Sibelius and Nielsen: Two Scandinavian Sesquicentennials

Scandinavia_regions_mapJean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen, two of the most important Scandinavian composers, were both born in 1865.

They met only once and had very different personalities. Nonetheless, they have more in common than being Scandinavian symphonists.

For example, both of their names have unusual stories, and the year 1926 had special significance for both.

On the other hand, their relationship to the controversy between Brahms and Wagner took opposite paths.

Two childhoods and education

Both Sibelius and Nielsen grew up in small towns, Sibelius in Hämeenlinna in the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland (which declared independence from Russia only in 1917), and Nielsen in Nørre Lyndelse on the Danish island of Funen. Both grew up in somewhat straitened circumstances.

jean sibelius 1876

Sibelius as a school boy, 1876.

Johan Julius Christian Sibelius, named for an uncle, was born to a Swedish-speaking family.

His father was a doctor who died when “Janne,” as they called him, was only 2. His mother had to move in with her mother.

Sibelius began to pick out chords and melodies on the family piano by the time he was 4.

Hämeenlinna, unlike most small Finnish towns, offered secondary education only in Finnish. The family therefore enrolled him in a Finnish-language school when he was 11. He never became entirely comfortable with his second language.

In 1886, Sibelius found some calling cards belonging to his uncle, who had followed the fashion of the time in using the French form of his name. He decided to do likewise and announced that his musical name would be Jean Sibelius.

Carl Nielsen 1879

Nielsen in his band uniform, 1879

Carl Nielsen was the son of Niels Jørgensen. The Danish Ministry of Church Affairs had decreed fixed family names in 1856, but some priests, particularly in rural areas, continued to allow patronymics for years afterward.

Nielsen was therefore one of the last people in Denmark to be given his father’s first name as a surname.

Niels, a farm laborer and painter, played violin for dances. He taught violin to Carl, and the two played dance gigs together.

Both Sibelius’ and Nielsen’s families intended some non-musical career for the boys.

Sibelius’ family enrolled him in law school. Even though he received his first formal instruction in music only when he was 16, his passion for music had interfered with his school work to the extent that he had to repeat a level.

The family did not want to discourage his interest in music and allowed him to take classes at the conservatory as well as study law. He basically ignored law school. His violin teacher considered him a genius.

Jean Sibelius

Sibelius in Vienna, late 1880

Sibelius studied theory and composition with the conservatory’s founder, Martin Wegelius, and become seriously interested in composition.

In 1888, the young Feruccio Busoni joined the Conservatory as piano teacher. Busoni and Sibelius became lifelong friends and along with others played a lot of chamber music.

Ironically, Sibelius had little contact with orchestral music; Wegelius had a feud with Robert Kajanus, founder and conductor of Helsinki’s orchestra, and discouraged his students from attending the orchestra’s concerts. Kajanus and Sibelius later became close friends and collaborators.

Nielsen was apprenticed to a shopkeeper when he was 14. He might not have become a musician at all, except that the shopkeeper soon went bankrupt. The Sixteenth Battalion in nearby Odense had an opening for a musician, so Niels taught Carl to play trumpet in hope that he would win an audition, which he did in the summer of 1879.

Carl Nielsen, 1884

Nielsen in 1884

For the next two years, he played violin only when visiting home, but he started taking violin lessons in 1881.

The head master of the local high school introduced Nielsen to Niels Gade, Denmark’s leading composer, in 1883.

By that time he had composed a string quartet. After making sure he could quickly get a release from the band, he enrolled in the Copenhagen Conservatory of Music, where Gade was one of the directors.

Nielsen entered the conservatory with the intention of becoming a professional violinist, but he occasionally presented compositions to Gade and others on the faculty.

Gade had very conservative tastes and did not keep up with the latest developments in composition, but Nielsen learned about Wagner’s music from his theory/composition teacher Orla Rosenhoff.

Nielsen graduated from the Conservatory in 1886 with uniformly mediocre grades. He made his living by taking private students and playing in the Tivoli Concert Hall Orchestra. He continued to study composition with Rosenhoff.

Ashkenazy / Sibelius – Sibelius: The Symphonies; Tone Poems; Violin Concerto CD

The evolution of two symphonists

jean Sibelius 1913

Sibelius 1913

Both Sibelius and Nielsen accepted the traditional symphony as they found it, but quickly transformed it with their own formal and harmonic innovations.

Particularly in the case of Sibelius, no piece of either man’s most important music would have allowed anyone to predict any subsequent piece.

Signs of their individuality came early in the music of both composers, but as young men they naturally came under the influence of older composers.

At the end of the 19th century musicians found it difficult not to take sides in the controversy between Brahms and Wagner.

Sibelius’ early music shows more influence of Brahms than Wagner, but he joined the Wagner camp while he was in Vienna. Perhaps the fact that Brahms refused to see him despite a letter of introduction from Busoni influenced his choice.

He declared Bruckner the world’s greatest composer, although Bruckner, too, declined to accept him as a student. Liszt’s music ultimately had greater influence on Sibelius than either Wagner or Bruckner.

Nielsen learned about Wagner’s music from Rosenhoff, an ardent Wagnerian. He became acquainted with both Brahms’ and Wagner’s music by performing it as an orchestral violinist and decided that he preferred Brahms.

Although Sibelius had little contact with orchestral music until he arrived in Vienna, he quickly mastered composing it.

His first major work, Kullervo (1892), demonstrates his grasp both of orchestration and large-scale form.

It is a five-movement symphony with chorus and vocal soloists on a scale like Mahler’s symphonies. It is also his first work after he discovered Kalevala, the trove of Finnish folklore that fired his musical imagination for the rest of his life.

After its premiere, he became unquestionably acknowledged as Finland’s leading composer. Kajanus took his orchestra on a European tour in 1900, which ended with an engagement at the Paris World Exhibition. The programs featured Sibelius’ music and established his international reputation.

carl nielsen 1908

Nielsen in 1908

Nielsen got a feeling for the orchestra by playing second violin in two orchestras, obtaining a place in Chapel Royal Orchestra in 1889. Both orchestras performed Nielsen’s music.

He took two leaves of absence from the Chapel Royal, once to study in Germany and once to promote his music abroad.

During the first leave, he started composing his first symphony in Berlin. During the second he met other composers, including Busoni, Brahms, Richard Strauss (whom he instantly disliked), and Sibelius.

By that time, his reputation in Denmark was such that he received more commissions than he could handle, but the performance of his Second Symphony in Berlin (1901) was such a failure that he had trouble starting to compose again.

His Third Symphony (completed in 1911) established his reputation internationally after he conducted successful performances in Stuttgart, Stockholm, and Helsinki.

Nielsen / Royal Stockholm Po / Rozhdestvensky – Carl Nielsen: Symphonies CD

The evolution of two reputations

jean sibelius 1939

Sibelius in 1939

Both Sibelius and Nielsen quickly became the leading composer in their home countries.

Both received pensions from their governments. Sibelius’ 50th birthday practically amounted to a national holiday, as did his 60th, 70th, 80th, and 90th.

Nielsen’s 50th birthday passed in obscurity, but he received more attention than he wanted on the occasion of his 60th.

Sibelius quickly became the better known internationally. He was quite popular in Germany before the First World War. Afterward he started to grow apart from the major trends of contemporary music.

He had no particular sympathy for Stravinsky’s music. He admired Schoenberg more, but not being willing to give up tonality, found little in it he could use. He admired Bartók, but more as a folklorist than as a composer.

Musical conservatives who appreciated his approach to tonality made Sibelius their hero, and that made it easy for modernists to disdain his music. English and American audiences and critics for the most part praised it. German critics, closer to home and more important to him, increasingly disparaged it.

jean sibelius 1950s

Sibelius in the 1950s

Partly for that reason, although there were many others, Sibelius virtually stopped composing for the last 30 years of his life.

The Sixth and Seventh Symphonies and his last major work, Tapiola (1926), explored musical worlds that interested no other contemporary composer.

He followed Tapiola with a trickle of minor works.

He kept announcing that he was working on an Eighth Symphony. He may have even completed it, but burned it along with all the rest of his manuscripts probably in 1945. During the years of compositional silence, he hardly even spoke about music.

Nowadays, he is no longer regarded as a conservative who clung to the outmoded symphony and tonality. His innovative imagination commands great respect.

carl nielsen 1928

Nielsen in 1928

Ironically, the year 1926 also nearly ended Nielsen’s musical life. He had a massive heart attack, from which he never fully recovered.

For a while, he had no energy to do anything but read and knit.

Then he plunged back into his busy schedule of composing and conducting.

He was named director of the Royal Academy of Music effective New Year 1931, but he had a series of minor heart attacks in late September and died on October 3.

In Nielsen’s lifetime, his music was actually appreciated more in Sweden than in Denmark. The international musical world had seldom taken much note of Scandinavia composers. Only in the 1960s, when Leonard Bernstein decided to champion his works, did Nielsen achieve the reputation as a major symphonist that he has today.

Even recently Alex Ross devoted an entire chapter of The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century to Sibelius and mentioned Nielsen on three scattered pages.

Jean Sibelius: the Man / Finnish Club of Helsinki
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) / Steve Schwartz (
Biography [of Nielsen] / Knud Ketting (Carl Nielsen Society)
Biography of Carl Nielsen (Classic Cat)
The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (London: Macmillan, 1980), articles “Kajanus, Robert,” “Nielsen, Carl,” “Sibelius, Jean.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *