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Was Sibelius a secret Nazi sympathiser?

August 13, 2015 by norman lebrecht

13 comments.


A debate has erupted in the Hensingin Sanomat between two Sibelius biographers, war historian Martti Turtola who has a new book ‘Rakastan Sibeliusta’ (I love Sibelius) and Vesa Siren, whose Sibelius biography will appear in a couple of months.

Turtola argues that the relationship between Finns and Nazis has been adequately researched and should be laid to rest. Vesa Siren and Professor Veijo Murtomäki take a different view.

Vesa says hundreds of prominent artists (and officers and businessmen and scientists) in the Nordic countries and Finland praised Hitler and the Nazi regime at one time or another. Much has been written about them, but not enough.

What about Sibelius? Vesa says it is quite true that the Sibelius family hated everything ”communist” and ”red” after the Red Guards raided Ainola during the civil war in 1918 and the Sibelius family feared for their lives.

Vesa adds: ‘With this background, some of his family and inner circle thought the new Führer might be good for Germany, putting ”people to work and banning communists”, as some of the Finnish press wrote. But Sibelius himself was suspicious from the start. (His last visit abroad was in 1931 so the Germany he really knew was the Germany from his student days from 1889 to the Weimar Republic.)

‘He received some medals from Nazi Germany as he did from all over the world. Still, he wrote some critical remarks of ”Rassenbestimmungen” (Race Laws) and antisemitism in his diary. ”These childish Rassenbestimmungen, which are the most complete hogwash!” he wrote. He also condemned the Nazis for eradicating Mendelssohn (during a private conversation with conductor Jussi Jalas, his son in law. I found a note from Jalas about this conversation from January 8, 1942).

sibelius at home
‘The old man with shaky hands and cataract in his eyes also had to fight the German copyright company (Stagma) about his pension (from the Weimar Republic) and his copyright income. I have read this correspondence from the archives. They signed their letter with Heils. but Sibelius always used the remote ”Mit vorzüglicher Hochachtung.”

‘Born in 1865, we can assume that he could have done more. The Finnish writer F. E. Sillanpää (b. 1888) did, for example. Sillanpää wrote extremely critical ”Christmas letter for dictators” in 1938 and got the Nobel Prize in 1939.

During the same years Sibelius met some Nazis in Ainola as he met Stalin’s bureaucrats and Soviet artists (Kabalevsky, Mravinsky, Gilels) after 1944. It is quite true that if Finnish government asked him to meet important persons in different situations from different countries claiming that it might be ”good for Finland”, it was hard for this old man to refuse. (Of course, there were also many visitors that he really liked, from Cecil Gray and Marian Anderson to Jussi Björling, Eugen Ormandy and Isaac Stern).

‘The old man from Järvenpää should not be cleared from all responsibility. But while hundreds of prominent cultural persons in Nordic Countries actually praised Hitler, Sibelius never was never one of them.

‘This is a very complicated discussion and I will devote dozens of pages for it in my next book on Sibelius, published in Finnish this autumn. Lot of new information coming up.’

sibelius mannerheim

Mr & Mrs Sibelius with the Finnish ruler, General Mannerheim


Comments (13)

  1. PDQ.BACH says:

    Norman, I’m nonplussed.
    The Vesa Sirén article I know of, plus a couple of others, appeared in Helsingin Sanomat in 2000. (Btw, your link is broken. Shall I send you the working ones?)
    Why reheat this stale debate? It already had an encore in 2009-10, prompted by Timothy Jackson’s book, and it was as inconclusive as the previous round.
    I can’t see any new evidence having emerged. Or has it?
    And Jackson’s case was rather tenuous.

    Sibelius, an old man in his mid-seventies as WWII began, had long cut himself off from active musical life. He had been weaned in a world where German music, literature, scholarship and science were pre-eminent; particularly so in Scandinavia. He lived in a country that had been invaded by the Soviet Union, that had allied itself with Nazi Germany in order to recoup territories lost in the Winter War to Russia, territories that traditionalist Finns like Sibelius regarded as the cultural cradle of their nation. (Let us also recall that Himmler had one of his occultist crushes on the Finns, and sent out Yrjö von Grönhagen to Karelia in 1936-37 to record Finnish lore with the support of his SS-pseudoinstitute “Ahnenerbe”.)
    I think it speaks volumes for Sibelius that he didn’t allow himself to become any more involved with, or exploited by, the Nazis during the war period, given the circumstances.

    On a final note, I find it invidious, maybe unintentionally so, to mention “Stalin’s bureaucrats and Soviet artists” in the same phrase when referring to their visits in Ainola. I don’t know about Kabalevsky, but I’m quite certain that Sibelius and Mravinsky shared memories of old Petersburg. As to Gilels, there was deep and mutual admiration between the old composer and the young pianist.

    1. norman lebrecht says:

      This is a new debate that started this week. I have removed the old link that Vesa supplied. Watch this space.

    2. Ray Richardson says:

      “Norman, I’m nonplussed. The Vesa Sirén article I know of, plus a couple of others, appeared in Helsingin Sanomat in 2000. (Btw, your link is broken. Shall I send you the working ones?) Why reheat this stale debate? ”

      Because a part of him seems to lust after sensational headlines. I’ve remarked on this in two separate items this week and each time NL has removed my comment.

      1. PDQ.BACH says:

        Norman Lebrecht doesn’t need me, or anyone else for that matter, to defend him, but I shall do so nonetheless.
        I find your accusation of sensationalism not only unfounded, but misplaced.

        Norman does a stupendous job with this website. That’s why we keep coming back.
        Finding newsworthy items from the world of classical music can at times be a terrible chore. As things are going now, this is getting more difficult by the day. Presenting these news in a lighthearted vein, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, but always with an earnest intent, is no mean feat. Looking at Norman’s distinguished career in retrospective, one can only marvel at the adaptability of the man.

        It is entirely to his credit that he is willing to put up with our robust and sometimes uncouth manners, including towards himself, for the sake of a lively debate. The fact should not be taken for granted.

        1. John Borstlap says:

          Fully agree with all this. Sd is a healthy antidote to the current morose classical climate.

        2. Ray Richardson says:

          I too have previously written a comment in Norman Lebrech’ts defense, but let’s look at what you’ve just said here “I find your accusation of sensationalism not only unfounded, but misplaced.”

          First this article. The headline is “Was Sibelius a Secret Nazi Sympathiser?” In my book this is sentationalism, it is a question posed by the Website aimed at provokingly grabbing readers’ attentions. “New Research Examines Sibelius Secret Nazi Sympathy Charges” would have been accurate and factual…. though I grant, a word or two longer.

          The other item I referred to was the headline “Wigmore Hall Banned My Watch Because the Tick is Too Loud” (Aug 9th) . I thought it seemed odd and questioned it. The woman involved replied that it was the person sitting in front of her who had complained. This was also made clear in the link in the original article. In the light of this, that headline is certainly sensationalism and yet it is still there, completely false as it is.

          Yes, Slippedisc overall does a stirling job, but please dont let us turn a blind eye when headlines more suitable to the ‘gutter press’ from time to time appear.

          1. norman lebrecht says:

            Right, we have heard your gripe. If you don’t like Slipped Disc, go somewhere else. The headline accurately reflects the tone of the debate in Helsingin Sanomat. We make no apologies for this or any other headline. But your whingeing is tedious.

  2. Ilio says:

    Finns were caught between a rock & a hard place. Hitler or Statin. No chance of getting aid from the Western Allies.

    BTW, who is Eugen Ormandy? Jeno Blau’s German cousin 🙂

    1. Stephen says:

      Jeno Blau was a Hungarian Jew who changed his name to Eugene Ormandy when he emigrated to the USA in 1929. He was a famous chief conductor of the Philadelphia orchestra.

    2. Shaun Ordmandy says:

      Eugen Ormandy is my great uncle an conductor of some hormonic I think new york go on Amazon and serch ormandy or ordmandy they have the music on there

  3. Prewartreasure says:

    Does it really matter?

    Why not concentrate on things that are REALLY important, like, for example, the rumour that Ted Heath was a closet Socialist?

  4. Pirkko says:

    Any Sibelius-related debate emerges always in Helsingin Sanomat when Vesa Sirén is about to publish a book. It is called “marketing”.
    It is worth a mention that Mr. Sirén is an employee at Helsingin Sanomat. And a good music journalist, to add to that.

  5. Itsjtime says:

    It is no new worldwide phenomenon that our human race is driven wild by silatiociousness. Football scandals, soap operas, sexual intrigue, whatever it be….we love it because we are dirty naughty people.
    The issue is that it is difficult to reconcile a forum like this that runs the gamut from the whimsical fights of fancy to the more serious nature of the state of the arts all the way to the consideration war crimes against humanity.
    Some of us love to hate dear Norman. But Norman is correct…. We are reading this; We would not notice the smell if we didn’t go into the sewer.
    Thanks Norman. You make my morning coffee extra nice.


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