Sibelius looms large over Finnish music. Particularly as far as UK performances of Finnish music go, it’s Sibelius’s name that’s front and centre. But there’s a wealth of music from both Finland and Sweden written by Sibelius’s contemporaries that deserves to be heard.
When Sibelius was alive Nordic composition was thriving. We know Sibelius as a cultural icon, so it seems peculiar that his reactions to his contemporaries tended towards insecurity. But in his lifetime, Sibelius was continually being confronted by the music of younger — often more radical — composers than himself, most of whom got their fair share of good press.
I gave a Proms talk with Tim Howell and Ian Skelly introducing Sibelius and his Fifth Symphony, and we got chatting about Sibelius’s contemporaries and their music. (You can here the full discussion and the Prom here.) With this in mind, I’ve created a listening list of fifteen Finnish and Swedish composers writing at the same time as Sibelius, all of whom have some fantastic music. The Spotify playlist at the bottom of the article has pieces by all of the composers discussed. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these composers — and if I’ve missed any out who you think should make the list. Also if you’re performing works by any of these composers or others, please get in contact!
Elfrida Andrée (1841-1929). Andrée is so many different kinds of amazing. She fought against restrictive social pressures throughout her life, always working for what she called her ‘ideal’ — ‘the elevation of womankind’. Within Sweden she was the first female cathedral organist (at Gothenburg), and the first woman to conduct her own symphony. As far as I know, none of her symphonies have been performed in the UK. You can read more about Andrée here.
Amanda Röntgen-Maier (1853-1894). Maier was a violinist, and the first female graduate as Director of Music from the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in 1873. She showed remarkable determination as a composer — even when the Swedish Art Music Society suggested changes to the slow movement of her violin sonata, she refused to make them and the sonata was published as she wished. Her works are primarily based around the violin, including an excellent concerto.
Robert Kajanus (1856-1933). Most famous for being the conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra when Sibelius was composing. His 1885 symphonic poem Aino is kind of a big deal, because it was based on the Kalevala and therefore one of the first ‘national’ Finnish works. It was also one of the inspirations for Sibelius’s Kullervo.
Wilhelm Peterson-Berger (1867-1942). Peterson-Berger is one of the dominant figures in Swedish music history. He was active as a journalist, and was a Swedish musical taste-setter within this role. He’s written a huge number of songs and piano works as well as five symphonies, which is perhaps behind his dislike of Sibelius. He repeatedly used his newspaper columns to lambast Sibelius, quite possibly motivated by jealousy…
Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927). Stenhammar was one of Sibelius’s close friends and confidantes (Sib described him as ‘a great artist and a gentleman to his fingertips’). They were always writing to each other, and Stenhammar invited Sibelius to Gothenburg repeatedly to conduct the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, of which Stenhammar was the principal conductor and artistic director. He wrote two symphonies, two piano concertos, and a symphonic cantata as well as a plethora of chamber works (his string quartets are GREAT) and incidental music, which was considered pioneering during his lifetime.
Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960). The Swedish press set Alfvén up as Sweden’s answer to Sibelius during his lifetime. He’s best known for his symphonic rhapsody Midsommarvaka and balletic pantomime Bergakungen, but he also wrote some stunning symphonies (particularly the fourth, which features textless vocal solo parts. It got a really racy review from Ture Rangström, who intimated that the vocal parts were basically indicating sex).
Erkki Melartin (1875-1937). Hugely underrated composer. Wrote a casual 6 symphonies, and has a phenomenal catalogue that includes symphonic poems, a ballet, an opera, and an enormous number of songs. There’s a great profile on him as a symphonist here in FMQ.
Selim Palmgren (1878-1951). Given the sheer volume of music that Palmgren produced, it’s surprising that his works don’t get performed in the UK more often. Like Sibelius, he was active as both conductor and composer, but unlike Sibelius made a final move to America, where he taught at the Eastman School of Music. He wrote a number of orchestral works, the majority of which include a vocal part, but the majority of his output is for piano.
Toivo Kuula (1883-1918). One of Sibelius’s few students, who survived the Finnish Civil War but then got killed in a street brawl at the end. Consequently he doesn’t have a huge catalogue, but his piano trio is fantastic, as are his two Ostrobothnian suites for orchestra.
Ture Rangström (1884-1947). Rangström was active as both composer and journalist, and as a journalist he was extremely vocal about creating a ‘Nordic’ musical bloc. He’s best known as a song composer, but his four symphonies are superb (the fourth has an excellent organ part). I’ve written more about Rangström here.
Leevi Madetoja (1887-1947). Friend and sometime student of Sibelius, and held in high regard by him (Sibelius called him ‘an excellent symphonist’). When Sibelius was sent Poul Knudsen’s scenario for a balletic pantomime called Okon Fuoko (the same author who provided the scenario for Sibelius’s Scaramouche), Sibelius gave it instead to Madetoja and the result was one of Madetoja’s best-known works. He also composed three symphonies (well, four, but the fourth was allegedly lost when his briefcase got stolen), two operas, and some symphonic poems.
Moses Pergament (1893-1977). One of Sweden’s first ‘modernists’. He was often compared to Sibelius, and championed Sibelius’s music himself. He’s got some good piano concertos, a ballet suite, and his magnum opus is a choral symphony called ‘The Jewish Song’.
Aarre Merikanto (1893-1958). Important Finnish modernist, and the tutor of Einojuhani Rautavaara and Aulis Sallinen. His work was considered too modern in its day so got pretty bad press, sadly. His symphonic poem Ekho recently got its UK premiere from the BBCSO, but beyond this he’s written 3 symphonies, 4 symphonic poems, 3 violin concertos, 3 piano concertos and 2 piano concertos.
Uuno Klami (1900-1961). One of the most celebrated composers in Finland after Sibelius. His symphonic work Sea Pictures is a complete gem, as is his Cheremissian Fantasy for cello and orchestra. A substantial number of his works are based on texts from the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic; his Kalevala suite, op. 23, is a good place to start with these works.
Helvi Leiviskä (1902-1982). Student of both Erkki Melartin and Leevi Madetoja. She has a varied catalogue, including three symphonies, film music, and music for piano. I’m a particular fan of her Violin Sonata in G Minor.
You can listen to works by all of these composers here.