Finlandia is probably the most widely known of all the compositions of Jean Sibelius. Most people with even a superficial knowledge of classical music recognise the melody immediately. The penultimate hymn-like section is particularly familiar and soon after it was published the Finlandia Hymn was performed with various words as far afield as the USA.
In the autumn of 1899 Sibelius composed the music for a series of tableaux illustrating episodes in Finland´s past. The tableaux were presented as a part of the Press Celebrations held in November that year. The celebrations were a contribution towards the resistance to the efforts to increase Russian influence in the then autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland. The music culminated in a stirring, patriotic finale, “Finland awakes”.
The music made an even deeper impact later in the year, when four of the parts, including “Finland awakes”, were performed again in concert. “Finland awakes” soon came to be in great demand as a separate concert piece and Sibelius revised it in the following year, giving it the title Finlandia, as suggested in a letter from an anonymous admirer. (Sibelius later came into closer contact with this fan, Axel Carpelan, who became an indefatigable supporter and a self-appointed fund-raiser.)
Finlandia became a symbol of Finnish nationalism. While Finland was still a Grand Duchy under Russia performances within the empire had to take place under the covert title of “Impromptu”.
In Finland the Finlandia Hymn was not sung until Finnish words for it were written by the opera singer Wäinö Sola in 1937. After the Russian aggression against Finland in 1939 (The Winter War) the Finnish poet V.A. Koskenniemi supplied a new text, the one that has been used ever since. Sibelius arranged the Hymn for mixed choir as late as 1948.
See and listen here to the Finlandia Hymn performed by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra.
(This translation of Koskenniemi´s text is by Keith Bosley. It is included in Bosley´s superb anthology “Skating On the Sea – Poetry from Finland” published by Bloodaxe Books – (ISBN: 1 85224 388 0) and in Finland in co-operation with the Finnish Literature Society.)
© Keith Bosley and Bloodaxe Books