My Sibelius List

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Hyvää Syntymäpäivää! Happy birthday to Jean Sibelius, on this the 150th anniversary of his birth!

I’ve pointed out before here on my blog that Sibelius has long been one of my favorite composers. Maybe it’s my Finnish heritage (my maternal family emigrated from Finland), but the musical and emotional language of Sibelius’s music has always spoken to me in a direct, personal way. Plus, I’ve long been fascinated by the Kalevala—Finland’s weirdly wonderful collection of epic poetry—which provided an endless source of inspiration for Sibelius’s music.

To celebrate Sibelius’s birthday, let me share my five favorite works by the Finnish master. To be clear, I’m making no attempt to assemble some “objective” list of his greatest works, let alone provide a comprehensive list of his music (click here for a wonderful segment on all seven of Sibelius’ symphonies from NPR, with commentary by the late Michael Steinberg). The selections below do, I think, present a great starting list of exploring Sibelius’s music… but in the end this is just a completely subjective, no-other-reason-than-I-love-them list of favorite works I can’t imagine living without. By all means, if you have your own favorites, let me know.

Kippis!

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Pohjola’s Daughter. I came across this work by accident during my junior high school days. I knew and loved the work Finlandia and decided to save up my allowance money and buy recording of my own. Happily, Pohjola’s Daughter was included. From the melancholy opening to the mysterious ending I was hooked, and the work remains one of my all-time favorite works of music. The work is based on famous episode from the Kalevala—specifically the trials of the wise old sorcerer Väinämöinen to find a wife. He travels to the far northern realm of Pohjola, and there meets the daughter of Louhi, the enigmatic sorceress who rules there. The maiden agrees to marry Väinämöinen if he can magically complete a series of tasks for her. Stories being stories, he fails at the last task and returns home alone. But although Sibeilus was inspired by the tale, he doesn’t set out to literally tell the story through music, as Dukas did in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Instead, he creates a more universal work of music that while undeniably Finnish, which could equally evoke the worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien.

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Lemminkäinen’s Return. (Occasionally listed as Lemminkäinen’s Homeward Journey) I came across this tone poem on the same recording that introduced me to Pohjola’s Daughter, above. The work is the finale in a cycle of tone poems that depict four episodes from the adventures of the charismatic rouge, Lemminkäinen (the famous The Swan of Tuolena comes from the same cycle). At the end of his many adventures, Lemminkäinen and his companion Tiera attempt to return home… and what a thrill ride it is! The music erupts off the page, sounding like a thousand screaming orcs have burst out of the gates of Mordor and are in hot pursuit.

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The Origin of Fire. (Occasionally listed as Ukko the Firemaker.) This is another piece I ran across by accident—it was filler on a recording of Sibelius’s massive choral symphony, Kullervo. The Origin of Fire captures some of the same brooding intensity of that larger piece, as well as its mythic character. The text is pulled from the Kalevala. The sorceress Louhi has stolen the sun and moon, plunging the world into inescapable darkness. Ukko the Thunderer—the Finnish sky god somewhat similar to Zeus who rules all creation—looks out across the world and is concerned. He takes his sword of light and hammers at it to release sparks. At this, the primordial moment of creation, he breathes on one such spark until it bursts to light as fire. Alas, Ukko entrusted this miraculous flame to one of the Daughters of the Air who carelessly dropped it—sending it ripping from the sky as lightning. The work took on extra-musical associations in Finland, which was still under the rule of Russia. Finns looked around and saw themselves mired in darkness, with the fire of enlightenment similarly in danger of being lost. Years later, I think it holds up remarkably well. Its ending is somewhat abrupt, mirroring what happens in the original story, but it contains a wonderful sense of atmosphere and ancient ritual. Plus some magnificent male chorus singing!

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Symphony No. 2. I love all of Sibelius’s symphonies—although in different ways, and for different reasons. I know that most people think of Sibelius’s Second Symphony as primarily a nationalistic work, a veiled statement about Finland standing up to Russian aggression. There’s truth there, although Sibelius insisted he was not trying to tell any particular story and the symphony was purely a piece of absolute music. Fair enough. But for me, the symphony has a very different meaning… for me, the work (and particularly the first movement) reflects falling snow, and that first excited brush with winter. My own personal tradition is that every year when the season’s first major snow storm comes around, I turn off the lights, pour myself an adult beverage, and put on my favorite recording of this symphony. Hearing this wonderful music as snow dances in the air? Absolute magic.  (If you had any sense, you’d order Osmo and the Minnesota Orchestra’s Grammy-nominated recording of the Second Symphony here.)

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Symphony No. 6. For whatever reason, this work is my symphony. I don’t know that I’d ever argue it is Sibelius’s masterpiece—there are far too many candidates—but it is a work I am completely devoted to. Just play those gorgeous opening suspensions and I’m closed off to anything else.  As I’ve mentioned in my blog, I completely fell under the spell of Osmo Vänskä’s recording with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, and drove 500 miles to hear Osmo perform it with the Minnesota Orchestra way back in 2000 (I think everyone else in the audience was there to hear some guy named Joshua Bell play the Sibelius Violin Concerto… or something). I’m anxiously awaiting the Minnesota Orchestra’s new recording….

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That’s my five. Again, I don’t know that I would argue that my selections are objectively Sibelius’s “top five works,” but they are the works that mean the most to me personally. But let me add one more treat, in honor of Sibelius’s birthday. In Helsinki’s Senate Square, a group of Finns gathered to pay tribute to the great composer by belting out a magical version of the hymn from Finlandia. Perfect.

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Xochipilli

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5 thoughts on “My Sibelius List

  1. I admit that I enjoy and love the music of Sibelius as more of a totality, such that I don’t really have a top 5 favorite list of his works. I will confess, however, to a soft spot for “En saga”, op. 9, even though it’s obviously early and far from his most mature work, probably because of the great passages for the middle register. Fortunately, the SLSO gave it live once here a few seasons back.
    We tend to get the greatest hits of Sibelius in symphony concerts, no big surprise, although Robertson did have the guts to program the 4th Symphony back in his 1st season here, which was the first SLSO performance in over 3 decades or so. I would love to hear Symphonies 3 and 6 live at some point, but that’s probably wishful thinking here, unless John Storgards or Hannu Lintu get to choose in a future guest gig. Interestingly, on BBC Radio 3, the 6th seems to have gotten quite a fair share of airings of late, even before the just finished anniversary year.

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  2. Wonderful list. I came by your blog via a Google search. Sibelius is a favorite of mine.

    I was curious if you have ever heard The Wood Nymph? It’s a beautiful early tone poem, that was undiscovered for decades.

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    • Thank you for the kind words! I love the Wood-Nymph—in fact, it was Osmo Vänskä’s recording of that fascinating work that first brought him to my attention. I’m thrilled to have heard so many fascinating Sibelius performances under his direction here in Minnesota… his Kullervo from earlier this year was particularly memorable.

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