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Jean Sibelius Biography, Symphony No. 2 & Violin Concerto

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Written by Jeanne A. Hansen

The Cleveland Philharmonic Orchestra will perform Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2 & Violin Concerto on April 22nd and 23rd. Tickets available at

Jean Sibelius

Born: December 8, 1865, Tavastehus, Finland

Died: September 20, 1957, Järvenpää, Finland

Jean Sibelius was born into a middle-class Swedish-speaking family. He aspired to a career as a concert violinist. That evaporated when he auditioned for the Vienna Philharmonic and was rejected. He then turned to composition.

Sibelius’s compositions date from the early 1890s as he devoted himself to forging a Finnish National music. As a Swedish-speaker, he delved into the Finnish-language culture. Both languages are reflected in his compositions. His public works for chorus are generally in Finnish, while his more private songs for voice and piano are set to verses by Swedish poets. In addition to seven symphonies, tone poems, stage works, a string quartet, and works for chorus and orchestra; he composed for the violin, primarily small character pieces with piano.

Two ever-present strains in Sibelius’s life are his love of nature and his fondness for epic literature. His compositional style was of tirelessly working, reworking and refining his ideas. In an Etude music magazine interview for the October 1938 issue, his wife Aino shared that her husband had no sense of time when he composed. Composing was approached in total silence, without any instrumental reference, and noise totally disturbed his creative ideas.

As Sibelius’s fame grew, with trips to Western Europe and England, he faced the dilemma of being identified as a Finnish nationalistic composer as he sought to enlarge his scope beyond Finland. In 1914 he received an honorary doctorate from Yale University, but declined the Composition Chair at Eastman School of Music.

After the First World War, he transformed his appearance, adopting a shaved bald head which projected Sibelius as an eccentric, uncompromising, alienated thinker, a man of granite.

He completed and published no major compositions during the last thirty years of his life. Some of his manuscripts met their demise when a laundry basket full of manuscripts was thrown into the dining-room stove at Ainola, his home, in the mid-1940s. This tragedy was revealed by his wife to Sibelius’s biographer Erik Tawaststjerna.

The political situation during Sibelius’s life was tumultuous. When he was born, Finland was an autonomous duchy under Russian rule. An aggressive policy of “Russification” followed. For the March, 1937 Etude issue, the interviewer writes: “1918 was one of the darkest years of the composer’s life, when, following Finland’s independence, demoralized Russian troops, augmented by a Bolshevik fleet, spread terror all over the land—pillaging, destroying and murdering.” The article continues, “Sibelius experienced the horror of having friends murdered, of being subjected to such repeated insults that, with his family, he was forced to flee and to live on such limited rations as to bring them near starvation.”

During the 1930s and 1940s, Sibelius’s music was popular in the United States, spurred on by the performances and recordings of conductor Serge Koussevitzky and violinist Jascha Heifetz. In the 1950s the popularity of his compositions started to fade.

In an interview from the December, 1948 issue of Etude, Sibelius revealed that he had not received royalty payments for his American performances. The situation was the same for England and it was speculated that the non-payment could lie with the fact that Sibelius’s compositions were almost exclusively published by continental firms.

By the end of the 1970s, Sibelius’s music found new advocates and led to a rediscovery of his music. However, the two compositions that always stayed in the repertoire were his Second Symphony and his Violin Concerto.

Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43

Much of the Sibelius’s Second Symphony was composed in Rapallo Italy, near Genoa on the Italian Riviera, during 1901, when he was funded by a wealthy Swedish supporter, Axel Tamm.

Sibelius conducted the Helsinki Philharmonic for the premiere of the Second Symphony, in Helsinki on March 8, 1902, as part of an entire evening devoted to his music.

Many critics and listeners have tried to portray the Second Symphony as a musical portrayal of the Finns’ resistance to Russianization. Tawaststjerna, Sibelius’s biographer, has refuted the claim, but notes that the “myth died hard.”

The symphony has no break between the third and fourth movements. 

Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47

Sibelius composed his only violin concerto during 1903, just a year after the premiere of his Second Symphony.

Opus 47 was written for and initially dedicated to the renowned German violin virtuoso, Willy Burmester. However, this collaboration had a rocky and eventually sad ending for him. Originally, the premiere was scheduled for Berlin. For financial reasons, Sibelius needed to premiere it in Helsinki, but Burmester was unavailable to travel to Finland, so Sibelius engaged Victor Nováček (1873–1914),  a Hungarian violin pedagogue of Czech origin who was then teaching at the Helsinki Institute of Music, now the Sibelius Academy. The concert occurred on February 8, 1904, with Sibelius conducting. The difficulty of the concerto and the short preparation time led to a disappointing performance. Also, the foremost Finnish critic Karl Flodin, wrote that the violin concerto would always remain a virtuoso work and did not suit Sibelius’s free-flowing inspiration and creative nature.

Sibelius withheld this version and made substantial revisions and deletions. The new version premiered on October 19, 1905 with Richard Strauss conducting the Berlin Court Orchestra. Willy Burmester was again asked to be the soloist, but was unavailable; instead, Karel Halíř, the orchestra’s concertmaster was the soloist. Burmester was deeply offended and refused to play the concerto. Adding insult to injury, Sibelius re-dedicated his Violin Concerto to the Hungarian “wunderkind” Ferenc von Vecsey, who, at the time, was twelve years old. The boy’s mother was a friend of Sibelius. Vecsey actually performed the concerto when he was thirteen.

The violin concerto can be described as soloistic rather than symphonic. Sibelius’s biographer Tawaststjerna elaborates: The soloist stands out in relief against the orchestral background, whether it carries the lyrical line against the orchestra’s accompaniment, or the violin plays an obbligato role with decorative passage-work as the orchestra assumes the melody. Soloist and orchestra seldom have any kind of symphonic dialogue as equal partners, therefore, the work could be analyzed solely from its textural changes.

Sibelius, who famously did not want to discuss his music, once referred to the third movement as a “danse macabre” or “dance of death.” Tovey, British music critic, went one step farther and characterized it as a “polonaise for polar bears.”                                 

                                                                                                                                Jeanne A. Hansen