in Articles

Sibelius’s music in focus

by Anna Pulkkis, Tuija Wicklund, Sakari Ylivuori, Riikka Hiltunen

Sibelius’s music has, naturally, been a popular topic among Finnish music researchers. Three recent dissertations open new perspectives on the composer’s orchestral and vocal music. We let the new ‘Sibelius doctors’ elaborate on their research.

Alternatives to monotonality


My study examines the ways in which Sibelius’s solo songs depart from monotonality – the principle whereby a tonal composition features a single main key. Most tonal music ever composed counts as monotonal, but in the 19th century, composers began conceiving structures where the alternation or tension between two or more keys, or harmonic centres, played a significant role. Pulkkis’s study views Sibelius as part of this expression of the late Romantic tradition.

Of Sibelius’s 81 surviving opus-numbered solo songs, 21 depart from monotonality. These songs feature different types of non-monotonal harmonic organisation: directional tonality (one harmonic centre governs the beginning, and another the end), tonal pairing (two harmonic centres alternate or compete), or wandering/episodic tonality (different harmonic centres appear in succession, often with a block-like approach to form). Sibelius’s applications and combinations of these types yield a variety of alternatives to monotonality in his oeuvre of solo songs.

As products of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Sibelius’s songs include harmonic progressions that do not follow the logic of classical, or common-practice, tonality. Pulkkis’s study identifies three different syntaxes in the songs: classical, pan-triadic and modal. Classical syntax is functional and diatonic. Pan-triadic syntax rests on the voice-leading properties of consonant triads and views them against a chromatic framework. Modal syntax includes particular harmonic and melodic features that derive from different impulses behind Sibelius’s modal practice, such as Finnish rune melodies and 19th-century Russian music.

The methodology in my study involves both Schenkerian theory and a transformational approach that draws from the Neo-Riemannian tradition. Detailed musical analyses examine 13 of Sibelius’s 21 non-monotonal songs, while the remaining eight songs and a number of borderline cases are discussed more briefly. Each detailed analysis ends with considerations of the often close relationship between the music and the poetic text. My study is the first to approach Sibelius’s music from the non-monotonal viewpoint. Pan-triadic and transformational ideas have also previously been unfamiliar in the literature on Sibelius’s music.


Anna Pulkkis’s doctoral thesis Alternatives to Monotonality in Jean Sibelius’s Solo Songs

(Helsinki: Sibelius Academy, 2014 [Studia Musica 62]) can be read at:


New perspectives on a tone poem


My doctoral dissertation examines the two versions of Jean Sibelius’s tone poem En saga, Op. 9: the early version, published for the first time in the complete critical edition Jean Sibelius Works, JSW, in 2009 (edited by the author) and the well-known revised version. The book is divided into three parts, two of which offer a completely new perspective.

The first part sheds light on the genesis of the work, finished in 1892, and its revision in 1902. It also casts a view on the early performances and reception of both versions in Finland. Although En saga is a tone poem, Sibelius specified no literary or other programme for it. However, many critics and scholars at various times have suggested a number of ideas about the programme. The study sums up these interpretations and also presents Sibelius’s own, sporadic remarks.

The second part examines the critical editing of music. To begin, a short view is cast on the history of the text-critical approach in editing music. After that, special emphasis is placed on the first Finnish complete critical edition JSW, its principles and practices. The study then examines both versions of En saga from the perspective of critical editing. The surviving sources for both versions are introduced, as are the editorial questions that arose during the editing process. The questions and their solutions are discussed in detail, and they are compared between the versions.

The third part is form-analytical. First, it discusses Sibelius’s studies in music theory and his musical influences before composing En saga. Second, it provides the theoretical background for the form-analytical approach that is applied in this study, especially two-dimensional sonata form and teleological genesis. In two-dimensional sonata form, the form manifests in the work on two levels: as a sonata form covering the entire work and as the four-movement sonata cycle appearing in the work’s sections. Teleological genesis, in turn, offers a new perspective on the thematic events of the work. The study examines these aspects in the two versions of En saga and traces the effects of the revision on them.


Tuija Wicklund’s doctoral thesis Jean Sibelius’s En saga and its Two Versions: Genesis, Reception, Edition, and Form. (Helsinki: Unigrafia, 2014) can be read at


Focus on writing process


My dissertation is an analysis of Sibelius’s writing process and the evolution of his mixed-choir works from their earliest sketches to present-day editions. Although known primarily for his orchestral works, Jean Sibelius composed choral music throughout his entire active career. In total, Sibelius’s mixed-choir oeuvre consists of 31 works.

The theoretical foundation of the analysis is based on the methodology of Genetic Criticism, a literary-critical movement with its roots in the 1970s. Genetic Criticism does not seek to establish one definitive or singular version of any given work, but rather focuses on the study of the writing process. From this point of view, the concept of the work is not related to any particular version or source, but is understood as phrased by Peter L. Shillingsburg as a “series of discrete historically extant objects”, each of which is studied in their own context.

As a deviation from traditional Genetic Criticism, my study does not limit the studied sources to manuscripts, but also considers published editions. With published editions, the authorial intention is only one aspect of the production. There is always the publisher’s editor, typesetter, engraver, or the like, whose decisions directly affect the contents of the published text. And their work continues even after the composer’s death. Thus, the works do not end their evolution but continue to evolve even after their author’s death. Therefore, my study also includes all posthumous Finnish editions of these works.

Since the sources of Sibelius’s mixed-choir works had previously been almost entirely unexplored territory, the very gathering of sources can be considered to be one of the main results of the study. The new sources that resurfaced in archival search not only provided invaluable new information, but have also corrected some inaccurate information appearing in earlier literature. Perhaps the most important archival discovery was the autograph fair copy of Den 25 Oktober 1902 (JS 60).

Regarding the analysis of Sibelius’s writing process, his relation to the poems he was composing is perhaps the most intriguing feature. An interesting detail in this regard is that whenever Sibelius’s musical ideas contradicted the poem to be set, he did not hesitate to alter the original poem. Thus, for Sibelius the original poem was not a sacred or inviolable entity, which the composition seeks to illustrate. Rather, the poem acted as a starting point for the creative process and could be reworked during the process, if required by the musical logic. Examples of this practice turned out to be numerous.

Perhaps the most significant result of my study is to be found in the study of the publication process of the typeset editions. The study succeeded in creating concrete tools, which help to identify the mechanisms of textual transmission in the typeset editions. And since practically the entirety of Finnish choral music was produced by typesetting, these results hold great significance for further studies and are not limited solely to the field of Sibelius studies.


Sakari Ylivuori’s doctoral thesis Jean Sibelius’s Works for Mixed Choir: A Source Study (Helsinki: Sibelius Academy, 2013 [Studia Musica 54]) can be read at:


Familiar music, new perspectives


Analytic approaches to the music of Sibelius are a major line of contemporary Sibelius research, but Finland’s national composer also interests researchers from many other perspectives. Veijo Murtomäki, Professor of Music History at the Sibelius Academy, quotes the position of Sibelius in 20th-century modernism and his connections with folk music as interesting recent topics for research. The subject of the influence of the oldest type of Finnish folksong, runo melodies, is raised in, for example, the ongoing doctoral studies of Juhani Alesaro (Sibelius Academy), examining the modality and the structure of the Satz of Sibelius’s music.

Other ongoing dissertations are addressing Sibelius’s Lied-composition process (Jukka Tiilikainen, University of Helsinki) and stage music; Tuomas Hannikainen (Sibelius Academy) is creating novel performing formats for Sibelius’s rare stage work in his artistic doctorate. The study of orchestration by Pekka Helasvuo (Sibelius Academy) likewise involves a creative process since he intends to continue the orchestrating of Sibelius songs he began in connection with his Licentiate degree of 2007.

Sibelius is also present in broader research projects, such as the one entitled Rethinking Finnish Music History being carried out at the Sibelius Academy (see FMQ 2/2014). One member of the team, Markus Mantere, is examining the history of Sibelius research from the 1930s onwards.

Sibelius research is also being widely conducted – and increasingly from new perspectives – outside Finland. The Sixth International Jean Sibelius Conference, to be held in Hämeenlinna on 4–6 December will be attended by participants from Finland, the United States, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Israel and elsewhere.


Translation: Susan Sinisalo