A Musical Ghost

Racing drivers aside, Johan Julius Christian (Jean) Sibelius, born in 1865 in Hämeenlinna, probably still takes the garland of most famous Finn. Apart from his towering musical legacy, the role he played in the cultural flowering that inspired Finnish independence makes him a legend in his homeland.

Like many artists of the time, Sibelius was fascinated by the mythology and forests at the heart of Finnishness. His first major works (Kullervo, En Saga and the Karelia Suite) were based on the Kalevala epic, but his overtly political 1899 Finlandia symphony became a powerful symbol of the Finnish independence struggle and is still his best-known work. His genius lay in his ability to distil the essence of traditional forms into a tight modern product. The best example, his masterful seventh symphony, shoehorns a powerful feeling of Finnish landscape and an epic Nordic quality into a very compact package.

Before his death in 1957, at the age of 92, he had produced very little in three decades. His missing eighth symphony is an El Dorado legend, but evidence suggests that he consigned it to the fire in the 1940s.

A Sibelius trail could lead from his Helsinki monument to Ainola, where he lived with wife Aino Järnefelt (sister of the painter Eero) and their six daughters, to his birthplace in Hämeenlinna and to the excellent Sibelius Museum in Turku. Festivals devoted to Sibelius include ones at Loviisa, where he had a summer home, and Lahti, whose symphony orchestra is famed for its expertise in his works.

While Finland’s current musical pre-eminence owes much to his legacy, younger musicians also sometimes feel that it can be difficult to escape the shadow of Sibelius, whose lofty ghost still paces the forests and lakeshores of his beloved land.