Sibelius was born in 1865 in the town of Hämeenlinna in what is now Finland. He studied the piano from the age of nine and the violin from fifteen with the express intent of becoming a virtuoso, an ambition that he maintained into his mid-twenties.
Although he initially studied law at university after finishing school, he was very soon drawn back to music full-time and returned to the Helsinki Music School where he studied between 1885 and 1889. His musical education continued in Berlin during 1889 and 1890, then in Vienna between 1890 and 1891.
Initially an avid Wagnerian, Sibelius was moved to emulate the operatic style but eventually became disillusioned with Wagner’s techniques. Other influences include Bruckner and Tchaikovsky, traditional Finnish Folk music and the landscape and wildlife of his native countryside.
Completing seven symphonies and numerous other orchestral works, Sibelius’ style, although distinctly modern, follows on from that of the late Romantic composers such as Grieg and Liszt. His movement away from strict sonata form and the extended development of themes within the works helped to define his style. This also paved the way for future composers in showing them that one didn’t have to be dissonant or atonal to be modern.
Nielsen was born into a large but poor family in Nørre Lyndelse, Denmark in 1865. Early exposure to music from his family bore fruit in his learning both the piano and violin from an early age and making his first explorations into composition aged nine or ten. In his early teens he expanded his musical boundaries by adopting both the bugle and alto trombone, playing successfully for the local army battalion.
Continuing with his study of the violin he came to the attention of the director of the Danish Royal Conservatory and studied there for two years under Niels Gade, graduating in 1886. Three years after leaving the Conservatory he was considered proficient enough to earn a place playing with the second violins in the Royal Danish Orchestra where he stayed until 1907, eventually taking a position as conductor with the Royal Theatre Orchestra.
Nielsen produced a good deal of work throughout the 1890s during which time he began exploring his “Progressive Tonality” technique with extended pieces of music beginning and ending on different keys, developing throughout the work. His six symphonies display his earlier studies of polyphony and counterpoint while remaining resolutely modern, his development as a composer leading him towards what has come to be called “Extended Tonality”, eventually including elements of atonality and serialism while maintaining his traditional and tonal heritage.