While we’re on the topic of nationalist composers, I thought I’d put up an example of one the most prominent of these, namely Finlandia by Jean Sibelius. Sibelius was born in 1865 to a Swedish-speaking family in Hämeelinna in what was then the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland. Sibelius came under the influence of Finnish nationists early on in his life. Some of his most celebrated works are tone poems based off of Finnish legends and poems. He became the most celebrated composer in his native country and very popular in Europe as well. In the United Kingdom and in the United States, he found most welcoming audiences. The British conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham was a great champion of his, as were others.
Unfortunately for Sibelius, atonality and neo-classicism were to become the rage. Perhaps distressed with what was happening to music, Sibelius in effect retired in 1926 composing not a single note of music for the last 30 years of his life. His music was publicly villified by the critics and even by fellow composers. Thankfully, not everyone paid attention to this. Herbert von Karajan, the conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker, programmed Sibelius’ work at a time when it was very brave of him to do so. The “received wisdom” of the time held that Sibelius was a third-rate composer, perhaps even the worst composer in the world, according to French composer and theorist René Leibowitz. (Hey René! Anyone listen to your own music recently? I thought not!) Even still, Sibelius has not fully recovered the reputation he had in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is a shame, as Sibelius’ works are unique in their own way. He had great mastery of form. In fact, his forms are quite unique to himself. He belonged to the same generation as Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. While Sibelius may not have been as harmonically adventurous as those two, when it came to matters of form, he was very much his own man.
One of his most popular works is Finlandia, a piece of music which almost has the status of a second national anthem in Finland. I think that my family members will recognise the “big tune” in the middle of the piece, especially since it is in their hymnals. Now you know where it comes from!