Jean Sibelius was the premiere figure in the history of Finnish classical music. He is unique in that he found a voice for Finnish music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His most significant works are his symphonies, his violin concerto and several large-scale tone-poems. A lot of his compositional style is based on the most significant piece of Finnish folk literature, the Kalevala and using unorthodox placing of triadic harmony, neo-primitive musical ideas, orchestral colour and musical structure.
Sibelius was born in Hämeenlinna, 100km north of Helsinki, the second of three children. His father was a military physician and the town doctor, who died when Sibelius, known as Janne back then, was three, causing the family to plunge into debt. The family was hugely helped by relatives and it was from his aunts and uncles that he grew a love of music.
During Sibelius’s youth, Finland was a country going through change, which Sibelius came to be associated with. Finland had been ruled by Sweden from the 12th to the 19th centuries but from 1909 had become a grand duchy, controlled by Russia. The Finnish-speaking majority possessed little or no influence or social power, whereas the Swedish-speaking minority were seen as the elite, dominating commerce, education and the arts. Sibelius himself came from a Swedish-speaking family and only began to learn Finnish from the age of ten. He was fortunate in that he had the opportunity to attend the first ever Finnish-language secondary school in his hometown of Hämeenlinna.
At the age of 15 he began taking violin lessons with Gustaf Levander in 1881 and within the next decade became a competent violinist, playing in a string quartet in Hämeenlinna as well as a piano trio, with his brother Christian on the cello and his sister Linda at the piano. In these years he regarded himself mainly as a violinist but was veering towards compositon. His earliest surviving works are Vattendroppar (Raindrops), a three-movement Trio and a minuet in F for two violins and piano. He gradually began to write chamber works mildly derivative of the Viennese classical or early romantic style, more like that of Haydn, Schubert or Beethoven than any of his contemporaries.