Finland Awakes! Nationalism in Sibelius’s Finlandia

A performance of Finlandia at the opening of the new concert hall in Helsinki, Finland, in 2011.


Cantus sings an arrangement of the popular Finlandia Hymn.  “This is My Song” text by Lloyd Stone and Georgia Harkness.


Finlandia flashmob at the Helsinki Central Railway Station, 2012.


            Recognized worldwide as Sibelius’s most enduring work, Finlandia has played an influential role in Finland’s history.  Fondly adopted as the country’s unofficial second national anthem, Sibelius composed the work in 1899 at a time when Finland was an oppressed Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire.  The composer and his music almost immediately became symbols of the resistance movement and encouraged the nationalistic fervor of the time.  Finlandia had a tremendous impact upon national identity and patriotism, serving as a rallying force as the country fought for independence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Composed and performed in this politically charged climate amidst harsh censorship and political repression, Finlandia embodies the ideals of Finnish nationalism in its traditional folk origins and stirring, triumphant hymn-like passage, breaking away from both Russian and Swedish culture in favor of a fully Finnish anthem.

            While early Finnish music is often obscured by the illustrious traditions of Western Europe, Sibelius was greatly influenced by the country’s rich heritage of folklore and associated music.  Located in the remote north, Finland was isolated from Europe’s cultural mainstream and lacked the thriving court life that so often patronized music and the arts.[1]  Despite its late development, vibrant oral traditions arose from the country’s ancient folk heritage.[2]  The Kalevala, a collection of Finnish and Karelian epic poetry compiled by Elias Lönnrot, was a significant source for chant-like runos, songs and ballads.  Such pieces were often accompanied by the native kantele, a plucked string instrument similar to a dulcimer.[3]

            Finland’s early history is characterized by foreign domination.  From the thirteenth century until the early nineteenth century, Finland was part of the Swedish kingdom and desired by Russia.  This Swedish influence led to great conflict between Swedish and Finnish culture, especially concerning language.  Swedish officials attempted to suppress the Finnish language, which many people felt was inferior to the Swedish spoken by members of the upper classes.[4]  Championing nationalism, the Fennoman movement of the late 18th and 19th centuries sought to elevate and popularize use of the Finnish language.  Johan Vilhelm Snellman, a prominent Finnish statesman and Fennoman, famously declared, “Swedes we are not, Russians we can never be; let us therefore remain Finns.”[5]  The issue of language remained an important impetus of the nationalist movement.

            Sweden was finally forced to cede Finland to Russia in 1809 during the Napoleonic Wars.  This arrangement was originally mutually beneficial under the reign of Czar Alexander II, who affirmed the autonomous status of the Grand Duchy of Finland and declared the Finnish language to be equal to that of Sweden.[6]  However, the Finnish-Russian relationship quickly soured under the control of future czars as Russia asserted its dominance.  The rise of the pan-Slavic movement mid-eighteenth century had drastic consequences for the Grand Duchy of Finland as Russian czars vigorously stripped the country of its culture and sought complete control.

            It was in this tense political climate that Sibelius began to find his own identity as a composer.  While the nationalist movement was originally driven by crises of Finnish identity and language under foreign control, revived interest in Finnish folklore and poetry in the 19th century was an incredible motivational force.[7]  The publication of old runos inspired nationalism in music, art and literature.  Studying the stories of the Kalevala that he had enjoyed as a child, Sibelius found great inspiration in the national epic’s nationalistic spirit and Romantic heroes.[8]  Works based on folk poetry span his entire career, from choral songs and short character pieces to much larger orchestral works.  Of his music, Sibelius said “I have drawn my inspiration from the poetry and legends of my native land, and I have sung them in my own way, often orienting my soul with the Kalevala.”[9]  In 1892, Kullervo, a suite of symphonic movements based on a character of the Kalevalian epic poem, propelled the composer to the forefront of national music.  Originally incorporating melodies borrowed from folk tunes, Sibelius instead included solely original material that only suggested the essence of folk music.[10]  Throughout his career, Sibelius took pride in the fact that he captured the spirit of old folk music so skillfully that many assumed he borrowed material, when in fact there is not a single loan in his entire output.[11]  This is demonstrated well in the original yet Finnish melodic hymn section of Finlandia.  Fellow Finnish composer Oskar Merikanto felt the melodies as authentically embodying the Finnish idiom: “We feel the melodies to be our own, even though as such we have never heard them before.”[12] This folk influence, along with the piece’s roots in the historic epic poetry of the Kalevala, made clear to the Finns the cultural significance of the work.  Robert Kajanus, the eminent Finnish composer of the time, symbolically presented Sibelius with a laurel inscribed with the message, “The course will lead this way, the path lies newly opened.”  Sibelius became a symbol of the resistance almost overnight due to Kullervo’s success; the composer had found his voice, and Finland had found a figurehead for its nationalistic ambitions.

            The success and endurance of Finlandia above Sibelius’ other nationalistic compositions is largely due to the perfect storm of political events.  At the time of its composition in 1899, the country was at the height of Russification.  Harsh Russian policies, including Nicolas II’s infamous February Manifesto and the dissolution of Finnish legislative bodies, only augmented the Finns’ desire for independence.

            Finlandia, a symphonic poem, was originally conceived as part of a larger melodrama for narrator, male voices and orchestra, setting Finnish poet Zachia Topelius’ poem “The Melting of the Ice on the Ulea River.”[13]  Fully aware of the political climate, Sibelius purposefully chose a strong patriotic text:

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.

From this melodrama and the texts of Finnish poets Eino Leino and Jalmari Finne, Sibelius composed six musical tableaux that sequentially represented Finland’s history to perform at a gala of the “Press Pension Celebrations.”[14]   This event was organized in Helsinki by the Finnish press to raise pension funds for newspaper men, but in reality served as a political rally to provide support for the free press that was facing vicious censorship at the hands of the Czar.[15]  The Scènes Historiques culminated in the tableau “Suomi berää!” or “Finland Awakes!” which included celebratory depictions of Finland’s most important figures:

            The powers of darkness menacing Finland have not succeeded in their terrible threats.  Finland awakes.  Among the great men of the time that from the pages of history, one tells the story of Alexander II, and other memories of Finans’ renaissance stir:  Runeberg listens to his muse, Snellman inspires his students, Lönnrot transcribes the rune, four speakers of the first Diet…[16]

            After another public concert proved the finale’s popularity, Sibelius reworked the final tableaux a year later to create an individual concert piece for orchestra entitled Finlandia, a provoking title suggested by a fan.  In order to avoid censorship, it was often performed in Finland under the name Impromptu.[17]

            Russification efforts accelerated in 1900 as the Czar declared Russian the official language of Finland and many patriots were exiled.[18]   Finlandia, already a symbol of the resistance for the Finns, was performed across Europe in hopes that showcasing Finland’s talent might bring attention and sympathy to the country’s independence cause.[19]  Ida Ekman, a contemporary critic and proponent of Sibelius’ work, stated that Finlandia “informed the whole world that here on the Arctic Circle was a little nation fighting for its life.”[20]

            What made the Finns rally so vehemently around this particular anthem?  Sibelius was completely aware of the impact of Finlandia, but he himself admitted that he did not think it deserved the fanatic attention it received: “everyone else cheers what, compared with my other work, is this relatively insignificant piece.”[21]  While Sibelius’ prior nationalistic reputation and the volatile political context contributed greatly to Finlandia’s success, the music itself proves to be a compelling work of art.  The symphonic poem expresses unsurpassed patriotic fervor, evoking feelings of despair in the face of a powerful tyrant while conveying the defiant spirit of the oppressed.  The ominous brass fanfare that begins the work, shown in figure 1, is considered by many to be symbolic of the Russian menace.  Sforzandos and fortissimo dynamics herald difficult times of oppression for the Finnish people.  The allegro moderato that immediately follows interrupts the slower, lamenting motives of the andante with a forcefully rhythmic staccato brass motive, shown in figure 2.  This calls to mind the domineering force of the Soviet regime.  The ominously sweeping melody of the allegro in the brass and lower strings, shown in figure 3, is reminiscent of the piece’s opening, again calling to mind the Russian empire.  Both the andante and the allegro moderato remain in minor keys, depicting both the anguish of the Finns and the terrible power of their oppressor.  The abrupt change of pace in this section leads away from what hints at sonata form and instead blossoms into smaller binary forms and colorful segments of thematic material.  This “block-like” architecture solidifies Finlandia’s nationalistic sentiments over the course of the work from many vibrant melodic ideas; as the piece builds to the triumphant Finlandia hymn, clarity arises from chaos and the Finns arise victorious.

Figure 1. Measure 1, andante sostenuto
Figure 2. Measure 74, allegro moderato.
Figure 3. Measure 82, allegro moderato.

             Transitioning to A flat major, Sibelius reinterprets the staccato motive (figure 2) to usher in a triumphant allegro.  This shift from minor to major, which persists until the end of the piece, is symbolic of realization and liberation from the struggle represented by the dark introduction. Upbeat and full of syncopation, as demonstrated in figure 4, this section wildly builds to a climatic major chord, expressing the Finns’ determination in their eventual victory.

Figure 4. Measure 121, allegro.
Figure 5. Measure 184, allegro.

Out of this moment of clarity arises the famous Finlandia hymn tune, scored for optional chorus, shown in figure 6.  The moving melody, recalling Finnish folk tunes while using completely original material, flows sweetly yet conveys the patriotic sentiments of the oppressed.  This moment in particular represents the spirit of the Finns and their unification around their cause.  The text of the hymn, originally by opera singer Waïnö Sola, is a declaration of hope and freedom:

O, Finland, behold, your day is dawning,

The threat of night has been banished away,

And the lark of morning in the brightness sings,

As though the very firmament would ring.

The powers of the night are vanquished by the morning light,

Your day is dawning, O land of birth.

O, rise, Finland, raise up high

Your head, wreathed with great memories.

O, rise, Finland, you showed to the world

That you drove away the slavery,

And that you did not bend under oppression,

Your day has come, O land of birth.

Following the hymn Sibelius immediately returns to the previous triumphant material, invigorating the conclusion of the piece with driving syncopation and dotted rhythms (figure 5).  This powerful conclusion represents the ultimate triumph over Russia and declares the rallying cry of the Finns.

Figure 6. Measure 132, hymn.

            Finlandia remains incredibly popular throughout the world today, occupying a place of great honor and importance in Finnish history.  The work continues to be performed across the country in Finland’s concert halls, such as for the opening of the Helsinki concert hall in the video above.  The Finlandia hymn has been adapted to many texts, including, perhaps most famously, the “This is My Song” hymn from the United Methodists in the United States, performed in the video above by the American vocal group Cantus.  In Finland, a recent flashmob performance of the Finlandia hymn in the Helsinki Central Railway Station gained national attention.  The performance was organized by supporters of a Finnish presidential candidate, Pekka Haavisto, in the final round of the 2012 election.  Although it is not official, Finlandia is considered by many to be the equivalent of the Finnish national anthem.  The piece, especially the powerful and patriotic hymn, continues to be prevalent in modern culture.

            Sibelius himself quickly became a national figure due to his successful nationalistic compositions that called upon Finnish history.  Finlandia, composed at the height of Russian oppression, endures today as his most significant work.  The piece embodies important elements of Finnish heritage and captures the emotional turbulence and eventual victory of a resilient Finnish people.  Finlandia played a crucial role in Finnish history, bolstering resistance efforts and unifying the Finns as the country contested Russian cultural and political oppression and finally won its independence from Russia in 1917.

[1] Veikko Helasvuo, Sibelius and the Music of Finland, trans. Paul Sjöblom (Keuruu, Finland: Otava, 1957), 7.

[2] Lisa de Gorog and Ralph de Gorog, From Sibelius to Sallinen: Finnish Nationalism and the Music of Finland (New York: Greenwood Press, 1989), 15.

[3] Helasvuo, Sibelius and the Music of Finland, 8.

[4] De Gorog and de Gorog, From Sibelius to Sallinen: Finnish Nationalism and the Music of Finland, 6.

[5] Ibid., 10-11.

[6] Philip Ross Bullock, “Sibelius and the Russian Traditions,” in Sibelius and His World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011).

[7] De Gorog and de Gorog, From Sibelius to Sallinen: Finnish Nationalism and the Music of Finland, 41.

[8] Glenda Dawn Goss, Sibelius: A Composer’s Life and the Awakening of Finland (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2009), 155.

[9] De Gorog and de Gorog, From Sibelius to Sallinen: Finnish Nationalism and the Music of Finland, 57.

[10] Ibid., 45.

[11] Helasvuo, Sibelius and the Music of Finland, 20.

[12] Ibid., 21.

[13] Erik Tawastsjerna, Sibelius, trans. Robert Layton (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1976), 219.

[14] Guy Rickards, Jean Sibelius (London: Phaidon Press, 1997).

[15] De Gorog and de Gorog, From Sibelius to Sallinen: Finnish Nationalism and the Music of Finland, 63.

[16] Tawastsjerna, Sibelius, 221-222.

[17] Nils-Eric Ringbom, Jean Sibelius: A Master and His Work (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1954), 65.

[18] De Gorog and de Gorog, From Sibelius to Sallinen: Finnish Nationalism and the Music of Finland, 64.

[19] Helasvuo, Sibelius and The Music of Finland, 22.

[20] Ringbom, Jean Sibelius: A Master and His Work, 65.

[21] Tawastsjerna, Sibelius, 222.


Bullock, Philip Ross.  “Sibelius and the Russian Traditions.”  In Sibelius and His World, ed. Daniel Grimley, 3-57.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.

De Gorog, Lisa and Ralph de Gorog.  From Sibelius to Sallinen: Finnish Nationalism and the Music of Finland.  New York: Greenwood Press, 1989.

Goss, Glenda Dawn.  Sibelius: A Composer’s Life and the Awakening of Finland.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Helasvuo, Veikko.  Sibelius and the Music of Finland.  Trans. Paul Sjöblom.  Keuruu, Finland: Otava, 1957

Mäkelä, Tomi.  Jean Sibelius.  Trans. Steven Lindberg.  Rochester: Boydell Press, 2011.

Rickards, Guy.  Jean Sibelius.  London: Phaidon Press, 1997.

Ringbom, Nils-Eric.  Jean Sibelius: A Master and His Work.  Trans. C. I. G. de Ceurcy.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1954.

Smith, Orcenith.  “Interpreting Sibelius’ ‘Finlandia.’”  The Instrumentalist 47/12 (July 1993): 24-30.

Tawaststjerna, Erik.  Sibelius.  Trans. Robert Layton.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.


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