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The lamb that kept the wolf from the door

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'Finlandia' composer: Jean Sibelius

'Finlandia' composer: Jean Sibelius

'Finlandia' composer: Jean Sibelius

For a long time, I used to be frightened by Beethoven. That stock image, those serious eyes, the hint of a jut to the jaw - this is the look of a schoolmaster not be messed with.

Alongside much else, the great master was responsible for nine of the finest symphonies ever written. It took a while, but I got there in the end.

And why not? Doesn't symphony come from the Greek - sounds together, the world in harmony.

The classical symphony's four-movement framework is generally accepted to have been the brainchild of Joseph Haydn.

But another Viennese composer, Georg Monn, born in 1717 and almost exactly fifteen years Haydn's senior, was the first to come up with the idea.

Monn, who died when Haydn was still in his teens, wrote no fewer than 21 symphonies, none of which you're likely to hear any more.

In one of these, he spliced a section in ¾ time, into the space between the slow movement and the faster finale.

Decades later, Haydn would take Monn's shape and make it the basis for the 100-plus symphonies he'd write.

Through Mozart and Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann, Mendelssohn and Brahms, Mahler and Sibelius, the symphony evolved.

Jean Sibelius published seven of them. I've seen him described as the Finnish equivalent of William Shakespeare. What's beyond doubt is that his significance to Finland is huge. His music is a cultural focal point.

For 700 years, Finland was Swedish territory. When Sibelius was born, it was midway through over a century of Russian rule.

The composer was one of many Finnish nationalists. He'd produced music for a presentation of living statues depicting the history of Karelia, an ancient province in the east. That he subsequently distilled into what we now know as the 'Karelia Suite'.

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In 1900, he repeated the trick with music to accompany a show featuring key moments in the whole country's story.

Given the politics of the time - under Tsar Nicholas II, there was press censorship - 'Finlandia' was picked up by Finns as a kind of unofficial national anthem of protest.

Sibelius was quite the character, by all accounts, enjoying living high on the hog, with a particular fondness for lobster, champagne, and cigars.

This pushed him into financial difficulties from time to time, not least because Russia, of which Finland was a part, had not signed up to the Berne Convention, the international agreement that governed copyright.

As a result, not every performance of the music of Sibelius produced payment for the composer.

It wasn't lack of funds, but a shortage of food during turbulent times in the region, that prompted a friend from further afield to send Sibelius a leg of lamb.

In Swedish - the language of Finland at the time - it's known as a "lamb fiddle".

To make sure it didn't become the target of hungry thieves along the way, the friend - an architect and amateur singer by the name of Torkel Nordman - packed it up in a violin case.

He reckoned that a violin en route to the celebrated musician would be unlikely to targeted. He was right.

Jean Sibelius, originally Johan before he took on the French version as what he called his music name, lived to the ripe old age of 91 and was born on this day in 1865.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.


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