The nationalist movement was prevalent in virtually every European country towards the end of the 19th century. In Finland, Jean Sibelius rose to become the foremost authority on his nation’s identity in music, with his symphonies, tone poems and orchestral suites becoming his most well-known and commonly performed works.
Finlandia is without question Sibelius’ most popular piece, with its famous growling opening and constant, proud and stately resolve. This work is the epitome not only of the Sibelian style, but also musical nationalism itself. Slightly less popular but just as stirring, The Tempest Suite is a typical example of the composers’ brilliance for orchestration, The Storm movement in particular summons howling wind and waves like no other classical work, including Debussy’s La Mer.
La Valse Triste is a work of undeniable expressivity, and together with Finlandia has secured the composers’ place on classical compilations and concert programming. The melodies of the work are often plagiarised, and extracts of this piece have been used in a number of Hollywood films. More interestingly, the work highlights the shadow of Tchaikovsky, and even the earlier composers - Schubert and Beethoven - that lingered over the close of the Romantic era, even a century after their deaths.
Yet Sibelius was much more than a nationalist. His seven symphonies were once thought to offer an acceptable if conservative face to modern music, but they are now regarded as pioneering in their own right. The fifth symphony has become one of the most admired of all 20th century works, and the seventh is a highly original compression of the four movements of the traditional symphony into a single span of constantly evolving material.
La Valse Triste, Finlandia, The Tempest Suite