Much of Finland’s history is the story of dominance by one country or another, mostly Sweden and Russia. In fact Finland wasn’t a truly independent entity until 1992, in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Russia controlled Finland for the better part of the 19th century, but for most of that time they were a relatively docile master. After the Finnish Diet accepted Tsar Alexander’s authority, Russia granted Finland grand duchy status and promised to respect Finnish law.
But nationalism continued to grow in Finland, with the spreading conversion of the elementary education system to the Finnish language, and the publication of the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala.
In 1899, Tsar Nicholas II decided he’d had enough of these upstart Finns. He abrogated the earlier agreement to respect Finnish law and instituted new restrictions, notably on freedom of the press.
Here composer Jean Sibelius enters the picture. Sibelius was asked to create incidental music for a historical tableau. Ostensibly the performance of this pageant was to benefit the press pension fund, but in reality it was economic and moral support for the beleaguered newspapers and freedom of the press.
The finale was called Finland Awakes, representing — well, exactly what you’d expect. This selection quickly became a separate (and very popular) concert work. The following year, Sibelius revised it and renamed it Finlandia.
Given Finland’s craving for independence it’s no surprise that Finlandia became something of a rallying cry, and that Sibelius came to be considered a nationalist composer. This view was only reinforced when Sibelius was among the first to sign a petition protesting Russia’s plan to dissolve the Finnish army.
Still, as patriotic as he may have been, Sibelius wasn’t keen to have his music pigeonholed this way.
The year after Finland Awakes became Finlandia, Sibelius, on holiday in Italy, began creating the musical ideas which would eventually become his second symphony. He premiered the work in Helsenki on 8 March 1902 to widespread acclaim. Sibelius’s Symphony #2 quickly found conductors in other nations who championed it, too.
Conductor Robert Kajanus, for years one of Sibelius’s most ardent proponents, immediately suggested a fairly explicit nationalistic program for the second symphony. To him, the andante section was a "protest against all the injustice," the scherzo a "picture of frenzied preparation," and the finale "lighter and confident prospects for the future." With Finlandia so fresh in the Finnish public’s mind, it’s no surprise that Kajanus’s idea sat rather well with them.
Sibelius would have none of it. He denied any such associations. He wanted the symphony taken at face value — as absolute music, without any meaning beyond the notes on the page and in the ear.
And in fact there is nothing anywhere in the recorded history of Sibelius’s work on the second symphony that supports any of Kajanus’s ideas. Indeed one could make as much of a case — which is to say, a weak one — for the second symphony representing Italy, thanks to Sibelius’s holiday there. What’s more, he recycled some of the symphony’s musical material from an abandoned tone poem inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, which of course has nothing to do with Finland’s independence.
Sibelius’s international musical capital suffered something of a decline in the mid-20th century. This was thanks in no small part to American composer Virgil Thomson’s bully pulpit, which he occupied at the New York Herald Tribune. It was Thomson who penned that famous, witheringly vituperative assessment labeling the second symphony "vulgar, self-indulgent, and provincial."
History doesn’t record Sibelius’s opinions of Virgil Thomson’s music. But from the perspective of the 21st century’s first decade, it isn’t too tough to judge which of the two was the more significant composer. Today the Symphony #2 remains Sibelius’s best known symphony, and indeed one of the 20th century’s most frequently programmed symphonies.