On 8 December 1865, Jean Sibelius was born in Hämeenlinna, Finland. He would go on to become not just his country's best known composer, but one of the most influential and innovative voices of his age. Still as supremely popular with performers and audiences as he is revered by scholars, picking out just five of his exceptional output of orchestral works, chamber music, songs and choral works is a fairly invidious task. However, for those wanting to get into his music for the first time, may we humbly suggest the following, as we celebrate the great man's 150th birthday…
Symphony No. 5, Op. 82
Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony was premiered in Helsinki on 8 December 1915 – his 50th birthday – though he continued to revise it significantly until 1919. The symphony is unusual in its length, with just three movements lasting 33 minutes. The final movement features the famous swan theme, a magnificent thematic development that was inspired by an real encounter with a wedge of 16 swans in flight.
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47
The 1904 premiere of Sibelius’s only concerto was a disaster. The violinist Sibelius had dedicated the work to was unable to travel to Finland, so Sibelius engaged violin teacher Victor Nováček, who was not an experienced soloist, to perform the premiere. After receiving such poor reception Sibelius revised the work extensively, and the revised version was performed by the Berlin Court Orchestra conducted by Richard Strauss a year later.
Finlandia, Op. 26
This tone poem was written in 1899 as part of the Press Celebrations Music suite – a series of works depicting Finnish history – and covertly intended to protest against increasing Russian censorship. The Finlandia Hymn was later reworked into a stand-alone piece, and is an important Finnish national song. With different words, the music is also used in the Christian hymn Be Still, My Soul.
Karelia Suite, Op. 11
Sibelius's Karelia Music was written in 1893 and was a grand affair, consisting of an overture, eight tableaux and two intermezzos. Disastrously, in 1945 Sibelius burnt the score of Karelia Music along with his Eighth Symphony, but at least we still have the three parts of it that make up the Karelia Suite that the composer had put together for a concert. These are a rousing Intermezzo, a more reflective Ballade and an upbeat Alla Marcia.
String Quartet in D minor, Op. 56 – Voces intimae
Our last essential Sibelius work has a happier tale. Inspired by his Latin title Voces intimae ('intimate' or 'inner' voices) Sibelius set about composing a string quartet with a truely conversational character. For once, he was satisfied with his work. In a letter to his wife he described the composition as 'Something wonderful. The kind of thing that brings a smile to your lips at the hour of death.'