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Jean Sibelius: The Great Finnish Master

We’re talking about the music of Jean Sibelius, the voice of Finland, the Scandinavian North.

This is an unusual view of the Jean Sibelius monument in Helsinki, Finland on Feb. 27, 1968. (AP)

This is an unusual view of the Jean Sibelius monument in Helsinki, Finland on Feb. 27, 1968. (AP)

The work of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius became world famous as the sound of Scandinavia. Evocative of nature, mountain, birch, ice and pine. His sixth symphony, he said, always reminded him of the scent of first snow.

Some loved it. Some did not. When Stravinsky and Shoenberg raced into the atonal future, Sibelius kept ties to the romantic past.

Now, Sibelius is getting another listen. From “Finlandia” right on through.

This hour On Point: a new look at the life and music of Jean Sibelius.

-Tom Ashbrook


Daniel Grimley, professor of Music at Oxford University and Scholar-in-Residence at the Bard Summerscape Music Festival.

Christopher Gibbs, professor of Music at Bard College and Co-Artistic Director of the Bard Summerscape Music Festival.

From Tom’s Reading List

Wikipedia “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.”

The New York Times “On screen was newly shot video of a car driving through the forest, then a manuscript — meant to be Sibelius’s lost Eighth Symphony — burning in a fireplace, its corners curling in the flames. The sequence follows our traditional sense of Sibelius: a crackly recording, the snowy woods of his native Finland, a reclusive composer in a provincial land.”

Wall Street Journal “In 1955, the French conductor and theorist René Leibowitz published “Sibelius, le plus mauvais compositeur du monde” (the worst composer in the world), a pamphlet aimed at the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). Certainly music history has been littered with similarly broad and injudicious barbs whose vitriol often flows out of pent-up professional rivalry. Leibowitz was best known as a wise and influential conductor of Beethoven and Mozart, as well as the guiding spirit over beautiful and idiomatic recordings of Bizet operas and Offenbach operettas. He was also the author of important books on Arnold Schoenberg and on 12-tone music. Significantly, Leibowitz was a 12-tone composer himself, writing at a time when Sibelius had already enjoyed decades of widespread popularity among audiences, despite the castigation of other modernist critics and composers, among them Aaron Copland.”


“Finlandia” (2011–Bard Festival) Leon Botstein, American Symphony Orchestra

“Kullervo”; Mvmt. 5 (2011–Bard Festival) Leon Botstein, American Symphony Orchestra

“Finlandia” (1986) Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra

“This Is My Song” (LIVE-2005) Joan Baez

Violin Concerto in D minor Erica Kiesewetter American Symphony Orchestra

Symphony # 1 in E minor; Mvmt. 1 (2011) Osmo Vänskä

Symphony # 3 in C major; Mvmt. 1 (1996) Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra

Mahler Symphony #8; “Veni Creator Spiritus” (Come Creator Spirit) Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Symphony # 5 in E flat major; Mvmt. 4 (2004) Sir Colin Davis, London Symphony Orchestra

Symphony # 7 in C major (2002) American Symphony Orchestra

Symphony # 7 in C major (2002) London Symphony Orchestra

“Luonnotar” (2011-Bard Fest.) Christiane Libor (Soprano) American Symphony Orchestra

“Tapiola” (1996) Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra

“Andante Festivo” (1939) Finnish Radio Orchestra

“Finlandia” (2011 – Bard Festival) American Symphony Orchestra

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  • Randy Kangas

    Sibelius’ Finlandia embodied & embolded the Finnish sense of emerging nationalism. It was so powerful at spurring independent sentiments that their Russian overlords made it illegal to whistle it in public. The Finns came to realize more and more:

    “Swedes we are no longer, Russians we do not want to become, let us therefore
    become Finns!”

    • Gary

      That’s racist.

  • Fredsaid

    I love the Sibelius violin concerto and think the symphonies are pretty great.  When I turn on the radio and hear just a couple of those brooding cords, I can tell right away that it’s Sibelius.  His style is so unique.

    It’s really too bad that it’s the same few pieces are always played. 

  • Mike

    It’s a mistake to call Sibelius a “Great _Scandinavian_ Master” as you do above: Finland is not a part of Scandinavia like Sweden and Norway are.  Calling Finns “Scandinavian” will always make them look at you funny.

    Especially given his role in Finnish nationalism and identity, I think you’d be better off calling him a Great Nordic Master instead.

    • Randy Kangas

      Geographically the Finns aren’t Scandinavian, but politically they are and culturally they are similar.

      • Mike

        Try telling that to my Helsinki-born wife and all her friends and family!  I made the mistake exactly once– never again.

        • L.Fitzgerald

          Mike is right. Finland is Nordic, not Scandinavian.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    What was Copland’s objection?  His style is folk populism, not atonal.

    • TFRX

      Oh, it’s on. It is soooo on!

      (Sorry. Just wanted to see those words in a classical music thread.)

      • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

        Bring it, friend!  Come, and take!

    • Kevin

      Greg, Copland went through a 12-tone phase in his compositional career before he wrote Appalachian Spring, The Tenderland, etc.

      • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

        Ah, but then he abandoned it.  Perhaps a bit of pot and kettle?

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Put Sibelius in the context of World War II.  The Russians were trying to take over Finland, and Germany was an available ally.

  • Kevin

    As a huge Sibelius fan, it’s always been amusing to me to read the criticism that was heaped upon Sibelius during his lifetime. The vast majority of that criticism came from composers and critics who left no significant impression upon the musical world. Yet they had time to criticize someone with such immense talent, and such an amazing musical voice. I’m thinking of Victor Herbert here….the music of Sibelius is now recorded and showcased around the world. Not so of those who savaged him.

  • James Finnegan

    Love the opening movement of Sibelius’ 2nd, gets me every time.

  • Bruno

    What recordings are being used in this segment?

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Jaeger = hunter, originally.  They were riflemen and later snipers and paratroopers.

  • Valerie508

    When I was growing up in Norwood, Massachusetts, a Finnish-American neighborhood, in the 1920′s and 1930′s, Sibelius was always a great source of pride.
    I spoke only Finnish until I went to 1st grade.
    All of my friends learned one form of art or another.  My neighbor, Kauko Kahila, grew up to play trombone for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and he says the greatest moment of his life was meeting Sibelius when the BSO went to Helsinki!
    I played piano and loved Sibelius!  

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    I’ve enjoyed Sibelius’s compositions for years, in part as evidence that classical music can continue to be music and not just an academic exercise.

    • Kevin

      agree 100%!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Bob G.

    Playing only the first verse of Joan Baez’ rendition of “A Song of Peace” very much misses the point. Following the nationalistic first verse is a second, more reflective:

    THIS IS MY SONGThis is my song, O God of all the nations,
    A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
    This is my home, the country where my heart is;
    Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
    But other hearts in other lands are beating
    With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,And sunlight beams on clover-leaf and pine.But other lands have sunlight too and clover,And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.Oh, hear my song, O God of all the nations,A song of peace for their land and for mine.

  • Mary in Vermont

    My mother, who died far too young, had a favorite hymn, Be Still My Soul.  I have a strong memory of attending church for the last time with her and we sang it then.  I love Finlandia and somehow never connected the two until now.  Thank you.
    1. Be still, my soul: the Lord is on your side.
    Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
    leave to your God to order and provide;
    in every change God faithful will remain.
    Be still, my soul: your best, your heavenly friend
    through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

    2. Be still, my soul: your God will undertake
    to guide the future, as in ages past.
    Your hope, your confidence let nothing shake;
    all now mysterious shall be bright at last.
    Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
    the Christ who ruled them while he dwelt below.

    3. Be still, my soul: the hour is hastening on
    when we shall be forever with the Lord,
    when disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
    sorrow for forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
    Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past,
    all safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

  • Anonymous

    Valse Triste.

    Regarding the recent callers suggest of this waltz by Sibelius.  The minute the caller suggested that this is the most original waltz written I had to check it out because I thought I might have heard what the most original waltz is.

    Thanks for the suggestion, I just finished listening to it on youtube.  Is it the most original?  Well, sadly in my opinion, it is not.

    I believe Valse Romantique by Debussy is.  This is a piano piece that drop the ‘oooom pah pah’ bass for most of the piece.  That bass is what pretty much defines a waltz (It is also present Valse Triste -save the ending).  Well the Romantique mostly removes it yet still keeps the dance characteristics of a waltz and yet Romantique was written 14 years before Triste! 

    The Romantique has the same dynamic range of mood and the transitions it has between moods are complex, surprising, yet natural.  I don’t really see the same quality of writing in this piece by Sibelius.

    Never the less, thanks for the suggestion, and I will have to listen to more Sibelius, even though this particular piece may not be the most ‘unique’ to my ears, I can tell Sibelius deserves a wider audience and you can add me to the growing list of new Sibelius listeners.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Old fashioned is correct when the modern movement has gone off the rails.

  • Markka

    Between my beautiful, proud Finnish mom blasting Sibelius, and my charming and hilarious Greek dad, possessed of a strong love of Soviet Army Chorus songs, I grew up in the tropical heat of Miami, Florida in the late 70s and 80s with a very dramatic (and wintry) soundtrack. Its such a pleasure to hear the great conversation and familiar tracks on the show today…

  • Randy Kangas

    My favorite for Valse Triste:


  • Susan

    That was a WONDERFUL program that I enjoyed so much.  Thank you for such a different format.  It’s nice to leave the world of politics to hear such fine commentary and music.  Finlandia takes me right back to my 6th grade classroom.  We had a very inspired new male teacher, fresh from college, who played classical music every morning as we entered our classroom.  I do believe the discussion about Finlandia and the beautiful music we heard in his classroom stayed with my soul forever.  All of us who have kept in touch over the years remember it too and we are all tranported right back to the scene, even remembering how the room looked, how the desks were arranged, and especially, our wonderful teacher who went on to inspire other students throughout his entire life.
    Through the Internet, we tracked him down to Hawaii and told him how we had all been inspired by his simple act of playing classical music and that we all remembered Finlandia.  We all wonder if public schools of today would ever consider such a thing.  Many thanks for your program.

  • Marta Johnston

    I have enjoyed On Point since its inception – your topics and guests are always pertinent to the times.  I would like to suggest a segment on the shortage of chemotherapy drugs that is now being experienced in our country.  I have just met with my oncologist and he tells me it is a “bottom line” issue.  Companies earn more for the drugs that are on patent, and the tried and true older drugs are being discontinued or not manufactured in large enough quantities for cancer patients.  He has people on staff searching full time for these drugs and competition for them is fierce.  Evidently our Congress is discussing doctors being allowed to purchase drugs from other countries – he is quite worried about quality control and counterfeit drugs if this happens.  There needs to be more awareness of this situation and explanations for patients and their families.  Please consider this.  Thank you.  Martha Johnston

  • Marise Cherin

    When I graduated middle school (Virgil Junior High in Los Angeles) in 1948, the famous theme from Finlandia was the basis for our school anthem.
    The most poignant use of Valse Triste I have ever heard was as the background music to a segment in an animated film released approximately in the ’80s entitled Alegro NonTroppo. It shows a scrawny cat living near a now broken-down house remembering when he lived in that house with the family that loved him and fed him tidbits under the table during elaborate parties. It is so bittersweet, so painful, that I cannot bear to watch it again, and it is largely the music that conveys the cat’s feelings.

  • Joshua

    Thanks for taking time for a composer like Sibelius. It’s great to hear about beautiful art in the midst of this turmoil of a world and economy. I hope to hear more topics like this in the future. Bravo

  • Wotan617

    The following passage from Sibelius Sym. #5 is one of the great highlights in western music and culture. 

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ccqbtcmg60gBetween the recent wave of Mahler retrospectives and a quasi-rediscovery of Jean Sibelius throughout American concert houses, music festivals and airwaves, the last two years have been incredible for fans of large scale symphonies and huge sounds, ideas, intellects and hearts.

  • Bruno

    Are the 2011 Bard Festival recordings intended for release?  I really enjoyed the snippets I heard on the program this morning, and would like to acquire copies.

  • Larkin_Karen

    The only thing better than listening to Finlandia is playing it!

  • Marja Lianko

    Thank you, thank you thank you from another Finn! I was driving to my studio when I turned the radio on and Finlandia filled my car – and my soul. I had to stop the car and shed a couple of tears for this lovely piece of music, for all it represents to us and our history. 
    Sincerely Marja 

  • MarkoL.

    Thank you so much for an excellent show. Wonderful guests, delightful insights. Thank you!

  • RBB

    A Stephanie called and asked about Sibelius’ relationship between his music and colors. In Santeri Levas’ “Sibelius – A Personal Portrait” there is a chapter on this — Levas was Sibelius’ secretary in his last years. You can probably find the book via Interlibrary loan.

    On the matter of attacks on him – the loudest was by the composer Virgil Thomson in the ‘Herald Tribune’ — it was mostly a political attack, as Thomson hated the NYT’s Olin Downes, who worshipped Sibelius. It may also have been jealousy: if you hear Thomson’s symphonies, they’re very, very weak, among his least interesting works.

    Robert Bonotto, composer
    Arlington, MA

  • ulTRAX

    Just another topic that probably should be left for Terry Gross’s Fresh Air. On Point should stick to what it does best… current affairs, history, science… not the arts.  

  • Lesle Taylor30

    Did Sibelius compose a symphony called ” The Great” and which one was it

  • mayacb

    I love Sibelius–and am thrilled to hear this.  I missed it the first time.

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