The Chronicle Review

The Transformative Paradoxes of Jean Sibelius

Paul Popper, Getty Images

Jean Sibelius, 1957
August 14, 2011

Wildly popular a century ago as an icon of Finnish nationalism in a late-Romantic vein, Jean Sibelius was largely dismissed by music aficionados after World War II as something of a conservative lightweight. So why is the Bard Music Festival this month featuring his work in a series of concerts titled "Sibelius and His World"?

Because his condemnation, much like his popularity, was based on reductive assumptions colored by politics. Sibelius's aesthetic paradoxes mirror those of his biography, and his iconoclastic work deserves close, fresh, sustained, and open-minded attention. A modernist in traditional musical trappings, a globalist whose work spoke in a nationalist dialect, an innovator whose pleasing tonalities snuck his inventions into the popular ear, Sibelius is as underappreciated today as he was perhaps overlionized between the world wars.

Sibelius was born in 1865, into a generation of composers for whom a mere continuation of past practices seemed impossible.

First, Sibelius and his contemporaries had to contend with the overwhelming influence of Richard Wagner. Through his narrative operatic innovations, Wagner captured the attention and affection of the greatly expanded musical public of Europe and North America between 1890 and 1930, the high-water mark for so-called classical music in Western history. As George Bernard Shaw noted, musical training was not required to be captivated by Wagner.

The second reason that inherited tradition—even the Wagnerian—alone seemed inadequate to Sibelius's cohort was rapid industrialization and urbanization. In the north and east of Europe, including Sibelius's native Finland (part of the Russian empire for essentially the first half of the composer's life), sudden economic growth toward the end of the 19th century forced artists and composers to confront the stark realities of modernity. As the theater of Ibsen and Strindberg suggests, art needed to be more than decoration and entertainment. It seemed an ethical imperative to confront the transformation of everyday life. Equally imperative was alertness to the era's political movements. Artists were motivated and inspired both by nationalism (especially among the Finns, the Poles, the Czechs, and other peoples previously subjugated by dynastic empires) and by a populism that preached economic and social justice.

Like many of his Finnish contemporaries, as a young man Sibelius embraced the idea and dream of Finland. The notion of the distinct Finnish nation was redefined along the lines of a mythic and literary heritage embodied in the epic The Kalevala. Ironically, the generational embrace of the Finnish language was somewhat awkward for him, because Swedish was his primary and dominant language. Nonetheless Sibelius, more than any other artist, managed to define and embody the spirit and aspirations of an emergent national movement. By 1914 he had become recognized worldwide as the standard-bearer of Finland. For the rest of his life (and to this day), Sibelius's primary reputation has been as that nation's granitelike icon.

As a composer, Sibelius, who studied in Vienna, dealt with the legacy of Wagner in a manner reminiscent of Sibelius's contemporary, Gustav Mahler. They essentially avoided opera. Sibelius wrote only one opera, an early and minor work, and Mahler never completed one. Both turned to the symphony orchestra as their central medium.

Most of Sibelius's music was designed to be part of a public art, aimed at large audiences. But unlike Mahler, Sibelius confronted the Wagnerian interplay between language and music by shifting the emphasis away from the literary and emancipating music from language. His work is strikingly architectural, rather than paralleling in music the syntax, semantics, and grammar of language. It is concerned primarily with large forms and spaces, rather than melodic and harmonic variation and dialogue, much less outright literary inspiration.

By circumventing the musical connection to language, the literary, and the dramatic, Sibelius found a way to musically alter our perception of time. There is a magical slowness and simplicity in Sibelius out of which emerges a distinct sound and stark, alluring beauty. Music is allied with nature. For Sibelius, aggregate sounds—as much as melodies and themes—become constituent elements of composition. Orchestration becomes a basic element, not something one completes after a work is written. The music is more atmospheric than discursive. It evokes a response and plays on sensibility rather than suggesting logic and arguing a point.


Sibelius's music was the precursor to today's minimalism, a postmodern return to tonality, and a desire to reach and stimulate a wider public. He has been important to a diverse array of composers including Samuel Barber, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Morton Feldman, Philip Glass, John Adams, and, most recently, Nico Muhly.

Sibelius's music, because it so readily evokes mental images, landscapes, and a sense of the organic (as opposed to the artificial or mechanical) was, from the start of the composer's career, extremely audience friendly. The composer's two most famous "hits" were "Valse Triste" and "Finlandia." His music at first suggested to French, German, and English audiences an alluring Finnish exoticism.

But toward World War I, in Europe and North America, his music increasingly was understood as sounding not just Nordic but conservative because of its uses of tonality and harmony. It was more accessible than the works of composers labeled modernist. The surface conservatism of his sounds from 1918 on gave him the widest public of any living composer at the time.

This gave rise to an inevitable backlash. Postwar, Sibelius became the object of wide critical contempt as a terrible composer who couldn't write music of any complexity. His work was suddenly deemed vacuous, repetitive, without sufficient thematic development or structure. His popularity in the 1930s seemed, in hindsight, to have been earned cheaply. (Only The New York Times' chief music critic, Olin Downes, was determined to turn Sibelius into the modern master, the Beethoven of the 20th century.)

Moreover, in retrospect, Sibelius's popularity became associated with the politics of some of his fascist patrons and admirers, even as the modernists, like Arnold Schoenberg, became associated with political resistance, universalism, cosmopolitanism. In the Finnish Civil War, Sibelius, who was consistently uncomfortable with democracy and populism, and rather more at home in aristocratic circles, sided with the Whites against the Reds. In the 1930s and early 1940s, he accepted with ease the praise and lucrative attention given him by the Nazis. He was the Reich's most often performed non-German living composer.

Yet it would be unfair to accuse Sibelius of anything more than passivity and an overriding concern for his personal well-being and the fortunes of his family. He was not a hero.

The more paradoxical aspect of Sibelius's legacy in culture concerns the role of art and music in the construct of modern nationalism. In the wake of the recent terrorist attack in Norway nominally inspired by a profoundly conservative xenophobic and chauvinist ideology, it is crucial to emphasize how cosmopolitan Sibelius was, how indebted he was to broad European musical and cultural currents, and how resistant his music is to a reductive appropriation as authentically Finnish.

The local—in Sibelius's case, Finland—was musically transfigured with uncanny originality. In this way Sibelius helped shape the character of 20th-century music much the way the work of Sibelius's Finnish contemporaries, the architects Eliel Saarinen (1873-1950) and Alvar Aalto (1898-1976), helped define the terms of modern architecture and design inspired initially by local Finnish movements and traditions.

Sibelius lived until 1957, but unlike his near contemporary and fellow conservative, Richard Strauss (1864-1949), Sibelius stopped composing just before 1930. Strauss kept on writing music until his last days. Sibelius, on the other hand, remained silent for three decades. No one has fully explained why. Some have attributed Sibelius's silence to his legendary alcoholism and bouts of depression. Others have argued that he gradually lost confidence.

He had always been a persistent reviser of his own music, and there is reason to think that he burned, in a moment of extreme self-criticism, a nearly complete Eighth Symphony. Perhaps he had simply said everything he wanted to by the time he finished his Seventh and last symphony. In the economically elegiac tone poem "Tapiola," from 1926, Sibelius's last major work, we hear his essence, the distilled influence on today's composers. Landscape and myth of a distinctly Finnish origin come together to create a luminous, nearly abstract, dreamlike musical experience, inadequately suggested by the poetic fragment the composer wrote and had printed at the top of the score:

"Wide-spread they stand, the Northland's dusky forests,
Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams;
Within them dwells the Forest's mighty God,
And wood sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets"

Sibelius's music bridges the gaps between high and low, and between the local and the universal. Its originality and striking beauty should inspire us to revisit his achievement and his legacy.

Leon Botstein is president of Bard College, founder and co-artistic director of the Bard Music Festival, and music director of the American Symphony Orchestra. More information about "Sibelius and His World" at the festival is available at