In 1808, the Russian Empire marched into Finland and overthrew its Swedish rule. By the end of 1809, Finland had become subject to Russian rule and remained so until 1917. I certainly wouldn’t be happy if the Russian Empire declared itself ruler over my country, so it’s no surprise that Finland wasn’t very happy either. During this time, periods of censorship and heavy political oppression occurred, especially during the last two decades of Russian rule over Finland.
Enter nationalism. Nationalism is a term that describes a country or nationality or ethnic group promoting the importance of its own culture through art/music/speech/etc. Throughout the last half of the 19th century, the Finnish people began a nationalist movement against the Russian Empire. This extremely powerful movement eventually helped Finland gain its independence at the end of World War I. For more information, read here.
If there’s anything I’ve learned about history, it’s that nationalism and political oppression often lead to some incredible music. In the midst of the Finnish nationalistic movement, composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) wrote and premiered one of his most famous pieces: Finlandia. The piece itself was composed for the Press Celebrations of 1899 (an undercover protest against the ever increasing censorship and oppression from Russia), and it even had to be called different names because the name Finlandia was too nationalistic for the Russians.
Sibelius wrote Finlandia to portray his people’s fighting spirit. He based the work on a political poem by Finnish writer Zachria Topelius entitled The Melting of the Ice on the Ulea River. (This makes Finlandia a tone poem: an orchestral work that illustrates the content of a poem, story, painting, etc.) One section of the poem The Melting of the Ice on the Ulea River that really inspired Sibelius reads as follows:
Whose slave am I that in the pride of my youth
Needs stand in bond through endless winter?
Noble son of Finland’s blue lakes,
I was born free and free I will die.
The piece is full of restless energy, ominous chords, and heroic yet folk-style themes that depict Finland’s political struggle. But the pride in his homeland and resolve to fight – as inspired by Topelius’s poem – is also obvious. Have a listen:
Around the 5:23 mark, Sibelius wrote the beautiful Finlandia Hymn. I should point out that Sibelius did not write the words or the choral part here – just the orchestral music and the hymn theme. It wasn’t until decades later, in 1941, that Finnish poet Veikko Antero Koskenniemi wrote the following words* (and subsequently a choir was added to Finlandia):
Finland, behold, thy daylight now is dawning,
the threat of night has now been driven away.
The skylark calls across the light of morning,
the blue of heaven lets it have its way,
and now the day the powers of night is scorning:
thy daylight dawns, O Finland of ours!
Finland, arise, and raise towards the highest
thy head now crowned with mighty memory.
Finland, arise, for to the world thou criest
that thou hast thrown off thy slavery,
beneath oppression’s yoke thou never liest.
Thy morning’s come, O Finland of ours!
*Note: this is an English translation of the original words written in Finnish. Other English translations may vary slightly.
In the years after he premiered Finlandia, many other composers arranged and reworked the hymn section into various instrumental and choral groupings. Check out this recording of Cantus singing the words “This Is My Song” to the hymn as an example:
One of the most popular uses of the Finlandia Hymn is the Christian hymn Be Still, My Soul. The text was written in 1752 by Katharina Amalia Dorothea von Schlegel and put to Sibelius’s music in the early 20th century by music professor David Evans. (For more background about the Christian hymn version, read here and here.) Listen to the boys choir Libera sing Be Still My Soul here:
And for kicks, here’s a piano arrangement of the hymn that I wrote:
Finlandia is more than a piece of music. It is an anthem that represents struggle, freedom, and hope. It is incredible to me how this poem of protest has made such a huge impact on the whole world!
There is so much to learn about Finlandia that I couldn’t cover it all! For a more in-depth analysis of the work and the history behind it, read this cool blog post here.