I’ll admit it; music has perhaps fuelled my Finnish passion more than any other factor – geography, design, sociology and populace (as important as those factors are). That’s a combination of the country’s contemporary attitude towards the varied art of music, and the big daddy himself: Jean Sibelius.
There’s no point, here anyway, attempting any sort of analysis of why Sibelius’s music sounds like Finland; it just does. Just as Britten’s Peter Grimes makes most sense on the beach at Aldeburgh, so Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony sits enlighteningly upon the Finnish winter snow; his Fifth soaring above the shimmering summer lake.
I remember having the second symphony dissected before my eyes at rehearsal hall near London Bridge in February 2005, where the great Finn Paavo Berglund was taking the London Philharmonic through the Second Symphony. Berglund is an archetypal Finn from his facial bone structure to his economic use of words; ‘play it more like your father would have done’, he called out to one of the clarinettists. That was my first real Sibelius experience proper, and the second symphony is a good starting point for anyone whose a Sibelius newcomer (as is the Guy Rickards Phaidon biography which I read whislt in Finland earlier this month). But for something really remarkable, try the cigar-like, compact Seventh Symphony, or the ‘sketched rather than painted’ fourth - perhaps a startling but chilling evocation of the Finnish winter.
The Finns love Sibelius, and I find myself loving them for their love of him. Last Monday I was taken through a Finnish forest for an exploration, in the spirit of the national epic The Kalevala, of ‘what the Finns are made of’. After hunting, blacksmithing and sauna-ing, the young Helena Kinnunen led me into a pitch-dark log cabin and played Sibelius’s ‘Finlandia’ through the hi-fi. I wanted to probe her, an everyday late-teen or twenty-something Finn, on why a 20th century composer formed the final part of the ‘Kalevala Spirit’ tour. ‘Every Finn feels the same when they hear that music’, she said to me, ‘it represents who we are’.