Sibelius, Finlandia & the cry of freedom

November 5, 2017, 2:56 PM · Jean Sibelius’ tone-poem, Finlandia, wasn’t supposed to be the program headliner last Saturday night at the San Francisco Symphony. The main draw was the Sibelius Violin Concerto, gracefully and sensitively rendered by Latvian violinist Baiba Skride, with Finnish guest conductor Osmö Vänskä leading the orchestra. Vänskä, music director of the Minnesota Orchestra—they of the Great Lockout of 2012-14 infamy—literally staked his position on turning said orchestra into one of the country’s finest, resigning in protest in the later months of the lockout, only to be rehired the following April (good call), where he now continues, with the Minnesota Orchestra, to excel and produce world-class music. Particularly impressive are Vänskä’s Sibelius interpretations.

No surprise, perhaps, as both hail from Finland and both have captured, in the music, the nuance, proud spirit and dignity of this Nordic country. And no piece conjures a sense of Finnish national pride more so than Sibelius’ Finlandia, a patriotic tone-poem, the seventh of seven tableaux written in 1899 and revised a year later. Coming in at eight-ish minutes (can be up to nine), it’s short, but amazingly effective.

The first part delivers a brooding fanfare of horns, rumbling timpani, depicting menace, oppression that, indeed, was part of Finland’s history, through occupations by Sweden and then Russia, into the early 20th century. The middle part of Finlandia calls in strings and woodwinds, a gentler but no less affecting sound, before the piece really ramps into high gear. It becomes propulsive and spirited, with plenty of crashing cymbals and an increase in speed and intensity from the entire orchestra.

And then, at its peak, comes the melody, slow and majestic, instantly timeless and memorable. Strings, woodwinds, brass all play in tandem, contributing different textures that meld perfectly. When the horns sustain one of their notes against the melody, it’s so beautiful—one of the most vivid aural depiction of love, fealty and longing I’ve ever heard. It never fails to make my throat contract, my eyes sting. Saturday night at Davies Symphony Hall, Vänskä conducting, was no exception.


Sibelius had written the piece, initially entitled “Finland Awakes,” part of his Press Celebration Music suite, for an event, a covert political rally of sorts to protest Russia’s increasing censorship and other punitive measures against Finland, an “autonomous” region of the Empire. It was an instant hit. In 1900 he revised, making the seventh piece stand alone and renaming it Finlandia. Its popularity grew in leaps and bounds, particularly when the fledgling Helsinki Philharmonic, eighteen months old, took it with them on their first European tour. Suddenly the world knew about Sibelius, Finlandia, and Finnish national pride. The Russians, of course, hated this, and did their best to censor performances of Finlandia. Story has it, the Finns got sneaky and gave the piece alternative names at future performances, like, “Happy Feelings at the Awakening of Finnish Spring,” and “A Scandinavian Choral March." The correlating hymn, too, had become a big deal. Huge. Sibelius had taken the piece’s slower melody and made it a choral hymn — although the more popular words were written in 1941 by Veikko Antero Koskenniemi. It became the patriotic cry of a nation. It defined the voice of Finland that emerged in December, 1917, when the Finnish parliament finally declared independence from Russia. It is second in importance in Finland only to the country’s national anthem, “Maamme.” (Some still would like to see it become the national anthem.)

December 6, 2017 marks Finland’s centennial. I can think of no better way to honor such an event than to share Finlandia with the world.
Following is a link to my favorite version of the choral hymn. It makes tears rise in my throat every time I watch it (and I’m going on a dozen times at this point). That nationalism can be expressed with such beautiful song, is just one more reason why Finland impresses me to no end. (Second: tied for highest literacy rate in the world at 100%. Third: most engaged, informed, prolific classical music audience in the world. Fourth: one of the highest functioning welfare systems and lowest infant mortality rates in the world. Fifth: the best front row seat for viewing the Northern Lights.)

Want to know the words? Here you go! (And if auto-correct made a mess of the Finnish spelling, apologies to all my Finnish readers out there! Let me know and I’ll fix.)

Oi Suomi, katso, sinun päiväs koittaa
Yön uhka karkoitettu on jo pois
Ja aamun kiuru kirkkaudessa soittaa
Kuin itse taivahan kansi sois
Yön vallat aamun valkeus jo voittaa
Sun päiväs koittaa, Oi synnyinmaa

Oi nouse Suomi, nosta korkealle
Pääs seppelöimä suurten muistojen
Oi nouse Suomi, näytit maailmalle
Sä että karkoitit orjuuden
Ja ettet taipunut sä sorron alle
On aamus alkanut
Oi Synnyinmaa

Here is the English translation:

Finland, behold, thy daylight now is dawning,
the threat of night has now been driven away.
The skylark calls across the light of morning,
the blue of heaven lets it have its way,
and now the day the powers of night is scorning:
thy daylight dawns, O Finland of ours!

Finland, arise, and raise towards the highest
thy head now crowned with mighty memory.
Finland, arise, for to the world thou criest
that thou hast thrown off thy slavery,
beneath oppression’s yoke thou never liest.
Thy morning’s come, O Finland of ours!

And now, here is a link to the full version (coming in at nine minutes, so a little more deliberate pacing), which also provides a film tour of Finland and its staggering natural beauty. (But warning, the cute little animals and birds kind of kill the mood of “we, the oppressed, must struggle or die trying” patriotic fervor. Now it’s more like a Nature episode. But a gorgeous one, I might add!)

PS: Happy Centennial, Finland!

PPS: Want to hear the original Press Celebration Music suite? In truth, it’s pretty cool, because, for you Sibelius fans such as myself, there’s some new music in there that hints at what he will produce further down the road. And there’s a pretty nifty slide show that depicts different historical scenes for each tableau, which are, themselves, intended as historical episodes. Further, you can hear the original 1899 first ending.

This article first appeared, in modified form, at The Classical Girl.

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November 6, 2017 at 09:56 AM · Nice article, Terez. I do love me some Sibelius.


November 6, 2017 at 02:22 PM · Thanks, Neil! And ditto on the Sibelius love. I'm having so much fun discovering some of his shorter, lesser known works. Had never heard of "Press Celebration Music suite" prior to researching this blog. The things you learn...!

November 6, 2017 at 03:49 PM · For crying out loud, it's Vänskä!

November 6, 2017 at 04:41 PM · Thank you for this post. As an native Finnish musician for me Finlandia-hymn, as it is called recently in Finland, is part of our history as a nation. It was first performed over 118 years ago in Helsinki, Finland (4.11. was the date). In that historical time Finland as an autonomous part of Russia was deeply concerned about censorchip against free publishing of newspapers for example. That censoring of the newspapers was an idea from russians who were leading Finland.

This was the background of the historical situation in that time.

I've read about Sibelius' thoughts about Finlandia. He wanted this particular compose to be not owned for one nation but for every human beeing if anybody wants to"own" this "song" . But the original idea of this work of art was coming from concerns for a tiny country from north to be in real danger pulled out from the chart of being a nation within nations. A concern about the survival of one's own identity what was just wakened for that small nation. I've also read that Sibelius said later that this melody as known as Finlandia was given for him "from heaven" and it was for him by his own words "pure inspiration".

The name of Finlandia was proposed by one of Sibelius' greatest time-fellow fans Axel Carpelan. He asked for the leader of Helsinki city orhestra to tell Sibelius that Finlandia should be the name of the hymn.

November 6, 2017 at 07:54 PM · Oh, I so enjoyed reading your comment above that elaborated on Sibelius' "story behind the story." I hope everyone takes the time to read it. How beautiful, that Sibelius wanted the composition to be owned not by one nation, but for all people. I know the short-lived country of Biafra, in West Africa, used it as their national anthem, back in the 1960's. It certainly does have a universal appeal. And it certainly does sound to me like music that came "from heaven." I don't think I've ever listened to it without getting chills.

Thank you for your lovely contribution to the article discussion!

November 7, 2017 at 03:46 AM · No, wait! Skride was phenomenal.

November 7, 2017 at 04:25 PM · Oh, she was, she was! Really, I'd thought that was going to be what I wrote about. Joshua Kosman just raved about her performance, in the San Francisco Chronicle. But I had been such a champion of Leonidas Kavakos' Sibelius VC a year (or two?) earlier, which Kosman did not rave about, in the least, that I'd felt compelled to write about a different angle of this concert. Really, that whole first half of the night's performance was sublime. If anything, it made the Shostakovich Symphony No. 1 seem... dunno... uneventful, in comparison. ((And I'm sure there's someone out there who will ding me for saying THAT.)) Most of all, I was so pleasantly surprised by hearing Finlandia live, and what a difference it makes. But, yes, kudos to violinist Baiba Skride for her lovely performance of the VC.

November 7, 2017 at 07:43 PM · I am a big fan of Sibelius. Thank you, Terez, for telling us so much about the composer and this piece in particular. This knowledge enriched my appreciation of the artistry of this piece.

November 7, 2017 at 10:39 PM · Pauline, thank YOU for sharing your thoughts here. Always fun to hear who else is a Sibelius fan. Did you listen to the "Press Celebration Music" suite? It's a delightful discovery. And right now I'm infatuated with his Symphony No. 3 as well (oh, the gorgeous second movement!). Check it out if you haven't.

November 8, 2017 at 02:00 AM · Some sixty years ago, during my schooldays, a new teacher at my (high-)school was welcomed by the Head of Music to play some of his record collection to us. When introducing Finlandia, he told us that the tune in the middle was a traditional Finnish hymn which Sibelius had adopted. Over the years, every time I have come into contact with Finlandia, I have been puzzled by never ever again hearing or reading anything about this - Thank you Terez and, not only for setting the record straight, but also for showing that there really was a record TO be set straight.

The tune is used in English language churches for "We rest on Thee, our Shield and our Defender", for which it is the best tune (and when I'm playing in it, I love to play "Dum - da dadadada Dum Dum" quaver-rest "Da" on the word "battle", the "-tle" coming on the quaver-rest; I feel even better about doing that, now that I know that the tune is as original to Sibelius as "Dum - da dadadada Dum Dum" quaver-rest "Da" is) and, famously, was used by the five Ecuador Missionary Aviation Fellowship martyrs when they sung that hymn on the beach awaiting the "Auca" Indians (who killed them soon after arrival), but also, sometimes, for "Be still, my soul, for God is on thy side", for which I think the equally beautiful "Song 1", by Orlando Gibbons, is more suitable.

November 8, 2017 at 05:13 AM · Your text would have been so much more impressive if Finland actually existed...

November 8, 2017 at 07:54 AM · Thank you, dear Terez Mertes, for authenticating 'Finlandia' as The composition of the Master Finnish Composer, Jean Sibelius!! Your obvious love for and commitment to the Music of Jean Sibelius, "the Greatest Moral Composer of the Twentieth Century", is deeply moving to me, a violinist having touched upon Sibelius' Violin Concerto w/my legendary violin mentor-master, Jascha Heifetz, who championed the Violin Concerto of Sibelius throughout his 7 decade global solo concert performing/recording/teaching career ~ Learning that Sibelius was thrilled w/ Heifetz's performance & 1st recording of his Violin Concerto from all Five Daughter's of Sibelius upon the Centenery of their father's December 8, 1965, Birthday, in his Hameenlinna birth-house outside Helsinki, (following my by invitation of the Sibelius Family Award for Best Solo Bach in Sibelius' First International Violin Competition in Helsinki), I performed the 'Adagio di molto' of Sibelius's Violin Concerto, then followed a proclamation by Finnish Minister of Culture, that the birth-house would be an official Finnish Government 'Sibelius National Memorial Museum' in Tribute to Jean Sibelius upon his One Hundredth Birthday! I was presented a gorgeous homegrown-in-her-garden bouquet of flowers from then ailing Madam Sibelius and her Daughter's, 'gift to you for playing our father's slow movement of his Violin Concerto, adding to the Sibelius Family Tribute & that of our country of Finland's Salute to our great Composer/father upon his 100th Birthday!'

With much more to share, please know how grateful I am, along with untold other's, for your impassioned Tribute-Article to Jean Sibelius' 'Finlandia' with a splendid online recording of his 'Finlandia', which I found musically intriguing, especially in the tempi taken in the gloriously offered 'Up' brass opening, proceeding onward to a much swifter tempo en route to the nearing finale ~ On my second 'pilgrimage' to Helsinki's Sibelius Academy of Music (& Hameenlinna) in February, 1999, to guest play/teach, I had the chance to observe the Sibelius Academy's Symphony Orchestra rehearsing Dvorak's New World Symphony conducted by Finnish Conducting Guru, Leif Segerstam, the teacher of Esa Pekka Salonen and 'our' Sibelius interpreter hero, Osmo Vanska, intently listening to all he was asking & portraying, tempo-wise, in the Dvorak, then in part of the 2nd Symphony of Sibelius. Finnish musicians seem not to take (excuse this adjective not meant to downgrade our own orchestras) 'American' tempo's in works of Sibelius ~ I was truly fascinated & taken with a Northern European String sound I'd never heard before on a 'mildly' cold 25 degrees Below Zero Day, which may or may not have contributed to this from-faraway-sound almost frozen in time yet with a burnt warmth inside ...

You were greatly blessed to hear Osmo Vanska guest conduct 'Finlandia' in Finnish fashion and in an authentic rendering ~ The Finnish people are noble yet warm once convinced of one's true blue heart and genuine interest in their deeply rich Culture ... Not knowing much about the Violinist, she must be an informed Sibelius musician of orchestral & chamber music background to play the 'Sibelius Violin Symphony 'Concerto' in d minor'!! One truly needs to know & digest the full score to make 'Music-speak' when allotted the Solo Violin part to the Sibelius V.C.!!! (For another time, I noted with great curiosity your subtle mention of L.K.'s Sibelius ... )

With sincere best wishes and gratitude for a wonderful Tribute-Article on Sibelius & the Centenery upcoming of Finland's 'Liberation' on December 6, 1917, on this December 6, 2017 Year. I will pass word around regrading this auspicious Finnish Anniversary which closely coincides w/ the One Hundredth Year Anniversary of the most Historic Musical Debut in Violin History, the Carnegie Hall Violin Recital Debut of Jascha Heifetz, on October 27, 1917, which was/is being celebrated during this Centenery Year of Heifetz's astounding Debut to a Sold Out NY audience with Music 'Royalty' in attendance including Mischa Elman and Fritz Kreisler plus a NY pianist, Leopold Godowsky, whom Mischa Elman sweating-ly turned to during a long Intermission, asking pianist, Godowsky, 'Isn't it hot in here, Leopold?' to which now World famous Godowsky replied, "Not for Pianists!!!"

Please keep speaking and writing glowingly about Jean Sibelius!!

Elisabeth Matesky /Chicago*

*Best to John Rokos as well!

November 8, 2017 at 03:40 PM · ~ Terez Mertes,

Upon awakening, I was able to hear the stirring performance of the Helsinki Philharmonic's Inaugural Concert of their new Helsinki Hall in Sibelius' 'Finlandia' with floods of tears welling up in my eyes, heart and, yes, throat ~ It was an absolutely magnificent and eloquent 'happening' minus glam & 'bling', which the Finn's do not exhibit nor have need of such! The timeless quality of this great Tone Poem stands solely on its own merits and those of its Creator, Jean Sibelius ...

After hearing/seeing all here, including your impromptu singing in a Flashmob 'Finlandia' in what must have been a downtown Helsinki shopping mall, which through your heartfelt 'Call to all People's', most stopped doing & going to here or there, joining you in one of the most moving displays of national fidelity and pride to sing en masse with you!! This public sing - along required the enduring love and deep amazement you carry in your voice, heart & soul for Finland's Sibelius ~

It was and is beautiful to see humankind gather together to sing praises to their adored Finland ~ The Land of Sibelius and of all Finnish Hearts ...

Choking back tears, Thank You, Terez Mertes!

Elisabeth Matesky ~ with my heart back in Finland!

November 9, 2017 at 03:51 AM · Thank you, in return, Elisabeth, for your lovely musings. You shared so much - what a pleasure to read! John, I enjoyed reading about your experience, as well - yes, it was a bit of a myth that the folk tune (or traditional hymn) had come first and Sibelius had created Finlandia based on that. Nope! And I know there are at least half a dozen hymns or anthems that use the melody - I've yet to encounter one in church, but I'll bet one jumps out at me now. Sure to be strange! And Mattias, well, that was a thought-provoking (or not) link you posted. Ah, refreshing, the wide variety of replies my article is drawing.

Thank you, one and all, for your replies! Am enjoying the extended discussion.

November 9, 2017 at 03:54 AM · Elisabeth, I'm still chuckling over this. Have heard it before, but it's one of those charming anecdotes that never loses its freshness.

> ... the Carnegie Hall Violin Recital Debut of Jascha Heifetz, on October 27, 1917, which was/is being celebrated during this Centenery Year of Heifetz's astounding Debut to a Sold Out NY audience with Music 'Royalty' in attendance including Mischa Elman and Fritz Kreisler plus a NY pianist, Leopold Godowsky, whom Mischa Elman sweating-ly turned to during a long Intermission, asking pianist, Godowsky, 'Isn't it hot in here, Leopold?' to which now World famous Godowsky replied, "Not for Pianists!!!"

November 10, 2017 at 02:18 AM · If we want to talk about various versions and English-language mutations, I rather like the words in the Unitarian hymnal, written in 1934 by Lloyd Stone:

This is my song, O God of all the nations,

A song of peace for lands afar and mine.

This is my home, the country where my heart is,

Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine.

But other hearts in other lands are beating,

With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

* *

My country's skies are bluer than the ocean,

And sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine.

But other lands have sunlight too, and clover,

And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.

O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,

A song of peace for their land and for mine.

November 10, 2017 at 04:54 PM · many thanks for your prudent inclusions on this site....after reading the paper, hearing of the world's woes, it is always a great escape to venture to and absorb what is most interesting, musically vital and pleasurable. This Sibelius saga and related offerings by other readers is so reassuring that being-a-practicing-music performer/consumer is an esoteric but righteous and rewarding aspect of life.

November 10, 2017 at 05:36 PM · Way, cool, Laurie - since the melody of the hymn is forever in my head, the words slipped right into place.

What great words, too. Too bad the whole world isn't listening, huh?

November 11, 2017 at 02:44 PM · One of my absolute favorites composed by Sibelius is the suite called Rakastava (The Lover). The first movement has a beautiful reoccuring theme, sounds like a desperate last cry for help. Second movement is a very mischievous one, sounds like a film theme where the protagonist goes on adventure. Third movement begins with a wonderful violin solo that is so hard to forget.

Beautiful music indeed :')

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