Childhood & Early Life
Jean Sibelius was born on 8 December 1865 in the small garrison town of Hämeenlinna, then under the Grand Duchy of Finland. His birth name was Johan Julius Christian Sibelius; but at home, he was called Janne, which he later changed to Jean and thus became known as Jean Sibelius.
His father, Christian Gustaf Sibelius, was a Swedish-speaking military doctor. His mother was Maria Charlotta Sibelius née Borg. Janne was born second of his parents’ three children, having an elder sister named Linda and a younger brother, Christian.
Christian Gustaf was of bohemian nature and therefore, when he suddenly died from typhoid in July 1868, he left nothing but unpaid bills. His mother, then pregnant with their third child, sold their home and moved in with her own widowed mother, Katarina Borg, who also lived in Hämeenlinna.
Thus from childhood, Janne was brought up mostly in female company with only an uncle, Pehr Ferdinand Sibelius, providing him with some male influence. Pehr later became a father figure to him and also his music advisor.
Pehr, who also played the violin, was quick to recognize the young boy’s aptitude for music and encouraged him in this. As Janne turned seven, he had ‘Aunt Julia’ brought in as his piano teacher.
She must have been a strict teacher for whenever he made a mistake, he would receive a rapping on the knuckle and to avoid that, he started improvising. Nonetheless, very soon he learned to read music.
In 1874, Janne started his formal education at Lucina Hagman's Finnish-speaking preparatory school. In the following year, as he turned ten, he received a violin from uncle Pehr. However, he did not have any formal training in the instrument until he was fifteen.
In 1876, Janne was admitted to Hämeenlinnan normaalilyseo, a newly founded Finnish language grammar school. However, he did not seem to enjoy schooling and despite doing quite well in mathematics and botany, he was found to be absentminded.
At the same time, it was at this school that he was first introduced to Finnish literature and came in contact with the Finnish mythological epic, Kalevala. Until his death, the epic remained a constant source of inspiration for him.
At home, the three siblings often participated in trios with Janne playing the violin, Linda, the piano, and Christian, the cello. Encouraged by uncle Pehr, Janne also started writing music and from 1880 to 1885, produced some fifteen compositions for two to four players.
His earliest recorded composition dates back to 1881, when he wrote on paper Vesipisaroita viululle ja sellolle ('Vättendroppar; Waterdrops for violin and cello'). Although it might have been just a musical exercise, it demonstrates his early know-how on classical composition.
Also in 1881, he started taking violin lessons from the local bandmaster, Gustaf Levander. Very soon, he became an accomplished player and set his heart on becoming a great violin virtuoso.
Another important influence during his childhood was his summer trip to Loviisa. It was here that he learned to appreciate nature and enjoy freedom. It was also the place where a future symphonic poet was born.
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Making of a Composer
In the autumn of 1885, after passing his school leaving examination, Janne Sibelius enrolled at the Imperial Alexander University in Finland, today known as the University of Helsinki, to study law. Concurrently, he also enrolled at the Helsinki Music Institute, now the Sibelius Academy, to study music.
Initially, he tried to pay equal attention to law and music, but soon started neglecting the former. In the autumn of 1886, despite his family’s opposition, he abandoned law to concentrate fully on music.
At the Music Institute, studying under the Institute’s director Martin Wegelius, he had his first formal lesson in composition. Although violin playing still remained his life’s ambition, he soon realized that he had started late on the violin and therefore concentrated on composition.
Thereafter, under the direction of Martin Wegelius, he began to compose chamber and instrumental music. During this period, he is said to have composed more than one hundred pieces, among which, the ‘Violin Sonata in F’ and ‘String Quartet in A minor’ are two of his most significant works.
Apart from Wegelius, his piano teacher, Ferruccio Busoni, with whom he developed a lifelong friendship, also influenced him greatly. Sometime during this period, inspired by one of his long departed seafaring uncles, he changed his name to French-sounding Jean. That it sounded more professional was another reason for it.
Jean Sibelius studied at the Helsinki Music Institute till 1889. Thereafter in the same year, on the advice of Wegelius, who wanted his student to receive strict German training, he moved to Berlin and began to study counterpoint with Albert Becker.
Here for the first time, he had the opportunity to attend a variety of concerts and operas. Among them, Finnish composer Robert Kajanus conducting his symphonic poem ‘Aino’ influenced him most. It is said to have inspired Sibelius to use the epic poem ‘Kalevala’ as a basis for his composition later in life.
In 1890, after studying with Becker for one year, Sibelius moved to Vienna. Here he studied with composers Robert Fuchs and Karl Goldmark. Fuchs taught him Hugo Wolf and Gustav Mahler while from Goldmark he learned to handle orchestra.
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So far Jean Sibelius had mainly concentrated on chamber music composition. Now under Goldmark’s guidance, he began to work on orchestra and composed ‘Overture in E major’ and the ‘Scène de ballet.’
This was also the time, when he started being aware of his Finnish identity and almost immersed himself in the study of ‘Kalevala.’ It led to the composition of ‘Kullervo Symphony’, a work he started in Vienna, but finished in Helsinki.
Jean Sibelius returned to Finland in the summer of 1891. Here he continued working with ‘Kullervo’, which was premiered on 28 April 1892 in Helsinki with resounding success, and with it Sibelius became a well-known name in Finland. However, his struggles did not end there.
In 1892, to meet his expenses, he was forced to take teaching assignments at two different institutes. This left him with very little time for composing. Yet, he continued to work and on 16 February 1893, he had his first version of ‘En Saga’ presented in Helsinki.
Because it was too long, it was not as well-received as had been expected. Then in March, he had three more performances of the ‘Kullervo Symphony’, but they too failed to be appreciated.
Success came finally in April 1893 with the premiere of his choral work ‘Väinämöinen's ‘Boat-ride’. ’Vårsång’, composed in 1894, is another of his well-known works of this period. Slowly, he began to gain acceptance as a leading composer in Finland.
In 1894-1895, his works like ‘En saga’, ‘Karelia’ and ‘Vårsång’ were part of at least 16 concerts in Helsinki. His 1895 work, ‘The Lemminkäinen Suite’, also called ‘Four Legends from the Kalevala,’ earned him considerable fame. Yet, financial problems kept on troubling him.
Respite came when in 1898 he was awarded a substantial annual pension by the Finnish Senate. Initially, it was granted for ten years, but later was extended for life. The financial security enabled him to complete the music for Adolf Paul's play ‘King Christian II,’ performed on 24 February 1898.
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Becoming a National Hero
At that time, the Grand Duchy of Finland was an autonomous unit under the Russian Empire. On 15 February 1899, Emperor Nicholas II started a campaign on ‘Russification of Finland’, aiming to terminate the political autonomy and cultural uniqueness of the region. The people of Finland were naturally agitated by it.
Meanwhile in 1898, Sibelius had started writing ‘Symphony No. 1 in E minor’, which he finished it in early 1899. When it was premiered on 26 April 1899 by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, it was well-received by all.
Along with the ‘Symphony’, the program also premiered his ‘Song of the Athenians’ for boys and male choirs. It was a blatantly patriotic piece and more compelling than any other. The nation, already charged with patriotism, made him a national hero.
‘Finlandia’ written in 1899 as a covert protest against increasing Russian censorship was another of his cherished works. Premiered on 2 July 1900 in Helsinki, it was actually one of the seven pieces that accompanied a tableau that depicted parts of Finnish history.
His ‘Second Symphony’, premiered in Helsinki on 8 March 1902 was also hailed with tremendous enthusiasm and marked as an absolute masterpiece. Written at a time when the Finnish language and culture was under threat, it was popularly dubbed as ‘Symphony of Independence.’
Meanwhile, in the spring of 1900, Sibelius, along with Kajanus, went on a tour of thirteen European cities, where he presented his recent works. Everywhere, his work was highly appreciated, making him internationally famous.
Returning home, he started working on a new shorter version of ‘En Saga.’ The work, premiered in Berlin in November 1902, firmly established his reputation in Germany.
Subsequently, from 1903, he began to spend more time at Helsinki, while his family lived in the country. Alone in the city, he began to indulge in excessive wining and dining, running huge bills at restaurants, a trait he might have inherited from his father.
Nonetheless, he continued working, composing a number of master pieces and conducting operas and concerts. In 1907, he moved away from the romantic intensity which marked his earlier works, to write ’Symphony No 3 in C Major’ and with that began a new chapter in his creative life.
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Meanwhile, his drinking and smoking had not only become life threatening for him, but also had such a disastrous effect on his wife’s health that she had to be hospitalized. He then promised to give up these vices. In 1908, he also had to undergo a throat operation to remove a tumor.
However, the situation improved by 1909. That year he toured Great Britain, where his concerts were received with enthusiasm. Thereafter, he wrote a number of pieces, including the ‘Fourth Symphony’ (1910) and ‘The Bard’ (1913) and went on musical tours to Sweden, France, USA and Germany.
First World War & Thereafter
As the First World War set in, his royalties from abroad were stopped. Jean Sibelius was now forced to write smaller pieces for publication in Finland in order to make ends meet.
The ‘Fifth Symphony’, which the Finnish Government commissioned him to write in the honor of his own 50th birthday, was the most significant work of this period. Originally composed in 1915, the piece was revised first in 1916 and then again in 1919.
Two other significant works of this period were ’The Oceanides’ (1913-1914) and ‘Jäger March’ (1917). The later became especially popular when in December 1917 the declaration of independence was accepted by the country’s parliament.
From 1919, Sibelius resumed his foreign tours, visiting Copenhagen in the same year and England and Norway in 1921. At the same time, he continued composing, producing ‘Hymn of the Earth’ in 1920, ‘Sixth Symphony’ in 1922 and ‘Seventh Symphony’ in 1924.
Later in 1925, he wrote the incidental music for a production of Shakespeare's ‘The Tempest.’ His last major work was the tone poem ‘Tapiola’, written in 1926 on a commission from Walter Damrosch for the New York Philharmonic Society. It is also based on Finnish epic, ‘Kalevala.’
There are sufficient evidences that sometime in the 1930s he had written the ‘Eighth Symphony.’ But being the greatest critic of himself, he repeatedly refused to publish it.
In the 1940s, for unknown reasons, he burned down a substantial portion of his work, which might have included the ‘Eighth Symphony.’ His wife later recalled that Sibelius became more relaxed after this incident.
Personal Life & Legacy
In the autumn of 1888, while studying music in Helsinki, Sibelius met Aino, the daughter of General Alexander Järnefelt, the governor of Vaasa, and fell in love with her. They got married on 10 June 1892 at Maxmo. The couple had six daughters: Eva, Ruth, Kirsti, Katarina, Margareta and Heidi.
In 1903, Sibelius had a house built on the shores of Lake Tuusulanjärvi in Järvenpää, 38 kilometers north of Helsinki. It became the family’s home and he called it Ainola, or the "Aino's place". Although he lived off and on in Helsinki for professional reasons, he spent the last years of his life in this house.
It was here that he died from brain hemorrhage on 20 September 1957. He was then ninety-one years old and was survived by his wife and five daughters. He was buried in the garden of the house.
In 1972, his five surviving daughters sold the house to the State of Finland. In 1974, it was turned into a museum, which now contains many of his personal artifacts including his grand piano.
Since 2011, his birthday is observed as ‘Flag Day’ and also as the ‘Day of Finnish Music.’
The International Jean Sibelius Violin Competition and the Sibelius Monument, located in Helsinki's Sibelius Park continue to carry his legacy. In addition, 1405 Sibelius, a stony Florian asteroid, has been named in his honor.