, and makes frequent use of pedal points. He stated "music often loses its way without a pedal." Because of this, Sibelius' music is sometimes considered insufficiently complex, but he was immediately respected by his peers, including Gustav Mahler. Later in life he was championed by critic Olin Downes but attacked by composer-critic Virgil Thomson.

Sibelius over time sought to use new chord patterns, including naked tritones, for example in the Symphony No. 4, and bare melodic structures to build long movements of music, in a manner similar to Haydn's use of built-in dissonances. He would often alternate melodic sections with blaring brass chords that swell and fade away, or underpin his music with repeating figures which push against the melody and counter-melody. His work is rich with literary reference, even when not explicit. The second symphony has a movement that has been compared to the statue in Don Giovanni sneaking by moonlight, while the stark Symphony No. 4 combines work for a planned "Mountain" symphony with a tone poem based on Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven. He also wrote several tone poems based on Finnish poetry, beginning with the early En Saga and culminating in the late tone poem Tapiola (1926), his last major composition.

He published only a few minor pieces after 1926, and said he destroyed the score for a completed 8th numbered symphony. His last large works were the sixth and seventh symphonies, incidental music for Shakepeare's The Tempest and Tapiola. For nearly the last thirty years in his life (primarily after World War I and an operation for suspected throat cancer), Sibelius avoided talking about his music and composed nearly nothing.

Sibelius has fallen in and out of fashion, but remains one of the most popular 20th century symphonists, with complete cycles of his symphonies being recorded even today. In his own time, however, he focused far more on the more profitable chamber music for home use, and occasionally on works for the stage. Currently Paavo Berglund and Sir Colin Davis are considered major exponents of his work.

Selected works

These are ordered chronologically; the date is the date of composition rather than publication or first performance.


Sibelius (as reported in the Manchester Guardian newspaper in 1958) summed up the style of his later works by saying that while other composers were engaged in manufacturing cocktails, he offered the public pure cold water.

External links

et:Jean Sibelius eo:Jean SIBELIUS fr:Jean Sibelius ko:장 시벨리우스 nl:Jean Sibelius ja:ジャン・シベリウス no:Jean Sibelius pl:Jean Sibelius ro:Jean Sibelius fi:Jean Sibelius sv:Jean Sibelius zh:让·西贝柳斯

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