FINLANDIA, OPUS 26
BBC SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
SAKARI ORAMO, CONDUCTOR
The dignity of a nation reflected in music…
I’ve mentioned before—I imagine more than once—that in my drive to musically self-educate myself during my teens, I acquired many “basic repertoire” and “suggested best of the best” lists of classical music to hear—music that one was supposed to listen to before any others—music lists meant to give you, in a distilled form, the highlights of the endless fields of classical music. My OCD was already in full bloom, so I proceeded to listen to all of these works. I still have several sets of LPs that, thankfully, were available to serve this very purpose.
One of the works that made it onto every one of these lists (which, as you might expect, were almost carbon copies of each other) was FINLANDIA by Sibelius. It is a glorious work. If you have not heard it—or if you’ve not heard it for a while—I think you will enjoy this 8-minute performance.
I’ve mentioned before in other posts—on his Second Symphony and Violin Concerto—that Sibelius (1865-1957) is, in most people’s minds, the greatest Finnish composer. Certainly, on the evidence of these three works alone, he deserves consideration for that honor.
Sibelius was one of the very few composers we label “great” who simply stopped composing, by choice, at a certain point in his life. For his last thirty years—realizing that the romantic sweep of his music was simply not the way of the future—that he had become an anachronism—he stopped composing. Musicologists have actually named this last part of his life the “Silence of Jarvenpaa”—the town in which Sibelius lived.
But stopping composing could not have been farther from Sibelius’s mind in late 1899, when he composed Finlandia. And how the work came to be created in the first place is an interesting story.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, Finland was a Russian territory. The empire had been imposing increasingly strict censorship upon the Finnish press. By the point in time when Finlandia was composed, the liberal newspaper Päivälehti had been shut down for three months, with only the conservative (pro-Russian) Uusi Suometar allowed to continue publication. The majority of the country’s population, including of course its artists, were aghast at this censorship.
In the Press Celebrations of 1900, an organized protest against these impositions, occurred. Central to this event, and threaded through it, was the music of Jean Sibelius, who felt it incumbent upon himself to express the dignity and honor of his country in music. To do this, Sibelius composed a seven-part work:
• VAINAMOINEN’S SONG – Vainamoinen was a Finnish demigod, the originator of chants and song
• THE BAPTISM OF THE FINNS – the 4-century period during which Finland was Christianized
• DUKE JOHN IN THE CASTLE OF TURKU – the 16th century Finnish king who reconciled Protestants and Catholics in Finland
• THE FINNS IN THE 30 YEARS WAR – the heroism of Finns during this prolonged and brutally destructive 17th century conflict
• THE GREAT HATE – the scorched-earth policy of the Russians as they raped Finland in the 18th century – the same censors, the Russians, who were then silencing the Finnish press
• FINLAND AWAKENS
“Finland Awakens,” the final part of this work, is what we now know as FINLANDIA. But because it would have been too dangerous to publicly use his actual titles for these final two movements, The Great Hate and Finland Awakens–Sibelius would have been exiled or executed–he had to mask the names of these movements, not only at the initial performance but for some time afterwards as well.
The music of the last movement became immediately and immensely popular—particularly the hymn section, which even today is one of the most important national songs of Finland. Consequently, Sibelius had to rename the work several times—even though it was a secret to no one what message the music was supposed to convey. For years, Finlandia was known as “Happy Feelings at the Awakening of the Finnish Spring” or “A Scandinavian Choral March.”
It is now, of course, FINLANDIA, still a source of sincere pride for all Finns.
The music, from its initial foreboding and fortissimo brass choir, is alternately turbulent and tender, but always serious and proclamative. It is music that is redolent of the pride a people can take in their own land.
The hymn-like music, at 5:08 in today’s link, which comes on the heels of much orchestral turbulence, is the heart and soul of Finandia. Many people have supposed that Sibelius took an existing hymn tune and simply inserted his own arrangement of it here. But it is in fact entirely original. The sound of a serene capella choir, singing its love for Finland, is a wonderful and unexpected contrast which never fails to connect with audiences.
This fine performance–another one in the magnificent Royal Albert Hall–is by the BBC Symphony, whose current conductor is a Finn, Sakari Oramo.
Pics: Sibelius’s home in Jarvanpaa, where Finlandia was composed – two images of the Finnish terrain