A decade or so ago, a programme was broadcast on BBC radio in which a British journalist stopped a random selection of children on the streets of Helsinki and asked them if they’d heard of Jean Sibelius. Naturally, all of them had. Not only that, the general consensus was that Sibelius remained a heroic figure in Finland. The kids had varying levels of expertise on Sibelius’s creative output – some named symphonies, some songs, most of them just Finlandia – but the idea that a ‘classical’ composer (whatever that means) should have such a place in the consciousness of the young public of a country was, to an outsider, astonishing. It still is.
Everywhere else in the world, classical composers have lost their prominent place in general public discourse – for better or for worse – or have reputations tinged with cynicism and embarrassment.
So as Finland marks the 150th anniversary in 2015 of Sibelius’s birth, how do those musicians outside the ‘classical’ tradition view the untouchable status and reputation of the country’s most famous composer? What has he really done for Finnish culture at home and abroad? What is his relevance outside Finland’s concert halls? And should we attach so much importance to an arbitrary event like an anniversary when plenty of alternative talent goes unrecognised?
Jori Hulkkonen, DJ and producer
In my life, Sibelius is somewhere in between a big figure and an incidental one. As a Finn you know what he means for the history of the nation, but that makes it hard to have a neutral view on how important an artist he is. In Finland, the man and the myth are bigger than the music.
When I became a bit more interested in music as a teenager, then Sibelius’s music opened up for me as well. I used to do a piece based on Finlandia in some of my DJ sets. The whole culture we live in is becoming more and more splintered and there aren’t these generational experiences anymore; there are less and less things that unite everybody living in a certain country. Finlandia is something that all Finns recognise, on some level at least. But it’s important to have fresh approaches to pieces like this which have become larger than life, and not to lift them on to a pedestal in a nationalist way.
On a personal level I’m not that crazy about anniversary celebrations. You can take it too far. But what Sibelius did for Finnish culture and music is amazing – it’s strange to think what Finland would be without him. I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of stuff happening in 2015 that we’re not really expecting; people looking for new angles and approaches to his work. I’m looking forward to that part of it.
Lauri Porra, Bassist, composer, great-grandson of Sibelius
When Sibelius’s influence manifests itself in my works, it’s not planned. I have studied his music of course and I enjoy it, but I don’t think about it when I’m writing my own. Whenever someone makes music with any Finnish vibe or sound, it’s always compared to Sibelius – that’s just a national thing. I guess if you’re an Argentinian footballer and your style is nothing like the style of Diego Maradona, they would still say “there’s a little bit of Maradona in you”.
Straight musical identities, if any, are very rare. But maybe the idea of national Romantic music is noticeable these days in Finnish heavy metal; the concept of planting the ideas of your music in old Finnish folklore – nature and stuff like that. These are the kinds of things that Sibelius has influenced and he’s so loved because he started that. But then, you have a band like Nightwish who used start their show by playing Finlandia on bagpipes; but is that Sibelius’s influence or is that just playing Finlandia on bagpipes?
In 2015 we have the opportunity to do new things with Sibelius’s music rather than just playing the symphonies and the ‘hit singles’. We need to hear his rarer pieces and hear things performed in a new way, to get new depths and new experiences from them. These things will hopefully give people exposure to the music who didn’t know it before. It might make them interested to look further into classical music to begin with.
I’ll be doing a concert series of Sibelius-themed concerts for schools in the spring. I’ve arranged some of his songs for bass guitar and trombone, and we will go into the schools to play them. My idea is to show that if it’s a good song, it doesn’t matter what time period it comes from or what instrument it’s played on; to show that music is universal and that you don’t have to be prejudiced towards music styles.
Sakari Kukko, Saxophonist, jazz/folk musician
I think Finnish musicians should take more notice of the tradition that we have here; not only Sibelius but the composers of that golden era of Finnish music from about 100 years ago. Composers like Toivo Kuula, Selim Palmgren, Uuno Klami – many others, the Merikantos too – made such good music that maybe the lesser of Sibelius’s works are not as good as the best of theirs. They found the Finnish sound somehow, based on our national folk music and instruments.
I find ideas and inspiration in the work of these composers, though of course Sibelius is the most important. Sometimes I might just listen to a symphony that I have been listening to several times before and I still hear something new in it. The same thing can happen with a very simple folk song.
Each musician should try to study his own tradition, because the world is getting more international and we don’t hear the voice of tradition in music these days, just the fashionable sounds that the record companies and radio channels are demanding.
Rami Vierula, Lead vocalist, ‘Delay Trees’
If you ask someone in the supermarket queue in Hämeenlinna about Sibelius, all they’ll know is that he was a bald-headed geezer who liked cigars. So it’s not a feature of the town but at the same time it is. A lot of the melancholia and the beautiful essence of Sibelius comes from Hämeenlinna. But at the same time it can be a really boring and uninspiring place. That’s the dilemma, which is what our song HML is about.
There’s a high school in Hämeenlinna which Sibelius went to and you hear a lot about Sibelius there: “Oh, you have to be really good because Sibelius did this or that…” As pop musicians I don’t think it’s very helpful. But I relate to his symphonies; I think they’re spectacular. A lot of Finns like Finlandia but they don’t know the rest of his stuff. I think Finnish people should be more proud of him in fact.
Nature is everywhere in Finland. But in Hämeenlinna, even when you’re walking home from a party, you’ll be surrounded by trees. That’s where the name of our band came from. In the Aulanko national park you can see the typical Finnish view of lakes and the forests – the “classic” Sibelius landscape. I suppose it’s there in the patterning and long build-up of some of our songs too. But certainly the sense of melancholy is – you feel that in the park, but that might be because it’s always empty…
Karri Miettinen, ‘Paleface’, Hip hop artist
At school we had the famous photographic portrait of Sibelius by Yousuf Karsh hanging on the wall. His eyes are closed and his forehead is wrinkled up; we learned that you can count the wrinkles on the forehead and there are seven of them, the same as the number of symphonies. Or seven and a half…the one that never got finished! Then I remember when the movie Die Hard II came out in 1990, and it had Sibelius in the soundtrack; for us as kids it was kind of cool that a US action movie would have Sibelius in it!
I think it had Finlandia actually. That’s a piece which has been used so often in Finnish culture. But it was also used as an independence song by the short-lived state of Biafra, now in Nigeria, after the civil war there; and there’s Joan Baez’s beautiful a cappella version. That’s what fascinates me about Sibelius: even when people were heavily taking sides during Finland’s Civil War in 1918, he was the only person who managed to write an anthem for both sides of the conflict, the Whites and the Reds. He had his way of remaining neutral or transcending conflict. In the same way, Finlandia has become an anthem for peace.
I plan to create something from Sibelius’s body of work in 2015, but I’m not sure what. I’m interested in sampling – creating something new out of it, like how hip hop is traditionally made. It’s pretty complicated in terms of rights and orchestral arrangements if I were to take one of his symphonies and chop it up, but things are opening up now: it’s possible for someone like me to approach the Sibelius family and start talking about creating something. Traditionally they’ve not been very open to that.
Of course it’s important that we understand the original meaning and shape and sound that Sibelius created. But I also feel strongly that as artists we should be able – and have the right – to create a new kind of music, a new kind of art, and build something new from this material. I have a little bit of history with this; I’ve used some Uuno Klami and I’ve had Avanti! play on one of my albums. But this is the time when classical music and musicians should open up more to collaboration, because one plus one is three. It could really be a helpful thing, especially with this polarised idea of classical music being for the elite and funded by the state, while underground music and hip hop is not. Perhaps the 2015 celebrations will create the vacuum, the area, to do this. We should remember that Sibelius was a struggling artist like the rest of us.