Finlandia – a hymn wrapped within a film noir

As you may have guessed, I make no attempt to talk in this blog on solely musical terms. Millions of others more schooled in classical music are far more qualified than me to speak in this manner and, profound and accurate as their explanations are, I have always thought that there is a space available to talk about the music in a more personal way – a way that may help others discover or remember their own personal relationship with music.

A story of childhood

As you will note from the title of this post, this article is dedicated to Finlandia, the beautiful piece of music composed in 1899 by Jean Sibelius. The name of the piece gives you some immediate insight into the real inspiration behind the composition, but when the music speaks to me I find the emotions I am left with to be something altogether more personal.

When I was a child, I loved television. I loved television so much that my parents worried. We had one TV in our house, a small wooden Sony Trinitron that was old and dated even back then. My parents had the TV in their bedroom but on this Saturday afternoon, the television had been moved to my bedroom, which was right next to theirs and separated by two doors on the first floor landing.

My mum had just cooked lunch, a steaming hot spaghetti Bolognese that sat heaped upon the top of our plates. Halfway through a TV programme (I don’t remember which) she had called us downstairs to eat. I ran with the speed of unhinged youth down to the kitchen, grabbed my lunch from the table and pelted back upstairs to carry on watching the show. At the moment I was about to enter my parents bedroom I skidded to a halt. The fact that the TV was in MY bedroom had just dawned on me and I tried to change direction mid-step to make sure I got to back to my beloved television as quickly as humanly possible.

I stopped… the plate stopped… the spaghetti didn’t.

This tasty dish of pasta, made with the love of a mother’s hands, flew from my plate, landing directly onto my parent’s floor. It was a huge mess and that was the end of television for my childhood. The next day the Sony Trinitron could be seen across the street, next to the bins in the park, waiting to be picked up by the garbage men or any other passing character.

So, what’s the point in all of this?

I’m telling you this story, not just to show you how much I loved TV, but to show you how these memories impact my current relationship with music. On a Saturday I would watch Grandstand, a British show that covered every event going on in Sport for the entire day. When the horse racing came on, I could no longer take it anymore, so I would switch over to BBC 2 and watch whatever was on at the time. Usually, it was a black and white film that made me yawn with tiredness. If the story was a gangster movie or police drama, I generally wouldn’t mind. There was something exciting to me about these early movies and the characters who roamed the city streets in their dark suits, guns hoisted at the sides of their chests, running here, there and everywhere on their quests to catch the bad guys.

For me, the music of Finlandia begins like a feeling from one of those movies. The initial strains ring out like an ominous scene, where the bad guy has just caught eye of the detectives, who are totally unaware as he follows them slowly, peeping his head around the corner of the smokey street they are walking down as part of a sinister game of cat and mouse.

It’s not just the feeling of the music that brings these memories and emotions to me, it’s the music itself. While the Sibelius composition supersedes these movies by a good deal of decades, it’s exactly the type of music that Hollywood used in these kinds of scene. And so, for me, with my childhood of TV adulation, this is where I am transported to.

As we move along further into the piece, the initial ominous feeling subsides. There is a slow, creeping build up to a triumph that still fits perfectly with the Hollywood movie score. Now we’re in the scene where the bad guy has been captured. All the world is how it should be and people are hugging in the streets and throwing their hats into the air as they realize they’ve overcome the great foe that has been making their miserable lives even more of a misery over the past days and weeks. (I didn’t say this was a good movie!).

Be still my soul

Finally, we reach the hymn portion of the music, the anthem-esque theme that has become so well known across the world. But, this for me is still a hymn. The movie ends as soon as I hear this melody, which takes me straight back to the cold, wooden pews of my parent’s church. It’s a song I love.

Sometimes, when music this beautiful was being played, it felt like a small wind was winding its way throughout the building like a spirit, wafting under my rolled up sleeves to literally lift the hairs up on end. I still get this very same feeling from this music.

I also find it unbelievably moving. I can’t help feeling the emotion that makes your stomach clench and knot as deep dreams grab you from the inside, as unavoidable as they are inevitable.

This portion of Sibelius’s piece is still a triumph, but it is a quiet triumph based upon a quiet, certain strength. In terms of the music alone, it sounds to me like the whole of a nation being restored through one small realization of its own unique sound, internal strength and nature. It is a triumph of realization above any physical triumph.

But when I close my eyes and ignore what I know about Sibelius and the piece, this melody is simply Sunday morning. A small prayer to God to help in the hardest times and give us strength when needed.

You see, the hymn from Finlandia has been written many times with many different words. It strikes a chord with so many hymn writers because it helps us to feel emotions that would otherwise lay dormant within us. It has a spiritual message within the notes alone that only music can bring without words. I still can’t listen to Finlandia without choking up.

At church, we would sing the music to the words of Be Still My Soul. Here is just one verse from that hymn. It has a personal relevance to me in times of sadness even to this day:

Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart,
And all is darkened in the vale of tears,
Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart,
Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears.
Be still, my soul: thy Jesus can repay
From His own fullness all He takes away.

Final thoughts

Of course, now I am older and slightly more knowledgeable, I have a greater understanding of the meaning that Jean Sibelius placed upon Finlandia. As a protest against the Russian empire of the time, it helped to unite Finnish people against a common foe. Some of the feelings that I have for the piece still fit. The protest is as quiet as a whisper, calling upon the people to stand strong in a time where their thoughts, words and national sentiments were being smothered and silenced.

However, the main reason I wrote this post had little to do with the initial inspirations of Sibelius. It’s just a short (some would say not short enough), insignificant article about how one piece of music can be so personal to someone that no other individual in the world can share their exact feelings for it. Music is a route into ourselves that connects us to our pasts and helps us to express, share and understand all of those emotions that lie hidden under the surface of our beings.

So, to end with today, here is the Finlandia, op. 26 by Jean Sibelius, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.


P.S. – Make sure you don’t miss out on the latest excellent opera posts on the Falstaff Music Blog

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