Jean Sibelius
Jean Sibelius © Getty

7 little things you might not know about Jean Sibelius

Johan Julius Christian Sibelius, better known as Jean Sibelius, was born on 8 December 1865. A handful of anecdotes shed fresh light on the life of this iconic Finnish musician.

Jean Sibelius wrote seven symphonies and many very well-known pieces, such as Finlandia, The Swan of Tuonela and The Oceanides. His music helped forge the Finnish national identity and left a lasting mark on the country's history.

Jean Sibelius was born on 8 December 1865 in Hämeenlinna (the capital of the Southern Finland province) and died at the age of 91 on 20 September 1957 in Järvenpää, near Helsinki. He is undoubtedly the most famous Finnish composer. But there's more to his story than that. Seven anecdotes provide an insight into his fascinating life story.

He wrote his first work at the age of 10.

Jean Sibelius, who lost his father when he was three, was greatly influenced by his uncle, Pehr Ferdinand Sibelius, an amateur violinist. It was he who gave young Jean his first violin, when he was 10, and encouraged him to start composing. Jean Sibelius had his first music lessons from his aunt and, at the age of 10, composed his very first work at the piano: Water Droplets for violin and cello.

His first name comes from a business card

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The composer was born Johan Julius Christian Sibelius, but has gone down in musical history under the first name Jean. It was the composer himself who adopted the name Jean Sibelius. As he wrote to a friend in 1886: "Jean is the name I use as a musician".

It was common practice in Scandinavian countries to take a French first name, but the choice of "Jean" can be traced back to his uncle Johan, who had adopted the name Jean for himself. This uncle ship owner, who died of yellow fever in 1860, left behind him a large stock of business cards, which young Johan Julius Christian decided to use for himself, hence the name "Jean".

He almost joined the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

Jean Sibelius developed a keen interest in composition at a very early age, but he also continued to train as a violinist. After meeting the pianist Ferrucio Busoni, he gave up the idea of becoming a virtuoso soloist, but continued his training in chamber music – for lack of orchestra lessons – and auditioned for the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. He wasn't accepted. Ironically, though the Austrian orchestra declined him as a violinist, it would later perform his compositions.

His work Finlandia has become Finland's unofficial national anthem.

When it was composed in 1899, Finlandia was originally named *Finland Awakes. It was part of a set of six tableaux (and a prelude) collectively named Press Celebration Music, appealing for freedom of the press from Russian censorship. The following year, Sibelius revised this particular tableau. It was played, under the title The Fatherland, by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra at the Universal Exhibition in Paris and very quickly became a second national anthem, alongside Maamme, the official anthem since 1867.

He was (a bit too) fond of a drink

Sibelius is often described as depressive and alcoholic, to the point that his excessive drinking was partly responsible for his financial straits. The noticeable tremor in the composer's hands when he conducted has also been attributed to alcohol.

Sometimes his fear of death and the alcohol-fuelled marital problems with his wife Aino came to a head and he would give up drinking and smoking. During one of these bouts of abstinence, two years after an operation for throat cancer, he wrote his fourth symphony, with overtones that are successively mysterious, mournful, dehumanised and violent.

« The worst composer in the world »

Today Jean Sibelius undeniably belongs to music's elite, but his work has not always been universally admired. The composer and expert in music theory René Leibowitz made no bones of writing a paper in 1951 entitled "Sibelius, the worst composer in the world". The German philosopher and sociologist Theodor Adorno considered Sibelius's music vulgar and reactionary: "If Sibelius is good, this invalidates the standards of musical quality that have persisted from Bach to Schoenberg".

In 2010, when Sir Simon Rattle conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in the Finnish composer's symphonies, an article in the Guardian rehabilitated the poor opinion held of Sibelius: the German orchestra had never played this symphony in the 128 years since it was written. Worse still, when the renowned conductor initially told the orchestra of his plan to perform Sibelius's complete symphonies, the committee scoffed at the idea.

His association with Nazism is controversial

Vesa Sirén, the journalist and biographer of Jean Sibelius, believes the cool reception given to the Finnish composer for some decades can be attributed, in part, to the writings of Theodor Adorno in Germany. Adorno associated Sibelius's music with National-Socialist ideology and implied that the composer was a Nazi sympathiser.

The issue of Sibelius's "accommodating" attitude is regularly revived, sometimes just for the sake of sensationalism, but is based on the Nazis' interest in the composer. In 1934, Sibelius was invited to play a part in the Permanent Council for International Cooperation among Composers, chaired by Richard Strauss. The following year, Adolf Hitler awarded him the Goethe Medal on his 70th birthday. In 1942, the propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, founded the "German Sibelius Society". And yet numerous statements by the composer and numerous facts, set out by Jean-Luc Caron in a very detailed article, show that Sibelius did not support Nazi Germany.

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