When the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius met his Austrian contemporary Gustav Mahler in 1907, the two discussed symphonic form. Sibelius stated that what he admired most was the 'profound logic' by which the symphony connected musical ideas. Mahler disagreed. The symphony, he insisted, must be like the world: 'It must embrace everything'. Yet just as Mahler valued logic more than he cared to admit, Sibelius's symphonies chart a very personal journey, and reflect an enduring love of nature. He called them 'confessions of faith from the different stages of my life'.
Sibelius was born to a cultivated, middle-class, Swedish-speaking family in a provincial garrison town. He only began to learn Finnish when his mother enrolled him at a Finnish-speaking grammar school - the country's first - at the age of 11. He was soon enthralled by the Nordic poets Johan Runeberg and Viktor Rydberg's stories from the national folk epic, the Kalevala. He also fell in love with the spacious Finnish landscape, with its seemingly endless forests and lakes.
He showed early promise as a composer and violinist. At the Helsinki Conservatory there was talk of him becoming a concert soloist. However, he suffered a crisis of confidence and abandoned the idea of a virtuoso career, not without lasting regret. Some of his later diary entries suggest that he saw composition as a second-best option. Even so, his development as a composer was impressive. While studying in Vienna he had the first ideas for what was to become his programmatic symphony Kullervo, based on a story from the Kalevala. Encounters with Finnish folk singing in its purest, most ancient 'runic' form also had a galvanising effect.
The premiere of Kullervo in Helsinki in 1892 was a sensation. Sibelius was established overnight as a major cultural force in Finland. Sibelius's musical contributions to a series of defiantly Finnish historical pageants elevated him to the status of national hero in a period when the Russian authorities were highly sensitive to nationalist stirrings. Another Kalevala-inspired work of the 1890s was the four-movement Lemminkäinen Suite, including the atmospheric 'Swan of Tuonela'. The symphonic poem Finlandia (1899-1900) was so overt in its nationalist agenda that it was performed under a series of alias titles. Nonetheless, his name was now established internationally.
With his First Symphony (1899), Sibelius began to separate the symphony from the tone poem. From then on he refused to concede that his symphonies were 'about' anything other than music. Still many heard the Second Symphony (1901-02) as a 'symphony of liberation', even though its slow movement had started life as a tone poem about Don Juan and Death. Commitment to 'absolute music' came in his Third Symphony, completed in 1907. It was partly influenced by the concept of 'Youthful Classicism' developed by his friend, the composer-pianist Feruccio Busoni. But something new was born here. In this symphony the finale doesn't so much follow on from the scherzo as emerge from it.
The idea of seamless organic transition increasingly preoccupied Sibelius. In the Fifth Symphony (completed 1919) it is hard to say where the moderately paced first movement gives way to an accelerating scherzo. Sibelius wrote that he saw the symphony as a form 'like a river'. In the first movement the experience is like slipping gradually from a steady current into white-water rapids.
The economy and discipline of Sibelius's compositions were not matched in the man himself. Insecure and prone to extreme mood-swings, he became alarmingly dependent on alcohol. After an operation to remove a throat tumour in 1909 he managed to stay sober for a while. But the withdrawal symptoms were dreadful for him and his heroically devoted wife Aino. From this difficult period emerges one of his supreme masterpieces, the Fourth Symphony (1910-11). The need to come to terms with personal crisis pushed the composer to extend his stylistic resources. The harmonic language of the symphony is often very dissonant. And in the slow movement Sibelius effectively creates a new musical form: variation-like, but with a theme that grows from, and eventually collapses back into, a tiny motivic seed.
In the mid-1920s Sibelius produced three masterpieces in the forms he had made his own: theatre music for The Tempest, his Seventh Symphony and perhaps his greatest tone poem, Tapiola. Although he lived for another three decades, he never released another major work. It now seems more than likely that he finished an Eighth Symphony some time around 1930. If so, he destroyed it, possibly in the same bonfire on which he sacrificed several other significant scores.
It has been suggested that Aino's efforts to curb Sibelius's drinking eventually deprived him of the means to silence the harsh critic in his own head. Whatever the case, one of Sibelius's daughters stated that once he stopped composing he became more at peace with himself. In any case we can be grateful that he left so much fine music, some of it, like the tone poem The Wood Nymph (1895), only recently rediscovered. Apart from the symphonies, tone poems and theatre scores, Sibelius composed a large number of beautiful and powerful songs, some of which exist in alternative versions with accompaniment for piano or orchestra.
In the years after World War Two, Sibelius was dismissed by many as a Romantic reactionary, clinging on to outmoded forms and harmonic language. But his popularity never dwindled in the concert hall. And in the late 1970s he also began to be seen as intellectually respectable once more. Sibelius's exploratory, organic attitude to form and orchestral sound, and his complex 'layered' musical textures have been an inspiration for many of today's younger composers. This is important, but his enduring popularity owes at least as much to his powerful lyricism, rooted deep in his country's musical soil.