Jean Sibelius

Portrait of Jean Sibelius

Jean Sibelius was a Finnish composer of the late Romantic and early-modern periods. He is regarded as his country’s greatest composer and his music is often credited with helping form a national identity for Finland during its struggle for independence from Russia. He was born on 8th December 1865 in Hameenlinna, Finland and died on 20th September 1957 in Ainola, Jarrvenpaa, Finland aged 91.

Major Works

Seven symphonies
“The Building of the Boat” (1894)
“The Karelia Suite and Overture” (1893)
“The Swan of Tuonela” (1896)
“Pelleas and Melisande” (1905)

Biography Timeline

Jean Sibelius was born on 8th December 1865 in Hämeenlinna in southern Finland, which was then part of the Russian empire. His father was Christian Gustaf Sibelius, a Swedish speaking doctor and his mother was Maria Charlotta, née Borg. As a boy he was known as Janne, a colloquial form of Johan.

1868: His father dies of typhoid in July leaving behind a lot of debt. His mother has to sell the estate and move the family in with her mother, Katarina Borg, who also lives in Hämeenlinna. His uncle Pehr Ferdinand Sibelius is interested in music.

1873: His strict aunt Julia gives him piano lessons on the family instrument. He improvises on his own and learns to read sheet music. His brother Christian and his sister Linda join him in playing trios at home and he plays in quartets with neighbours.

1874: Despite speaking Swedish Sibelius attends Lucina Hagman’s Finnish-speaking preparatory school.

1875: His uncle gives him a violin which he prefers to the piano.

1876: He moves up to the Finnish-language Hameenlinna Normal Lyceum.

1881: He studies in Vienna and Berlin and has violin lessons from a local bandmaster, Gustaf Levander. His first known composition is “Vattendroppar” (Water Drops) for violin and cello.

1885: He passes his school’s final examination after having to re-sit a year later. He moves on to study law at the Imperial Alexander University in Finland. 

1886: He then decides to move to the Helsinki Music Institute wanting to become a violin virtuoso where he stays until 1889.

1887: He plays the last two movements of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in Helsinki. He now adopts the first name Jean in homage to a deceased uncle. Martin Wegelius, the founder of the Institute gives Sibelius his first formal lessons in composition. Another major influence on him is the composer Ferrucio Busoni who becomes a lifelong friend.

1888: Armas Järnefelt, a friend from the Music Institute, invites him to his home. There he meets and falls in love with Aino the seventeen-year-old daughter of General Alexander Jarnefelt, the Governor of Vaasa.

1889: After leaving the Institute he moves to Berlin to further his studies with Albert Becker. He is present at the premiere of “Don Juan” by Richard Strauss.

1890: He moves to Vienna to study with Robert Fuchs. He becomes interested in the music of Anton Bruckner who is his favourite living composer. He composes an Overture in E major and a “Scène de Ballet” and starts work on “Kullervo”. He undergoes an operation to remove gallstones.

1892: He enjoys conducting his Overture and the “Scène de Ballet” and “Kullervo” receives its premiere in Helsinki on 28th April. It is a great success as it represents Finnish music to the increasingly patriotic audience. He now decides that composition is the way forward and gives up wanting to be a violinist. On 10th June 1892 he marries Aino in Maxmo and they go for a honeymoon in Karelia. Their first child Eva is born. To earn money Sibelius teaches at the Music Institute and at Kajanus’s conducting school. At the end of that year his grandmother Katarina Borg dies.

1893: The full version of the “Karelia Suite” is performed on 13th November at a student association in Viipuri.

1894: He conducts works such as “En Saga”, “Karelia” and “Varsang” in Helsinki.

1895: He performs a revised version of “Varsang” (Spring Song) on 17th April.

1896: He works on his opera, “Veneen Luominen” (The Building of the Boat) but never completes it. Inspired by Franz Liszt’s tone poems he uses some of the music in his “Lemminkäinen Suite” and “The Swan of Tuonela”. These are premiered on 13th April. 

1898: He is awarded an annual grant from the government. He completes music to accompany “King Christian the Second” a play by Adolf Paul, which is performed in February. In November it is performed in Helsinki alongside the patriotic “Song of the Athenians” for boys’ and men’s choirs and this brings the composer the status of a national hero.

1899: In January he starts work on his First Symphony which is premiered in Helsinki on 26th April. He also composes his symphonic poem “Finlandia”.

1900: He travels to Italy, where he spends a whole year with his family. In February his youngest daughter, Kirsti, dies. During the summer he embarks on an international tour to Stockholm, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Berlin and Paris playing his recent works. This brings him wider recognition.

1901: He begins to write his Second Symphony whilst in Italy.

1902: The symphony receives its premiere in Helsinki on 8th March and is a great success amongst the Finns. It is performed in Berlin by the Berlin Philharmonic in November and establishes his reputation in Germany.

1903: He works on his Violin Concerto. He has a major success with “Valse Triste” part of the incidental music to his brother-in-law Arvid Jarnefelt’s play “Kuolema” (Death). In November work starts on building a new family home near Lake Tuusula. He gives concerts to pay for the work.

1904: The Violin Concerto receives its premiere on 8th February but is not a success. It leads to a revised, condensed version that is performed in Berlin the following year. The house, now named Ainola (Aino’s Place) is ready to move in on 24th September.

1905: He conducts his Second Symphony in Berlin but it receives mixed reviews. He writes the orchestral suite “Pelleas and Melisande” back in Finland. In November he meets Henry Wood in Liverpool, England and conducts his First Symphony and “Finlandia”.

1906: His symphonic poem “Pohjolan Tytär” (Pohjola’s Daughter) is first performed at the Mariinsly Theatre in St Petersburg, Russia. 

1907: He is spending excessive amounts wining and dining in Helsinki and Aino is taken to a sanatorium for the good of her health. Sibelius vows to give up alcohol and to work on his Third Symphony which receives its premiere on 25th September.

1908 He is diagnosed with throat cancer due to his smoking and drinking but is cured after having a tumour removed in Berlin. 

1909: He meets the composer Claude Debussy.

1910: He starts work on his Fourth Symphony. In October, he conducts concerts in Kristiania, Norway (now Oslo) playing “The Dryad” and “In Memoriam” for the first time.

1911: He conducts his first concerts in Sweden. The Fourth Symphony is not well received on its first performance in Helsinki.

1912: He completes his “Scènes Historiques II” which is first performed in May. The Fourth Symphony is widely applauded in Birmingham, England when it is performed there in September.

1913: In March the symphony is performed in New York but some of the audience walk out and it is described in the “Boston American” newspaper as “a sad failure”. He composes the tone poem “The Bard” and “Luonnotar” (Daughter of Nature) for soprano and orchestra. The latter is first performed in September at a music festival in Gloucester, England.

1914: He begins work on “The Oceanides,” commissioned for the Norfolk Music Festival in the USA. Whilst in America, Sibelius receives an honorary doctorate from Yale University. His wife Aino collects a similar one on his behalf from the University of Helsinki.

1915: He completes his Fifth Symphony.

1916: He performs the revised version of his Fifth Symphony in Turku. 

1917: He starts drinking heavily again, triggering arguments with Aino. In February during the Russian Revolution, their house is searched twice by the local Red Guard looking for weapons. Some of his friends are killed in the violence. The composer Robert Kajanus negotiates with the Red Guard commander-in-chief, Eero Haapalainen, to guarantee Sibelius a safe passage from his house to Helsinki. On 13th April German troops occupy the city and the Red period is over. The Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra performs a concert a week later and Sibelius finishes off by conducting his “Jäger March”. The Finnish parliament ratifies the Senate’s declaration of independence from Russia in December.

1919: In November he conducts the final version of his Fifth Symphony, receiving enthusiastic ovations from the audience. 

1920: He composes the “Hymn of the Earth”. On his birthday in December he receives a substantial donation of from the tenor Walno Sola which he has raised from Finnish businesses. He negotiates with George Eastman, of Kodak Camera, fame for a salary to join his music school but eventually declines the offer.

1921: After tours to England and Norway he is suffering from exhaustion.

1922: In July his brother Christian dies. In August he joins the Finnish Freemasons and composes ritual music for them.

1923: In February he premieres the Sixth Symphony. 

1924: He manages to complete his Seventh Symphony despite his drinking. In March, under the title of “Fantasia Sinfonica” it receives its first public performance in Stockholm. Sibelius is honoured with the Knight Commander’s Cross of the Order of the Dannebrog. 

1925: In May the Royal Danish Theatre ask him to compose incidental music for a production of “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare which is finally performed in March 1926.

1926: The symphonic poem “Tapiola” receives its premiere.

1935: On Sibelius’s 70th birthday the German government award him the Goethe-Medal with a certificate signed personally by Adolf Hitler.

1939: On 1st January he conducts an international radio broadcast of his “Andante Festivo”. In the winter after the attempted Soviet invasion of Finland they are forced to cede territory to the Soviet Union.

1941: Always worried about Bolshevism, Sibelius advocates that Finnish soldiers march alongside German forces after Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union on 22nd June and the Sibelius family return for good to Ainola in the summer.

1943: In a diary entry he begins to wonder why he had signed the Aryan certificate. Sibelius burns many of his manuscripts during the period much to his wife’s dismay.

1955: His 90th birthday is widely celebrated and concerts of his music are given by the Philadelphia Orchestra in the USA and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London.

Jean Sibelius died on 20th September 1957 at his home Ainola, Finland of a brain haemorrhage. He was buried in his garden at Ainola after a state funeral in Helsinki.