A few mornings ago on the way to work I was listening to the radio and a piece by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius called Finlandia was aired. Quite a beautiful piece of music in its own right. Mid-way through the piece, I heard a reprise of a Christian church hymn that became an early favorite of mine as a child which was put to the same music, Be Still, My Soul. I think part of my love for the piece stemmed from listening to my grandfather belt out the chorus in his superb English baritone voice and diction that was as smooth to the ears as any fine cello. Listening to him power out this moving piece of music backed by a three hundred year old pipe organ and the voices of the congregation in the echo chamber of an equally old church, stirred my soul beyond what I can convey here. “Your hope, your confidence let nothing shake; all now mysterious shall be bright at last.” I can hear the music and many voices all filled with the love and faith that these words promise. Even now, as I write this, my heart chokes my throat and tears well in my eyes. Funny the things that bring back the strongest of memories fueled by emotion.
I can only imagine that Sibelius hoped to move the souls of his people similarly with the same passion he had in his heart when he wrote this piece. Finlandia was first written in 1899, originally the final movement of a larger musical poem. The whole symphonic work was called Scenes Historiques, or Historic Scenes, where the final movement was named Finland Awakens. Later it was reworked as an independent piece, adapted to piano and then for choir, and renamed to what we know now as Finlandia. The original score was composed when Finland was still under Russian rule, as a protest against the increasing government censorship and control over their national newspapers. The piece is filled with turbulence and powerful movements that symbolize the struggles of the Finnish people for independence throughout their history.
To provide a little Finnish history, from one non-Finn to my other non-Finn friends, from the 12th until the start of the 19th century, Finland was a part of Sweden. Later in the 19th century it became an “autonomous region” within the Russian Empire until the Russian Revolution. Taking advantage of their keeper’s in-house turmoil, the Finnish stated their intent for a Declaration of Independence, which was followed by a civil war with some support from the German Empire. After a brief attempt to establish a monarchy in the country, Finland became a republic. However, it was not destined to be smooth sailing from that point for our beloved Finns. Finland’s experience of World War II involved three additional separate conflicts spanning from 1939 through 1945 ending with the expulsion of Nazi forces from their land. These are referred to by the Finnish people as the Winter War, Continuation War and the Lapland War respectively. So, in light of their record of being controlled by people not of their culture or even a similar language for the previous seven hundred plus years, the desire to have an independent nation with its own sense of identity and self-determination ran deep within the Finnish people.
Towards the end of Sibelius’ piece, it enters into the slow movement that I recognized as the hymn from my childhood. For Sibelius it was a promise to his people of a day after the struggle, after the seemingly perpetual strife, when they could realize a country for themselves and of themselves. The music crescendos into an emotional release that lets the heart relieve itself of all of the trials and tribulations that it has carried. This, too, was for the Finnish people. His promise to them was that one day this would be possible and they too would be able to lay down the things that weighed heavy upon their hearts and souls and shed the foreign rule that oppressed their daily lives.
Sibelius’ intent was not lost on the Finnish people. In 1941, words were written by Veikko Antero Koskenniemi to the hymn version and it soon became one of the most important national songs of Finland. Upon seeing the popularity of lyrics applied to the Finlandia movement, Sibelius replied, “It is written for an orchestra. But if the world wants to sing it, it can’t be helped.” Admittedly, the hippie inside of me is quite partial to the version “This Is My Song” written in 1934 by Lloyd Stone. It is a song and a prayer that speaks to the fact that all of the important things in life are the same no matter what land you call your home and that it is the author’s prayer that they may have the peace that he prays for, too.
Through the years that have passed since the first release, the music has spoken to those outside of Finland and is now played and loved by people all across the globe. Not because it was sung by my grandfather, not because they are Finnish, not because they are in defiance; but because it is recognized by our Soul and It is moved.
T. R. Hill
P.S. Thanks to my long-time Finnish friends for keeping me honest.