Johan Julius Christian Sibelius was a composer and violinist, who was born on the 8th December 1865 in Hämeenlinna, Finland to a Swedish family. It is said that he was the greatest composer to emerge from Finland of the late romantic/early modern eras.
Heavily in debt, his father sadly died in July 1868 of typhoid. Consequently, he and his family moved in with his maternal grandmother who lived nearby. His aunt Julia gave him piano lessons from the age of 7, but she was very strict and often hit his hand when he played wrong notes. He began to improvise on his own and learnt to read music. His main male influence came from his uncle, who happened to have an interest in the violin and music in general. When Sibelius was age 10, his uncle gave him a violin and encouraged him musically. He much preferred the violin over the piano, often playing in trios and quartets with family and around the neighbourhood.
An early composition of his was Suite in D Minor for piano and violin. In 1881, the local bandmaster started giving him violin lessons. This deepened his love of the violin and his ambition was to have a career as an accomplished violinist. He did become very successful, but he decided that he wanted to focus and dedicate himself to becoming a composer.
His first language was Swedish, but he attended a Finnish-speaking preparatory school and in 1876, continued in this way, being admitted to the Hämeenlinna Normal Lyceum. After having to repeat a year, he passed his exams and graduated from school in 1885 and enrolled at Imperial Alexander University in Finland, studying law. It was at this point that he decided to change his first name from Johan to Jean, inspired from a deceased uncle of his. Thus, he became known as Jean Sibelius. However, he much preferred music, enough to move his studies to the Helsinki Music Institute as it was then known. He studied there until 1889. It was here that he received formal composition lessons.
Between 1889 and 1890, he studied in Berlin and then in Vienna from 1890 to 1891. He experienced operas and concerts and enjoyed the live music, including from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. He became interested in the works of composers Bruckner, Wagner and Beethoven. He also started to compose for orchestra at this time. He then returned to Helsinki in 1888, to further his music studies. He went to live with a friend from the Institute. He met and fell in love with 17 year old Aino Järnefelt. They married 4 years later on the 10th June in Maxmo. He conducted his overture and continued working on several other pieces, notably Kullervo, which premiered on the 28th April 1892. A year later, another piece of his Karelia was premiered, although the second performance was more successful than the first. He also began writing an opera around his time.
To support himself, Sibelius took on teaching assignments at a local conducting school and at the Institute itself. However, he did not have enough time for composing. 1898 saw his fortunes change when he won an annual grant for a substantial amount. This allowed him to finish many pieces, including in 1899, his first symphony, still at only the age of 33. It was premiered by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra on the 26th April 1899 and was conducted by Sibelius himself. It was very well received.
An important composition that Sibelius wrote at this time was Finlandia. It was in response to a protest about censorship from the Russian Empire. Within this piece is the Finlandia Hymn more popularly known as the Christian hymn Be Still My Soul, which was arranged for brass band in 2006 by James McFadyen.
From 1900, he spent a lot of time travelling, including spending a year in Italy and also around the UK, Scandinavia, the United States and Germany. Tragedy struck in the early part of this year though, when their youngest daughter sadly died. A year later while in Italy, he started writing his second symphony. This was premiered in 1902 on the 8th March and was very successful. In 1903, they moved into their home, that they had had built and which they named Ainola, (which means ‘Aino’s Place’) and was situated by Lake Tuusula. Here they raised 6 daughters. He continued to compose.
January 1905 saw Sibelius visit Berlin. Here he conducted his second symphony to mixed reviews. He visited Britain for the first time later that year. He returned home and there completed several compositions and performed several concerts. From 1907, he started eating out and drinking excessively and spending a large amount. This had horrendous consequences for his wife, who had to be admitted to a sanatorium due to exhaustion. This shocked Sibelius and he vowed to give up the extravagancies while she was away. He focussed on composing his third symphony. This was first performed in November 1907. Unfortunately, he had developed suspected throat cancer and underwent an operation later that year. Another stint in hospital came the following year due to his continued excessive drinking and smoking. Most of his concerts were cancelled and his health deteriorated still further in May that year. He went to Berlin for a further operation. When complete, he vowed again, to give up drinking and smoking finally. His illness inspired him to write further pieces, including his Fourth Symphony in early 1910.
He continued with composing over the next few years. As well as Berlin, he also visited the USA. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from Yale University. At the same time, the University of Helsinki also awarded him an honorary doctorate, which was collected on his behalf by Aino. He was travelling back from the USA when he heard about the troubles going on in Sarajevo, that led to the start of World War 1. This interrupted him receiving the royalties from his works. In April 1915, he began composing his Fifth Symphony. He completed it by the 8th December on his 50th birthday. He conducted its premier on his birthday, to much acclaim.
The next year, he worked on this symphony some more and made changes, combining movements and simplifying the ending. The changes were met with mixed feelings, so he revised it again. Sadly, at the beginning of 1917, he returned to drinking, which led to conflict with his wife. However, the relationship did improve. After the ending of the war, in early 1919, Sibelius decided he wanted an image change before he and Aino went on a visit to Copenhagen where he performed his Second Symphony. By the end of the year, he had begun his Sixth.
Fortune was bestowed on Silbelius in the form of a substantial financial donation in December 1920, which helped to pay for some of his debts. He was also in negotiation with the founder of New York’s Eastman School of Music, George Eastman, for a teaching post at a salary of $20,000 a year. However, he declined the post. Busy times followed with a successful trip to England and Norway. He began to suffer from exhaustion. By early 1922, he was suffering from headaches. He started to wear glasses to correct his vision. A year later, his Sixth Symphony was premiered. His Seventh was completed in 1924. He tried to spend a good deal of time resting as his nerves were strained after the busy time he had had. He composed a few pieces, but he returned to his alcohol dependency.
A year later, he was invited to compose music for a Shakespeare production of ‘The Tempest.’ Fortunately, he was able to complete this well before the deadline and it was well received. However, the number of pieces he composed declined rapidly from 1926. One of the final pieces he composed was the tone poem Tapiola. After this time, he retired from composing.
Sometime later, in 1935 on Sibelius’s 70th birthday, he was awarded the Goethe-Medal from the Nazi regime of Germany. There was unrest in Europe at this time. From 1939, the family lived in a home in Helsinki, but they went to live at Ainola for good in 1941, only visiting Helsinki a few times after the end of the Second World War.
December 1955 saw him celebrate his 90th birthday. Special performances of his music were given by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Sadly, on the 20th September 1957, Jean Sibelius died of a brain haemorrhage. He was 91. He received a state funeral and was buried in the garden of his home Ainola. His wife passed away on the 8th June 1969 at the age of 97 and is buried next to Sibelius. Their daughters sold the house in 1971 to the state of Finland, who tuned it into a museum in his memory. His diaries were published in 2005.
He leaves behind a legacy of 7 symphonies, a violin concerto and many tone poems, alongside numerous other works.