Compact Discoveries®
a series of one-hour radio programs produced, written, hosted, and edited
by Fred Flaxman

©2015 by Fred Flaxman

Program 247
"Sibelius at 150, Part 1"

Sibelius: excerpt from Karelia Suite, Op. 11, third movement, Alla Marcia, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis [RCA BMG 0 9026-68770-2 7 Track 3]  [under the following]

Hello and welcome to Compact Discoveries. I’m your guide, Fred Flaxman. Stay with me for the next hour and we’ll listen to music by Jean Sibelius which is still greatly loved and often played 150 years after his birth in Finland on December 8, 1865. This program, number 247, will include his Violin Concerto, The Swan of Tuonela, and Valse Triste. Program 248 will include Sibelius’s complete Second Symphony, and, of course, it will end with Finlandia.

Fades out

Johan Julius Christian Sibelius was the second of three children born to a Swedish-speaking doctor and his wife. As a boy he was nicknamed Janne, spelled J-a-n-n-e, which is common in Finland. It was during his student years that he began preferring the French spelling, J-e-a-n. His parents had no reason to suspect their son’s potential as a composer, since their ancestry didn’t include a single professional musician.

Sibelius never came to know his father, who died of typhus during an epidemic before the boy was three. His upbringing was left to his mother and two widowed grandmothers.

Young Jean was described as healthy and happy, but prone to sudden mood swings. He enjoyed mathematics, daydreaming, and practical jokes, and he had a profound love of nature.

At the age of 15 Jean developed a passionate interest in the violin. He would go into the forest and play. “…I gave the birds endless concerts,” he said. “When sailing I often stood with my violin in the bow of the boat and improvised to the sea.”

It is surprising then that he wrote only one violin concerto.  But I think it is one of the very best violin concertos ever written. In this 2011 MSR Classics recording the violinist is Zina Schiff.  Avlana Eisenberg conducts the MAV Symphony Orchestra.  That orchestra is the only one ever founded by a railway company. It was started shortly after World War II to bring music to the destroyed towns of Hungary.  Avlana Eisenberg is the music director of the Boston Chamber Symphony.

Sibelius: Violin Concerto performed by Zina Schiff with the MAV Symphony Orchestra conducted by Avlana Eisenberg [MSR Classics MS 1459, Tracks 1-3]  [33:34]

Jean Sibelius’s only Violin Concerto. The violinist was Zina Schiff.  Avlana Eisenberg conducted the MAV Symphony Orchestra of Hungary.

You are listening to “Jean Sibelius at 150, Part 1” on this hour of Compact Discoveries. I’m your guide, Fred Flaxman.

[optional one-minute break not included in the total timing of the program]

In 1885 Sibelius enrolled in Helsinki University, then called Tsar Alexander University, not to study music, but for law — a much more acceptable career choice. But his law books suffered from neglect while he carried on his affair with the violin.

The following year he received his family’s permission to attend the music institute at Helsinki.  He composed, studied violin, and was good enough to be a regular member of the conservatory’s quartet. The director of the institute took a great interest in the young Sibelius and provided him not only musical guidance, but also the father figure that Sibelius had never known.

The conservatory years brought the realization that Sibelius would never be the virtuoso performer he had dreamed of becoming, so he turned his energies to composing.

When Jean Sibelius left the conservatory, it was to go to Berlin. There he fully realized for the first time what had been missing from his own education — the sound of the orchestra.

One of his most famous orchestral compositions is The Swan of Tuonela. It is part of the Lemminkäinen Suite, Op. 22, based on the Kalevala epic of Finnish mythology.

The tone poem is scored for a small orchestra. The English horn is the voice of the swan, and its solo is perhaps the best known English horn solo in the orchestral literature. The music paints a transcendental image of a mystical swan swimming around Tuonela, the island of the dead. Lemminkäinen, the hero of the epic, has been tasked with killing the sacred swan; but on the way, he is shot with a poisoned arrow and dies. But, not to worry, in the next part of the story he is restored to life.

The Swan of Tuonela was originally composed in 1893 as the prelude to a projected opera. Sibelius revised it two years later, making it the second section of his Lemminkäinen Suite of four tone poems, which was premiered in 1896. He further revised the piece two times, once in 1897 and again in 1900. In this EMI Classics recording, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra is under the baton of the Finnish conductor Paavo Berglund.

Sibelius: The Swan of Tuonela, Op. 22, No. 3, performed by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paavo Berglund [EMI Classics 0946 3 976892 9, CD2, Track 2]  [8:46]

The Swan of Tuonela by Jean Sibelius. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Paavo Berglund.

Another orchestral favorite of Sibelius 150 years after his birth is his Valse Triste. Sibelius’s “Sad Waltz” was originally written has part of incidental music for his brother-in-law’s 1903 play, Kuolema, which means Death in Finnish. But Sibelius’s piece is far better known now as a separate concert work.

In this Deutsche Grammonphon recording it is performed by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert Von Karajan.

Sibelius: Valse triste, Op. 44, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert Von Karajan [Deutsche Grammophon 413 755-2, Track 3]  [5:59]

Valse Triste by Jean Sibelius. The Berlin Philharmonic was conducted by Herbert Von Karajan.

And that concludes “Jean Sibelius at 150, Part 1.”  If you missed part of the program or would like to hear it again, you can stream it on demand at This is program number 247.  I hope you can be with me for “Jean Sibelius at 150, Part 2,” program 248, when I’ll bring you his complete Second Symphony, and, of course, conclude with Finlandia.

My thanks to Jack Brin for inspiring these two programs and for supplying some of the research on Sibelius’s life that I used.* This is your guide to Compact Discoveries, Fred Flaxman. Thank you for listening.

Sibelius: excerpt from Karelia Suite, Op. 11, third movement, Alla Marcia, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis [RCA BMG 0 9026-68770-2 7 Track 3]

(Tana Flaxman): Production of Compact Discoveries is made possible in part by an anonymous donor from Palm Beach, Florida... and by the financial support of Isabel and Marvin Leibowitz…  Art and Eva Stevens... Shelley and Gilbert Harrison… the CD companies that supply the recordings used…  and  the online store for classical music CDs, DVDs, downloads, and over 10,000 on-demand reissued titles. Broadcast of the programs by public radio stations is made possible by listeners who contribute to those stations. Streaming-on-demand is made possible by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Program Ends at 58:00

*Much of the information came from an audio-visual biography of Sibelius created almost 40 years ago by my friend Jack Brin.