The Finlandia tone poem is one of the most famous orchestral works by the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. It was written in 1899 as the last part of a cycle of symphonic pictures dedicated to the Finnish printing festival. At the end of the 19th century there was a strong upsurge of national consciousness in Finland, which Russia tried to prevent with fierce censorship. In February 1899, Emperor Nicholas II issued a manifesto restricting the autonomy of the Principality of Finland, which in turn caused protests in Finland, especially among artists. Among those outraged by the metropolitan government’s policy was the composer Jean Sibelius, who felt it was his duty to express this protest through music. After the Song of the Athenians and Breaking of the Ice on the River Oulu (written to poet Zachris Topelius ‘s poems, which feature the leitmotif “Free was I born and free shall I die”), the composer composed an entire cycle of symphonic pictures in October, intended to be performed at the celebration in honour of the Finnish seal. The cycle includes an overture and six paintings illustrating the history and mythology of the Finnish people: “The Song of Väinämöinen”, “The Finns are Baptized by Bishop Henry”, “Duke Johan’s Court”, “The Finns in the Thirty Years’ War”, “The Great Hostility” and “Finland Awakes”. Shortly afterwards, the last picture – Finland Awakes – was reworked into a symphonic poem in its own right and was decided to be performed during the European tour of the famous Finnish composer and conductor Robert Kajanus. To circumvent Russian censorship, on the advice of his friend Karpelian, Sibelius gave the poem the title ‘Homeland’. In November 1900, he also completed work on the keyboard arrangement of the work and named it Finlandia.
The premiere was on 2 July 1900 in Helsinki with the Helsinki Philharmonic Society conducted by Robert Kajanus. The patriotic character of the work is particularly evident in Sibelius’s original concerts in the summer of 1904, held in the Baltic suburbs of the Russian Empire – in Riga and Reval (Tallinn). In the programmes there, Finlandia appeared under the name Impromptu, but as the composer recalled, ‘most of the audience understood what he meant’. Sibelius’s contemporaries argued that Finlandia contributed more to the success of the liberation struggle than thousands of speeches and pamphlets. In February 1901, Kajanus was already conducting the symphonic poem under its new title, which has survived to this day. A new, improved version of the music was soon published, and in 1911 the revised Historical Pictures, in which Finlandia was included again, appeared as an orchestral suite. Sibelius continued to work on this suite until February 1921, but Finlandia became widely known as a stand alone work. It was also adapted for military orchestra in 1909, for chorus and orchestra in England in 1925, and even for a marimba ensemble in 1940. Numerous songs have been written to the lilting music of the poem’s final section, known as the ‘Hymn of Finland’, the content of which has nothing to do with Sibelius’s homeland. Lyrics were also composed in Finland itself, and in 1937, the now 70-year-old Sibelius received in the mail a text written by the tenor Väinee Sola. On the basis of Sola’s text he wrote a choral version of the Finnish National Anthem.
Sibelius’s poem is relatively short, but leaves the impression of a grand epic fresco. This is enhanced not only by the composition of the orchestra with three trumpets and sonorous percussion, but also by the very nature of the themes, which could be taken for authentic folk melodies. They are, however, original – there is not a single folk quote in them. “The thematic material on Finlandia belongs to me from beginning to end,” Sibelius says.
Although this work did not become Finland’s official anthem, it is widely known in the country. Interestingly, the current anthem of the separatist republic of Biafra, which existed in the 1960s on the territory of Nigeria, was built on the music of “Finlandia”. Sibelius himself, although he appreciates “Finlandia” as a “good composition”, does not single it out among his other works. As early as 1911 he marveled: ‘Everybody (except the critics) raves about this composition, which is insignificant in comparison with my other works’. And Sibelius’s private secretary, Santeri Levas, noted that if in a letter sent to Sibelius asking for his autograph only Finlandia and Sad Waltz were mentioned as his works, then in his eyes the author of the letter did not seem to be a serious music connoisseur.