Sibelius: A Composer's Life and the Awakening of Finland

Sibelius: A Composer's Life and the Awakening of Finland

by Glenda Dawn Goss


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One of the twentieth century’s greatest composers, Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) virtually stopped writing music during the last thirty years of his life. Recasting his mysterious musical silence and his undeniably influential life against the backdrop of Finland’s national awakening, Sibelius will be the definitive biography of this creative legend for many years to come.

Glenda Dawn Goss begins her sweeping narrative in the Finland of Sibelius’s youth, which remained under Russian control for the first five decades of his life. Focusing on previously unexamined events, Goss explores the composer’s formative experiences as a Russian subject and a member of the Swedish-speaking Finnish minority. She goes on to trace Sibelius’s relationships with his creative contemporaries, with whom he worked to usher in a golden age of music and art that would endow Finns with a sense of pride in their heritage and encourage their hopes for the possibilities of nationhood. Skillfully evoking this artistic climate—in which Sibelius emerged as a leader—Goss creates a dazzling portrait of the painting, sculpture, literature, and music it inspired. To solve the deepest riddles of Sibelius’s life, work, and enigmatic silence, Goss contends, we must understand the awakening in which he played so great a role.

Situating this national creative tide in the context of Nordic and European cultural currents, Sibelius dramatically deepens our knowledge of a misunderstood musical giant and an important chapter in the intellectual history of Europe.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226304779
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/01/2009
Pages: 549
Product dimensions: 7.30(w) x 10.10(h) x 1.90(d)

About the Author

Glenda Dawn Goss is the former editor in chief of the Jean Sibelius Critical Edition and teaches at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki.

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Copyright © 2009 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-30477-9

Chapter One

Finland's Nature Vårt Land—Our Land

Gray mists churned and eddied around the prow of the ship. Occasionally, the vapours parted, affording a glimpse of rocky outcropping or stony island looming terrifyingly close. Still the ferry kept to port, the pilot skillfully maneuvering past first one, then another tall ship gliding by, their triple masts cloaked in the haze. Slowly, out of the wet, hovering clouds a shoreline, a harbor, then a town emerged from the fog. Finland, like Brigadoon, rose magically from the sea.


To approach Finland from the sea is to come upon a mysterious and alien land that appears to rise miraculously out of rocks, mists, and marine depths. The metaphor of emergence is apt: geologists say the land is indeed rising, the consequence of its release from ice sheets that formed during the last ice age. Finland has been rising figuratively as well: in the early twenty-first century the country is enjoying a booming economic and artistic golden age. Finland is held aloft as a model for its humane social programs, educational achievements, technological excellence, and artistic attainments. With the global success of Finnish products ranging from Nokia telephones and utilitarian modern art forms to an astounding crop of world-class conductors, singers, composers, and even prizewinning rock groups, Finland stands at the forefront of technology and education, and of medical, social, and musical accomplishment. Yet a long and terrible history involving countless personal sacrifices underlies the success of the Finns and their mysterious, waterladen country.

To outsiders, Finland's exotic qualities begin with its faraway location, a good fourteen days' journey from North America by sea—in favorable weather. Although Finland has been a part of the European Union (and its constituent European Community) since 1995, the country's isolation from central Europe, many of whose citizens consider Finland the end of the world, is such that its southernmost city and capital, Helsinki, rarely shows up on central European television weather maps, although Stockholm and Moscow are regularly identified. Situated on the northern periphery of Europe, the land stretches from the Arctic Circle (within which approximately one-third of Finland lies) to the Baltic Sea. The Gulf of Bothnia forms its western border; the Gulf of Finland its southernmost limit. Thousands of miles of shoreline, lakefront, and coastal marsh meander across its face and around its borders, which taper off into strikingly beautiful archipelagos. Yet if the inland and outbound waters of the west and south give Finnish nature much of its special character, the eastern boundary imparts distinctive qualities of another kind. For some eight hundred miles—a border longer than that of any other western country—Finland's frontier adjoins Russian territory.

Some say geography is destiny, and there is no better example than Finland and its environmental place next to the global giant that so profoundly shaped twentieth-century history. In Finland, East and West converge as nowhere else on earth. And from that convergence this story flows.


The geographical position, of course, explains the characteristics of the land. Even though the last ice age was about ten thousand years ago, its effects are starkly visible still today: gravelly ridges called eskers and smooth, oval hills, or drumlins, thought to be the work of glaciers. The glaciers also left shallow depressions that filled with water, creating the "Land of a Thousand Lakes" immortalized by the national poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg (1804–1877) in the first canto of his Fänrik Ståls sägner (Tales of Ensign Stål). Had Runeberg been more scientific and less poetic, he would have had to describe his country as having around 190,000 lakes that provide a system of interconnecting waterways. The interlaced channels link Finland's interior and the sea as neatly as any network of modern highways. Even the Baltic Sea has the characteristics of a large lake: it has no tides, and it is relatively static and shallow. And only in recent years, geologically speaking, did it open out to the Atlantic Ocean.

From ancient times water provided the most natural and affordable means of transport. Nearly five thousand miles of inland waterways wander through the Finnish countryside, with another five thousand miles in coastal fairways. These water routes were the reason that, when railroads began transforming central Europe in the 1830s and 1840s, most Finns deemed such technology extravagant and unnecessary. When finally Finland's first railroad was built, it was to connect two ports: Helsinki and a little town nestled alongside Lake Vanajavesi called Hämeenlinna. And when the railroad tracks turned east toward Saint Petersburg—their ultimate destination—their route was again geographically determined: they ran along the ridge named Salpausselkä, a rim left where the glacier had stopped, which facilitated construction in a way that going directly east from Helsinki could not.

Despite Runeberg's poetic eloquence, not everyone has found beauty in the land, especially because the country's wetlands give rise to rich bogs, called suo in Finnish (at one time thought to be the root source of the country's Finnish name, Suomi, although that theory is generally discredited today). The artist Albert Edelfelt (1854–1905), whose limpid canvases turned Finland's most luminous face to the world, was known to comment on the "unutterable monotony" of the Finnish landscape; Axel Gallén (1865–1931), later known as Akseli Gallen-Kallela, who loved Finland fiercely, lamented the country's flatness. When the celebrated violinist Leopold Auer (1845–1930) travelled through Finland on his way to Stockholm, he left with a dismal impression:

Both in Finland and this part of Sweden nature wears a sad and monotonous aspect; there are forests of wretched little firs and pines, broken by clearings showing small hollows filled with muddy water, gray and leafless brush, and an occasional small lake, or some great rocks dating from the volcanic epoch. Remnants of unmelted, grimy snow bordered the ditches on either side of the railroad tracks ... the general effect was depressing.

Yet however aesthetically it is defined, the idea of the land, "our land," a word which in both Finnish (maa) and Swedish (land) means "country" as well as "land," has a central place in the national psyche and its beliefs, thanks not least to the emotional power of Finnish poetry and song. One need look no further than the erstwhile national anthem, a combination of Runeberg's verses and Fredrik Pacius's music, whose title is Vårt land (Our Land/ Country; see fig. 1.1).

Finland's geographical position, between 60° and 70° north, also determines the climate. And that climate is dominated by winter. "Winter is the only real season of the year," wrote Toivo Pekkanen in his novel Nuorin veli (The Youngest Brother); "winter is indeed of our essence: snow, ice and cold are a part of our nature. Winter never betrays us. Its arrival is a certainty." Finnish winter means "vehement darkness" (Olaus Magnus's all-too-apt description) and, until very recent times, a band of sea ice that girdled the country. A fragment of one of Runeberg's poems preserves a Finn's proud if laconic perspective on Finnish winters:

Vi [är] Europas förpost mot naturen, We are Europe's outpost against Nature Mellan isar är vår lager skuren Our fame has been cut out of ice Och vårt bröd vi ryckt ur is och snö. And our bread we hacked out of ice and snow.

To outsiders, the shivery horrors of winter have long fed delicious tales of tongues and lips excruciatingly frozen against drinking cups, of forts defended with water poured upon the walls, of "stockades [converted] into unassailable barriers of ice, that shone like 'looking-glasses' ...[;] of rivers turned to marble; of reindeer sleighs drawn at the speed of a bird's flight; ... of people so mutilated by cold that they were deficient of arms and legs; of the northern lights and of the low altitude of the sun which cast a man's shadow ten times as long as himself upon the flat white snow."

Those who struggle and overcome such conditions must be heroic indeed. And in truth, even though the effects of sea and air mean that Finnish winters are often warmer than at similar latitudes elsewhere, real dangers exist: the first Finn who managed to compose a symphony, Axel Gabriel Ingelius (1822–1868), was sadly not the first Finn to freeze to death. And the latitude produces inevitable and profound psychological effects: the rhythm of daylight and darkness that brings the spectacular white nights of summer also delivers the long, smothering night that reigns from November to February, abetting drinking, depression, and suicide. For Finns, hell is not a place of eternal fire and melting heat. It is cold so bitter that even teeth and toenails freeze.

Both the long, slow geologic processes and the climate are part of Sibelius's story. For they have left their marks not just on the terrain, but also on the people and their politics. Throughout recorded history the country's inhabitants have seemed strange to outsiders. From Tacitus (ca. 55–120), who described the Finnish Lapps as living in barbarism and misery, to Herman Melville (1819–1891), who wrote in Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847) that seamen believed Finns to be possessed of the gift of second sight and the power to wreak supernatural vengeance, Finnish people have appeared to be a race apart. Indeed, to one another they appeared unusually homogeneous, as Zachris Topelius observed in his Boken om vårt land (Book of Our Country).

People who live in a geographical region so emphatically removed from the mainstream unavoidably experience its psychological and practical effects. Over the centuries Finns have cultivated great self-reliance, strong family ties, fierce pride in their land and its dark moods, and their famous sisu, a quality perhaps best rendered in English as "true grit." Their capacity for drink is legendary, their taciturnity a subject of humor, even among themselves. The Italian pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924) encountered the notorious reticence exactly one hour after his first endeavor to begin a conversation with a Finnish colleague: "every attempt," he grumbled, "... rebounded as if against a stone." The granite of the archipelago was not the only rocky part of life in Finland.


As surely as it shaped its people, Finland's geography has shaped the country's political and economic history. Lying between Sweden and Russia, Finland has belonged to both, and both have left impressions on the culture as indelible as the glaciers left upon the land. Finland presents a unique point of contact between west and east. From the west came the Swedes, with their Christianity, vibrant trade, and social progress. The Finns' long history as part of Sweden reaches back to the 1200s, when much of Finland was under Swedish jurisdiction. With the Peace of Nöteborg (Pähkinälinna) in 1323, the first of several borders distinguishing Finland from Russia was established. During the following centuries Sweden's political, administrative, and ecclesiastical power structures enveloped the Finns. Finland was to become still more like Sweden with the accession to the throne in 1523 of Gustav Vasa, the king who centralized administrative power in Stockholm and broke the hold of the Catholic church. The Reformation he brought to his kingdom, which included Finland, had consequences reaching down to the present.

Early in the nineteenth century, other political forces altered the balance of power in the Nordic region and with it, Finland's history. Alexander I, Emperor and Supreme Ruler of All Russia, and Napoleon I, meeting at Tilsit in 1807, agreed to join their formidable might in a bid to conquer the world and divide it between them. For Alexander, the proximity of his capital, Saint Petersburg, made Finland strategically important as a buffer zone against outside aggression. In 1808 he ordered his troops across the Finnish border. Although the Finnish soldiers were entirely loyal to Sweden and the fighting was brutal, the Swedes were defeated. In the aftermath of that war, the area of Finland was annexed to Russia as an autonomous grand duchy and, for the first time in history, defined with exact borders in the Treaty of Hamina in 1809.

There can be no doubt that the status of grand duchy had definite advantages. Whereas previously the Finns had merely been one of many parts of the great Swedish kingdom, now Finland was both geopolitically defined and autonomous. The new ruler even assured the Finns "membership in the family of nations"—placée désormais au rang des nations. The geopolitical definition and the status of autonomy were key factors enabling a Finnish national culture to evolve. Indeed, fostering such a culture appears to have been one of the Russian emperors' goals. As conceived in imperial terms, the policy of autonomy was based on the belief that political loyalty to the new rulers and distance from the old ones could be ensured by continuing the established institutional structures. The same policy was followed in other countries annexed by Russia (such as Poland and the Baltic provinces).

Finland's local, central administration thus continued as before, managed by local elites on the same Gregorian calendar as before, only under the watchful eye of an imperially appointed governor-general. The emperors even allowed Finland a special juridical position with its own constitution and its own Diet of Four Estates (not convened, however, until 1863), and they encouraged the development of the Finnish language. In a word, the conditions for developing a strong national profile and the impetus for a national "awakening" flourished under the Russian emperors in ways that almost certainly would not have happened had Finland remained simply a remote region of the Swedish realm. Rather than "self-determining agents," the Finns were part of a grand imperial plan, and their change of status, from Swedish province to grand duchy, was far more than an administrative shift. Finland was now joined to a huge realm, one fast approaching one-sixth of the world's territory and rapidly expanding

          from Perm to Tauris,
    From the cold rocks of Finland to the flaming Colchis,
    From the stunned Kremlin
    To the walls of stagnant China,
    Flashing its steel bristles,
    Will not the Russian land rise?

In 1830, when Adrien Brué, the geographer to the French king, mapped the world, he showed the Russian Empire stretching from Finland's western coast (the area called Ostrobothnia) to Alaska ("Amérique russe," which Russia sold to the United States only in 1867) (see fig. 1.2).

Despite the uncertainties of its future, Finland belonged to a domain of incalculable resources, abundant wealth, possibilities not previously imagined. New ways of thinking, no less than the altered political status, would affect everyone in the land.


In the cold my song was resting, Long remained in darkness hidden. I must draw the songs from Coldness, From the Frost must I withdraw them.


It was the Russian Empire that determined where Jean Sibelius was born. Hämeenlinna had long been a garrison town and a service and training center for Russian troops. It was the place where, on December 15, 1854, Emperor Nicholas I had established a sixth Sharpshooter Battalion, part of the increased defense prompted by the misbegotten Crimean War. By 1859 the sharpshooter unit had been converted to a training battalion. And when in that year a doctor was needed, the position was filled by a deeply loyal Finnish physician named Christian Gustaf Sibelius (1821–1868). A mature thirty-eight-year-old from Lovisa who had studied at the Imperial Alexander University in Helsinki (the institution formerly located in Turku), Christian Sibelius had served his emperor on the ship Finland, part of the imperial fleet guarding the Finnish coast. By the time he settled down in Hämeenlinna, the training center had been dismantled, so Christian Sibelius became the chief physician for the Sixth Hämeenlinna Battalion. The only other physician in the town, Otto Blåfield, perhaps seeing his chance, moved away, leaving his colleague to care for all of Hämeenlinna's citizens. Evidently this turn of events presented no special problem. Christian Sibelius had worked elsewhere as town doctor and in that very year completed a dissertation in gynecology.


Excerpted from SIBELIUS by GLENDA DAWN GOSS Copyright © 2009 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Preface: Methods and Miracles, Debts and Confessions           
Practical Questions: Names and References     
Towns and Place-Names         
A Window to the World
The Autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire
1 Finland’s Nature: Vårt Land? Our Land      
2 Pillars of Finnish Identity       
3 Nineteenth-Century Finland: Scènes historiques       
4 Imperial Helsinki       
5 Crosswinds  
6 From Russian Empire to Musical Empire       
Herää Suomi! / Awake, Finland!
7 Finland from Afar     
8 Young Finland and the Carelian Call to Arms
9 Science, Art, and Symbolism
10 Of Sagas and Springtime     
11 Aphrodite and the National Project 
12 National Aspirations and Symbolist Angst   
13 The Politics of the Theatrical           
14 From Russia but Not with Love      
15 The Finnish Resistance        
16 A New Millennium: Helsinki, Paris, the World!        
17 Italian Classicism and Finnish Nationalism    
18 Country Living and the Finnish National Movement 
1905: The Crucial Hour           
Taide Kuuluu Kaikille / Art Belongs to All
19 Connections East and West
20 Proletarians versus Bourgeoisie       
21 Turning Points         
22 Onward, Ye Powerful People!        
23 The Militaristic State           
24 Might Makes Right: The 1930s       
25 The Close   

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