Few countries have elevated a composer like Finland and Jean Sibelius. John Banther and Evan Keely look into his breakout success, symphonies, dramatic life events, and how he incorporates Finnish culture into music. Plus, what do Sibelius, Gilmore Girls, and Lord of The Rings have in common?
Enjoy this performance of the Symphony No. 2 with the Finnish conductor, Susanna Mälkki
Kullervo and the epic poem that inspired Sibelius
Radio Filharmonisch Orkest, James Gaffigan conducting
Read a translation of the epic Finnish poem, Kalevala here.
A 100th Anniversary performance of Finlandia, with chorus!
John Banther: I'm John Banther, and this is Classical Breakdown. From WETA Classical in Washington, we are your guide to classical music. In this episode, I'm joined by WETA Classical's, Evan Keeley, and we are diving into the life and music of a composer that became the voice of a nation, Jean Sibelius. We look at how he captured the spirit of Finnish people like lightning in a bottle, how he incorporated Finnish culture into his music, some dramatic life events, love of nature and more. How did Sibelius become the voice of a nation, a nation that didn't even have its first full- time orchestra until after he was born? Even the Wikipedia page on Finland's independence from Russia mentions the composer multiple times. He's been on their money, and his Finlandia was considered the unofficial national anthem. And I think there's been plenty of countries that have uplifted their composers, but Evan, I've not seen anything quite like Finland and Sibelius.
Evan Keeley: Just hearing Sibelius's music, there's this sense of it's a different kind of sound. And even for someone like me who, I admit, I'm not intimately acquainted with a Finnish musical tradition, there's just this sense of otherness, and yet there's also a universality, but it's still, it doesn't sound like German music, it doesn't sound Italian, it doesn't sound French, it doesn't sound Russian. And that's one of the great things about Sibelius, the way he's able to take the locality and the specificity of his experience and create something which is very unique to that, but also universal.
John Banther: It's kind of like when you go to England, for example, if you go to London, and they're speaking English, but the accent is different, some of the words are different, but you understand ninety- nine percent of it. And with Sibelius, we're hearing the contrast, the difference that he does with his music in comparison to people like in Germany, Italy and France. And we can explore this actually with his very first work called Water Drops. This is the first work that we have from him that he composed when he was about sometime between 10 and 15 years old. It's so simple. It's less than a minute- long, and it features just violin and cello, and they're just plucking the strings. But when you listen to it sounds familiar in one sense. Okay, it's cello and violin, but then he does things that are just a little different from what you expect.
You're listening and you think you know where the line is going, based on your own experiences and our own perspectives in music, but then he does something that's slightly different or off. It's like that different accent that you notice, those little differences that make you realize, " Well, this is very different from what I've heard before." And stay with us in this episode because believe it or not, Gilmore Girls and Lord of the Rings, they are also going to be involved here as well in some interesting ways. But let's look at, Evan, his early life, his birth and his early years, because he was born in December of 1865, but not with the name we know him today. Jean Sibelius.
Evan Keeley: Right. His birth name is Johan Julius Christian Sibelius, casually he was known... Johan is like John in the Swedish language. His family is a Swedish- speaking family, about a third of the Finnish population. Jan was his nickname, like Johnny, for our culture. And then as a young man, late adolescence, early adulthood, he starts to use the French form, Jean, and that's the name by which he became known for the rest of his life.
John Banther: And his father and mother... Well, his father died when he was an infant actually, and his mother was not a musician, and so it was rather his uncle who gave him a violin when he was 10 years old. And I think his aunt was also encouraging him. He gets his violin, he's developing some skills, played in some neighborhood groups, and then he eventually goes to the Helsinki Music Institute in 1892. And this thing was only... This school only came about 10 years before, so this is all pretty much brand new. And that school is now called the Sibelius Academy. And his original goal was to be a violin soloist. And he could play things like the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, but as he realized, Evan, this was just not something that was going to work out for him.
Evan Keeley: He certainly had great skill as a violinist, but starting at the age of 10, that's a little unusual, if you're going become a virtuoso. And in fact, for him, that was, maybe it was the age at which he started, or maybe there were other factors. But it's also interesting to think about, you were mentioning John, the Helsinki Music Institute being new, and it's fascinating to look at the life of Sibelius and the ways in which music in Finland is, it's on a different level from other European countries. It may be not as advanced. Like you said, when he was born in 1865, there wasn't a full- time orchestra in that country. So you see Finland coming into its own musically during his lifetime. But you also see the enormously important role Sibelius himself plays in the development of a strong musical culture in Finland.
John Banther: And it seems like with this art form being so new to Finland, they had this rush or just drive to, I guess, catch up really quickly to what was also happening around them with this art form. And there's a great quote we have from him. Well, it's kind of sad at the same time, Evan, but it outlines this whole violin situation for him. He said, " My tragedy was that I wanted to be a celebrated violinist at any price. Since the age of 15 I played my violin practically from morning to night. I hated pen and ink. Unfortunately, I preferred an elegant violin bow. My love for the violin lasted quite long, and it was a very painful awakening when I had to admit that I had begun my training for the exacting career of a virtuoso too late." And this, Evan, is something we see still today in so many things, from music to sports, whatever, there's people that start at such a young age, their brains are practically mapped differently, and that's what you're going up against when you start late on something like the violin.
Evan Keeley: Right. 10 years old, maybe too late. In his case, perhaps that was the case. However, as a composer, there are certainly we can think of many child prodigies among the composers we know. But 10 years old, 15 years old, certainly not too late to start thinking about composing. And as you've mentioned, John, with this Water Drops piece, between the age of 10 and 15, he's already thinking about a life as a composer, even if he's reluctant to embrace it at first.
John Banther: Yes. And after his studies in Helsinki, he goes to Berlin and Vienna to study much like early American composers going to Europe to also study. And all while this is happening, he is becoming a deep lover of nature and also gaining some interest in Finnish culture. So all of this leads up to a big moment in April of 1892, when he premieres his work for voice, chorus and orchestra called Kullervo. And this is a huge moment that owes in part its success to I think also the political and cultural climate. Long story short, Sweden was running Finland for centuries and was the dominant influence.
Many upper- class Finns, they did not even speak the Finnish language, for example. Russia took over in 1809, encourages them to explore their Finnish culture, also an attempt to weaken Swedish influence. The 1890s come and they say, " Okay, that's over." And they start limiting the rights of these non- Russian people. This leads to this cultural pushback that we see in the arts, and all of this comes to a point, an intersection where Sibelius comes in with this piece called Kullervo, that basically captured lightning in a bottle for the country, I think. So what is Kullervo about and why would it suddenly capture the country's attention so strongly and positively?
Evan Keeley: Well, as you were saying, John, this is a way of understanding the enormous complexity of Finnish history. And you can't really understand Finnish history without knowing about Finn's relationship with their Swedish neighbors and their Russian neighbors. Very complex history, a lot of injustice and a lot of strife and conflict breaking out and so forth. The role of the Finnish language and Finnish culture through the centuries is an important part of this story. And Kullervo is this thing that bursts onto the scene in the 1890s. This composer, this young man is composing music.
He has a Swedish background, but he's embracing a very Finnish phenomenon in this story, this choral work, which is built upon this myth. It's kind of somewhat akin to the way Wagner used Norse mythology in something like the Ring Cycle. You're taking this very ancient folk tale, this part of the culture that goes back centuries, and he is lifting that up and using a musical idiom that's expressing it in a way that no one has heard before. And like you said, John, Lightning in a bottle. There's this sense of something new and amazing happening in Finnish culture with Kullervo.
John Banther: And it's based on that myth Kalevala like an epic poem. It's thousands of lines long, I think. I'll put it on the show notes page and it's great. I can put it there, because for so many centuries, this was only done orally. It was not written down. And he used the stories in here of Kullervo, who is this kind of Hercules type character sold into slavery. And I guess the Finnish people are seeing their lack of independence playing out through this. And Glenda Dawn Goss, in her book called Sibelius a Composer's Life and the Awakening of Finland, wrote, " The appearance of the Kullervo story in music was a spectacular coup." And Goss also wrote, " Kullervo was primitive, it was raw, it was flawed, and it was spellbinding. For the first time, the national movement had produced a musical achievement worthy of its high ideals." And even one critic wrote, " We recognize the melodies as our own even though we had never heard them before." That's a big moment, right, Evan? They recognize these melodies and he's such a big cultural force here, but he's not quoting anything Finnish.
Evan Keeley: Right. There's no folk melodies in this music. You don't find a lot of folk melodies in Sibelius's music. Off the top of my head, can't think of any. Somehow it sounds Finnish. And this is a thing, musicologists have written about this endlessly, and concert goers and music lovers have pondered this question, how does a musical language sound like it comes from a particular place? And there's just a kind of intuitive sense. People are sitting in the audience, they're listening to this work, Kullervo, and they've never heard anything like this before, and it just sounds authentically Finnish in a way that has not been previously experienced. A very exciting moment in Finnish music.
John Banther: And we can look at a particular moment in this piece, that I think we can grasp ourselves in the third movement, which we've already heard a part of actually when the chorus enters, and it's just, I mean, it just grabs you. It sounds so characteristic, and it reminds me of this, what I found, which it might be also coming from the Runic singing of Finland. I imagine for the Finnish people, they had just never heard anything like this within orchestral music. And it's... Well, he becomes a composer for the people. And like we said, he does all of this without actually using direct Finnish melodies or folk songs.
Evan Keeley: John, you and I have talked on Classical Breakdown about Florence Price and William (inaudible) and Margaret Bonds. Aaron Copeland is another composer that I could name who... These composers sound American. Now, a lot of those composers are using folk music and folk melodies, but there's also just an idiomatic expression. And for whatever reason, to an American listener like me, it just sounds American. And I think that Finnish listeners, hearing Sibelius's music for the first time, had a very similar experience, especially with Kullervo.
John Banther: I agree. So what else did he write in the 1890s, early 1900s, I guess, that are around this Finnish inspiration? Kullervo was 1892. Also, the same year he married his spouse, Aino. I know 1893, one of his also more enduring works, the Karelia Suite. And this one is very folk heavy in its sound, and it's actually based on, or inspired, I guess, by this land or this area of Finland, Karelia, that's also split in between not just Finland, but also Russia, even today.
Evan Keeley: And again, this is just something that's evoking something that's uniquely Finnish.
John Banther: Another one is The Swan of Tuonela, and this is one I wasn't so familiar with until recently, but this is so beautiful. It's haunting and it comes from a larger suite, The Lemminkäinen Suite, or Four Legends from the Kalevala. Again, that epic myth coming into play here. It's just so beautiful and haunting.
Evan Keeley: And this is kind of something somewhat similar in Greco- Roman mythology. You have this river, the river Styx that the dead have to cross. The Swan of Tuonela is evoking a similar idea about the afterlife and the souls having to make this journey. And so there's this really haunting mood to this piece that is so evocative.
John Banther: So I'm hearing this piece, which is beautiful and haunting. I'm thinking this dangerous river, the dead in Finnish religion, the good and bad are trying to cross the river to reach this land, and the Swan is just floating down the river as the suffering is happening around it. And maybe it just doesn't really care. I love it.
Evan Keeley: And it's this wonderful... We think about Sibelius, there's a kind of mythic quality, kind of gargantuan sense of these profound truths being revealed. And the Swan of Tuonela is just a wonderful example of that powerful effect that Sibelius's music has on us.
John Banther: And in 1899 probably the biggest example, everyone knows, Finlandia. And this is still so popular. We just had our classical countdown on WETA Classical where people vote for their favorite pieces, our top 100. Finlandia is always in it, and it was at 47 this year.
Evan Keeley: Right. It's one of our favorite pieces among our listeners. I've certainly always loved the piece myself. And you were mentioning to me, John, we received a listener comment that one of our listeners has a Finnish husband who says that for Finns, the hymn section in Finlandia is kind of like our God Bless America. It's like an unofficial national anthem.
John Banther: Yeah, that was so great. Rebecca V wrote that in 2021, actually. So I hope you're still listening, Rebecca. But that puts it in great context for us. Something like God Bless America or Lift Every Voice and Sing. And in fact, there are words that have been adapted for Finlandia in the hymn section, and there's often a chorus involved as well to sing it. Well, it just really elevates the whole thing too. And this is a cultural spark from Sibelius and other artists that basically set the foundation for their independence in a way which they took during the Russian Revolution in 1917. Okay. He writes these pieces, he captures the nation's attention.
He's got that lightning in a bottle. This leads him to, of course, more success, more travel, and more engagements. And unfortunately, as you see, sometimes, an unsustainable lifestyle with money, wine, and cigars. I know his spouse, she's urging him to slow down, come home, but his drinking and smoking, they're so out of control, apparently. It leads to his throat cancer diagnosis when he was 42 years old in 1907. And he had it removed from his throat in 1908 in Berlin. Evan, can you imagine getting part of your throat removed in 1908? That's a hard thing to imagine.
Evan Keeley: Well, and here he is in his forties, and he's already been smoking and drinking so much that this is what's happening to him. So you can imagine how this success that he's enjoying is maybe leading him down a path that's, as you said, not sustainable.
John Banther: And this is usually when we say, well, spoiler alert, he died in 1909, the next year, but that's not the case here. He actually lived a very long time, and it's a huge surprise to me, Evan. I can imagine in 1908, if your surgery has you going to a different country, at that time, that probably involved horses. If you're taking me to my surgery by horses, I mean, forget it. It's over, right?
Evan Keeley: Yeah, it is very harrowing to think about major cancer throat surgery in 1908. He has to go to Germany to get it, and you think, " Oh boy, this is not a good situation." And yet, clearly, it went well. And he lived, as you said, John, he lived for many more years after that.
John Banther: And it gives him a new lease on life. He's happy. His music is well received, and he does stop smoking and drinking for a bit of time. And just before the surgery, actually, he wrote and premiered his violin concerto, which is beloved today. It's amazing. But it was a disaster of a premiere. The original soloist could not do it. He got someone else. They just weren't up to it. He also took forever to actually get all the music, I think, written out, and they had no time to practice it, and it was just not well received.
Evan Keeley: Inauspicious beginning to a work that is, of course, now a staple of the concert repertoire.
John Banther: We can look to the third movement for some more folk- like ideas in the music. We hear something in the low strings, and it gives it that flavor, but it's not a superficial flavor. This isn't a one- off idea. It's not like, I don't know, when you go to different countries and have Chinese food, it's always slightly different to cater to the taste of the locale. And the people in Finland probably had not heard a concerto quite like this, with this sound, this flavor, not just being superficial, but really being through the entire piece. They probably had not heard something like that.
The opposite of this would be something we can hear from this concerto for horn, the first Cuban horn concerto actually. And the first movement is by Pepe Gavilondo, and he throws in this moment from Baroque England. It's out of nowhere, and it's gone before you know it, but it's all a nod to the player's English heritage. But this is just a great example of how you can do this in the opposite way. So that's the fun part of it. You're kind of left, " Well, what was that? What just happened right there?" That's the opposite of what Sibelius is doing.
Evan Keeley: Sibelius has a very consistent commitment to creating this kind of Finnish sound.
John Banther: And we'll get into his symphonies right after this. Classical Breakdown, your guide to classical music is made possible by WETA Classical. Join us for the music and insightful commentary anytime, day or night. You can stream the music online at wetaclassical.org or through the WETA Classical app. It's free in the app store. So let's talk symphonies for a moment, Evan, because it's really great that we have these, for a couple of reasons. Sibelius wasn't just thinking about the future of music in Finland being recreating the epic myths in music like we see in the symphonic poems so far. So we actually have two things, music that was more culturally relevant in its time and place, the symphonic poems, and we have his purely non- programmatic symphonies that we can interact with today. And it seems like there's kind of a wall in between. I'm just saying that to add a little bit of clarity here, but I feel like we have these two ideas of music in Sibelius, and it's great that we have this. There's not that many composers, I think, we have this kind of legacy or context with.
Evan Keeley: It's interesting to think too about Sibelius's symphonies, especially in the time in which you and I are now living, John, in which absolute music, music that is in no way programmatic, symphony number three, there's no story, there's no epic poem that's being evoked. It's just notes. You and I live in an age in which that's really not fashionable anymore. People like to hear concertos and symphonies, and like there to be a fancy title or some kind of a story or whatever, and that's fine. Sibelius is writing these symphonies, they are not evoking anything in particular. They are certainly drawing on a European symphonic tradition. And you can certainly hear influences. You can hear a German influence to some extent or whatever.
And yet, as we were saying earlier, John, this is very distinctly Finnish music. Sibelius, he's not writing 12 tone music like Schoenberg. He's not doing things like Stravinsky is doing. He's not an innovator in that sense, musically, as a composer. He's writing these symphonic forms, which are not radical departures from the symphonic tradition, like a four movement symphony. And yet there is something about the musical language, the orchestration, the way he develops thematic material, that is not only consistently thrilling and creates this gorgeous sound that so many concertgoers around the world love to this day, but there is something about it that is unique to his time and place, his personality, and certainly to his country.
John Banther: And the conductor, the Finnish conductor, Susanna Mälkki, she said some things in the interview that I think really they're painting the picture you are saying there. She says, " Sibelius's layered writing is challenging. You can't just beat time. You have to manage these different moving parts. Your movements have to create an illusion of precision and constant flow at the same time." She writes further, " I played Sibelius's music in orchestras for many years. I've been part of this machinery myself. We all become part of the same flow when things click. Sibelius was experimenting all the time with tempos. The only constant thing is the evolution of the meter. The change is happening all the time. That's the challenge of conducting this music. It's constantly evolving." And I think she really wraps it up beautifully here with, " You are suddenly trying to manage nature's forces. You have water, you have gravity, you have wind.
I'm saying all the cliches, but it's not bricks. We are not building with bricks. We are trying to manipulate things that are not possible to manipulate." And I love that, " We're not building with bricks." If you think of symphonies, early ones by Haydn, also early ones of Mozart, it feels like you're building with bricks. You've got all the forms of the symphony. You can practically hum the rest of a tune. Once you hear the beginning of it, you kind of know where it's going. Sibelius, it's not bricks. It's like he's almost 3D printing the music here.
Evan Keeley: That's a great analogy, John. You think, like you said, Mozart or Haydn, building with bricks, building something very beautiful with bricks. You can build a beautiful building with bricks, but you can see the clarity of the structure as you look at it. And Sibelius, there's this whole other sense of the dimensions and possibilities of filling time with sound, like Susanna Mälkki is saying, this forces of nature are being unleashed in this music.
John Banther: And Sibelius wrote seven symphonies between 1898 and 1924. An eighth, one never really materialized, and actually what may have been written might have been burned. And we'll get into that in a little bit. One of the biggest ones that's been performed, or most often until recently, is his second one. And it's one of my favorites to also play and listen to. And this is where I would point most people to first if they're just totally uninitiated with his symphonies. And what I love about his music, the symphonies especially, is that they are clearly laid out. The sound can be thick, but it's not like Wagner or Mahler, where there's things really buried deep beneath. Maybe you're looking at an iceberg and all of the deep motifs and stuff are way down deep, but we don't really have that with Sibelius. It's very clearly laid out.
The themes are very characteristic. They're hard to miss even when they're broken down and redone in some way in different movements. You can really hear what he's doing. And I think we can compare this to having a really great teacher, which we've all hopefully had at some point, a teacher that can take a really complex topic and make it really clear, understandable, relatable. And I think in recent decades it's been people like Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson. For me, Bill Nye, the Science Guy growing up, I feel like that's what Sibelius is doing in music.
Evan Keeley: Taking these immensely complex thoughts and presenting them in a way that is not only has a certain clarity, but it's compelling. You really want to hear what the next thing is going to be. It takes you on a journey that you're eager to go on. And I agree with you, John, the second symphony is a great place to start if someone is not familiar with the music of Sibelius, and the symphonies in particular. People throw around the word accessible quite a lot, but this music really speaks in a way to any different levels of musical engagement and knowledge. If you're someone with a PhD in Musicology, you can enjoy this music. If you're someone who's never heard a symphony in your whole life, you can enjoy this music from the very first bar.
John Banther: Absolutely. His third Symphony has a really interesting moment, and you can kind of play a game. Is this Sibelius or Lord of the Rings? Sibelius love walks in nature. What is more epic of a walk, Evan, than Lord of the Rings. They're walking the whole way, aren't they?
Evan Keeley: Well, you know these great film composers have studied Sibelius. There's no doubt they know they're Sibelius, and good for them. And Sibelius, of course, there's a cinematic quality to a lot of his music, even as we were saying, the program music, certainly. But even the symphonies, which don't have a storyline behind them, it's a sonic equivalent of watching a really thrilling movie. And you mentioned the third symphony, which has... It's a three movement symphony, a little bit unusual in that respect. The slow movement, the middle movement, is one of my favorite moments in Sibelius, and it has so many of the qualities we're talking about. It sounds like it could be a folk tune, but it's a wholly original thing. And yet there's this sense of timelessness about it, and it has this very clear melody that when you hear it, you're just going to walk out of the concert hall whistling this tune, which is so engaging and delightful, but it doesn't have a kind of shallow simplicity. There's a real depth to it. It's beautiful, and it just takes you on this journey that you want to go on.
John Banther: It sounds so endearing, like a song that someone would be singing in the other room while they're preparing dinner, they're peeling carrots and they're just singing this tune. And when the strings come back in later, it sounds like a chorus of Finnish people reinforcing that sound.
Evan Keeley: Yeah, or you imagine maybe a farmer walking through the fields, or a mother singing a lullaby to her baby. There's just a sense of something endearing about it that makes you want to hear more.
John Banther: Yes, exactly. Now, his sixth symphony, spoiler alert, it's also great. And we know Sibelius was a lover of nature. The Finnish landscape could be, or often was a source of inspiration for him. He once said of his sixth symphony, it always reminds me of the scent of the first snow. And this is where we take a hard left turn, Evan, into Gilmore Girls, the TV show, I don't know if you ever saw it, but this is... We just played, is it Lord of the Rings or Sibelius? This is now who said this? Lorelei Gilmore or Jean Sibelius?
Speaker 3: I smell snow.
Speaker 4: Ah. It's that time of year.
Speaker 3: Can't you smell it?
John Banther: I can just imagine Sibelius waking up at night, smelling that snow, waking up Aino, or standing on his porch with a cup of coffee in the morning, looking out at snow. I just think, Evan, if you're Finnish and you are in love with the scent of snow, you are all in on snow. You are ride or die snow if you're at that point in Finland.
Evan Keeley: Well, this is the thing about Sibelius. Even in the absolute music of his symphonies or works that don't have an explicit program, there's a sense of a story being told. And I think the Finnish people responded so powerfully to his music, both during his lifetime and since then, there's a sense of their story being told by one of their own in a very powerful way. And intellectually it's hard to... How does music evoke the scent of snow? But you hear that Sibelius quote and you say, " Yes." I mean, I listen to Sibelius. That's the experience. It's amazing.
John Banther: And I thought it was just so funny. I was reading, I thought, you smell the snow is this Lorelei, who is this? And really to paint that even more, in his biography by Eric Tauenscherne, I think is how you say his name, he wrote, " Even by Nordic standards, Sibelius responded with exceptional intensity to the moods of nature and the changes in the seasons. He scanned the skies with his binoculars for the geese flying over the lake ice, listened to the screech of the cranes and heard the cries of the curlew echo over the marshy grounds just below Inoa. He savored the spring blossoms every bit as much as he did autumnal scents and colors." I love that. I can also imagine he would have been first in line at Starbucks when the pumpkin spice comes out every year.
Evan Keeley: I wish I could remember the name of the music critic who remarked that Sibelius's music evokes a sense of spring being no less beautiful for being ice- cold.
John Banther: So as his life continues, we can look at what happened during World War I, as it affected so many composers. He realized, or found out the war was breaking out when he was returning from the United States. And like many composers, this meant he saw basically a full drop in his royalties, and he writes some music to be published in Finland to earn some money. But he also starts drinking again 10 years after his throat surgery, which is, I guess, unfortunate to hear. But he did live many more decades after this. Things improve after the war, and he has more successful works, including symphonies. But he was offered a huge position at the Eastman School of Music. George Eastman, who had a lot of money to throw around, I think, offered him possibly over $ 300,000, if my inflation calculations are correct. That was just for each year, a salary, I guess. And that was something Sibelius actually turned down.
Evan Keeley: Yeah, this was when the Eastman School of Music was founded in 1921. George Eastman, the camera guy, made a lot of money, very well- funded school at its starting, and they wanted to get this famous composer to come over from Finland and teach for, I think, they offered him 20 grand, which I think you're right, John, about it. That's about $300, 000 in our is a lot of money. And he turned it down. Obviously very tempting offer, but Sibelius clearly had a sense of what he wanted to do with his life. And coming to upstate New York and teaching music clearly wasn't part of that plan.
John Banther: No. And this is where the story can actually take an unexpected turn for people not familiar with his life, because you might be thinking, " Wow, this is so great. What's next?" The answer is, " Well, not much." In 1926, when he's 61 years old, he essentially retires from composing. He even avoids talking about his music publicly for the next three decades of his life. I wonder if he did not even expect he would live another 30 years, Evan. If you're 61 in 1926, do you think you're going to live to 91?
Evan Keeley: It is somewhat similar to what Giacchino Rossini had done in the 19th century. This spectacularly successful career, and his last opera, William Tell, he's, I think, in his forties at that point. And then he just stopped. He wrote a few things after that late in life. But he just, like " I have said what I have to say." That seems to be what Sibelius did, that musicologists like to call this The Silence of Yerpenva, which refers to his home in Inola. He just stops. And there's a lot of speculation about what this means. And one way to look at it is that he had said what he had wanted to say as a composer, and he was done. And then he goes on, lives for another 30 years, writes maybe a little bit more music, much of which has been lost. He burned it apparently. Why did he do that? It's a fascinating thing to think about.
John Banther: And one of his last works was in 1926 called Tapiola, which had some poetry with it. " Widespread they stand, the Northland's dusky forests, ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams. Within them dwells the forest's mighty God and wood sprites and the gloom weave magic secrets." So from the beginning all the way to the end, still evoking this Finnish spirit in his music.
Evan Keeley: Tapiola, and these words that you're reading, John, apparently Sibelius himself wrote this epigram to describe this piece.
John Banther: I also read that, I guess, after his seventh symphony, he said, " If I can't come up with something as good or better than this, I'm done. I'm out." And I guess that's when he kind of realized, " Well, maybe I said what I needed to say." So he lives long enough to experience World War II after this. But preceding it in 1935, he was awarded the Goethe Medal by the Nazi government. And it was actually, I guess, signed by Hitler. And research on this has been divided or in terms of what should be done today. Some say it's been debated enough and settled. Some say it hasn't. There's actually more to be learned and understood here. And I think from what I understand, Finland had just become independent two decades earlier. They weren't aiming to be an ally, but rather a " co- belligerent" after the Third Reich declared war against the Soviet Union. So there's a lot probably there that we still don't know. So hopefully there will be more research into that whole aspect.
Evan Keeley: Yeah, it's unsettling to think that Sibelius was willing to accept an award that was signed by one of history's greatest monsters. I don't think Sibelius was a Nazi or a Nazi sympathizer. He certainly had a strong animosity toward Russia and the Soviet Union. So maybe it was a case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. It's not clear why he accepted this award or how he felt about it. And it is a disturbing thing to think about. And as you said, John, I think we really need to keep looking at that with some serious inquiry.
John Banther: And shortly after this, sometime in the 1940s, we don't know exactly when, but Sibelius got a basket, put some music in it, went to the stove, lit a fire, and started just tossing music in. And I think it was his spouse, Aino, recalling, recounting later in life that early music from the Karelia Suite was actually also burned as well. And she just had to leave. She could not stick around in the house while he was doing that. But I guess he also seemed a little bit calmer after this. Maybe it was cathartic.
Evan Keeley: Johannes Brahms, I think, has a somewhat similar history. There's a story of him throwing music in a river. We know he wrote a lot more music than we've actually seen. He destroyed a great many of his manuscripts. And here's Sibelius doing something like that. And for musicologists, it's unbearable anguish. Even if those things had just been left lying around in a trunk somewhere, if we could look at them and get further insight into his creative processes, and the things that he abandoned, or things that he thought weren't good enough. But he didn't want us to see that. And that was his choice. It was his music. And yet, you can imagine maybe that would come with some feeling of serenity to be able to let those things go and literally burn them up.
John Banther: And during World War Two, they were, I think, in Helsinki for like two years, they moved back to the countryside. And in 1957, at the age of 91, Sibelius would die. And his wife, Aino, she lived another 12 years, to the age of 97. Very long lives and decades separated from when he was composing and premiering music.
Evan Keeley: And of course, their lives Jean, and I know Sibelius lived through such an extraordinary time in Finnish history and world history, and they were such an important part of the history of their country.
John Banther: So what is going on with Sibelius and Finland today? I think they've done a good job at navigating musical life post Sibelius. Yes. He was so influential. He was a cultural spark. He was there when he was independent. He ignited this Finnish pride. He was even on the money. But as the conductor Susanna Mälkki says, " It's not a national mandate for them to worship Sibelius." So they're not lifting up him up to a deity status. And actually since then, since Sibelius, this country with, I mean, it was like two and a half million people in his time, it's like 5 million people now. That's less than the DC metro area. And they have put out an almost unbalanced amount of remarkable composers, conductors, and musicians. From this place of just 5 million, there is a whole variety of styles and things coming out, and it's like they've embraced Sibelius, but they're embracing the moment, what's now and what's next.
Evan Keeley: Right. Sibelius, of course, will always be an important person in Finnish culture and especially in Finnish music. But he was a very important person in sparking this astounding creativity, which as you said, out of this very small country, John, think of the composers and conductors and performers that have enriched the whole world.
John Banther: So that's Jean Sibelius, a composer who really became the voice of a nation, someone who was there right at the intersection of so many things happening in his own country. And I think I've gained a better understanding of his music myself. And we're going to put some great performances also on the show notes page. So thank you so much, Evan, for joining me for all things Jean Sibelius.
Evan Keeley: Thank you, John. He was definitely in the right place at the right time, and Finland was in the right place at the right time for him. And think of how he's enriched the whole world with this voice, which is distinctly part of his time and place, and yet can speak to all of us.
John Banther: Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown, your guide to classical music. For more information on this episode, visit the show notes page at classicalbreakdown. org. You can send me comments and episode ideas to classicalbreakdown@ weta. org. And if you enjoyed this episode, please leave a review in your podcast app. I'm John Banther. Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown from WETA Classical.