When pianist Glenn Gould created a pioneering radio documentary on The Idea of North, the music he chose to embody this was Sibelius – naturally. Few composers conjure up such immediate images: chill clear air, glittering snowfields, foggy autumnal marshes, the fresh radiance of the swift Northern spring. His memorial in Helsinki broods appropriately over a granite outcrop among rolling seaside birch-woods. Saying his music captured such archetypal northern landscapes sounds like a cliché; yet even serious commentators talk of his ‘cool Northern colours’ and evocation of nature.

Those who know Finland would agree. Take its peculiarly potent dawn and evening light, luminous bands of red, gold and grey across the horizon – in the finale of Night-Ride and Sunrise these colours seem to blaze out of chilly grey infinities of shadow. Yet how true can this be? Music, after all, isn’t visual; it can only suggest images, not define them. For all the analysis inflicted on Sibelius’s music, this magic Northern quality has received little attention or been ascribed to formative influences. But that’s to ignore a major element of his genius.

He certainly did not inherit it from predecessors like Pacius or contemporaries like Kajanus. Finnish composers were generally despatched to Germany to have provinciality drilled out of them; as was Sibelius. After study in Berlin and Vienna with minor masters including Fuchs and Goldmark, he might have been expected to return as another worthy Teutonic clone. Instead, a vividly individual new work blazed like a beacon in a Finland struggling to preserve its identity under Russian hegemony – a choral symphony drawn from the national epic, the Kalevala, and its tragic anti-hero Kullervo.

The success of Finland’s first musical masterpiece allowed Sibelius to marry Aino Järnefelt, daughter of an artistic nationalist family, and set him at the forefront of both musical and national ideals. In succeeding works, including En Saga, the Four Legends, what eventually became Finlandia, and his first mature symphony, he developed that individual voice still further.

With hindsight we can detect traces of Bruckner in Kullervo, and Tchaikovsky’s sombre orchestral palette. In the First Symphony, too, one hears elements of the Pathétique, which linger in the Second and the Violin Concerto, but he is already striking out towards a more luminescent sound in the Third. After the Fourth, he famously remarked that while contemporary European composers were concocting multi-coloured cocktails, he offered a drink of pure spring water. In his later symphonies, the epic Fifth, pastoral Sixth and close-knit, classical Seventh, external influences have long since dissipated.

Nor, as Sibelius himself pointed out, did his sound originate in Finnish folk music. When working on Kullervo he travelled to Porvoo, north of Helsinki, to hear the great runo singer Larin Paraske, noting her inflections and rhythms; and listening to archival runo recordings, something of their spare, chanting lines and kantele accompaniment is detectable. More probably, though, we’re hearing the music of Finnish itself, which he was still learning when he wrote Kullervo, plus Kalevala verse. Its rolling sonorities and pulsing rhythms pervade not only vocal settings like Luonnotar but the orchestral tone poems such as Pohjola’s Daughter. But Luonnotar’s awesome depiction of the Kalevala creation myth’s infinite grey skies and seas demonstrates how those orchestral hues were rooted in nature.

Sibelius’s overt nature painting was extraordinary. The icy swirling gusts that blow through the strings in Lemminkainen in Tuonela and the rush of the forest storm swirling the leafmould in Tapiola have an awesome force, the misty waves of The Oceanides and the auroral night in Oma Maa (Our Homeland) an ethereal beauty.

In 1909, Sibelius took a trip with his artist brother-in-law Eero Järnefelt to the Koli mountain region where he found spiritual renewal in developing musical ideas. These he incorporated into the Fourth Symphony. Yet it’s impossible to isolate any such literal imagery in the score, and when a critic invented a detailed programme depicting the Koli country, Sibelius was cheerfully derisive. What he does seem to have incorporated is his own response to the natural vision – as if for him there was no barrier between sight, sound and feeling. He described Night-Ride and Sunrise’s nature imagery in emotional terms – a man riding through the forest, both enjoying and awed by solitude, ‘but thankfully rejoicing in dawn and daybreak’.

This is significant. Under the granitic exterior he cultivated, Sibelius was actually desperately thin-skinned, craving company and stimulation (including drink) but also prey to creative insecurity and black depression – almost morbidly sensitive to everything around him. This sensitivity was surely heightened by an unusual condition of mind, still scarcely understood but often linked with creativity. Synaesthesia causes its sufferers to interpret one sense in terms of others. Sibelius had it. He could ‘hear’ colours, and perhaps also ‘feel’ them.

It’s not unreasonable to believe, therefore, that Sibelius experienced any powerful image or emotion in at least partly musical terms, quite directly. One wonders, though, what form other sensations might have taken. In his diaries Sibelius often describes his feelings of depression and isolation in terms of night and blackness; and in the Kalevala the far north was a place of dark and icy evil. Tapiola’s swirling winds may all too accurately reflect an inner landscape, a North of the soul. We might see this in his advancing age, when self-criticism and unhappiness with the world and musical fashion caused an almost completed Eighth Symphony and other works to end up on the fire. In the end, he found peace in silence.

Michael Scott Rohan