Jean Sibelius 1913

Being a Finn, I grew up knowing the name Sibelius. He is best remembered for the soul stirring patriotic piece, Finlandia. That is my abiding memory of his music from a very young age. It continues to evoke strong feelings in me. Finlandia was performed  in November 1899.  Sibelius himself thought of it primarily as an orchestral piece. However, it came to be a world favourite for  choirs, especially so as a hymn. He finally relented under pressure and agreed to words for the hymn in 1937 and again in 1940. It has since become Finland’s unofficial national anthem.

So highly regarded was his work, that by 1898  the Finnish government was paying him an annual grant to ease any financial burden that may prevent him composing. He and and his wife Aino built a country home in Järvenpää. This is where he lived most of his life and wrote most of his music in the silence and solitude of the environment and his home. Sibelius  (1865–1957)  lies buried there next to his wife who went on to live another 12 years after his death.

Aino Sibelius

They lived most of their 65 years of married life at their home Ainola near Lake Tuusula, Järvenpää, Finland. They had six daughters: Eva, Ruth, Kirsti, Katarina, Margareta and Heidi.

Sibelius’ first love was the violin. However, he was not good enough himself to play it professionally. The one piece he would have loved to play was his Violin Concerto. However, his performance technique was not good enough to keep pace with his own compositional genius.  To this day it remains one of the greatest violin concertos written. Ida Haendel, a violinist,  received a letter of appreciation from Sibelius when he heard her performance of the work.

Some say he heard music in colour. Later in life, when he stopped composing, he said he was writing music in his head. For the last thirty years of his life he wrote no new compositions, having written seven symphonies, a violin concerto and thirteen symphonic tone poems and assorted other pieces of work. The tone poems, however, span the whole of his artistic career from 1892 to 1925. It is these in particular that showcase his fascination with nature and Finnish mythology, in particular the national epic Kalevala.

He described his symphonies as ‘confessions of faith’. They were compressed to the point of ultimate silence.  “Never write an unnecessary note,” he proclaimed. “Every note must live.” Most were written in Ainola. He loved to walk on tracks in the woods wearing a Parisian tailored white suit, a wide-brimmed hat, brandishing his cane and smoking a Cuban cigar. When composing, he demanded absolute silence. It must have been difficult for a family of six children to maintain that silence. None of them were allowed to practice their musical instruments if he was composing. Sibelius often composed,while they slept, with his ‘most faithful companion’ – a bottle of whisky – by his side. The sound of running water was muted with downpipes and gutters made of wood. Water for household use and cooking was brought in from the outside well. The view of Lake Tuusula was not be obstructed by trees. It inspired him. No trees were permitted to obscure his view of it.

There is a great deal of speculation about his lack of composing in the latter decades of his life. And a hope that somewhere the elusive Eighth Symphony lies hidden, yet to be discovered, even though he had burnt the manuscript in 1945. He said he was continuing to work on it ‘in his head’.

Some believe that excessive consumption of alcohol stifled his composing. He also suffered from a crippling self-criticism. His home, now a national museum, is filled with gifts, honorary doctorates and awards.

As his international fame spread, visitors would turn up unannounced –  journalists, conductors, musicians, artists, writers, photographers and autograph hunters, publishers and agents with proposals. On one occasion, in 1955, Eugene Ormandy and the entire Philadelphia Orchestra dropped by. Meanwhile, together with textiles, silks, Japanese dolls, dried flowers, sweets, alcohol, books and an entire record cabinet from Philips , boxes of the finest Havana cigars arrived annually from the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture. When these were all smoked, Sibelius could always rely on the occasional delivery of cigars from VIP admirers like Dwight Eisenhower and John D Rockefeller.

By the late 1930s, Ainola had become a de facto Finnish embassy of the most luxurious kind. When he was not posing for sculptors and photographers or receiving the latest round of dignitaries, much of Sibelius’ time was devoted to answering correspondence and responding to requests. Rather than composing, his days were spent managing the consequences of his fame. Lavish state banquets, concerts and cultural events marked his 60th, 70th, 80thand 90th birthdays. Ainola was flooded with gifts and flowers. Telegrams arrived from all over the world. Sibelius had become a living monument. No longer was able to create he dutifully managed his fame. Sometimes, when it all got too much he would place a sign at the front gate: “Professor Sibelius is not available.”

It really is not surprising, given the pressure of managing his fame, that he did not have time to devote to composing. After all, he needed absolute silence in order to do so. Maybe he was content with the compositions in his head.

Sibelius is recognised as Finland’s greatest composer. It is through his music that he is credited with Finland developing a national identity during the struggle for independence from Russia. I never cease to be amazed at how often his music is played on the national FM classical radio station here in Australia. Without fail, every time I listen (which is whenever I drive the car)  one of his works is played.


In 1967 The Sibelius Monument was dedicated to Jean Sibelius. The monument is located at the Sibelius Park in the district of Töölö in Helsinki, the capital city of Finland. It is visually as stunning as the composer’s music sounds.   It was designed by Eila Hiltunen. It consists of series of more than 600 hollow steel pipes welded together in a wave-like pattern. The purpose of the artist was to capture the essence of the music of Sibelius. The monument weighs 24 tons and measures 8.5 × 10.5 × 6.5 meters.


© Raili Tanska

References / Images  – Wikipedia

Swedish Finnish Historical Society

18 thoughts on “Sibelius

  1. Thank you for this biographical information about Sibelius. I am familiar with his music but not his life. What a responsibility to be considered the unofficial father of a country. He sounds a lot like Verdi whose music has been said to inspire the unification of Italy. Verdi lived a long time and composed until his death.

  2. Very interesting. I do believe we can “receive information” from somewhere. Thanks for sharing. I’m recalling some of my own stories. Hope you check it out.

  3. Sibelius is, for my money, the greatest composers of symphonies in the twentieth century. His reputation will only grow with time – you should take such cultural and national pride in him because he is no distinctively Finnish. Great post to celebrate a great musician.

  4. “Be Still My Soul” (to Finlandia) is one of the hymns to be sung at my funeral. (Not being freaky. We’ve had our arrangements made for years. 🙂 ) It’s one of my favorite hymns. It was also the favorite hymn of Eric Liddell who refused to run in the Olympics on Sundays (Chariots of Fire). Wonderful post, Raili!

    1. Thanks Calen. It’s not freaky to prepare. That way you’ll get what you want and saves relatives the headache of making decisions when overwrought with grief! Good choice – love it 🙂

  5. It was interesting to learn a little more about Sibelius. I had only the sketchiest knowledge of his biography before your post, although I had of course heard his music. I think the detail that most struck me was that he wasn’t a good enough violinist to play his own work in a concert. That must have been so frustrating for him.

  6. You’ve captured the life and greatness of Sibelius so well, Raili. The quote below pretty much sums it up for me.
    “We can say that Jean Sibelius is one of the most brilliant tone poets of the present time. Among the composers living today there is probably only one – Richard Strauss – who is wholly qualified to be mentioned alongside Jean Sibelius.”
    Erik Furuhjelm 1916

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