Jean Sibelius: Finlandia


During 1899 the political intensity in the Grand Duchy of Finland was becoming more serious. Opposition was met from Russian press, sparking a great divide in Finnish arts. Jean Sibelius was at this time acknowledged as the most popular and successful composer in Finland. Because of this, he was asked to compose a work for a demonstration happening in the same year. The protest, held in November, was called “Days of the Press”, which was dedicated to journalists who protested and promoted Finland’s efforts to become a free society.

For the protest Sibelius wrote an overture and six separate tone poems. The last in the set, originally named Finland Awakens, was soon revised and renamed Finlandia in 1900. The Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra premiered this work on their first major European tour, and it was here that Sibelius became a household name throughout Europe.

Similarly to perhaps Gustav Holst and his relationship with The Planets, the success of Finlandia for Sibelius became a somewhat thorn in his side. He felt the work often overshadowed some of his more serious and important works. Nevertheless, Finlandia played a vital role in the rise of Sibelius’ popularity throughout his lifetime. Not least the importance of the work and what it represented for the people of Finland as well.

As well as the role it played by representing the people of Finland embracing democracy, Finlandia has now also found its place outside of those political boundaries as one of the most-performed tone poems. Its enduring popularity has created a memorable piece of music that is sure to be enjoyed for years to come. 


The Music 

Opening with brooding lower brass who rumble the very core of any concert hall. Like storm clouds merging, the iconic opening is said to represent the defiant power struggle. The strings and woodwind reply with a quieter, but still bold theme. The timpani announces the new sections here with a bold roll which cracks the music into action. The solemn melody lines tint the music, offering different orchestral colour.

A trumpet fanfare blasts out and the music really gets going. A variation of the opening is played by the strings and winds, with the trumpets adding fanfare decoration on top. The atmosphere is still foreboding here, with the bass tremolos adding particular darkness. 

Cymbal crashes and horn fanfares begin to open the music up to become more triumphant and colourful. Swirling strings paired with heroic horns creates a large sounds that carries across the piercing trumpets and winds. Sibelius’ use of dynamics is also effective in this ‘development’ section. As the music begins to fade it works its way back up into a triumphant swell of glory. 

A woodwind interlude breaks this string cycle and adds a sense of sonority and gentleness into the music, which is something that hasn’t happened yet in the work. Using block chords to create the sweet timbre leads to the strings taking up the melody. The luscious and warm sound from the strings takes the drama away for a while before the brass enters again. The warm chorale has become one of Sibelius’ most popular melodies, often being cited as the ‘Finlandia Hymn’. 

Sibelius’ use of syncopated rhythms creates an uneasy feel as Finlandia begins to come to a rapturous finish. A reprise of previous material is played as the instruments begin weaving together to create an epic hymn as part of the finale. The brass and percussion lead on the final hero chords as the strings tremolo to create dramatic effect. Finlandia ends triumphantly, with the orchestra uniting, as the story says it should. 


Final Thoughts

Highly effective and richly scored, Jean Sibelius’ Finlandia is one of the true greats of Western Classical Music. From the dark storm clouds at the start, to the heroic union of the orchestra at the end of the piece, each and every bar plays an important part in the picture Sibelius wanted to create. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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1 Comment

London · 29th July 2022 at 3:01 am

Thanks for publishing this today! I have a project for music history due tomorrow and one of the pieces I am covering is Finlandia. Just perfect timing, so thank you.

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