Sibelius was born to a cultivated, middle-class Swedish-speaking family in a provincial garrison town in the south of Finland and he only began to learn Finnish when his mother enrolled him at a Finnish-speaking grammar school at the age of 11. He was soon enthralled by the Nordic poets Johan Runeberg and Viktor Rydberg’s stories from the national folk epic, the Kalevala. He also fell in love with the spacious Finnish landscape, with its seemingly endless forests and lakes. He showed early promise as a composer and violinist, with talk of him becoming a concert soloist at the Helsinki Conservatory. He abandoned the idea of a virtuoso career, however, after suffering a crisis of confidence.
His studies continued in Berlin and Vienna, where he had the first ideas for what was to become his programmatic symphony Kullervo, based on a story from the Kalevala. Encounters with Finnish folk singing in its purest, most ancient "runic" form also had a galvanising effect. The premiere of Kullervo in Helsinki in 1892 was a sensation. Sibelius was established overnight as a major cultural force in Finland and his musical contributions to a series of defiantly Finnish historical pageants elevated him to the status of national hero in a period when the Russian authorities were highly sensitive to nationalist stirrings.
The economy and discipline of Sibelius's compositions were not matched in the man himself. Insecure and prone to extreme mood-swings, he became alarmingly dependent on alcohol. The need to come to terms with personal crisis pushed the composer to extend his stylistic resources. In the mid−1920s Sibelius produced three masterpieces in the forms he had made his own: theatre music for The Tempest, his Seventh Symphony and perhaps his greatest tone poem, Tapiola. Although he lived for another three decades, he never released another major work.
Apart from the symphonies, tone poems and theatre scores, Sibelius composed a large number of beautiful and powerful songs, some of which exist in alternative versions with accompaniment for piano or orchestra. In the years after World War II, Sibelius was dismissed by many as a Romantic reactionary, clinging on to outmoded forms and harmonic language. But his popularity never dwindled in the concert hall. And in the late 1970s he also began to be seen as intellectually respectable once more. Sibelius's exploratory, organic attitude to form an orchestral sound, and his complex "layered" musical textures have been an inspiration for many of today's younger composers. This is important, but his enduring popularity owes at least as much to his powerful lyricism, rooted deep in his country's musical soil.