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Sibelius and Sweden

Sibelius’ mother tongue was Swedish, and his compositions tell us about his affinity with Swedish literature. He was also a good friend of the Swedish composer Wilhelm Stenhammar.

Sibelius’ relationship to Sweden was special due to Swedish being his mother tongue. He was well-versed in Swedish literature, and many of his finest songs are written to poems by Swedish writers. Examples are Six songs op 36 (1899–1900), which contains the nightmarish Svarta rosor (Black roses, Ernst Josephson), and the first Gustaf Fröding settings Säv, säv, susa (Reeds, reeds, whisper) and Bollspelet vid Trianon (The Ball game at Trianon), where the floating music in the words is reflected in the impressionistic piano part.

Eight songs op 57 (1909), all to poems by Ernst Josephson, is Sibelius’ most modern collection of songs and the only one that can be seen as a coherent whole. In line with the symbolism of the poems, the composer here is often quite near Expressionism, a style represented in his symphonic work by the Fourth symphony. 

At the turn of the 20th century, Viktor Rydberg was an especially important writer for Sibelius. Four of the Five songs op 38 (1903–04) are composed using his poems. The high points of this collection are Höstkväll (Autumn evening) and På verandan vid havet (On the veranda by the sea), in which the dramatic nature of the Nordic countries is mirrored in the inner life of mankind.  

One poem that has been seen as having great importance is Atenarnes sång (The song of the Atheneans, 1899), a spontaneous call to resistance against the so-called February manifesto, which in Finland was taken to be a threat to their autonomy as a duchy. The text is taken from Viktor Rydberg’s poem Dexippos: ”Divine is death, where courageously on the front line you suffer, / Suffer in a fight for your country, dying for your country and your home.”

Another appeal to courage is part of Snöfrid (Snow peace),  an ”improvisation” for narrator, mixed choir, and orchestra (1900), which Sibelius wrote using parts of the Rydberg poem with the same title. There was also Impromptu for female choir and orchestra (1902/10), set to a section of Rydberg’s Livslust och livsleda (Lust for, and gloom about, life), a third composition that was part of Sibelius’ nationalistic mission during the period of Russian pressure.  

Sibelius was an admirer of the art of Strindberg, and in 1908 he wrote music to his Svanevit (White swan). He conducted the music himself at the premiere at the Swedish theater in Helsinki on April 8 the same year. Strindberg thanked him by sending his portrait on a postcard with the text: ”Master Sibelius, Thank you for your beautiful music that you have chosen to create for my most beautiful poem! Soon I will hear it!” But he never got to hear it. On May 16, 1912, Sibelius wrote in his diary: ”Strindberg’s death has shaken me.”

Literature was however not the only connection between Sibelius and Sweden. His foreign debut as a writer of symphonies took place on July 4, 1900 at the Olympia Theater in Stockholm, and after the concert he drank absinthe with Alfvén, Sjögren, and Stenhammar, where he ”got poisoned.” He could however be pleased with Karl Valentin’s review of the First symphony in the daily paper Svenska Dagbladet: ”… as a whole, the work was not just important, but also unusually original and interesting..” 

Two years later in Stockholm it was different. Peterson-Berger, who had previously given Sibelius’ piano pieces epithets such as ”quasi-genius craziness” and ”artistic Bohemianism”, felt even now that the Symphony showed ”a broken, ragged, Bohemian nature.” But the Second symphony, which was also presented in Stockholm 1903 under the direction of Armas Järnefelt, caused him to revise his opinion of the composer: ”Because a glimmer of greatness and genius in this symphony cannot simply be reasoned away, and it appears to me to be the most powerful and best we have heard up to now by Sibelius. Its form is for the most part clear and lucid; if it sometimes, as some have already pointed out, reminds one of Tchaikovsky, it is still wholly personal and actually more interesting than anything from the latter’s pen.” 

For Wilhelm Stenhammar, Sibelius’ Second symphony was an epiphany: ”… you are in my thoughts daily since I heard the symphony,” he wrote to Sibelius. ”You wonderful human, these are huge catches of wonder that you have fished up from the deepest depths of the unconscious and unsayable.” When Stenhammar was named conductor of the Gothenburg orchestra society in 1907, the city became a center for interest in Sibelius in Scandinavia. When Sibelius guested Gothenburg in 1911, Stenhammar dedicated his Fourth String Quartet to Sibelius. And in 1913, he conducted the Gothenburg premiere of the Fourth symphony. For the audience at the subscription concert the work was too modern, but the more discriminating Wednesday audience gave the work a demonstratively warm reception. 

One of Sibelius’ last and most important appearances in Sweden was the concert on March 24, 1924 in Stockholm, where the Seventh symphony with the title Fantasia sinfonica was premiered by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of the composer. Asked during a press conference about  the relationship between the one-movement symphony and those previous, he answered mysteriously: ”One realizes what one is, and remains such.”

— Ilkka Oramo
English translation: George Kentros