Out of Tune: Music and the State in the Twentieth Century
Jean Julius Christian Sibelius
(December 8, 1865 – September 20, 1957)
Golden gifts I do not ask for,
And I wish not for thy silver,
Only bring me to my country.
In the context of twentieth century composers and their respective states, especially those that
repressed or censored the talents of said composers, Sibelius was a special case. He was not up
against a totalitarian dictator who reveled in the glories of a romanticized past, as Hitler did, nor
was he the scapegoat for a government bent on exterminating any and all “formalist” artistic
influences, as Shostakovich was under Stalin. His enemy was much more subtle: he fought the
political, cultural and social oppression of the Finnish people by the Czar, many years before the
Bolshevik Revolution took place in the heart of Russia, and even longer before Hitler’s meteoric
rise to power. In composing Finlandia and other works such as Kullervo Symphony, and the
Lemminkäinen Suite (Four Legends), Sibelius was able to create a musical portrait of Finland.
He captured the spirit of his homeland in an authentic and relatable manner, and in so doing,
forged a new identity for the country and her people, giving them the impetus they needed to rise
up against the forces of their oppression.
In order to understand just how the Finns were oppressed, and to appreciate the historical
context in which Sibelius lived and worked, a brief history Finland, a country rarely called upon
to relate its history, is needed. The seeds of Finnish subjugation by foreign powers were planted
early on, long before Sibelius was ever born. Ever since medieval times, the Finns have shared a
Elliott Arnold. Finlandia: The Story of Sibelius. 65.
common language; one completely unrelated to those the rest of Europe, whose closest
contemporary relatives are Karelian and Estonian. The Finnish language falls under the category
of the Finno-Ugric family rather than the Indo-European, thus further isolating the Finns, ninety
percent of whom spoke this strange and difficult language2. Such a unique linguistic heritage is
one of the hallmarks of the Finnish identity, as is bilingualism, given Finland’s eight-hundred
years under Swedish jurisdiction3.
For a time, Swedish and Finnish languages and cultures were able to peaceably coexist, but
that quickly ended when Gustav Vasa was elected King of Sweden, of which Finland was still
but a vassal, in 15234. He consolidated all political power into one centralized location—
himself— and made Swedish the administrative language as well as the cultural and educational
one, which left the Finnish language little more than an abandoned vernacular used by the
masses, and an indicator of the rift between the educated bilingual, Swedish-speaking elite, of
which Sibelius was a part, and the Finnish-speaking peasants5.
The fate of the Finns changed yet again when they were annexed by the Russian Empire in
1808, but for the better. The Imperial Russian powers did not impose their language on the
Finnish people. In fact, they encouraged the use of Finnish as the language of education with the
establishment of a Finnish lectorate at Helsinki’s Imperial Alexander University as well as a
Finnish Literature Society6. This was all done with an ulterior motive, of course, but the positive
consequences it had for Finnish history and its growing national consciousness cannot be ignored.
The real reason behind this friendly behavior was to eradicate the Swedish influence in Finland,
Glenda Dawn Goss. Sibelius: A Composer’s Life and the Awakening of Finland. 33
thus making her people more loyal to their new conquerors, the Russians. It was into this society
that Jean Julius Christian Sibelius was born7.
Jean Sibelius, or “Janne” as he was called as a youth, lived in a garrison town known to the
Swedish-speaking population as Tavastehus, or Hämeenlina, in Finnish, in the shadow of the
Russian military8. His father was a doctor, and, unsurprisingly, his family expected him to go
into an equally respectable profession, so he studied law—and hated it9. In spite of his family’s
expectation that he receive a legal education at Helsinki University, they did allow him to study
violin and composition at the Academy of Music. Janne had a passion for music, which he
followed, and it led him to the full-time study of composition10. It was during this time that Janne
Sibelius adopted the French variant of his name, Jean, the name by which he is now known, and
by which he will be referred to from here on11.
After studying abroad in Berlin, Leipzig, and Vienna, Jean Sibelius’s Kullervo, a symphonic
poem for voices and orchestra made its debut in 1892. It was his first great musical triumph, and
became a hallmark of the burgeoning Finnish musical identity. The vocal score consists of parts
of the Kalevala, a national epic compiled in Sibelius’s lifetime. The saga was collected from oral
tales passed down through the generations: both a time-honored aspect of Finnish history and
mythology, as well as a modern invention: the tales had not been written down and compiled
until the late nineteenth century by Elias Lönnrot. Of the four main “pillars of Finnish literature,
the Kalevala is the only one originally written in Finnish12. This epic influenced Sibelius, as it
Elliott Arnold. Finlandia: The Story of Sibelius. Inner cover.
Glenda Dawn Goss. Sibelius: A Composer’s Life and the Awakening of Finland. 42 – 43.
Elliott Arnold, 1 – 2.
Jean Sibelius (1865 - 1957). http://library.thinkquest.org/22673/sibelius.html
Jean Julius Christian Sibelius. Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2004.
Glenda Dawn Goss, 37.
did all Finns, and inspired some of his most enduring works, many of which came from the
initial creative burst of the Kullervo Symphony.
It was at this point in Sibelius life that a nationalist attitude began to take hold. Before, he
was just a passionate student of music, a member of the Swedish-speaking minority, just another
technically Russian citizen, but after moving to Helsinki in 1885, Sibelius was affected by the
increasingly nationalist mood there. I can even be said that “the national mission—to create a
Finnish identity politically, artistically, industrially, and musically—was a deeply serious affair,
a question even of survival”13. Survival, in the cultural sense was definitely at stake, as the
Russians were making increasingly aggressive gestures towards the Finnish, beginning with
“postal manifesto” of Alexander III, which required that postal stamps be circulated in Russian,
and postal workers be proficient in the language14. Relations between the Grand Duchy of
Finland and the heart of the Russian Empire became even more strained when the Russian and
Finnish press began to attack each other, in what Glenda Goss refers to as a “snarling standoff” 15
with the Russian press arguing against Finland’s autonomy, with disparaging remarks about
Russia appearing in Finnish newspapers.
The Finnish nationalist movement began in earnest, with leading intellectuals such as Yrjö-
Koskinen and Lieutenant-General Alexander Järnfelt at the helm of what was called the
Fennoman Party16. It was during these eventful times that Sibelius was on the continent, in
Vienna, creating a name for Finland with his Kullervo Symphony. After such a smashing success,
he was awarded a government pension of 30,000 Finnmarks a year (around £850 in the late
1890s) 17 that allowed him to compose full-time.
Although the government, which was technically Russian, was his patron, Sibelius was
never manipulated by the state, He was lauded as a national hero and his fame spread
accordingly, but he was not an official composer, nor did he have to write his music to appease
the authorities. He willingly and deliberately wrote his music for a Finnish audience. In fact, he
wanted to be considered “a Finnish composer”18, even running the risk of having his work
withdrawn from public exhibition, which it was, before a 1914 concert19.
Far from being an official composer, Sibelius made his sentiments known through his
music, especially his second symphony, premiered amid the general outrage at Russian military
conscription of Finnish youths20. The work was interpreted in a similar manner by most everyone
who heard it: Robert Kajanus called it “a brokenhearted protest against all the injustice that
threatens…to deprive the sun of its light”21, while the German Ilmari Krohn called the symphony,
“Finland’s Struggle for Freedom”, and designated the movements as “the Development Before
the Conflict”, “the Storm”, “National Resistance”, and finally a “Free Fatherland”22. The
implication of Sibelius’s music are clear: he, like many others living in his time, wanted nothing
more to do with the Russians and their increasingly hostile behavior towards the Finnish people.
With such an obvious nationalist streak present in his music, one must ask why he was not
Robert Layton. Sibelius and His World. 39.
Glenda Dawn Goss, 291 – 292.
Firstly, Alexander III had no personal issues with the Finns. In fact he favored them23, but
the nationalist faction in Russia was too vocal a group to ignore, and so he gave in to their wishes
on issues such as the postal manifesto and mandatory military service. Secondly, Finland is a
small country in population, and it was long considered a cultural backwater to more
cosmopolitan states like Sweden, Russia, and the Western European nations, including England,
France, and Italy. Thirdly, because of its second-class status, it was never its own country, being
alternately part of Sweden and Russia, so it is understandable that the Russians did not see a lone
composer in a backwater country as a threat.
They couldn’t have been more wrong, however, because the Bolshevik Revolution was
about to brew. It would bring the mighty Russian Bear to its knees, putting Finland in the perfect
position to break free, but at a terrible cost. The October Revolution spilled over into Finland and
the bitter struggle between Russia’s Red and White factions repeated itself within Finland’s
borders. In January of 1918, the conflict grew into a bloody civil war, which placed the Reds in
power. Jean Sibelius’s loyalties lay with the Social Democratic, or White, anti-Russian faction24,
but his home was in a Red-Controlled area, so he was subjected to all manner of harassment,
searches, and threats. On some occasions, he was forbidden to exit his house25. The civil war
stifled Sibelius’s creativity, and only after it ended with the armistice of November 1918 did Jean
return to his work. After the war, the nationalist tone of his music calmed, and he set to creating
his Sixth and Seventh symphonies26. For a time, Finland was free and independent, and by the
1930s, Jean Sibelius was an international icon. Like The Kalevela, he was quickly creating his
Robert Layton. Sibelius and His World. 72.
1. Sibelius and the Twentieth Century. John C. G. Waterhouse. The Musical Times. Vol.
106, No. 1474 (Dec., 1965), pp. 939-941. Published by: Musical Times Publications Ltd.
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/954342
2. Litwin, Peter. "The Russian Revolution ." April
2002.http://depts.washington.edu/baltic/papers/russianrevolution.htm (accessed 24 May
3. Goss, Glenda. Sibelius: A Composer’s Life and the Awakening of Finland. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2009.
4. Arnold, Elliott. Finlandia: The Story of Sibelius. New York: Henry Holt and Company,
5. Layton, Robert. Sibelius and His World. New York: The Viking Press, 1970.
6. "Jean Sibelius (1865 - 1957)." ThinkQuest.org. Available from
http://library.thinkquest.org/22673/sibelius.html. Internet; accessed 18 May 2011.
7. "Jean Julius Christian Sibelius." Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2004.
Encyclopedia.com. (May 18, 2011). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-