A defining characteristic of the nineteenth century was the worldwide phenomenon of nationalism. In order to create a national identity and imbue in its inhabitants a sense of a shared destiny, nation-states–new, old and emerging–created art. It is this art that the general population remembered as they attempted to answer the age-old question, “Who am I?”
In contemporary music, the accolade is awarded to the singer of the song. We remember these tunes and we hum along to them. They’re typically about love, friendship, heartbreak and so on. Through the artist’s act of self-expression, we either find our self-expression or we change the song.
In classical music, however, the composer takes centre stage. He is a tradition in himself. Through the musical works he has written and vis-a-vis the generations of virtuosos who continue to play and study these songs; these compositions have defined not only the mastery of the tradition as a goal in itself, but even the cultural agenda of the nation-state.
What inspires a composer to write his music? What do writers allow themselves to be influenced by as they create the masterpieces that will echo through time and space?
It is not always fame, fortune or even accolades. For some, it is the love they possess and hold in their hearts for their country. It is this love they are seeking to express through their music. When music is orchestrated in this way, it is akin to a soft army that holds a sway over the hearts of people.
The most prominent way that nation-states achieved a belief in a shared destiny was through the cultivation of cultural icons who embodied a sentiment, a mood and found a way to express their shared heritage through stories, songs and art.
Literature and music bonded people together by creating shared memories. This approach–while sometimes political in its impetus–was not defined by leadership or even economics. Rather, it was achieved through inspiring the heart and igniting the pulse of the people who simply called their nation-state ‘home’.
I first heard of Jean Sibelius, a Finnish composer, when I attended a lecture by Erik Tawaststjerna, Professor Emeritus at the Sibelius Academy of the University of the Arts in Helsinki. His father is the author of a biography on the late Jean Sibelius, who is widely regarded as Finland’s greatest composer.
Jean Sibelius was the first Finnish composer to achieve an international reputation for his work. There were other composers who existed and flourished before him, but Sibelius would come to represent a spirit of resistance to the Russification of Finland–not through weapons, but through music. It was the coo and the crescendo of his orchestral pieces that would resonate in the hearts of those who had the privilege perform, publish and participate in Sibelius’ music.
For many years, Russian rulers had maintained a tradition which allowed Finland to enjoy a high degree of autonomy. As a result, Finns had been free to define and strengthen their cultural identity. That changed in 1898 when Emperor Nicholas II signed a bill allowing Russian nationalism to be aggressively implemented. The local culture came under threat and the rights of the Finns changed overnight.
In addition to leadership, language also divided the Finnish people. The use of Swedish as the administrative language of Finland; as well as the language of culture and education had created a rift within Finnish society. If a member of society wanted to improve their ranks, learning Swedish was a requirement.
Sibelius’ journey of Finnish nationalism began when his family decided to send him to a Finnish-speaking school. It was where he had the chance to explore concepts pertaining to the Finnish people as a nation. At the time, Finland was a country caught between two crossroads: Sweden and Russia. Sibelius’ education, however, would influence both his artistic output and his political views.
Sibelius is credited with having helped Finland develop a national identity during its struggle for independence from Russia. His First Symphony was first performed to an enthusiastic audience at a time when Finnish nationalism was evolving and taking root.
Sibelius would go on to receive critical acclaim and adulation for bolstering Finnish cultural awareness within the country.
It was neither high culture nor his extensive education in music that would inspire Sibelius’ compositions. Rather, he drew his inspiration from a collection of Finnish folktales.
Like all other mythologies, Kalevala tells an epic story about the Creation of the Earth and describes the controversies and retaliatory voyages between the peoples of different groups. The tale features a variety of protagonists and antagonists as well as the construction and robbery of the epic mythical wealth-making machine Sampo.
While folklore was not considered part of the high culture, Sibelius drew his inspiration from these mythological tales that had shaped the consciousness of the people who resided in that place they could only call ‘home’. Unlike many other classical composers who do away with their traditions to be accepted into a tradition; Sibelius incorporated it and celebrated it through his work.
It was what would come to define him as a composer as well as an icon in his country. Twelve of Sibelius’ best-known works are based upon or influenced by the Kalevala. To Sibelius, the Kalevala was not simply a source of inspiration–it would remain a significant influence throughout his career.
Jean Sibelius rendered an episode musically with his 1913 composition Luonnotar, in which a fluttering flute portrays the duck’s movement across the skies; paying homage to the Finnish creation myth.
Sibelius’ story is a reminder that at the end, it is neither our education nor our talent that define us; but the old stories–for when we retell them, we all find our way home.
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