Timeline: Jean Sibelius

Sep 5, 2016

The Scandinavian composer, Jean Sibelius wrote 7 symphonies, many symphonic poems and over 100 vocal songs. He was the voice of his homeland, Finland, at a time of great political upheaval and change.

Sibelius was the 2nd of 3 children. His father died of Cholera when he was only 2. He showed early promise as a violinist and composer, writing his first original piece when he was 10. At 14 he began a serious study of music with aspirations of being a violin virtuoso. As a young man he developed a deep love of nature, Swedish poetry and the Finnish epic poem The Kalevala; all of these things would influence a great deal of his music.

Sibelius studied composition at the University of Helsinki. After he graduated he spent two years abroad studying with Albert Becker in Berlin and Karl Goldmark in Vienna. He returned to Finland in 1891 and found success with his early orchestral works Kullervo and Lemminkainen. The next year, he married into a very influential Finnish family and became an advocate of Finnish nationalism.

Finland was at a crossroads of its history in the 1890’s as the Russian Empire was tightening its political and social grip on the northern nation. That was the hidden subtext of one of Sibelius’ most popular works Finlandia.

Sibelius met international success in the first years of the 20th century, yet it did little to help his growing financial debt. He had a reputation for extravagance and a penchant for alcohol. In 1908, Sibelius developed a severe illness that resulted in several surgeries and forced him to stop drinking and smoking cigars, at least for a while.

The October Revolution of 1917 resulted in Finland declaring its independence. The very next year the nation fell into a civil war and Sibelius was forced to leave his home.

In the 1920’s Sibelius felt left out of the musical landscape in Europe; having little in common with composers such as Schoenberg and Stravinsky. As a result he wrote very little. The next few decades though saw Sibelius’ popularity grow around the world, especially in the United States and Britain. This was thanks in large part to the growing use of the gramophone. Recordings of Sibelius’ music became accessible to everyone. Sadly, he didn’t get to benefit from this popularity, remaining isolated in his homeland. Until his 90th birthday, which saw an outpouring of telegrams, gifts and support. Sibelius died 2 years later of cerebral hemorrhaging in 1957.

This 1939 photograph shows Jean Sibelius with his signature cigar. Thanks to the popularity of the gramophone, his music was becoming accessible to listeners around the world.
Credit US-PD

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Take a journey into the events, characters and concepts that shaped our Western musical tradition.