Jean Sibelius composed for the stage during his whole active career as a composer. The development started with The Watersprite, which he wrote together with his teacher Martin Wegelius, and ended with the incidental music for The Tempest (1925) and the orchestral suites he prepared from it in 1927. He called the music he wrote for the theatre an "old sin", but he did not want to give up his addiction.
The incidental music includes only one opera,
The Maiden in the Tower, which lasts just over thirty minutes, and which the composer himself was not satisfied with. In the 1890s Sibelius wrote two patriotic incidental works for historical tableaux, the Karelia music and the Music for the Days of the Press. From these he prepared Finlandia and the orchestral suite Scènes historiques I.
For plays proper, Sibelius wrote music from the year 1898, when he completed the incidental music for King Christian II, written by his friend Adolf Paul. From the best parts of this incidental music Sibelius prepared an orchestral suite which he liked to perform at his concerts.
At the start of the 20th century Sibelius wrote the music for the play Kuolema (Death), written by his friend Arvid Järnefelt. This included the future Valse triste and Scene with Cranes. The success of this music finally prompted the theatres of Helsinki to ask Sibelius for incidental music for foreign texts or imitations of foreign texts: thus during the years that followed Sibelius wrote music for Pelléas and Mélisande, Belshazzar's Feast and Swanwhite. With Scaramouche he made a move in the direction of pantomime, and when he came to write the music for Everyman he wrote in the manner of future film composers: the music should be synchronised with the words and action, down to the last second. The culmination and also the peak of Sibelius's music for plays came with his music for The Tempest.
In her doctoral thesis, the musicologist Eija Kurki has observed that Sibelius wrote a great deal of music for plays that were influenced by symbolism. In turn, symbolist features seem be present in some of the pieces themselves.
Sibelius cannot be called a downright symbolist, but the movement certainly influenced him. It is also interesting that in the 1920s Sibelius joined the Freemasons, who have their own unique symbols. "The older I get, the more clearly I see that everything is a symbol," Sibelius said to his secretary. "A person who can interpret symbols understands the secrets of the universe." Sibelius also said that it is possible to get further with the help of symbols than with the rational faculty, and that Freemasonry had given him a great deal for this very reason.
Musically, the stage works considerably broaden our picture of Sibelius as a composer. He never made use of Orientalism more clearly than in Belshazzar's Feast. Many striking small pieces or popular waltzes such as Valse triste would not have been composed without stage commissions. Because of the requirements of the stage we have works which he orchestrated quite differently from his usual practice: for example Everyman was written for woodwind, two French horns and two trumpets, timpani, piano, organ, strings and mixed choir. This naturally produced new kinds of orchestral colours.
We should be grateful for the incidental music commissions, since they stimulated Sibelius to reach one of the peaks in his career, the original music for The Tempest, which he wrote just before the silence of Ainola. Without this commission, self-criticism might have smothered his compositional vein earlier.