During the 1890s Sibelius took on the challenge of writing music that stirred Finnish patriotism in the face of Czar Nicholas II’s Russification policies. The composer wanted to create something recognizably Finnish, but without resorting to direct imitation of folk music. As he wrote to his wife Aino, “I would not wish to tell a lie in art … But I think I am now on the right path. I now grasp those Finnish, purely Finnish tendencies in music less realistically but more truthfully than before.” Many of his early efforts in this direction were ephemeral – a composer in search of his voice – but the 1899 Finlandia has transcended both its local association and its political objective. Originally the finale of a suite of incidental music to accompany a historical tableaux, it was performed first at an event whose announced purpose was support of a journalists’ pension fund but whose organizers sought to promote a spirit of national unity. The title Finland Awakens attracted negative attention from the czarist régime, so for a while the piece was known as Impromptu – surely one of the great misnomers in music history!
Like all successful symphonic poems, Finlandia’s extra-musical meaning generates the music’s formal shape. The composer described this meaning in stirring words: “We fought 600 years for our freedom and I am part of the generation which achieved it. Freedom! My Finlandia is the story of this fight. It is the song of our battle, our hymn of victory.” His genius is that this story functions simultaneously on both exterior and interior levels – capturing just that intersection where patriotism feeds personal identity and vice versa. Massive chords establish the music’s parameters of great depth and seriousness. Very slowly they yield to a woodwind choir, then to the strings; the judiciously restrained orchestration suggests that there is power held in check. The accumulated tension yields to more defiant strains, then to a resolute, even jaunty section before settling into the strains of the last reverent theme (later used for the hymn “Be still, my soul,” whose text emphasizes patience in the face of suffering), which Sibelius gradually builds into triumph.
— Susan Key