Brilliant Songs #13: Jean Sibelius’s “Finlandia”

The best music always crawls right under your skin, raising a few goosebumps along the way as it wends its way in short order to your heart. And so it was the first time I came across Jean Sibelius’s “Finlandia,” on an LP I picked up used in a dusty music store in Santa Monica, California just about a half-century ago.

I’d taken a music appreciation class in college, inspired partly by my mother, who grew up around classical music in her native Hungary and had exposed me to it along with Nat King Cole and a few other stalwarts of the era. So I had taken to scouring music stores to score used albums that looked intriguing enough to justify the fifty cents or dollar they would set me back.

I remember getting the Sibelius back home to play on my $99 record player (with detachable wired speakers!), and being absolutely floored by its beauty, the lush evocative melodies taking me through heights and depths of emotion over just the eight minutes or so it ran. I don’t remember anymore how and when I looked into the background of the piece—likely from the album liner notes, at least initially—but it didn’t surprise me that it spoke of courage, heroism, conflict, carnage, resistance and ultimate triumph, with a theme of the universal brother/sisterhood that always underlies such struggle.

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Officially titled “Finlandia, Op. 26,” the piece is a “tone poem” in classical music parlance, which is typically less ambitious in scope and length than a symphony or concerto, but gives composers a chance to develop a theme laden with particular emotions and moods in just one movement.

Sibelius wrote “Finlandia” in 1899 purely for orchestra as part of a protest against Russian censorship. Finnish history had been marked by conflict with its Eastern neighbor over centuries, border and land skirmishes occasionally erupting into war and Russian occupation of the much smaller and militarily less powerful Finns. Those conflicts grew only worse through the explosive and complicated two world wars of the twentieth century, the second of which saw Finns and Russians alternating as both opponents and allies in the complex geopolitical machinations that accompanied the war.

Despite its foundation in protest, “Finlandia” evokes no bitterness, but only tender love of country and a kind of stout patriotism devoid of jingoistic, martial fervor. It does, however, suggest conflict and turbulence until its latter stages, when it downshifts toward serenity and the lush melodic hymn that got its Finncentric lyrics in 1941, when Veikko Antero Koskenniemi focused on the country’s particular struggles to overcome oppression and claim its full sovereignty.

That’s the version we will listen to here, with lyrics attached to the You Tube but following below as well so we can grasp them at our own pace.

Then we’ll get to a couple of subsequent lyrical versions that cast a wider universal net over the song. Although some may consider that a kind of artistic larceny, I simply chalk it up to the music’s tremendous evocative power, expanding the original Finn version to an all-encompassing love of countries and peoples everywhere, in all their nobility, pathos, struggle and ultimate surrender to love.

Anyway: here’s the original, courtesy of the BBC Orchestra’s homage to Finland in an independence celebration in 2011.

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And here are those lyrics again:

Finland, behold, your day is dawning,
Daylight has banished the menace of the night,
The lark’s song sings out in the morning light,
It fills the air and the blue skies.
The morning vanquishes the darkness of night,
Your day has come, my native land.

Finland arise, face the future with pride,
Recall the valiant deeds of your past.
Finland arise, cry out to the world
That you have cast off the shackles of slavery
You were never broken by the weight of oppression
Your morning dawns, my native land.

Fervent love of country never runs so hot, of course, as when it is threatened from without. Much like a health crisis binds individual people together in renewed appreciation and fear of loss, an existential threat to country evokes deep passions rooted in ancient tribalism. That tribalism can feel corrosive and exclusivist in times of peace, but it provides a saving grace of determination, ferocity and common purpose when a nation is under siege.

The lyrics above speak to the abiding passion for their homeland that likely allowed the vastly smaller and less militarily mighty Finns to continually withstand and recover from Russian aggression to reclaim their status as an independent and free nation state.

All that said, in 1934, six years before Koskenniemi added the Finnish lyrics to Sibelius’s work, an obscure American poet named Lloyd Stone wrote a two-stanza poem that he offered as accompaniment to “Finlandia,” though it sounded a distinctly universal note that made it more akin to something he might have called “All-Landia.”

If you’re a church-goer at all, you may have sung this version or another version adapted from this one, as it has been reworked as a hymn across several denominational lines, lyrics modified along the way. Here’s Stone’s contribution:

This is my song, O God of all the nations
A song of peace, for lands afar and mine 
This is my home, the country where my heart is 
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine
But other hearts in other lands are beating 
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine 

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean 
And sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine
But other lands have sunlight too, and clover
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine
Oh hear my song, thou God of all the nations
A song of peace for their land and for mine

And in that same spirit of artistic exploration via addition, pioneering female theologian, philosopher and sometime-poet Georgia Harkness added a third stanza to Stone’s lyrics in 1964:

May truth and freedom come to every nation;
May peace abound where strife has raged so long;
That each may seek to love and build together,
A world united, righting every wrong;
A world united in its love for freedom,
proclaiming peace together in one song.

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Although the arrival of the coronavirus has been an accident of nearly epic proportions (it may become fully epic by the time it has its way with us), it has been no accident that the virus has unleashed countless numbers of good works in every imaginable realm—medical, charitable, artistic, commercial and much more. (Yes, also “jerkish,” but that behavior, at least as far as I have seen and read about, has been decidedly in the minority.)

At base, human beings are far more good than bad, far more in solidarity than not, far more looking for communion than conflict (though nation states have had an uncanny capacity to create conflict for the purported interest of protecting their people). In a universal calamity such as a pandemic, however, when life becomes stripped to its essentials, the world, at least at these initial stages, seems suffused with goodwill from every conceivable corner.

One of those corners is You Tube, which I will leave you with below in featuring an alternate take of “Finlandia,” barely two minutes long and just a few days old. It features Stone’s two stanzas sung by a male octet in honor of these times, each singer discreetly “socially distanced” from his mates in all humbleness, respect, and the mutuality that will perhaps be the one requirement above all that will get us through this latest trial on the long road to whatever we will someday be able to learn about salvation.

Until then, peace be unto you, my brothers and sisters.

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Check out this blog’s public page on Facebook for 1-minute snippets of wisdom and other musings from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied by lovely photography.
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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
 https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Finnish sunrise by Stian Vesterinen  https://unsplash.com/@stiniw?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText

Finnish winter scene by Tommaso Fornoni https://unsplash.com/@tommytop?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText

Special thanks to friend and reader Joan Voight for bringing the Cantus version to my attention

9 comments to Brilliant Songs #13: Jean Sibelius’s “Finlandia”

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Many, many thanks Andrew for this powerful, uplifting, hopeful post. The soothing yet strong beauty of the music and lyrics provide much needed peace and nourishment during this time of such anxiety and uncertainty. We shall overcome these times of darkness and fear much as Finland liberated itself from Russian oppression. A new dawn is coming, and let us have faith that we have learned much about our priorities in life, our gratitude for health and loved ones, and our commitment to one another. The new dawn will bring new life and optimism to our painfully divided nation.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Music always comes through, doesn’t it, Jay? When one thinks of all that humanity, even going back only to our parents’ generation—London Blitz or Iwo Jima, anyone?—has gone through, the inner strength of human beings always seems to shine through. Which is most brightly expressed in music, and the poetry that it often reflects or accompanies it, seems to me. Be well, my friend & brother!

  • Jeanette Millard  says:

    Hoh boy, I haven’t cried much about this anguishing pandemic, but you’ve gone and done it, Andrew. So funny for me that you picked this piece. It has always gone right into my heart; I even wrote my own (really melodramatic) words to it once when a boyfriend broke up with me in high school. (I can’t believe I’m admitting that here) It has such depth and resonance and also holds out for hope.
    And then, as always, you go a level deeper, and send along the Cantus version of it. New to me. I can hear all the beautiful lines of harmony and melody, but it is also reduced/enhanced into such a purity. So of course *this* version, and its refusal to be nationalistic (not really as opposed to Sibelius’ nationalism but truly aimed at our own time with its global intangible killer) – this is the version that brought tears to my eyes.
    Yes, music always does it – and these lyrics. And your gift of prose. Thank you so much, Andrew.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Happy (and not surprised) to hear “Finlandia” strikes you pretty much as it does me, Jeanette. Such a jewel…

      Also always happy to help out in providing those therapeutic cries, and please do note I’m a helluva lot cheaper than your friendly local therapist… :-)

      And no, I will not ask you to share the lyrics you wrote to this upon your high school breakup. (Aren’t I kind??) Having both a memory and small collection of my own high school writings with me still, I am all too familiar with the total and complete humiliation they would bring upon me were they ever to appear in public.

  • Craig Work  says:

    Lloyd Stone’s lyric and several other settings are in the Unitarian-Universalist hymn book. Widespread agreement about the music.

  • Michael O'Connor  says:

    Andrew, I have been busy since retiring last September, but Covid 19 has allowed me to dally a little longer, and I now have time to read you again. I loved that. I’ve always liked Finlandia but I think I prefer Sibelius’s Karelja Suite. Twenty or more years ago, if the house was empty, I would lie on the coach and close my eyes and press play. A kind of ecstasy.
    Your piece reminded me also of my visit to Finland a few years ago. I was on a train from Joensuu to Helsinki when I got a text from my cousin in Australia. He asked me to bring some Lyons Tea when I visited later that year.
    Thanks for your writing, always thoughtful, always thought-provoking. I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Very good to hear from you, Michael, and congrats on your (quite timely, it would seem!) retirement. Was tickled to see you reference the Kareljia Suite, which I had not gotten to when putting this piece together and noted to myself to catch in the near future. Your note prompted that listening, and lo and behold, just a little bit of the way in I recognized it, realized I was quite familiar with it, and then joined in merrily humming along with the main theme (rather too loudly, it turned out, as my partner came into the room with a concerned look on her face, wondering what all the fuss was about).

      I deduced from this that the Kareljia Suite was no doubt on the original “Finlandia” album I bought in the long ago, and I listened to and became just as familiar with it back then as I was the “Finlandia,” seemingly all of a piece in the organic, internal record collection that resides in whatever part of my brain and nervous system that houses “Music We Have Known and Loved.” Many thanks for the prompt, and this happy reacquaintance with a musical treasure!

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Wonderful post Andrew – I was familiar with the Sibelius tone poem but had no idea it even had lyrics! Love the “All Landia” version especially… I wonder if John Lennon was aware of this when he wrote Imagine? The Mayo Clinic’s singing surgeon, Dr. Elvis Francois, has a lovely Imagine video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ksw3Zc7Fh38) in which he sings the simple Lennon masterpiece with a falsetto that sends chills up your spine – the same deep yearning for universal love, understanding… all the better angels of our nature not constrained by nationality, race, and any other divisive concepts… here’s what Dr. Francois posted on his Instagram along with the above video:

    “In life, there are so many things that divide us. Religion, race, politics, social status and many more….But today a global pandemic brings us all together as one,” Francois wrote on Instagram. “Over the next few months our health care system will be tested. Many lives will be lost. Health care providers will be under an incredible amount of stress to save thousands of people. But when times are as dark as they are today, nothing shines brighter than the human spirit.”

    Deeply appreciate the insights, positivity, humor and inspiration provided in your blog.

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Amidst my parents’ library of classical music, Sibelius’ ‘“Finlandia” and Smetana’s symphonic poem “The Moldau” were among my favorites. Like Kevin, I was unaware of the lyrics. Unfortunately, Finnish poet Veikko Antero Koskenniemiare’s uplifting lyrics are beyond the scope of too many Americans.

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