Stylistic development:
main tendencies

It is not easy to outline Sibelius's stylistic development. We cannot talk about "middle" or "late" Sibelius, since both periods include a wide variety of works, ranging from light piano miniatures and incidental music to large-scale "absolute" works such as the symphonies.

Early output

Raindrops is frequently mentioned as Sibelius's first composition. It has been claimed that he wrote this little work for violin and cello at the age of ten. However, the work was probably composed five years later, as a small exercise for the composer and his brother Christian, who was starting to play the cello.

In Sibelius's letters the first mention of a composition is from August 1883. The extant trio is the first of Sibelius’s compositions that can be dated with certainty.

At least until 1885, Sibelius wrote his early chamber music works to be played by family members and his immediate musical circle. They show influences from the works that the family was practising together. These included works by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn.

When Sibelius began his studies at the Helsinki Music Institute in the autumn of 1885, his chamber music pieces began to show increasing influence from his contemporaries, Tchaikovsky and Grieg. But his pieces also demonstrated greater self-confidence and individuality.

At this stage Sibelius's dreams of becoming a violin virtuoso suffered various setbacks, and his experimental writing for string quartet started began to take on orchestral features. The student years in Helsinki ended in 1889 with the A minor quartet and the suite in A major, which confirmed Sibelius's reputation as the greatest hope of Finnish music.  

Sibelius's output in the 1890s: National Romanticism

During his year of study in Berlin, 1889-1890, Sibelius concentrated mainly on improving his compositional technique. However, the piano quintet in G minor gives hints of a new kind of demonic quality, and shows his aspirations towards larger works. One of the achievements of 1890 was the publication of the first version of his Romance in B minor. Sibelius eventually considered a revised version of this stirring, romantic melody good enough to be included among his works - as a "fancy" of youth, under the opus number 2a.

During his year of study in Vienna, 1890-1891, Sibelius started his career as an orchestral composer with the help of his teachers, Karl Goldmark and Robert Fuchs, and the orchestra became his most important instrument. The Overture in E major and Scène de Ballet are all that remains of his plan for a first symphony. Scène de Ballet is fairly original music – inspired by the " sad memory" of a visit to a Viennese brothel.

Nevertheless, Sibelius reached his most important stylistic breakthrough in Vienna by reading Kalevala and seeking a "Finnish" rhythm for his music.

"I think that Kalevala is quite modern. In my view it is all music: theme and variations," he wrote in December 1890. At the same time Sibelius began to break away from his earlier models. "Yesterday I showed part of my composition to Fuchs, who is the best theoretician here. He found it barbaric and brutal… Don't you agree that the Germans have already performed their part. They have no one to compare with Zola, Ibsen, Tchaikovsky, etc.!" Sibelius wrote to his fiancée Aino Järnefelt in January 1891.

A few days after this he composed the song Drömmen, which was strongly influenced by Finnish folk music and the rhythm of Kalevala. "It is new and it is Finnish. Yes, I do believe in Finnish music, however much the "experts" may sneer. The sonorous, strangely melancholic monotony, which exists in all Finnish melodies, is so very typical, even though it may strictly speaking be a defect."

In April 1891 Sibelius considered that he had made progress in his studies: "I now have control over the orchestra and can do with it what I want and what I consider true." He started to compose Kullervo, with Kalevala in mind. "At present all my writing comes directly from Kalevala," he wrote.

During the composition of Kullervo Sibelius immersed himself in the secrets of Finnish folk music. At the same time he applied everything that he had learned: Goldmark's and Fuchs's guidance on themes and orchestration, and concepts drawn from Beethoven, Bruckner and Wagner. Kullervo is, nevertheless, a unique, fierce and monumental work. As a megalomaniac conception by a young composer it can probably only be compared to Gustav Mahler's Das klagende Lied and - in more recent times - Olivier Messiaen's symphony Turangalila, or Magnus Lindberg's Kraft.

During the 1890s Sibelius was going through his period of National Romanticism. Kalevala inspired him to write the Karelia incidental music and the Karelia Suite, which he prepared from it; also the Lemminkäinen Suite and choral compositions such as the Boat-ride. At the same time he was already clearly drawn towards "absolute" music: En Saga is "an expression of a state of mind", for which he does not want to provide a programme.

In the mid-1890s Sibelius underwent a Wagnerian crisis, from which he was rescued by studying the works of Liszt. At the end of the 1890s he received additional influences from Tchaikovsky as well as from Berlioz – while retaining an entirely original compositional profile.

The die was cast in 1899, when Sibelius called his new composition "a symphony in four movements" and later Symphony no. 1. He now became a writer of symphonies, a genre that was already regarded as old-fashioned. At this point he was working towards new ideas of symphonic form. Nevertheless, he also continued to compose orchestral works in a programmatic vein.

1900-1914: Towards an avant-garde position  

Sibelius's international breakthrough occurred during the first years of the 20th century, when the scores of the King Christian II suite, The Swan of Tuonela, Finlandia, Lemminkäinen’s Return, the revised version of En Saga and the first symphony became known internationally. Sibelius continued to develop along National Romantic lines with works such as The Origin of Fire in 1902, but the second symphony from the same year was a step towards a more classical and more transparent direction, moving away from the heavy late-Romantic tonal language of the first symphony.

In a state of stylistic ferment, surprisingly dissonant and experimental tones appear in Sibelius's musical language as early as 1903, in the masterly songs Höstkväll and På verandan vid havet. The rewritten version of En Saga and the earlier and revised versions of the violin concerto reveal a tendency towards greater concentration: in both works a more extensive and heterogeneous first version made way for a new, more concentrated version.

Two closely related works, Pohjola's Daughter (1906) and the third symphony (1907), show that Sibelius was following two paths at the same time: Pohjola's Daughter is the more romantically orchestrated work, and richer in effects. The third symphony is much more classical and subdued, but in its apparent chaos, the start of its third movement is the most modern music composed by Sibelius up to this point.

The emphasis on concentration which began with the third symphony continued. Sibelius, who had given up alcohol after his throat operation, was now listening to his inner voices and composing the string quartet, Voces intimae (1909). This line of development continued with the fourth symphony - a work which in its concentration, modernity and chamber music character was unparalleled for the year 1911 when it was written. The series of introspective masterpieces continued with The Bard and Daughter of Nature, in 1913.

At the same time as he was writing these introverted works, Sibelius was composing works such as Valse romantique (1911) in an attempt to repeat the success of Valse triste. He also rewrote some early works, including his Romance in B flat minor and Music for the Days of the Press. From the latter he prepared a suite for orchestra, Scènes historiques I. He was continuing to write incidental music and small pieces.

There is an additional feature in Sibelius's output which gains more emphasis in 1914. The Oceanides includes obvious influences from Debussy, although the work is more austere than Debussy's La Mer. Thus Sibelius had made use of several artistic movements from the period around the start of the 1910s: expressionism (in the fourth symphony), a return to a more classical aesthetic (in the third symphony) and impressionism (in The Oceanides). Yet he did not actually join any of these movements.

1914-1919: small pieces and mastery of the symphony

The outbreak of the First World War meant a wearisome double-life for the composer. Because his contacts with the outside world were cut off, he had to write an enormous number of piano pieces and other small works easy enough for amateurs, in order to secure an income. At the same time he gathered all his strength to write the fifth symphony, which entailed nothing less than a reconstruction of symphonic form.

The struggle with the fifth symphony did not end with the first public performance on his 50th birthday (8th December 1915) nor with the revised version one year later. Sibelius was not satisfied until 1919, when the first two movements had been brilliantly fused into a whole, and the slow movement had become much wider in scope than the original.

Sibelius was still writing small pieces that were more conventional. He also seemed to come closer to earlier traditions in his symphonic language, after the modernity of the fourth symphony. However, even if his harmonies became more traditional, his ideas of form became even more masterly and progressive.

The output of the1920s: symphonic unity 

In the early 1920s Sibelius wrote his sixth symphony (1923) and his seventh symphony (1924). These were works which he had been drafting simultaneously with the fifth symphony. They mark a climax of symphonic concentration, culminating in the one-movement seventh symphony. This is a dense one-movement symphony, in no sense a single movement from a larger work. It is a unique composition in which the content generates the form.

At the same time the number of small pieces decreased, and the composer relaxed by writing small suites, such as Suite caractéristique and Suite champêtre.

In the mid-1920s Sibelius had reached a compositional peak. His incidental music culminated in the music for Shakespeare's The Tempest in 1925, and the orchestral poems reached their climax in 1926 in Tapiola, in which a single theme is brilliantly   developed.

Sibelius is often said to have become silent just at the height of his compositional powers, but the orchestral suites which he prepared from The Tempest in 1927 do not quite fulfil the hopes aroused by the incidental music, and after this year his compositional vein quickly dried up.

Sibelius still completed some excellent, ascetic small pieces, but after years of toil he burned the drafts for his eighth symphony, during the 1940s.

Late works

"The silence of Ainola" was not quite as complete as people have imagined. In the period 1930-1957 Sibelius made several new arrangements, in which economy and austerity are combined. As late as the spring of 1957 he dictated new versions of the songs Come Away, Death and Kullervo's Lament. He died on 20th September of that year syyskuuta 1957.