The 150th Anniversary of Jean Sibelius (1865–1957)

Jean Sibelius – The Man Behind the Music

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Jean Sibelius (1865–1957). Those less attuned to classical music might recognise the name from the composition software which, at least at my school, all students were introduced to, regardless of having ever picked up an instrument in his/her life. A moment now to reminisce over those care-free periods spent setting the keyboard output to ‘Fireworks’, accompanied inevitably by the machine’s automatic dance beat… Such scenes.

But it won’t surprise you to hear that Sibelius’ contribution to classical music goes beyond this malarkey. I refer, of course, to his symphonies, chamber music, choral music, concertos and other works. Below is a brief list of 5 must-listens for Sibelius.

I have to start with Symphony No. 5. An unashamedly popular symphony, it is perhaps known best for the final movement, which contains one of the most beautiful and majestic motifs ever written. Known as the ‘swan-call’, it is said to have been inspired by the composer witnessing the simultaneous flight of a flock of swans. The depth of the basses… The delicacy of the wind… The dignified grandeur of the horns… If you know Sibelius for nothing else, know him for this.

Symphony No. 2 has a great opening movement which moves from tranquil to near frantic in an instant. Like his 5th, this symphony also has a triumphant final movement which could have come straight out of a film score. Some find it cheesy. I still love it.

The Swan of Tuonela is third on the list and less well-known. What is it about swans? I’m not sure but apparently they inspire great music. This piece starts hauntingly and with a chilling sense of tragedy, reflecting the story on which it is based (Google the Lemminkäinen Suite for more). It contains one of the most famous cor anglais solos written for orchestra, but for me it’s the shimmering movements in the strings which make it.

Andante Festivo is perhaps misleadingly named, certainly you might be caught out expecting something festive. The music never really goes anywhere in particular; rather it just sits, assured but by no means lacking in passion. During a recording at the Helsinki radio station, Sibelius told the performers to ‘Play with more humanity!’ The man’s sentiments speak volumes. Easy listening.

Finlandia is the hall-of-famer found on compilation CDs everywhere, probably sandwiched between Mozart and Debussy on the tracklist. Sibelius originally wrote it for a political demonstration in Helsinki in 1899. Like other nationalistic works, this isn’t necessarily the finest demonstration of Sibelius’ genius (think Tchaik’s 1812 and Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance). Nevertheless, it’s colourful and rich and, well, it’s provocative. It gets the people going.

Hopefully this brief list makes a good starting point for those less familiar with Sibelius. Another great way to start might be to listen out for the BBC Proms 2015 coming up this summer, where, due to the anniversary, Sibelius features heavily.

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