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Jean Sibelius, a figure of the greatest importance in the music of Scandinavia and in the late romantic symphony, was born in Finland, of Finnish ancestry, but educated first, as befitted his social position as the son of a doctor, in Swedish. It was at school that he acquired his knowledge of Finnish literature, and particularly his fascination with the ancient sagas in which the legends of his country are recounted.
After study in Helsinki, followed by training in Berlin and Vienna, Sibelius soon established himself at home and was in 1897 granted a state pension that enabled him to devote himself thereafter entirely to composition. This he did until 1929, after which his creative life came to a virtual close. He had written seven symphonies and an eighth was frequently promised, and in fact completed more than once, each time to be destroyed as in some way inadequate in the modern world. The long silence of Sibelius has puzzled music historians and analysts, since such a complete withdrawal by a composer of such stature and such fecundity is exceptional.
Among the most popular of the compositions of Sibelius must be the Karelia Suite, derived from music written in 1893 to accompany a series of patriotic tableaux dealing with the history of the Karelia region from the year 1293 to 1811. The Intermezzo had originally appeared as a "March in the Old Style", while the Ballade was a song used in the pageant and the Alla marcia the march with which the performance ended.
The year 1895 saw the first composition of a series of four episodes from the legend of Lemminkäinen, from the epic Kalevala. The third of these, The Swan of Tuonela, was envisaged at first as the prelude to an opera, The Burning of the Boat, a project soon abandoned, after a visit by the composer to Bayreuth. Lemminkäinen's Return formed the fourth section of a work that in later life Sibelius was to refer to as a symphony. The Swan of Tuonela, represented by the cor anglais, glides over the black waters that surround Tuonela, the land of the dead. Lemminkäinen, a young hero, undergoes various adventures with Pohjola, the North Country, where he seeks a wife. He had tried to kill the Swan of Tuoni, but had perished in the attempt, only to be brought to life by the magic power of his mother.
Valse triste has enjoyed an overwhelming reputation, its popularity at one time as regrettable as that of one of Rachmaninov's Preludes or Debussy's Clair de lune. The piece was dramatic in origin, written as part of the incidental music for his brother-in-law Arvid Jaernefelt's play Kuolema (Death). The son dreams, by the bedside of his sick mother: the room is suffused with light and the sounds of a waltz can gradually be heard. His mother rises from her bed and starts to dance to the music, summoning guests to join her. Dying, she tries to see the faces of the mysterious dancers, but none will look at her. As she sinks down on the bed, the music pauses, but, with renewed energy, she rejoins the dance, now in wilder rhythms than before. At the height of the dance there is a knock at the door and Death stands waiting.
Finlandia was written in 1899 as part of an unlikely Press Pensions Celebration. The three connected movements of the tone-poem express the spirit of Finland, using material that has all the appearance of a national origin, although the melodies are the creation of the composer.
The Symphonic Fantasia Pohjola's Daughter was written in 1906, and returns once more to the Kalevala for its programmatic source of inspiration. The great Finnish epic had in fact been assembled earlier in the nineteenth century from the oral tradition of the peasants, lays that from 1828, the date of their publication, became more accessible to a literate audience. While Kalevala is the Fatherland of Heroes, Pohja or Pohjola is the back country, Lapland and the North. The heroes of Kalevala seek wives from among the daughters of Pohjola, with varying degrees of success, since the normal state between the two was one of open hostility, particularly under the Lady of Pohjola, Louhi, protectress of the country.