Skip to main content

Operapedia: Jean Sibelius

Henry Stewart heads north to study the life and works of the great Finnish composer.

© AKG-Images/De Agostini Picture Lib./A. Dagli Orti

◀︎ Timeline

1865 Johan Julius Christian Sibelius was born on December 8 in Hämeenlinna, about sixty miles north of Helsinki. His Swedish-speaking father, a doctor, died two years later. Eight years after that, an uncle, Pehr, gave the boy his first violin, which he would study with a passion.

1892 Sibelius married Aino Järnefelt the same year his first major work, the vocal symphony Kullervo, had its premiere, establishing his prominence in Finnish music. In 1904, the Sibeliuses moved to a lake house he called Ainola or, roughly, Aino’s place, which today is a Sibelius museum.

• 1914 Sibelius made his only visit to America, receiving an honorary doctorate from Yale. In Norfolk, Connecticut, he conducted the premiere of his Oceanides, which he’d composed for the occasion. America and England would prove two huge centers of support for his music.

Picture Art Collection/Alamy

Rolf Richardson/Alamy

© Robert Workman

One and Done

“Jean Sibelius … admitted by telephone from Finland to New York that he had once composed an opera, The Maiden in the Tower.” So reported opera news in 1951, as though the one-acter were a secret. It was certainly unknown: Sibelius withdrew it after its 1896 premiere and never got around to fixing it up. It wasn’t revived until 1981, long after the composer’s death in 1957, and it rarely gets produced (though it was seen in Buxton in 2012). The Swedish libretto is widely reviled, but the score? It’s “colourful,” Opera reported in 2015, “and the Italianate intermezzo (Mascagni?), the maiden’s prayer (Verdi?) and the lovers’ duet are powerful—there are traces of Wagner everywhere, but the Sibelian character is unmistakeable.”

Epic Fail

Fresh from the success of Kullervo, Sibelius planned an epic opera, The Building of the Boat, based on episodes in The Kalevala. He composed some music, but he struggled and finally abandoned the project after a disillusioning Meistersinger at Bayreuth. “I was very taken with [it] but, strange to say, I am no longer a Wagnerite,” he wrote to his wife. Some of the Building of the Boat music was employed elsewhere: most notably, the overture became the very popular “Swan of Tuonela” movement of his Lemminkäinen Suite. He never completed a full, serious opera. “Sibelius likes very much opera,” a friend once explained to opera news, “but opera does not like Sibelius.”


After a youthful infatuation, Sibelius turned on Wagner. The Finnish composer’s pal Carlton Smith provided Sibelius’s thoughts to OPERA NEWS in 1941: “Wagner is too literary. I listen ten minutes to Wagner, and then I have to go look at a book. I find that Strauss’s music has very many clothes. Strauss has very wonderful fabric, fine designs, very fine colors, his clothes are very exciting and interesting. I find clothes go out of style.” Smith explained to the BBC ten years later, “Sibelius … turns [the radio] on loud, so that the house shakes; but if he hears a quartet by someone else he will shut it off and wait until they play Sibelius’s quartet.”

© Lardi/Agefotostock

Boom and Bust

Sibelius Park was built in Helsinki in 1945 to celebrate the composer’s eightieth birthday. More than twenty years later, Eila Hiltunen’s abstract Sibelius Monument was unveiled there, featuring what appear to be dozens of organ pipes. A bust was later added to placate critics who complained it was not a fitting tribute to the composer (who, ahem, wasn’t particularly known for his organ music).

Muse Bouche ▶︎

Though mostly remembered as a celebrated Salome, Finnish soprano Aino Ackté was also the singer Sibelius trusted with many of his songs and vocal works, particularly those with dramatic recitative. He dedicated the song “Höstkväll” to her, as well as the vocal tone poem Luonnotar (based on—you guessed it—a story from The Kalevala); she gave the premieres of both and more. Ackté was also a leading proponent of opera in Finland, establishing the Savonlinna Festival (killed off by World War I but resurrected in the 1960s and still held annually), as well as what’s now the Finnish National Opera.

Look and Learn/Rosenberg Collection/Bridgeman Images

© John Nguyen/Eyevine/Redux Pictures

◀︎ For a Song

About one-fifth of Sibelius’s output was art songs, of which he wrote more than 100. They tend to be performed by fellow norsefolk, such as Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson, who included a few on her 1965 record Songs of Scandinavia and more a decade later on Richard Strauss – Jean Sibelius, or Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, who released Sibelius Songs in 1995 and followed it almost a decade later with Grieg and Sibelius Songs.

Monomania ▶︎

The Kalevala is a mythological epic poem compiled from ancient oral traditions in the mid nineteenth century by poet–physician Elias Lönnrot. As Finnish nationalism intensified in that century, the poem became a cultural icon. Its stories inspired many of Sibelius’s works. Kullervo is about a magic slave who has sex with his sister; Lemminkäinen features a caddish hero hunting a mythic swan in the underworld; in Pohjola’s Daughter, an old man completes impossible tasks to win a beautiful woman; and so on. “The Kalevala strikes me as extraordinarily modern and to my ears is pure music,” Sibelius once wrote.

Heritage Image Partnership Ltd /Alamy


◀︎ Greatest Hit

Sibelius’s best-known work is Finlandia, less than ten minutes of symphonic delicacy and orchestral bombast written in 1899 as a daring monument to his homeland, then under an oppressive tsarist Russification program. It became the budding nation’s unofficial anthem. It’s frequently employed in popular culture, perhaps never more thoroughly than in Die Hard 2, whose director, Renny Harlin, tasked composer Michael Kamen with working its motifs into his original score before blasting it over the end credits. The film has nothing to do with Finland, but Harlin was born in Riihimäki.