On 6th December, 100 years to the day since Finland declared independence, Gothenburg Symphony live streams a concert of Finnish music, closing up with Sibelius’ well-known tone poem Finlandia. Here, we look at the story of this rousing, nationalistic work.

Serious young man: Sibelius in 1892 by Eero Järnefelt © Public domain | Wikimedia Commons
Serious young man: Sibelius in 1892 by Eero Järnefelt
© Public domain | Wikimedia Commons

Jean Sibelius’s detractors wrote him off for his perceived parochialism, and it’s likely that summations of his work as “Romantic nationalism” later in life would have galled him. But in his earlier career, nationalism was not only a driving force in some of his best-loved works, but also a response to very tangible historical and political pressures. Though educated in a Swedish school and not having learned Finnish until later in life, the composer nevertheless identified strongly with the culture of Finland – a culture that was, in the last years of the nineteenth century, straining at the leash of foreign influence.

From as far back as the Middle Ages, Finland was in the competing spheres of influence of the empires of Sweden and Russia. But in 1808 what ostensibly began as a temporary occupation of Finland by Russia in order to put strategic pressure on Sweden became an invasion that would last over a century. For almost the entirety of the 19th century, Finland existed as a “Grand Duchy” within the Russian empire, which sought to decrease Finland’s autonomy by imposing so-called “Russification” policies. Finnish nationalism rose up in response to this foreign influence, and Tsar Nicholas II’s introduction of another wave of Russification policies in 1908 only served to strengthen anti-Russian feeling. Part of the Finns’ cultural fightback derived from the 1835 the publication of Elias Lönnrot’s Kalevala – a collection of indigenous legends and folktales which formed a kind of mythic history of Finland. Later, it would prove a continual font of inspiration for Sibelius, whose patriotic feelings chimed in with many other Finnish dissenters.

<i>The Attack</i> by Edvard Isto, which came to symbolise resistance to Russification © Public domain | Wikimedia Commons
The Attack by Edvard Isto, which came to symbolise resistance to Russification
© Public domain | Wikimedia Commons

This was the political backdrop against which Finlandia was formed. Press censorship was a strong characteristic of Russian rule, and in 1899 Sibelius was asked to compose some music for a “Press Celebrations” event. It was advertised as a fundraiser for pensions of newspaper workers, but its real purpose was to help finance a Finnish free press. So, to mark the occasion Sibelius chose to create a set of seven musical tableaux depicting momentous occasions in his country’s history. Starting in the mists of Finnish legend with the Kalevala-inspired “Song of Väinämöinen”, the piece moved through musical depictions of events such as the introduction of Christianity to Finland, the Thirty Years’ War and a Russian invasion of 1714. The work ended, however, in the rousing “Finland Awakes” – an optimistic look towards the country’s future. This finale was so well-received that Sibelius revised it as a standalone piece the following year with the title Finlandia – a moniker suggested by an unknown fan. The piece was premiered in July by Robert Kajanus and the Helsinki Philharmonic. As the work grew in popularity, however, it had to be performed under politically inoffensive pseudonyms to avoid Russian censorship. These included “Happy feelings at the awakening of Finnish Spring”, “A Scandinavian Choral March” and even “Impromptu”.

Probably inspired by a view over the area of Aulanko, Finlandia feels imbued with a sense of stately purpose, accumulating a feeling of giddy energy from the strident, almost martial brass fanfare and rolling timpani that open the piece. An ominous feeling dominates this early section, representing the years of occupation and oppression that had dogged Finland’s past, but this gives way to a stirring choral section that has a semi-sacred feel. Here, Sibelius intended to create a sense of a Finnish tonality without resorting to drawing from native folk music, as he wrote to his wife Aino at the time: “I would not wish to tell a lie in art... But I think I am now on the right path. I now grasp those Finnish, purely Finnish tendencies in music less realistically but more truthfully than before.” Known as the “Finlandia Hymn”, this choral section was later published as a separate piece with a collection of Masonic ritual music in 1927.

Aulangonjärvi in Aulanko © Leo-setä | Wikimedia Commons
Aulangonjärvi in Aulanko
© Leo-setä | Wikimedia Commons

When the Helsinki Philharmonic took Finlandia on the orchestra’s first major tour of Europe, Sibelius also began to make a name for himself outside of Finland. One can feel Sibelius’s sense of the purpose of his music in his writings of the time: “I can win a place, I believe, with my music. No, I don’t believe; I know I can.” Clearly, he felt that he was winning a place for his country as well as himself, and when the Finnish parliament declared independence from Russia in December 1917, this feeling was crystallised in the music of Finlandia. “We fought 600 years for our freedom and I am part of the generation which achieved it,” he wrote. “Freedom! My Finlandia is the story of this fight. It is the song of our battle, our hymn of victory.” From then on, Finlandia remained a constant source of inspiration for patriotic Finns, with the poet Veikko Antero Koskenniemi writing his own lyrics to the “Finlandia Hymn” in response to Russian aggression during the Second World War. This version of the hymn has become a kind of unofficial national anthem of Finland, though it seems Sibelius himself was ambivalent about the choral aspect of his work, saying, “It is written for an orchestra. But if the world wants to sing it, it can’t be helped.”

Appraisals of Sibelius as just a “Romantic nationalist” would have irked the composer, but it’s clear that a strong love for Finland drove much of his work. He took to his role as a figurehead of Finnish culture with gusto, refusing to flee for safety when Russia invaded in World War Two, and he continued to draw on Finnish folklore throughout his career. Finlandia has become not only synonymous with Sibelius’s patriotic side, but also with the wider sense of Finnish self-identity. An interesting fate for a piece which the composer at one time dismissed as “insignificant compared with my other works.”

Gothenburg Symphony's stream begins at 19:00 CET. 

You can also watch video performances of Sibelius's music on the Bachtrack At Home Archive.