top of page

Magdalen College, University of Oxford

‘Living’ Tonal Processes in Sibelius’s Seven Songs, Op. 17

In the midst of his early compositional career, Sibelius expressed an acute awareness of the crisis in tonality when he declared that ‘our modern tonality is shaky’. In his only public lecture, entitled ‘Some Viewpoints Concerning Folk Music and Its Influence on the Musical Arts’ (1896), he proclaimed that art-music cannot be revived ‘by building […] a [new] tonal system – it must be found living within the folk tune’. This rare moment of theoretical explication came during Finland’s ‘national awakening’, when the Finnish-language mythology of The Kalevala, and the huge body of folksong that it was drawn from (runolaulu), were of inspiration to Sibelius and his contemporary Finns. According to the lecture, the tonal system of the oldest Finnish folksong ‘lacks both tonic and dominant’. Yet it was during his compositional education in Vienna and Berlin, where he studied traditional harmony and counterpoint in the early 1890s, that Sibelius rediscovered the musicality of the Finnish national epic.

Sibelius’s Op. 17 (1891–1904) collects together seven short songs written either side of his lecture, in Vienna, Helsinki, and between trips to Karelia to collect folk music. These songs are, therefore, a fitting focus for an exploration of his understanding of tonality and form in his early career. In his Finnish-language songs, drones and static Kopftons are suspended between the ‘non-functional parallel-moving chords’ (Veijo Murtomäki, 2010) that harmonize the gradually changing runo-inspired melodies. Using voice-leading analysis, this poster will argue that although Sibelius’s ‘early modernist’ approach to tonality was intimately bound up with the formation of a national and musical identity in Finland, his voice-leading and diatonic cadential syntax was as equally, and sometimes antithetically, informed by his Austro-Germanic education.


Conference Photo Nicholas Hunter.jpg

Sarah is a College Lecturer in music history and analysis at Magdalen College, University of Oxford; an Associate Lecturer in music theory at Oxford Brookes University; and trustee of the Society for Music Analysis. She has previously convened modules on Schenkerian analysis at Nottingham University, as well as taught music theory at Royal Holloway and at various Oxford Colleges. Her doctoral thesis examined the history of analytical approaches to Jean Sibelius’s music to reformulate the accepted view of the composer as an early modernist, drawing on Adorno’s Mahlerian materiale Formenlehre. Her current research focuses on the enduring legacy of early twentieth-century receptions of Sibelius’s music in the Britain and the US.

Sarah Moynihan

bottom of page