Jean Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony was completed in early 1923. While Sibelius did not indicate a key in the score it is often given the key of D minor, which is the saddest of all keys, I find. I don’t know why but people weep instantly when they hear it.
Sibelius wrote this piece during a quieter time in Finnish history in which Finland was experiencing peace after several years of major conflicts and changes. Beginning in 1917 with the Soviet Revolution in Russia, the Finnish people were forging their own national identity. Having been under control of the Tsar since 1809 Finland saw their opportunity for freedom and declared independence on December 6, 1917. After dealing with the Soviets, Finland spent a brief time in civil war between the Communist Reds controlling southern Finland and Helsinki, and the White Anti-Socialist Government in exile. The Whites with the help of Imperial Germany were decidedly victorious and a presidential republic was formed. While the main conflicts were over animosity between these two political parties would continue for several years.
I feel this piece reflects the mood of both Finland and the composer. It is largely pastoral; inspired by nature. Finland is finally experiencing peace and unity after years of struggles. Sibelius had also been affected by the years of war. They had depressed him as well as shutting off major channels of income from outside Finland. With the end of World War I and the civil war, Sibelius was beginning to reconstruct relations abroad. The years leading up to the premiere of the sixth also saw many personal struggles for Sibelius. He was coming out of a seven year abstinence from tobacco and alcohol after a close call with throat cancer. While he was no longer fearing death, he occasionally felt remorse after drinking. He suffered through bouts of depression during which he considered suicide, and in 1920 he lost his brother. You can sense the conflict in the music. Sibelius said “rage and passion” were “utterly essential” to the piece. But overall the piece sounds hopeful, perhaps a reflection of the future Sibelius saw for himself and his country. Unfortunately this peace would not last. A decade later Finland would again fight the Soviets in the Winter War; the first Finnish conflict of WWII.