Musical Thoughts – Jean Sibelius: Finlandia

Now, a blog post when I’m supposed to be revising? What on earth do I think I’m doing? Well, there is an explanation: being an A-Level Music student, listening to new music and absorbing elements of the style of each composer is key with my exams forthcoming. Instead of just listening and thinking, I thought I’d share my thoughts with the wider world. I can’t promise how frequently I’ll do this, so keep your eyes peeled.

The first piece I’ve selected is Finlandia, by Jean Sibelius. Sibelius was a Finnish composer of the late Romantic period, and Finlandia was a piece written in 1899 and first performed in 1900, reasonably close to the start of his output as a composer. At this time, Western music was beginning to move away from German-dominated, massive, works, involving many instrumentalists or huge choirs, and into pieces of music that began to reflect the national identities of their countries of origin. Finlandia is important in this respect, as it played an important role in the formation of a Finnish national identity at a time when Finland was being controlled by the Russian Empire.

The work is in form a symphonic poem, a piece written for symphony orchestra depicting scenes which are normally from nature or literature. It is an example of ‘program music’, a style that became increasingly popular during the Romantic period. This is by no means a calm piece of music throughout: the more turbulent sections are supposed to represent the national struggles of the Finns, yet there are softer sections that put one in mind of a Nordic village, with the typically expressive melodic lines of the Romantic period. The piece opens with a timpani roll and an F# minor chord that quickly becomes chromatic, evoking the idea of struggle, but in my mind also painting a picture of the desolation of Finland’s northern wastes. This opening motif recurs throughout the piece, and so acts as a constant reminder of what the Finns were going through at the time, and so provides a clear example of the move into nationalism at the very start of the Twentieth Century. Broadly, we can see that Sibelius was a nationalistic composer whose music was also Romantic in a number of ways.

Other pieces of nationalist music: Ralph Vaughan Williams – Fantasia on Greensleeves and Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus’, Edward Elgar – Pomp and Circumstance Marches and Joaquin Rodrigo – Concierto de Aranjuez

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