Jean Sibelius


Romantic/20th Century

Sibelius was from Finland and loved his country – its space, bleak mountains, endless lakes and snow-covered fields. In winter, Finland is cold and dark for most of the day; in summer, daylight lasts for most of the night. Somehow this striking difference of light and dark, warmth and coldness is in Sibelius’s music. There is a dark, icy beauty at times, and a great warm energy at other times.

Sibelius’s father died when Sibelius was little. It was his Uncle Pehr who encouraged his music and bought him a violin when he was 10. For a while, Sibelius wanted to make a career as a solo violinist. He married a Finnish woman called Aino; they had six daughters and lived in ‘Ainola’, a house that Sibelius had designed and built by a lake, north of Helsinki. But Sibelius travelled: having become a famous composer, there were many concerts to attend and people to meet in other places, such as Berlin, New York, and of course Helsinki itself.

Sibelius wrote seven symphonies. Each one has a character and feel of its own, and yet you can hear the ‘voice’ of Sibelius in them all: there is a sweeping, refreshing feel to them – as if they are breathing the open landscape of Finland. He composed tone poems (or symphonic poems) – descriptive pieces for orchestra, based on Finnish folk tales and fairy stories. He also wrote a brilliant Violin Concerto, as well as piano pieces and songs.

Many composers’ works present different, contrasting musical themes and play about with them. In Sibelius’s music, small fragments simply come out of silence and then keep developing. His works grow like living things. This makes his music very powerful.

Sibelius lived to be 91. Finland loved him and put his face onto Finnish banknotes. He was a national hero. His music became popular, especially in Britain and America. But in his last 30 years he hardly wrote anything. He had already used so much energy and developed so many ideas: when he had nothing to say, he was silent.

Jean Sibelius, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

The sound of Sibelius can be found here…

Finlandia, Op. 26

Finlandia was written at a time Finland was under Russian domination. The strong, rousing, positive music helped people to feel that freedom would come. It established Sibelius’s fame, and is still one of his most popular works.

Performers: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; Pietari Inkinen

Taken from Naxos 8.572705

Karelia Suite, Op. 11

The Karelia Suite was written for a student production about the history of Karelia (a place where Sibelius and his wife spent their honeymoon). This movement depicts a battle around Käkisalmi Castle. A carefree tune alternates with more muscular music, and they seem to come together at the end.

Performers: Iceland Symphony Orchestra; Petri Sakari

Taken from Naxos 8.552135-36

Lemminkäinen Suite: III. The Swan of Tuonela

On the black waters of Tuonela, the Dead Land, the swan glides, singing, the bird that Lemminkäinen planned to shoot with his crossbow. Based on a legend, this piece is known for the cor anglais solo which you can hear clearly at 3.12.

Performers: Iceland Symphony Orchestra; Petri Sakari

Taken from Naxos 8.554265

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Sibelius was inspired to write music by which Finnish epic?

a. The Epic of Gilgamesh
b. The Ring
c. The Kalevala

 For which instrument did Sibelius write one of the most popular solo concertos?

a. Piano
b. Violin
c. Cello

 Which language did Sibelius know before Finnish?

a. Danish
b. Swedish
c. Norwegian

 How many symphonies did Sibelius write?

a. 7
b. 9
c. 11

 What did Sibelius write in his last 30 years?

a. His Ninth Symphony
b. Lots of film music
c. Very little

Key Facts...

Key Facts…
  1. Sibelius loved Finland, yet many of his songs are in Swedish because, for a long time, Finland was ruled by Sweden, and Swedish was often spoken by the upper classes. Swedish was Sibelius’s mother-tongue.
  2. Before he became a composer, Sibelius wanted to be a solo violinist. He said: ‘I hated pen and ink – unfortunately I preferred an elegant violin bow.’
  3. The Finns were so proud of Sibelius that their government gave him a pension for life when he was only 33!
  4. The Finnish national epic poem Kalevela (compiled from Finnish folklore and mythology) inspired some of Sibelius’s music, such as the Lemminkäinen Suite.
  5. Sibelius chain-smoked big cigars and drank a lot: he got throat cancer but, after a successful operation when he was 42, he lived till he was 91.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!


Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43

Sibelius’s second symphony is popular because it is so rich in melody and vitality. Sibelius said, ‘My second symphony is a confession of the soul’. Its grandiose finale made it popular with Finnish nationalists. It is a great work, its quality on the same level as symphonies by Beethoven and Brahms. The opening is so memorable – like waves rolling in and back. There are great surges of energy in the symphony. Even the slow movement (track 2) is waiting to thunder forward, building around 3.00 into a big drama. But there are times when the music lets you sink into something soft – 1.38 in track 3, for example, after the music has been very lively, and before taking off again at 3.03. The third movement bursts non-stop into the fourth (track 4). The whole symphony is breathtaking.

Performers: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; Pietari Inkinen

Taken from Naxos 8.572704

Symphony No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 82

In the haze of early spring sunshine, swans circled above Sibelius’s head. They made him think of the ‘swan theme’. This theme is what the brass instruments play in the third (final) movement of this amazing symphony. Whoever said that sitting around in the sun was a waste of time?! The work begins with horns, who are answered by flutes, gently setting the scene. But things start to tense up, and by the time the timpani say hello at 2.20 we can tell that there will be drama in this musical story. It is the third movement (track 3) that is most famous. Violas first, then all strings, have a ‘tremolo’ (‘trembling’) melody, and everything gets bigger… The brass instruments begin to emerge through it all at 1.12 with the ‘swan theme’, which gets going properly at 1.16. Sit back, close your eyes, and imagine the swans going round… and round…

Performers: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; Pietari Inkinen

Taken from Naxos 8.572227

Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105

After this Seventh Symphony, Sibelius wrote little music. He did try to write another symphony, but he was determined that anything new had to be better than what came before – and he felt he couldn’t better this symphony! In a single 20-minute movement, it is completely original in style. It seems to grow like a force of nature. Sibelius himself conducted the first performance in Stockholm in March 1924.

Performers: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; Pietari Inkinen

Taken from Naxos 8.572705

Tone Poems

En Saga, Op. 9

‘En Saga’ – which is Swedish – might be translated as ‘a fairy tale’. Sibelius’s work is a dark tone-poem (a descriptive piece for orchestra), inspired partly by medieval Icelandic texts. There is no story; it expresses the composer’s state of mind, which at the time was quite troubled. Near the end, we hear a long and plaintive solo from a clarinet. There is an atmospheric sadness in the work. That might mean we don’t want to hear it – who wants to be sad? – but, like sad songs, music that is melancholy can be rather comforting to listen to.

Performers: Iceland Symphony Orchestra; Petri Sakari

Taken from Naxos 8.555299

Lemminkäinen Suite, Op. 22

These four tone-poems are based on the Kalevala – an important collection of Finnish epic poetry compiled from folklore and mythology. In the first, Lemminkäinen, the hero, flees an island where he has charmed the maidens. The second sees him in the land of the dead. ‘The Swan of Tuonela’, the third, is one of Sibelius’s most famous works and describes a mythical swan. In the fourth, the hero returns home.

Performers: Dadi Kolbeinsson, cor anglais; Richard Tchaikovsky, cello; Iceland Symphony Orchestra; Petri Sakari

Taken from Naxos 8.554265

Tapiola, Op. 112

Tapiola (meaning ‘the realm of Tapio’) was Sibelius’s last major work – even though it was 1926 and he lived for another 30 years. Tapio was a forest spirit, who is mentioned a lot in the Kalevala. Beginning with a little timpani roll, the orchestra comes in with a serious theme… and gets more serious. The string instruments play thick and rather sinister chords. The landscape of forest, water and rocks is impressive but scary – you might look at it in wonder but you wouldn’t want to get stuck in the middle of it!

Performers: Iceland Symphony Orchestra; Petri Sakari

Taken from Naxos 8.555299

Other Works

Karelia Suite, Op. 11

The Karelia Suite is one of Sibelius’s most popular pieces – especially the third movement ‘Alla marcia’ (‘in the style of a march’), already featured at the top of this page. The work was written for a student production about the history of Karelia, a place where Sibelius and his wife spent their honeymoon. Sibelius meant it to be simple and folk-like, and it is. The Intermezzo (track 1) is a jaunty march-like beginning: the brass instruments are given a nice punchy tune! The Ballade (track 2) is supposed to reflect the mood of a 15th-century Swedish king in his castle, remembering his past. Track 3 depicts a battle around Käkisalmi Castle, but rather than being too war-like it is full of joy and triumph.

Performers: Iceland Symphony Orchestra; Petri Sakari

Taken from Naxos 8.554265

Finlandia Hymn

Sibelius wrote many songs. This is a noble song of praise for Finland’s greatness, using the music of his patriotic Finlandia. It is one of the most important national songs of Finland.

Performers: Hannu Jurmu, tenor; Jouni Somero, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.570020

Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47

Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, which he wrote in 1903, is a passionate masterpiece. The first performance was a disaster since the poor violinist couldn’t play what is a very difficult work. It didn’t help that Sibelius only just finished writing it in time for the concert, so the violinist didn’t get much time to practise. After that, Sibelius shortened and slightly simplified it – though it’s still a challenge for the soloist! There are some real violin gymnastics here – the violinist has to be really good to play them. Listen to the third movement (track 3): the violin starts with a lively theme, and before long is going crazy with it! See if you can spot the ‘double-stopping’, where the violinist has to play more than one note at the same time (0.40–0.42, for example, or 0.44–0.46). Just imagine: in a concert, a violinist will usually play the entire work from memory – what an achievement for the human brain! It has become one of the best-loved violin concertos.

Performers: Henning Kraggerud, violin; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Bjarte Engeset

Taken from Naxos 8.557266