For the coming generations – the birth of a national composer

Siitäpä nyt tie menevi, ura uusi urkenevi.

“From here today the path is going, a bright new star the way is showing.”

Thus were these words written on a celebratory wreath presented to Sibelius by the eminent conductor and his close friend, Robert Kajanus, on the premiere of the Kullervo Symphony, in 1892.

Sibelius was born in a Finland that had yet to fully call itself a nation. At that time, it was part of the Russian empire. His coming was timely, for the yearning for independence would soon need a voice, the hand of a great composer and the song that would awaken Finland.

The fact is, the Finnish people have never had a lack of tradition nor culture – at that time it was, perhaps, simply not given the chance to shine. A few decades before Sibelius’ birth, Elias Lönnrot had compiled the Kalevala, the single greatest collection of Finnish ancient literature – a gathering of epic poetry from Finnish and Karelian oral folklore and mythology, which has played an enormous role in the rebirth of Finnish national identity.

When Sibelius met Kajanus in Berlin, he heard the premiere of the latter’s Aino Symphony, also based on the Kalevala. Elliot Arnold eloquently describes Sibelius’ reaction in his book “Finlandia: The Story of Sibelius”:

“It was a never-to-be-forgotten experience for Sibelius. He sat in the great music hall and something awakened in his soul. He was in Berlin, yes, but listening to that music he was again tramping in the forest lands of his beautiful Finland, was again standing at the edge of a lake seeing the setting sun redden the water.

The music stirred him like nothing else he had ever heard. It seemed as though the very roots of his being were being summoned to life, as though everything that had gone into him, in his blood and his body and his heart and his brain, were awakened from a slumber.”

Finland awakes.

“No music had ever done this to him. Nothing had ever before touched the racial stream that now tore through his veins. He wanted to scream. His skin tingled. Tears filled his eyes. This was Finland and this was music.

He met Kajanus and breathed his appreciation. He tried to explain this new excitement, this home-love, this patriotism he had never known before. He knew he was a Finn. He knew he had to say things that only a Finn could say. He felt a wild love for Finland which was built on something infinitely more vast than love of landscape.”

Kullervo Goes to War, by Akseli Gallen-Kallela
Kullervo Goes to War, by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1901)

Kullervo caused a stir. Granted, not everyone in the audience was impressed nor understood what this new work was doing. It was big, it was brazen and it was loud. It had a choir, a male chorus singing about snow and blue socks, seduction and shame, abject tragedy, the grim disdain of a sword and ultimately, heart-rending death. Above all though, it had the sounds and rhythms of Finnish runes. Whether the audience realized or admitted it, there was a latent sense of familiarity. When Kajanus presented the wreath to Sibelius, the audience seemed to realize…

This is their sound.

A Japanese composer once said, “I wish to evoke the melodies not yet sung but which dwells in us, the Japanese people. ” By adopting rhythms and modes from Japanese poetry and  music, “I intend to reveal our collective unconscious as a nation.” (Akira Ifukube)

The audience cheered. Over the course of the next 30 years or so after Kullervo, that was what Sibelius did for the Finnish musical psyche. With the poetry of the Kalevala compiled, words from the landscape, Finland now had a new musical champion who would go on to evoke melodies not yet sung as a nation.

While musicians like Kajanus had already begun writing such melodies, Sibelius went deeper. Cultural identity goes even further than words, runes and heroes. One universal quality of any cultural mythology is a connection to the natural universe. From creation myths to magic blessings, nature is a vital force of power, inspiration and conviction. As I have written about concerning Tapiola – Sibelius’ music is not so much about man’s perception of, or his feelings about nature, but man’s place within the vastness of nature. We are but tiny tiny beings within her great inexplicable beauty.

It is a nature that would inspire Sibelius throughout life, from the time he tried to match piano tones to the colours of the stripes under his mother’s square piano, to transcribing the smell of drying hemp and flax into music; he distilled Finland’s snow and lakes into symphonies, cast the text of the Kalevala into song, and bade orchestras intone the voice of forest gods. It seems Sibelius did not so much see the world as a painting, with eyes; but he saw the world as a symphony, with his ears.  Finland became his orchestra and stage, and the world began to listen to her.

One hundred and forty-six years ago today on December 8, 1865,  Jean Sibelius was born. Along with Lönnrot, Kajanus and many others, their birth would shape the rebirth of Finland. On December 6, 1917, Finland declared independence.

Sibelius Monument
Sibelius Monument - photo by Daniel Aragay (proteusbcn, Flickr)

….Be not thus, my worthy people,
Blame me not for singing badly,
Unpretending as a minstrel.
I have never had the teaching,
Never lived with ancient heroes,
Never learned the tongues of strangers,
Never claimed to know much wisdom.
Others have had language-masters,
Nature was my only teacher,
Woods and waters my instructors.
Homeless, friendless, lone and needy,
Save in childhood with my mother,
When beneath her painted rafters,
Where she twirled the flying spindle,
By the work-bench of my sister,
In the cabin of my father,
In my early days of childhood.

Be this as it may, my people,
This may point the way to others,
To the singers better gifted,
For the good of future ages,
For the coming generations,
For the rising folk of Suomi*.

The Kalevala – Epilogue (trans. John Martin Crawford)

*Suomi is Finnish for Finland

 

Karelia and Kuolema – Complete Music

Sibelius in 1899

There is a reason, of course, why the popular Karelia Suite is a “Suite”. Its origins go back to 1893, when the Viipuri Student Corporation at the Imperial Alexander University arranged a fund-raiser event in aid of education in the Viipuri province, in western Karelia, Finland. The idea was to foster Finnish culture at this border area near Russia. Finland then was still under the dominion of the Tsar, and to put it simply, the Finns didn’t like that. The entertainment soirée took place at the Town Hall on 13th November 1893 and its highlight was a series of tableaux depicting scenes from Karelian history. Think of them as theatrical stage scenes, with decorations, props and music, all provided by Finland’s best artists. Early MTV. Continue reading Karelia and Kuolema – Complete Music