Rather than “sophisticated musical cocktails,” Swedish-speaking Jean Sibelius, who became a Finnish national hero, composed works that offered “pure, cold water.”

Johan Christian Julius Sibelius was born into a Swedish-speaking doctor’s family on December 8, 1865 in Hämeenlinna, a garrison town in the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland. Following the example of his uncle, he called himself Jean. After studies in Helsinki (1885-88), Berlin (1889), and Vienna (1890-91), he composed Kullervo, his symphony for orchestra, male choir, soprano, and baritone, making him a national figurehead, a role that would become a burden to him. The 50-year-old did not wish to be a “national composer” and felt that his real achievement was overlooked: “For most people, you’ll remain an apparition from the woods.” This sigh of self-irony taken from his diary is often misused as a catchphrase for articles. His seven symphonies, violin concerto, tone poems (En saga, Finlandia, Tapiola), and string quartet Voces intimae are among the most frequently performed works, and not only of the 20th century. Sibelius died on September 20, 1957 in Järvenpää, near Helsinki.

Like Schoenberg and Debussy, he recognized the technical problems facing composers at the time, but tackled them in such an individual way that even Finnish listeners think they hear something “typically Finnish” in his music, which has hardly any national stylistic features. In his biography of Sibelius, Volker Tarnow writes: “At some point people are going to find out that the true avant-garde, the music of the future, began with him.”

© Peter Kislinger, ORF - Radio Österreich 1


  • Piano lessons from an early age; begins the violin at 14; wants to become a violinist. First attempts at composition at the age of 9 or 14.

  • 1888 meets 17-year-old Aino Järnefelt; 1892 marriage, which produces six daughters.

  • January 1891 Sibelius fails the violin audition at the Vienna Court Opera.

  • 1900 Paris Exhibition: breakthrough when the Helsinki City Orchestra tours 18 European cities (First Symphony, Finlandia; The Swan of Tuonela).

  • 1914-18 no income from Germany, Britain, and the United States; financial ruin. 1914-1919 three versions of the Fifth Symphony.

  • Stockholm 1926: premiere of Tapiola; the last time he conducts outside of Finland.

  • 1935 70th birthday; international honors, including the Goethe Medal from Nazi Germany; the certificate is signed by Adolf Hitler.

  • 1944-45 burns the score of his Eight Symphony; the reasons? Genetically-inherited tremor of the right hand; cataracts; no financial pressure after the introduction of copyright law.

  • After 1945 Ainola, the Sibelius family house, becomes a pilgrimage site for international conductors and composers.

  • 1969 Aino Sibelius dies on June 8.

Did you know?

  • Sees himself as an outsider: geographically, linguistically, in his family (his father dies early), and socially (Swedish-speaking small-town intelligentsia).

  • De jure subject of the Czar until 1917 (year of Finnish independence).

  • Supports the liberal young Fennoman independence movement; hates the Swedish-speaking upper middle class and republican lifestyle.

  • Having perfect pitch, he is habituated to his parents’ square piano, which is tuned too low. After acquiring a new, correctly-tuned piano in 1880, he develops an aversion to the instrument, and turns to the violin.

  • His diaries and letters include: 90,000 Swedish, 353 German, 271 Latin, 260 French, 61 Finnish, and 4 Russian words.

  • 1892-97 at Helsinki’s hotel-restaurant Kämp, joins artist friends in debating about “life and art”; day- and nightlong drinking; a severe trial for the marriage.

  • 1900 the Sibelius family’s youngest daughter (at the time) dies of typhoid fever. Aino: severe depression; Jean begins drinking even more heavily; Aino threatens with divorce.

  • 1903 waives the rights for Valse triste; with this composition, which becomes world famous, the family’s financial worries would have been eliminated early on.

  • When hiking in the woods and travelling by boat, he is never without his hat, tailor-made suit and shoes; in Finland, never travels farther than 400 km northeast of Helsinki.

  • Synesthetic: he hears wind, the overtones of a rye field, water, flight formations, the flapping of wings, crane calls, blocks of stone, and colors as music.

  • The moment he dies, Finnish radio is coincidentally broadcasting a concert from Helsinki of his Fifth Symphony.



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Northern Composers

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Jean Sibelius