Jean Sibelius


Born in Hämeenlinna, Finland, December 8, 1865; died in Järvenpää, Finland, September 20, 1957

The year 1899 opened ominously for Finland, at that time a dependency of the mighty Russian Empire. Under Czar Nicholas II, the Finns began feeling the weight of Russian rule as never before, and in February, the Russian government issued the so-called February Manifesto, removing Finland's autonomy and severely curtailing the rights of free speech and assembly. An ardent patriot, Jean Sibelius was increasingly active in the fight for Finnish freedom, and his music became a rallying point for the movement, providing a cultural camouflage for underground political activity.

For the evening of November 4th, the Finnish press association announced a “Press Pension Celebration” — a series of “Historical Tableaux,” with texts by Eino Leino and Jalmari Finne, and music by Sibelius — ostensibly to raise money for journalists' pensions, but more importantly to rally support for a free press. Sibelius composed introductory music for six historical scenes, the last of which was significantly titled “Finland Awakes!” But not wishing to provoke the Russian censors, he changed the title to Finlandia, when he revised it a year later as a free-standing tone poem. Although he called it a “relatively insignificant piece,” it became his most popular work and its central melody an unofficial national anthem for the Finns.

The text that originally accompanied this music saluted Finnish progress during the 19th century and included these words: “The powers of darkness menacing Finland have not succeeded in their terrible threats. Finland awakes!” And the musical plan of this nine-minute work powerfully expresses this idea. Dark, savage chords for trombones and horns suggest a giant force trying to rouse itself. As the tempo accelerates, the music awakens to energetic, purposeful activity. This soon gives birth to a gravely beautiful hymn melody in the woodwinds: an anthem for a free Finland.

Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2018