Seven Things You Didn't Know About Sibelius

Finnish composer Jean Sibelius is a musical figurehead in Finland and the world over. On Sunday 8 May Dima Slobodeniouk conducts Sibelius' Symphony No 2 at the Barbican alongside Sofia Gubaidulina's Offertorium performed by Baiba Skride.

Read on to find out seven surprising facts about the composer's life and listen to his Second Symphony on our record label LSO Live.

1. What’s in a name?

The composer was born Johan Julius Christian Sibelius in Hämeenlinna, the oldest city in inland Finland. As a boy Sibelius was known as Janne, a colloquial version of Johan, but it was during his student years when the composer discovered his dead uncle’s first name that the composer adopted his musical name ‘Jean’. So, Sibelius came to be known by a French first name and a very Finnish surname.

Hame Castle in Hammelina
Häme Castle in Hämeenlinna.

2. Grant from the government

Especially in their early years working full-time it was often difficult for composers to make a good living. In Sibelius’ case the Finnish government stepped in to help remove any of his money worries – they gave the composer an annual salary from 1898.

3. Composing music he loved

Reportedly, out of all his works Sibelius would have most loved to perform his Violin Concerto. The composer was a violinist himself but he did not possess the technical ability to match his compositional genius and so he never took to the stage to perform the work.

4. Finnish Nationalism

Sibelius was a patriotic man who celebrated Finnish culture and was strongly against Russian rule in Finland. He supported Karelianism, a cultural movement celebrating the Karelia region in East Finland. Amongst his most patriotic works are his Karelia Suite (1893), musical settings of folk tales from the Kalevala and later his tone poem Finlandia (1899) – a nationalistic call to Russia to keep its hands off Finland.

Karelia region
The Karelia region in Finland.

5. From Italy to independence

In 1901 Sibelius was on holiday in Rapallo, Italy, and whilst there he began drafting music for a tone poem based on the infamous story of Don Juan. The composer continued to work on this throughout his summer in Italy, but Finland was never far from his thoughts. At the time Finland was striving for independence from Russia, and when Sibelius returned to his homeland the symphony morphed into something quite different. A three-note pastoral motif, reminiscent of Beethoven's Symphony No 6, ran through the work but this was followed closely by the dark and foreboding tune originally written to characterise Don Juan. The light and dark idea in the Second Symphony came to symbolise, for many people, the heroic struggle for independence against authoritarian rule.

6. Entertaining through his retirement

By the age of 71, twenty years before his death, Sibelius had earned enough money to stop composing altogether. In his retirement the composer loved to entertain friends and enjoyed drinking and smoking cigars. Not unlike Winston Churchill, Sibelius is rarely pictured without one. His favourite cigars were Finnish, made with Balcan tobacco.

Sibelius smoking a cigar
Photo of Sibelius smoking a cigar.

7. National Commemoration

Until 2002 the Finnish 100 Mark bill displayed Sibelius’s image, and more recently in 2015, Finnish postage stamps with Sibelius on them came into circulation. In fact the Finnish hold Sibelius in such high regard that since 2011 Finland has celebrated a Flag Day on 8 December, the composer's birthday, also known as the 'Day of Finnish Music'.

 Sibelius 100 mark note
The Finnish 100 Mark bill featuring Sibelius' image.

Sunday 8 May 7pm, Barbican

Sofia Gubaidulina Offertorium
Sibelius Symphony No 2

Dima Slobodeniouk conductor
Baiba Skride violin
London Symphony Orchestra

Tickets: £60 £48 £35 £24 £18

£3 online booking fee, £4 telephone booking fee per transaction - click here for more information on booking fees


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