Finlandia is a biography of Jean Sibelius, his life and times. An emblematic figure of the classical musical world and a Finnish national hero.
ANY DISCUSSION OF THE LIFE AND MUSIC of Jean Sibelius would be incomplete without a glance at the history of the land where he was born, the Grand Duchy of Finland, an autonomous part of the Russian Czarist Empire. It is therefore necessary to commence within the context of Russian culture and history.
Therein lies the question of national identity and musical influence. Although Finland’s status between 1809 and 1917 as a Grand Duchy within the Russian Empire and Russianisation has been the subject of considerable debate with the image of a small nation courageously winning self-determination in the face of a mighty imperial power, it was Sibelius’ Finlandia that embodied, to the outside world, his role in the development of Finnish national consciousness and the move to political self-determination.
Seen as a protest against Russian domination, the work was subject to a highly politicized interpretation in which Sibelius himself was complicit—as he explains with these words:
‘It was actually rather late that Finlandia was performed under its final title. At the farewell concert of the Philharmonic Orchestra before leaving for Paris, when the tone-poem was played for the first time in its revised form, it was called “Suomi.” It was introduced by the same name in Scandinavia; in German towns it was called “Vaterland,” and in Paris “La Patrie.” In Finland its performance was forbidden during the years of unrest, and in other parts of the Empire it was not allowed to be played under any name that in any way indicated its patriotic character. When I conducted in Reval and Riga by invitation in the summer of 1904, I had to call it “Impromptu.”’
Although Finland’s status between 1809 and 1917 as a Grand Duchy within the Russian Empire has been the subject of considerable work by historians, the policies of Russification that were in place between 1899 and Finland’s final independence eighteen years later have been at the centre of the story of how a small nation bravely won self-determination despite its being under the shadow of a vast imperial power.
To understand how Finland arrived where it did in 1917 it is to present an overview of the history of the land in which Sibelius was born—the Grand Duchy of Finland, an autonomous part of the Russian Czarist Empire.
It was not until 1917, Finland became a nation state after gaining its independence from Russia, to which it had been forcefully attached in 1809. Before that date it had been part of Sweden for more than six centuries.
Under Swedish rule, Finland was marked by the endless wars waged with and against its neighbours—Russia, Poland and Denmark, contributing beyond its size to the ranks of the Swedish army. During the centuries under the Swedish crown over forty percent of the losses of the king’s armies were believed to be Finns—in much the same way Irish losses served the English kings over the centuries.
Towards the end of the 13th century, at the time of Charlemagne, the north had little or no importance to civilised Christian Europe, whilst in the 9th and 10th centuries the Vikings launched the last of three great pagan assaults against Europe, which after the fall of the Roman Empire had all but overwhelmed it.
They were the scourge of both the West and the Orient. In the 9th century, the Vikings imposed their law on Novgorod, peopled by Finns and Slavs, as well as Kiev. They went as far as attacking Byzantium. The south of what is now Finland was for them a way of passage, and its southern coast became an important route for international trade. The Viking era ended at the beginning of the 11th century when the kingdoms of Sweden, Denmark and Norway took form and a specific Finnish civilisation developed in spite of the small density of the countries population.