Finland was a part of the Russian Empire from 1809 and the Napoleonic Wars to independence during the revolutions in 1917, but it had been a part of the Kingdom of Sweden for centuries before this. Composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) was born to a family from the Swedish-speaking minority. He became a committed patriot and learned the Finnish language, abandoned his law studies at Helsinki and devoted himself entirely to music. He was especially fascinated with Finland’s national epic, the Kalevala. From 1897 to the end of his life he was supported by the Finnish government as a national artist. His major tone poem Finlandia was written in 1899, but because of its nationalistic-sounding name it had to be renamed so as to avoid Russian censorship. Sibelius was original in his treatment of form and reworked the sonata form in novel ways, some of which were anticipated in the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. He drew inspiration in his work from the Nordic landscape, as did the prominent Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto (1898-1976).- - - - - - - - -
The Frenchman Claude Debussy (1862-1918) exercised enormous influence on contemporary composers. He started with piano lessons as a child and began studying at the Paris Conservatoire at the age of ten, first piano and then composition. In the 1890s he lived in the “Bohemian” Parisian neighborhood of Montmartre, where artists such as Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and others drew inspiration at the turn of the twentieth century. He is often grouped with fellow French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), and his work overlapped in time and sometimes in thought with that of Impressionist and Symbolist painters and writers. His major works include Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1894), the opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902) and La Mer (The Sea, 1905). He also planned to make an opera inspired by the short story The Fall of the House of Usher by the American poet Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), but this project was never completed. Debussy admired some of Wagner’s works, especially Tristan and his last work, Parsifal from 1882, but he drew from the French tradition a preference for restraint. He initially made a living as a music critic, but by the early 1900s he was well established as a leading modern composer.
The Russian-born composer, pianist and conductor Igor Stravinsky was arguably the most important composer of his time and had an enormous influence on later composers. He was born near St. Petersburg to a well-to-do musical family. He began piano lessons at the age of nine and studied music theory in his teens. After hearing some of his early compositions, the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929) commissioned Stravinsky to compose for his Ballets Russes (Russian Ballet), which reigned in Paris from 1909 to 1929. Stravinsky then wrote the ballets that made him famous and are still among his most popular works: The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. The Firebird was based on Russian folk tales. He collaborated on them with the Russian choreographer Mikhail Fokin (1880-1942), founder of the modern ballet style, and the brilliant dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (1889-1950), born in Kiev, Ukraine, the son of a Polish dancer. Igor Stravinsky moved to Paris in 1911 and to Switzerland in 1914. Six years later, after becoming stranded in the West because of World War I and the 1917 Russian Revolution, he returned to France. During his exile from Russia, in the 1920s he turned to Neoclassicism, i.e. to reviving the styles and forms of the pre-Romantic music from the eighteenth century, then called Classic. This period included several symphonies and lasted until the opera The Rake’s Progress premiered in 1951. When World War II began in Europe in September 1939, he moved to the United States and settled in the Los Angeles region. He died in New York City in 1971. A religious tone could be found already in his cantata Symphony of Psalms (1930), and several of his late works are religious. He experimented throughout his life, and “Stravinsky’s impact on other composers was in league with that of Wagner and Debussy.”
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