At a few crucial points in human history, musicians and composers have found themselves playing outsized roles in world politics. Perhaps no composer has closer links to his country’s political life than Finland’s Jean Sibelius. Born in 1865, he gave musical voice to Finland’s long struggle to free itself from centuries of domination, first by Sweden, then by Russia. Finland finally won its independence on Dec. 6, 1917; to celebrate that 100th anniversary this summer, Ravinia will present three concerts devoted to Finnish music.

Dynamic Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki returns to the festival for back-to-back Chicago Symphony Orchestra programs featuring two of Sibelius’s most popular works: the Second Symphony on July 20 and the Violin Concerto with soloist Vadim Repin on July 21. Throug July 23, the composer’s Fifth Symphony will be at the center of the “Virtual Orchestra” experience at the Ravinia Tent on the lawn. And on Aug. 3, singers from Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute will present a program devoted to Finnish vocal music in Bennett Gordon Hall.

No nation’s fight for independence is ever easy, but the Finns faced exceptionally daunting obstacles by the time Sibelius came on the scene in the late 19th century. Sweden had ruled the country from the 13th century until 1809, when the Russians moved in and established Finland as an autonomous grand duchy. Hundreds of years of foreign rule had left Finns hungry to dig deeper into their own roots as a people. By the late 1800s, young Finnish visual artists, writers, musicians, and composers were determined to discover — and if need be, create — an artistic heritage that was distinctly Finnish. And they worked tirelessly to pass the language, art and music of that heritage on to “the people.”

The time was right. Nationalism was upending political life all over the world, and Finland felt its tremors. In 1917, when the chaos of the Russian Revolution offered Finns a chance to secede, they seized it. Sibelius, with his vivid imagination, love of literature, and passion for Finland’s stark, natural beauty, was ideally suited to ride these turbulent waves. Falling in with a group of ambitious, gifted artists known as the Young Finns, Sibelius found his calling as a composer. And he found his musical voice in the Kalevala, a collection of thousands of ancient poems about Finnish heroes published in the mid-1800s. Organized into 50 runos, or songs, it became Finland’s epic poem, equivalent to Beowulf or The Iliad. For the Young Finns, it was a creative motherlode, their springboard to forge a national identity that would speak to Finns of every age and economic class.

“If you speak with any Finnish musician, I think we all feel a very strong connection to Sibelius,” Mälkki said. “It’s not something that is imposed, that we have a national duty. It’s a genuine love for his music. I grew up hearing this music even before I knew it was Sibelius. It’s very, very strongly in the culture. And of course, there’s the symphonic music, which also has been used in films. It’s something we hear on Independence Day. It’s everywhere.”

This is an excerpt of an article published in the Ravinia magazine; to read the complete version, click here. 

TOP: The Jean Sibelius Monument in Helsinki, Finland. | Photo: Wikimedia