Finlandia, op. 26

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            The compositions of Jean Sibelius constitute a case study in the capriciousness of musical taste and the power of the artistic avant-garde.  Pigeonholed by many as primarily a Finnish nationalist, whose dark, remote music was a shallow representative of Romanticism’s last gasp, Sibelius was nevertheless deemed the champion of American and British conservative musical tastes between the world wars.   Typical was Olin Downes, music critic of the Times, whose relentless public support of Sibelius bordered on sycophancy. Likewise, Koussevitsky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, programmed a cycle of Sibelius’s symphonies, and dogged the composer to finish the eighth—which he never did.   But, those who favored the avant-garde of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and company—and that included most of continental Europe and American intellectuals—were scathing in their contempt.  One respected and well-known critic entitled an essay about Sibelius,  “The Worst Composer in the World.”   These controversies, and Sibelius’s life-long struggle with alcoholism and depression no doubt played a signal part in his composing nothing of significance from the nineteen thirties until his death in 1957 at the age of 91.

            But today Sibelius enjoys a respect, while not approaching the heights of pre-World War II times, that seems to secure his reputation.  While he was a prolific composer, and his symphonies enjoy frequent performance, none of his works achieved the popularity of Finlandia.  Finland had for centuries languished under the rule of Sweden, and then in the early nineteenth century fell under the control of Russia, becoming by the end of the century a grand duchy of the Russian Empire.   After tightening control of Finland by Russia in 1898, the Finns were distinctly unhappy.   Surging nationalism manifested itself in variety of ways, including a patriotic melodrama given in 1899 in Helsinki, ostensibly to raise money for a newspaper pension fund.  Sibelius contributed incidental music to this enterprise, the last tableau of which was entitled Suomi Herää (Finland Awakens).  He reworked the piece into a symphonic tone poem the next year, and renamed it Finlandia.  It opens with ominous brass chords, moves on into a tumultuous faster section that seems to parallel a growing national sense of strength, and ends triumphantly with a powerful chorale (heard earlier, in a soft aura of confidence).  The chorale has entered the realm of popular church music under the title, “Be Still My Soul,” but it stands alone as the most affirmative statement of the confidence and independence of the Finnish people.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan