Solo songs and arrangements for voice and piano
Jean Sibelius's long career both started and ended with solo songs. His first published work was the song Serenade (1888), which was set to a poem by Johan Ludvig Runeberg. Moreover, his first major publication consisted of songs: in 1892 the publishing company Otava published 7 sånger af Runeberg i musik satta af Jean Sibelius, the songs later known as opus 13. From the early years of his career as a composer Sibelius composed solo songs fairly regularly until the year 1918. He wrote only a few new songs after completing his last song opuses, 88 and 90. However, just a few months before his death in 1957 Sibelius once more returned to his songs: he arranged the song Kom nu hit död! (op. 60 no. 1) for orchestra with the assistance of his son-in-law, the conductor Jussi Jalas.
With such a long career the output of songs is extensive: it comprises 109 songs (or 111, if the missing songs of opus 72 are included). The majority of the songs are included in the composer's eight song opuses. The songs became popular from their first performance, with performers, critics and public alike. Music scholars too have regarded the songs as having a central place in Sibelius’s output. The international success of the works has been limited for reasons of language - the majority of the songs are in Swedish - but in Scandinavia and especially in Finland they have gained a permanent place in the solo repertoire.
Sibelius's solo song output consists more of separate works than large cycles - with the exception of opus 88, which the composer himself called a song cycle. His production can, however, be divided into two periods, depending on whether the songs were written separately or as part of a collection (or in the case of opus 88 as part of a song cycle). With the exception of opus 13 the early songs were always separate items. They were mostly published as such, though in a few cases they came out as two or three songs under the same cover. In the case of opus 50 (1906) Sibelius used a new method, working without a break and aiming at a complete song collection, with all the songs to be published simultaneously. The same applied to opuses 57, 61, 86, 88 and 90. Among, the late song collections only opus 72 is an exception to this rule.
In opuses 13, 57 and 90 Sibelius strengthened the coherence of the collections by composing in each case only texts written by one poet (op. 13 and op. 90 were to texts by Runeberg, and op. 57 to texts by Ernst Josephson). In opus 57 one can see certain features of a song cycle. Before the publication of the collection Sibelius changed the order of some of the songs - which would hardly have been necessary, if he had not, at least to some extent, thought of the songs as forming a unity. Moreover, the penultimate song, Vänskapens blomma, lacks any sense of finality, and truly requires a concluding piece to follow it. It should be pointed out that the very first collection, opus 1, is thematically uniform: all the songs are Christmas songs. However, the songs do not form a ‘cycle’.
Almost all the collections include compositions in different styles, drawing their inspiration from various sources: some of the songs hark back to Schubertian lied, others are in a type of Nordic romance style. But some of the songs are sui generis, displaying only Sibelius's unique style of vocal writing. The variety of styles can be seen already in the early opus 13, and it continues right up to the last of the collections, opus 90.
Most uniform in their musical style are the Late Romantic opuses 36-38, which were written at the turn of the century, and opuses 86 and 88, which were written during the last period of composition. Sibelius had good grounds for calling opus 88 a song cycle: it is the most uniform collection, not only in the themes of the poems but also in the musical style.
The most heterogeneous collections are opuses 17 and 72. In both of these Sibelius included works which he had composed over several years (in opus 17 thirteen years elapsed between the earliest and latest song). Moreover, in both collections there are songs in more than one language: in opus 17 there is Swedish and Finnish and in opus 72 also German.