Music Jean Sibelius
Daniel M. Grimley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0040


Jean Sibelius (1865–1957) was a Finnish composer, noted especially for his orchestral works, songs, and theater music, and for his innovative approach to musical texture and form. Initially associated with the struggle for Finnish political and cultural independence (Finland was a grand duchy of the Russian empire until 1917), he later sought to distance himself from such explicit nationalism and develop a more universal musical style, culminating in the elliptical single-movement works of the mid-1920s (notably the Seventh Symphony and tone poem Tapiola). For the last thirty years of his life, Sibelius effectively remained silent: the manuscript of an Eighth Symphony was apparently completed but burned in the late 1930s. Sibelius’s critical reception has followed a cyclic trajectory. Celebrated in Finland as a national hero, his symphonies were later acclaimed, especially in Great Britain and the United States. Sibelius’s perceived association with extreme right-wing politics accounted for the relative decline in his standing after World War II, principally at the hands of writers such as Theodor W. Adorno and René Leibowitz. Recent years, however, have seen renewed interest in Sibelius, both in Finland and beyond. Sibelius is now widely acknowledged as one of the most influential figures in early-20th-century music and enjoys a leading place in the contemporary concert repertoire. Language is a central question in Sibelius studies. Finland is officially a bilingual country, with a significant Swedish-speaking minority. Though he learned Finnish at school and as a young man, Sibelius’s first language was Swedish. Writing on Sibelius has followed a similarly multilingual pattern: the most important Sibelius literature has been published in Swedish, Finnish, German, English, and French. The earliest biographies date from 1916, with a substantial flowering of writing on Sibelius in the 1930s. For modern scholarship, however, the most significant landmark was the completion of Erik Tawaststjerna’s rich narrative biography, written in Swedish but published first in Finnish. Tawaststjerna’s study remains a primary resource for all serious Sibelius scholars. The publication of a comprehensive list of Sibelius manuscripts in the National Library of Finland and work toward a systematic thematic catalog formed the foundations for a critical edition of Sibelius’s music, an ongoing project based at the National Library. Important collections of correspondence, Sibelius’s diaries, and other major critical materials have significantly enhanced scholarship in recent years, and Sibelius studies remain in a dynamic state.

General Overviews

The earliest general overviews of Sibelius’s music date from the first flowering of his international reputation in the 1930s (de Törne 1937) and 1950s (Levas 1972, Ringbom 1954). Though the historical accuracy of these accounts is sometimes problematic, they nevertheless provide an important flavor of Sibelius’s reception in the early 20th century. Among more recent general accounts, Huttunen 1999 is a very useful summary of the composer’s life and career in his Finnish context, while Salmenhaara 1984 and Sirén 2000 provide insightful biographical surveys. Layton 1993 (first published in 1965) has been a standard reference source in English, but has now been updated by Rickards 1997 and Barnett 2007.

  • Barnett, Andrew. Sibelius. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007.

    Barnett has for many years written helpful liner notes for the Swedish record label BIS, and he is closely involved with BIS’s project to record Sibelius’s complete works. His Yale volume offers a year-by-year account of Sibelius’s career, with particularly helpful detail regarding early works and preliminary versions of pieces such as The Oceanides and the Fifth Symphony.

  • Huttunen, Matti. Jean Sibelius: Pienois-elämäkerta. English text by Michael Wynn-Ellis. Porvoo, Finland: Werner Söderström Osakeyhtiö, 1999.

    A critical introduction to Sibelius’s life and significance in Finland, designed for the general reader but immensely perceptive and informative for scholarly readers too. Particular attention is paid to Finland’s musical history, Finnish nationalism, and Sibelius’s critical reception. An attractively produced volume with helpful English summaries.

  • Layton, Robert. The Master Musicians: Sibelius. New York: Schirmer Books, 1993.

    A highly influential account of Sibelius’s life and works, Layton was one of the first writers to attempt to cover Sibelius’s music in its entirety. Includes evocative descriptions of the works themselves, together with an account of Sibelius’s musical style. Though now rather dated, Layton nevertheless offers immense knowledge of Finnish culture and sympathy for Sibelius’s work.

  • Levas, Santeri. Sibelius: A Personal Portrait. Translated by Percy M. Young. London: Dent, 1972.

    An abridged translation of Levas’s two-volume memoir, Jean Sibelius: Muistelma suuresta ihmisestä [Jean Sibelius: Memories of a Great Man (1957, 1960)]. Levas was Sibelius’s secretary, and his memoir concentrates on the domestic details of the last twenty years of Sibelius’s life rather than offering a sustained account of his musical output. Has been widely quoted, although it is anecdotal in tone.

  • Rickards, Guy. Jean Sibelius. London: Phaidon, 1997.

    A general introduction for the nonspecialist reader. Includes a useful biography and account of the rise of Finnish nationalism with commentaries on major works, especially the symphonies, songs, and tone poems.

  • Ringbom, Nils-Eric. Jean Sibelius: A Master and His Work. Translated by G. I. C. de Courcy. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1954.

    A rather eulogistic treatment of the composer that builds on the work of earlier biographers such as Erik Furuhjelm and Karl Ekman. Ringbom met Sibelius on several occasions, and reports of their conversations are some of the most interesting (though largely uncorroborated) passages of the book.

  • Salmenhaara, Erkki. Jean Sibelius. Helsinki: Tammi, 1984.

    A detailed and sustained treatment of the composer that covers much biographical ground as well as offering more analytical insights into key works, such as the Fourth Symphony and Tapiola. Although published only in Finnish, it can usefully be read in parallel with Tawaststjerna’s more panoramic survey, and many of Salmenhaara’s musical observations remain relevant to current thinking on the composer.

  • Sirén, Vesa. Aina poltti sikaria. Keuruu: Otava, 2000.

    A colorful account of Sibelius’s life and times, drawn from interviews with surviving members of Sibelius’s family and other friends and associates, as well as a rich collection of primary documents (including photographs). Demonstrates vividly how Sibelius’s profile changed during his lifetime, and how (for better and for worse) he became a national symbol.

  • de Törne, Bengt. Sibelius: A Close-Up. London: Faber & Faber, 1937.

    A eulogistic account by a pupil of Sibelius that is rich in anecdotal narrative and the composer’s reported views on contemporary music and composition. Much of this material is uncorroborated, but de Törne’s book has nevertheless been widely translated and disseminated. It was the uncritically laudatory tone that first provoked Adorno’s vituperative “Glosse über Sibelius” of 1938.

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