2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, strings
notes by James Keays
First performance: July 2, 1900, Helsinki. Robert Kajanus, conductor.
Finland’s Jean Sibelius is perhaps the most important composer associated with nationalism in music and one of the most influential in the development of the symphony and symphonic poem. Finlandia became the composer’s most enduring work, in part because of the political climate in Finland at the time of its creation. Russia imposed a strict censorship policy on the small nation in 1899. In October of that year, Sibelius composed a melodrama to Finnish writer Zachria Topelius’ poem The Melting of the Ice on the Ulea River, which is marked by a particularly patriotic fervor. “I was born free and free will I die” is typical of its sentiments, and one of which Sibelius took particular note. The following month saw a fund-raising gala organized by the Finnish press. While its ostensible purpose was to raise money for newspaper pension funds, it was in fact a front for rallying support for a free press at a time when the czarist hold on the country was tightening.
Sibelius extracted six tableaux from the melodrama for a performance intended to provide a celebratory end to the gathering on November 4. Innocuously titled Music for Press Ceremony, the score concluded with Finland Awakens, which Sibelius reworked into an independent symphonic poem in the following year. Following the suggestion of his artistic confidant, Axel Carpelan, he retitled this rousing patriotic essay Finlandia. Since that time, the work has virtually become Finland’s second national anthem. Because of censorship restrictions, the work was most often performed under the not-altogether-apt title Impromptu until Finland gained independence following World War I.
The work opens with a questioning, vaguely ominous brass progression that evokes the “powers of darkness” from Topelius’ text, setting off a colorful drama that is at turns reflective, jubilant, and militant. Most famous, though, is a hymn-like theme which makes its first appearance in an atmosphere of quiet reverence; by the end of the work, it has become a powerful statement of triumph. Indeed, Finlandia is a clear precursor to the composer’s symphonies, in which the orchestra so often assumes the role of an ever-strengthening, defiant juggernaut.