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  • Sibelius: A Composer's Life and the Awakening of Finland
  • Carl Rahkonen
Sibelius: A Composer's Life and the Awakening of Finland. By Glenda Dawn Goss. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. [xxi, 549 p. ISBN 9780226304779. $55.] Illustrations, music examples, notes, bibliography, index.

In the early decades of the twentieth century Jean Sibelius was one of the most [End Page 543] popular composers in the world, and today he is popular once again, especially as a topic for scholarly investigation. In recent decades there have a been a number of significant studies: Erik Tawaststjerna's seminal multivolume biography (Sibelius, 3 vols. [London: Faber 1976-1998]), a critical edition (Complete Works [Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1998-]), Sibelius Studies (ed. Timothy L. Jackson and Veijo Murtomäki [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001]), a thematic catalog (Fabian Dahl ström, Jean Sibelius: Thematisch-bibliographisches Verzeichnis seiner Werke [Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Härtel, 2003]), an edition of his diaries (ed. Fabian Dahlström, Dagbok, 1909-1944 [Helsinki: Svenska litteratursällskapet i Finland, 2005]), The Cambridge Companion to Sibelius (Daniel M. Grimley, ed. [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004]), and books by Edward Clark (Sibelius Reflections [Exeter: Short Run Press, 2007]), Andrew Barnett (Sibelius [New Haven: Yale, 2007]), and Tomi Mäkelä ("Poesie in der Luft": Jean Sibelius: Studien zu Leben und Werk [Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Härtel, 2007]).

With all this scholarship, we might rightfully question whether there is anything more to say about Sibelius. But this new biography by Glenda Dawn Goss presents a great deal of new information about the historical, political, and artistic contexts in which he composed. Goss has become one of the leading scholars on Sibelius, with such previous works as Jean Sibelius and Olin Downes: Music, Friendship, Criticism (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1995) and Sibe lius: A Guide to Research (New York: Garland, 1998), as well as editing and contributing to The Sibelius Companion (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1996).

Goss's biography differs from all the previous ones in that it is as much about the "awakening of Finland" as a nation as it is about Sibelius. Rather than retelling the history of Sibelius, she tells how the history of Finland influenced him at various stages of his life and career. She explains the many connections between the artists, writers, and composers in Finland, and how they were all shaped by the cultural and political climate of the time. One main purpose is to answer a mystery: Why did Sibelius, at the very height of his popularity, stop composing? Conventional wisdom has held that he became too self-critical and did not want to keep up with modern trends in music. Goss shows, however, that the answer is far more complex and can only be understood thorough Finnish cultural and political history.

This substantial work (444 pages of text, with more than 100 pages of endnotes) is divided into twenty-five chapters collected into three large sections. The first section, "A Window to the World," describes mostly the history of nineteenth-century Finland, when it was an autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire. For more than eight hundred years Finland had been under Swedish rule, until it became a possession of Russia in 1809 as a result of the Napoleonic Wars. Under Russian rule, Finland enjoyed a great deal of autonomy. The Finnish people were allowed to use their own languages, currency, post office, and even their own Diet. They enjoyed the benefits of trade and cultural exchanges with the great Empire to the East. But Finland was not a nation. After being under the rule of its neighbors for many years, the Finnish attitude can be summed up with the slogan of the Turku Romantics, "Swedes we are no longer, Russians we cannot be, therefore, let us be Finns" (p. 38).

Goss describes the complex and often contradictory nature of Finnish identity. This identity was based in part on staunch Lutheranism, as in the home in which Sibelius grew up. It included literature by such writers as Zacharias Topelius, which extolled the virtues of the Finnish countryside and nature, but written in Swedish, the language of the upper classes who were ironically the greatest proponents of Finnish...


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