Jean Sibelius, who was born 150 years ago on 8 December, is regarded as Finland’s great composer. His tone poems inspired by the national epic Kalevala lead us to see the Finn’s music as the sonic equivalent of the vast landscapes and poetic sagas of the North. But Sibelius saw his role as composer as a more universal one. In an age in which the musical world was divided between followers of absolute music who competed for the further development of the symphony and advocates of programmatic music, Sibelius was one of the few composers of rank who was involved in both genres. “Since Beethoven’s time all so-called symphonies, with the exception of those by Brahms, have been symphonic poems,” Sibelius wrote. “That’s not my ideal for a symphony. My symphonies are music – conceived and worked as an expression of music without any literary basis. I am not a literary musician: For me, music begins where words end... When I write symphonic poems, the relationship is different of course.”

In Berlin as a student...

The cycle of complete symphonies which the Berliner Philharmoniker will perform under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle to celebrate this special anniversary of the composer, brings the symphonic works of the Finn into focus and shows how much Sibelius incorporated the musical trends of his time into his own style. His time as a student in Berlin from September 1889 to June 1890, for example, had a great influence on him. The then 24-year-old was going through a period of doubt and depression and was relatively unmotivated to create something of his own. However, he was interested in the cultural life of Berlin, of which the concerts of the Philharmonisches Orchester were an important part. In particular, the performance of Don Juan by Richard Strauss under Hans von Bülow made a big impression on him. “The greatest significance of my stay in Berlin was that I could hear so much, both orchestral and chamber music.”

... and as a conductor

Twelve years later, in November 1902, the Berliner Philharmoniker performed one of his works for the first time, the tone poem En Saga, which Sibelius himself conducted. This was followed in 1904 by Finlandia, and a performance of the Second Symphony in 1905. “The symphony is a work whose acquaintance was worth making,” as it was said in a discussion of the concert. According to the critic, the treatment of the orchestra in particular showed that "it is still possible to achieve a multitude of completely fresh, new sound effects with the classical symphony orchestra.” However, Sibelius’ works were not included in the programmes of the renowned philharmonic subscription concerts, but in the much less frequented “Novelties concerts”, under the artistic direction of Ferruccio Busoni, a friend of the composer. Not until 1911 did Arthur Nikisch, the then chief conductor of the orchestra, conduct the tone poem Finlandia as part of the main philharmonic concerts. From the 1920s and 30s, Sibelius’ compositions were often included in the Philharmoniker’s concerts, conducted by, among others, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Thomas Beecham and Eugen Jochum. In March 1941, Clemens Krauss conducted a concert celebrating the composer’s 75th birthday.

Esteemed symphonies and a popular Violin Concerto

After the Second World War, it was mainly Sergiu Celibidache and later Herbert von Karajan who repeatedly performed the works of Finnish composer with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Today, the Berliner Philharmoniker have Sir Simon Rattle, a chief conductor who is particularly fond of Sibelius’s oeuvre, and he has already included a complete cycle of the symphonies in the 2010/2011 season. The Sibelius work which the Berliner Philharmoniker has performed the most often is the Violin Concerto. In October 1905, Richard Strauss conducted the première of the new version. The soloist was Carl Halir, the then concertmaster of the Königliche Hofkapelle. “A captivating work, written with imagination and colourfully drawn,” was the verdict of the critic of the Musikalisches Wochenblatt. Many violinists have shone since then with sparkling performances of the concerto with the Philharmoniker, ranging from Franz von Vecsey, the student of Joseph Joachim and dedicatee of the work, to Pinchas Zukerman, Itzhak Perlman, Gidon Kremer and, more recently, Leonidas Kavakos and Nikolaj Znaider.