In Finland, Sibelius has not only been seen as a composer we continue to be proud of and interested in, but also as a convenient cultural marker used in order to advance nationalistic objectives and a confident outlook on Finland’s future. It is interesting to examine the way Sibelius’s music has been combined with non-fictive audiovisual communication.
During the era of the silent film and early sound film, Finnish drama and documentary film producers often chose music from a select number of Sibelius’s works for stage: Pelléas and Mélisande, Scaramouche or King Christian II. These works have been used in films to complement dramatic expression and set the mood.
Some of the films went beyond using just stage music: a list of works selected to accompany a silent 1922 ‘nation branding film’ entitled Finlandia showcased other aspects of Sibelius’s music as well. The full-length episodic film paid close attention to the musical side of Finland’s image. An episode depicting rapids is supported by Sibelius’s Finlandia in its full glory, and a section on Finnish sporting heroes uses the Song of the Athenians as a link between physical ability and military prowess.
In terms of educational and informative film-making, it has been the norm to choose the first and third movements of Sibelius’s Karelia Suite when depicting the governmental history of Finland, significant historical sites or our literary civilisation and language.
‘New branch of service’: war propaganda films
Finnish art music really came into the limelight in 1939 through the advent of Second World War propaganda film production and the Defence Force newsreels. These newsreels (86 in all) were distributed to every Finnish cinema as well as internationally; according to media estimates, “tens of millions” saw these newsreels outside of Finland.
Sibelius’s output proved to be a convenient mindset tool. There was a fairly unanimous understanding that Karelian culture was an important source of inspiration for the composer. At the time, bitter battles were being waged against our eastern neighbour across the very region that the Finnish intelligentsia had defined as the cradle of Finnish culture, both linguistic and musical.
Sibelius was also simply the most famous and esteemed Finnish composer throughout that time. One of the most important missions of war propaganda was to awaken popular sentiment for the struggles of the nation, and our cultural figurehead was an obvious choice to promote the spiritual greatness of our small Finnish culture. Certain compositions did play a central role in these newsreels, although Sibelius’s music was not by any means the only art music represented.
During the early stages of the Continuation War in 1942, with Finnish troops making good progress with their re-capturing operations in Karelia, there was a particularly clear relationship between the narrative and music in the newsreels. Medium and fast-paced, energetic sections from Sibelius’s symphonies – mostly from the Second, Third and Fifth – were incorporated with the spoken message emphasising the “inevitable” and “justified” progress of the Finnish soldiers. The Third Symphony was used to bolster military, war industrial and spiritual power. A newsreel titled Crusader Army (1942) calls attention to the higher power behind military operations: the Third Symphony and the spiritually pitched church organ music were woven into a narrative about the devoutness of the Finns and, on the other hand, the godlessness and violent secularism of the enemy.
Music for small and great stories
Non-fiction film-makers seem to have divided Sibelius’s music into usable categories according to the subject matter and objective of each film. Portrayals of private or everyday life have received their musical markers from stage or choral music, or from works composed for ensembles smaller than a full symphony orchestra. Likewise, educational and documentary films draw on the composer’s smaller-scale works, in addition to the Karelia Suite.
But when films both depicted and were pitched to a nation at war, the symphony orchestra was chosen as the musical actor for the soundtrack. The core works consisted of Sibelius’s symphonies or works such as Scènes historiques with its Finlandia finale, or the Karelia Suite. Depictions of nature were a somewhat speciality genre where the similarities between Finnish nature and national character were illustrated through works such as The Oceanides, or excerpts from selected symphonies.
Tens of thousands of movie-goers heard tunes from the Third Symphony in the newsreels that showed the progress of Finnish soldiers. National progress and belief in the future were highlighted through the use of the Karelia Suite in countless educational films. There are thus shared mental images associated with Sibelius’s music: film-making was part of the 20th-century media landscape that caused Sibelius’s music to leave a lasting impression in the common consciousness.
Translation: Hanna-Mari Latham