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Finlandia, Op 26

1899; revised in 1900

A brief trip to Finland is all that is required to grasp the legendary status that Jean Sibelius has acquired in his home nation. From his long-time home, Ainola, which has become a national museum, it is a mere 30 minute drive to Sibelius park in Helsinki, where sits the Sibelius monument. Budding Finnish musicians attend the Sibelius Academy, partake in the International Jean Sibelius Violin Competition and perform his symphonies in Sibelius Hall. Until the introduction of the euro, his portrait was on the Finnish 100 mark bill and Finland’s national Flag Day is now held on his birthday. But how did a musician and composer become a national hero, a position usually reserved for generals, freedom fighters and politicians?

The answer lies with Finlandia, Sibelius’ love letter to the Finnish nation. At the time of Finlandia’s composition, Finland was still a semi-autonomous state within the Russian Empire, a fact that sat uneasily with both native Finns, who saw themselves as a sovereign people, and the Russian Tzar Nicholas II, who, as an absolute monarch, was attempting to crack down on the powers and freedoms traditionally held by the region.

Finlandia began its life as a reaction to this crackdown. After tiring of a free, hostile Finnish press, Nicholas began to shut down his critics by closing one newspaper after another. In reaction to this, Finnish journalists organised a variety show in aid of the press pension fund as a show of solidarity for their out of work colleagues. Sibelius, already a composer of national renown, was approached to provide accompanying music for one of the performances: a series of six tableaux depicting important moments in Finnish history. These short re-enactments were a pop at Nicholas and the Russian establishment, who sought to downplay Finland’s claims to sovereignty by ignoring its distinct national story.

The final tableau, ‘Finland Awakes!’, depicted the rising tide of Finnish nationalism and the emergence of an independent Finnish state. Unsurprisingly given the political climate, ‘Finland Awakes!’ was by far the most popular act of the evening, leading Sibelius to reimagine the piece as a tone poem a year later, what we now know as Finlandia.

Finlandia was an immediate success across Europe, though Sibelius, in fear of Russian reprisal, insisted it be performed under various alternate names for a number of years. The piece spoke to the emerging nationalist sentiment in small nations who had spent most of the past two centuries under the control of larger powers, and who now saw a future for themselves living in co-operation with, rather than subjugated to, their neighbours. As such, Finlandia became not only the de-facto national anthem of Finland, but became the national anthem of Biafra during the civil war of 1967-1970, and turned Sibelius into a national hero in his homeland.

from notes by Fin Conway © 2017


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