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Jean Sibelius

Johan (Jean) Julius Christian Sibelius (December 8, 1865 - September 20, 1957) was a composer of classical music. He belongs together with Johan Ludvig Runeberg to the Finns who most of all symbolize the Finnish national identity.

Jean Sibelius was born in 1865 into a Finland-Swedish family in Hämeenlinna in the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland. His family followed the emerging norm of the Fennomans enrolling him in Finnish language schools.

His most famous compositions are probably Finlandia, Valse Triste, the Violin Concerto, the Karelia suite and the Swan of Tuonela, a movement from his Lemminkäinen suite, but he wrote much else besides, including other pieces inspired by the Kalevala, seven symphonies, 100 arias, and masonic ritual music.

Sibelius' 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 Dvorak this lead him to seek idiomatic melodies and developmental procedures.

Sibelius built much of his music with melodies that have very powerful modal implications, and are drawn out over a number of notes. He then prefers to have simple harmonization, and then underneath some form of long sustained note, called a pedal, after the organ pedals that can produce low sustained sounds. He stated "music often looses its way without a pedal."

This result in his music not being considered complex enough by one critic, 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 (See harmony) and bare melodic structures to build long movements of music, in a manner that is 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 underpinned his music with repeating figures which push against the melody and counter melody.

His work is rich with literary reference, even when not explicit. His 2nd Symphony has a section based on Don Giovanni sneaking by moonlight, his stark Fourth Symphony combined the work he had planned on a "Mountain" symphony, with a tone poem based on the Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven". He also wrote numerous tone poems based on Finnish poetry, beginning with the early "En Saga" and culminating in two late tone poems.

Sibelius has fallen in and out of fashion, but remains one of the most popular of 20th Century symphonists, with complete cycles of his symphonies being recorded even today. In his own time, however, he focused far more on more profitable chamber music for home use, and occasionally on works for the stage. Currently Simon Rattle, Lorin Maazel and David Allen Miller are considered exponents of his work.


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.