Finlandia, Opus 26
BORN: December 8, 1865. Tavestehus, Finland
DIED: September 20, 1957. Järvenpää, Finland
COMPOSED/WORLD PREMIERE: Sibelius composed Finlandia in 1899 for performance at a political demonstration held in Helsinki on December 14 of that year. He revised it in 1900
SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—February 1913. Henry Hadley led the first SFS performance at a “supplementary concert,” but it did not appear at regular subscription performances until March 1939. Pierre Monteux conducted. MOST RECENT—February 2006. Marek Janowski conducted
INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones and tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, and strings
DURATION: About 8 mins
THE BACKSTORY In the 1890s, Sibelius was recognized by Finland as its greatest composer. After 1900, he became famous around the world. Finlandia marked the turning point. Its popularity surprised no one more than Sibelius, who had agreed to contribute some music to a public demonstration in Helsinki. But 1899 was a time of heightened political tensions, as the Russian hold on Finland was growing tighter, and so a simple and brief, but stirring composition called Finland Awakes, crowned by a big singable tune, struck home like a thunderbolt. The following year, Sibelius revised the score and gave it the title Finlandia. The Helsinki Philharmonic, then only eighteen months old, took the music on its first major tour, carrying Sibelius’s name throughout Europe (the tour ended at the Paris World Exposition). Despite the narrow political circumstances of its creation, Finlandia turned out to have universal appeal, and it soon made Sibelius the best-known living Finn.
THE MUSIC Just a few minutes in length, this piece inspired national pride and brought Sibelius personal fame and sweeping popularity. Just as Boléro eventually hounded Ravel, the success of Finlandia came to irritate Sibelius, particularly when it overshadowed greater and more substantial works. Still, this is highly effective music, richly scored and imaginatively colored—those dark clouds at the top are particularly unforgettable. Best of all, it boasts one of music’s great melodies, although, as in Elgar’s most famous Pomp and Circumstance march, it sometimes catches audiences by surprise, coming at the very last minute.
Phillip Huscher is the program annotator for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, in whose program book his note on Finlandia appeared originally. Reprinted with permission.
MORE ABOUT THE MUSIC
Recordings: Osmo Vänskä conducting the Lahti Symphony Orchestra (BIS) | Colin Davis conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (RCA Red Seal) | Alexander Gibson conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Chandos)
Reading: Jean Sibelius, by Erik Tawaststjerna, in English translation by Robert Layton (Faber & Faber and University of California Press; three volumes, out of print but peerless) | The Music of Jean Sibelius, by Burnett James (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press) | Sibelius, by Cecil Gray (Oxford University Press)