Johan (colloquially Janne, and later Jean) Christian Julius Sibelius was born on 8 December 1865 in Hämeenlinna, a small garrison town in the Grand Duchy of Finland, part of the Russian Empire. His father was the city medical officer, but he died young leaving his estate bankrupt. Sibelius was brought up in the household of his maternal grandmother, with summer holidays at his paternal grandmother’s in Loviisa. In 1872, Sibelius started at the Swedish preparatory school of Eva Savonius, but soon moved to Lucina Hagman’s Finnish-language preparatory school.
Early music instruction came from relatives; and, as Sibelius and his two siblings grew up, so they would play in a trio, he preferring the violin. On graduating from high school, he began to study law at the Imperial Alexander University in Finland but quickly switched to the Helsinki Music Institute (now the Sibelius Academy) from 1885, remaining until 1889. For the next two or three years, Sibelius travelled in Europe, studying in Berlin and Vienna, starting to compose in earnest, and absorbing many different musical experiences. In late 1891, he appeared for the first time in public as a conductor at a concert in Helsinki. And, in 1892, he completed Kullervo, a suite of symphonic movements.
Sibelius, having wooed Aino, the daughter of a Baltic aristocrat for several years, married her in mid-1892, her parents, apparently, having warmed to the penniless Sibelius thanks to the success of Kullervo. They would have six children, and live, from 1904, in a newly-built family home, Ainola, on Lake Tuusula, Järvenpää. For several years, Sibelius supplemented his income with teaching work, which left him insufficient time for composing. Biographers note that the influence of Wagner which could be heard in some of his compositions faded eventually; and, as the century neared its end, the Finnish senate awarded him a significant annual grant, allowing him more freedom to compose.
In 1899, at a time when the Russian emperor Nicholas II was restricting the Grand Duchy’s powers, Sibelius premiered his First Symphony, as well as patriotic compositions, Song of the Athenian Boys and Press Celebration Music (including, what become known as, Finlandia). These brought him much wider attention, and fame as a national figure. And soon he was making a name for himself abroad, as he accompanied, in 1900, his friend Robert Kajanus and orchestra on a tour of European cities - playing Sibelius’s new works. The following year, Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2 in D Major was conducted by Ferruccio Busoni in Berlin, and the British composer Granville Bantock commissioned his Symphony No. 3 in C Major in 1907.
After an operation to remove a throat tumour in 1908, Sibelius abstained from alcohol and tobacco; some see a link between this and the darker, more uncompromising music that followed, En Saga, for example, and Symphony No. 4 in A Minor. During the war years, he continued to compose smaller works, and made progress on his Fifth Symphony, but he also started drinking again. In 1918, he conducted a march in Helsinki at the conclusion of the Finnish Civil War, reinforcing his position as a national hero.
After the war, Sibelius travelled to Denmark, and also to England, giving successful concerts. Two further symphonies followed, but, from 1926 onwards he barely produced any new compositions. Biographers believe he was working on an eighth symphony, perhaps through to the early 1930s, but, in the mid-1940s, he burned a large number of papers, and left behind no trace of any such new symphony. His 90th birthday, in 1955, was widely celebrated in Finland, but two years later, in 1957, he died in Ainola. For more biographical information see The Finnish Club of Helsinki’s Sibelius website, Wikipedia, Sonos, or Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Sibelius began to keep a diary while in London in February 1909, jotting down his travel finances, but also confiding, as if to a friend about his life and thoughts. He continued writing in this journal until the end of 1913; and in mid-1914 he began a new journal, which he wrote in regularly until the 1920s. The two diaries contain around 90,000 words (in Swedish, Sibelius’s native language).
The Sibelius website gives this overview of the diary: ‘Sibelius writes down weather reports, finances, natural phenomena, the names of people he has met and discussions he has had. He reports everyday incidents, his journeys and family gatherings. The diaries also reveal the composer’s times of gloom. Negative criticism depressed him, as did the temporary - and often well-founded - periods when his wife would not speak to him. To his family he sometimes said that he would go and get rid of his bad moods in his diary, and once he called his diary his “spittoon”. In fact, the diary tends to portray Sibelius as a more melancholy person than he actually was.’
Although the diaries have not been published in their own right, they are available to researchers at the Finnish National Archive; and Erik Tawaststjerna used them extensively for his biography of Sibelius. In Finnish and Swedish this was published in five volumes. However, for the English market, they were condensed by Tawaststjerna, translated by Robert Layton, and published (between the 1976 and 1997) by Faber & Faber in three volumes. Each one can be previewed at Amazon (Vol. I - 1865-1905, Vol. II - 1904-1914, Vol. III - 1914-1957) or Googlebooks (Vol. I, Vol. II, Vol. III).
Indeed, Tawaststjerna opens his biography, in the first volume, with a Sibelius diary entry that, he says, ‘resembles in certain respects the Finland he himself knew as a child’: (12-13 April 1915) ‘When I shut my eyes I can picture in my mind a small town with one-storey barracks from the Swedish epoch. It is a late summer’s day between five and six in the afternoon some time during the 1820s. The sun is slowly sinking towards the horizon; an officer is visiting a family with two daughters, their mother and brother, and is obviously not his first visit. They have been enjoying themselves, reading novels, playing the piano; there are geraniums in the window and the house is an old-fashioned one of considerable style. Tea is served and afterwards the party breaks up; they are all fond of each other and there is an atmosphere of real friendship, perhaps love.’
Otherwise, however, it is not until the second volume that the chronology of Sibelius’s diary entries becomes useful for Tawaststjerna’s narrative. The translator, Layton, adds a note: ‘The style of the diaries is very difficult to convey. They make even fewer literary aspirations and convey the feeling of an information dialogue with an alter ego; they are cryptic jottings, highly idiosyncratic in their vocabulary and more often than not unsyntactical and badly punctuated. Indeed, at times they are difficult to make much of and in order to convey what Sibelius’s intentions are, I have found myself drawing on idioms that may not have enjoyed currency in English in the early part of the century. However, I hope that something of their flavour and also what he is trying to say to himself comes across.’
Here are several of Sibelius’s diary entries as found in Volume II of Tawaststjerna’s biography.
Undated in the biography
‘Don’t you understand now? By being so open, you have forefeited the respect that you feel to be your entitlement. Keep your thoughts to yourself and guard your tongue in talking to others. And then your pupils (!), stand fast by them. Otherwise the best and first will have every right to treat you in kind.’
Undated in the biography
‘Don’t worry about your being 44. There’s still time. All major composers found their way to the stars by discipline and self-study. Don’t be so overawed by youth that your creativity is stifled. They won’t be able to silence your art.’
Undated in the biography
‘Don’t change the colouring before it’s necessary. In scoring one should, as a rule, avoid leaving a paragraph without any strings. The sound can seem rough. Remember the differences in wind instruments in different countries, layout of strings and so on, keep a flexible balance that can be adjusted depending on circumstances. A satisfactory sonority still depends to a large extent on the purely musical substance, its polyphony and so on. In small orchestras the oboe, usually badly played, has to be treated with the same caution as the trumpet. In some orchestras the bassoon in its middle and high register cannot play piano. Only the bottom seems capable of that. In such orchestras the lower register of the flute is almost only usable in forte. Usually both in the wind and brass, the initial entry can be tentative and leave much to be desired in terms of intonation and ensemble. Beginning must be carefully marked. Also there is need for great care when the main burden of the melodic line moves from one instrument to another.’
21 April 1910
‘Again in the deepest depression. Working hard at the newcomer.’
27 April 1910
‘Light, expectant, hopeful thoughts. Worked in my own way. Try to concentrate. ‘A must.’ Now or never.’
7 May 1910
‘Took a ten-kilometre walk while composing, forged the musical metalwork and fashioned sonorities of silver.’
12 August 1910
‘This business of concerning yourself with practical affairs when you are a creative artist. Think of all the time and energy you waste on them every day. For you this is corrosive. But press on, in spite of all the derision and abuse. Worked well today on the development of the first movement. Don’t lose the sense of life’s pain and pathos!’
16 August 1910
‘When will I get this development finished? i.e. be able to concentrate my mind and have the stamina to carry it all through. I managed when I had cigars and wine, but now I have to find new ways. I must!’
17 August 1910
‘Crossed out the whole of the development. More beauty, and more real music. Not just scoring or crescendos but stereotyped writing. Now I have to speed up. Now or never!’
5 November 1910
‘Worked well. Forged onwards into the finale. Wonderful day with snow interlacing the trees and their branches - typically Finnish.
A symphony is not just a composition in the ordinary sense of the word; it is more of an inner confession at a given stage of one’s life.’
25 December 1910
‘Christmas - ! Aino sick . . . Continue to work. Money worries begin again! Of my State Prize only 400 remains. Eight doctors’ bills unpaid. Misery wherever one turns.’
31 August 1911
‘Don’t give in to tobacco or alcohol. Better to write rubbish in your “diary”. Confide your miseries to paper. In the long run it’s better so! Yes - in the long run.’