Today largely remembered as the teacher of Jean Sibelius, Finnish composer, teacher, and administrator Martin Wegelius achieved much more during his 59 years on earth -- even if he never amounted to much as a composer in his own right. Wegelius can claim much of the credit for Finland's emergence as a musical "power": as founder and director of the school now known as the Sibelius Academy (then called, more simply, the Helsinki Conservatory), he brought some of Europe's finest composers, performers, and music scholars to Finland, allowing for a breadth and quality of musical education impossible before Wegelius took charge. He was, in a sense, overseer of his country's future musical well-being and he played the role admirably.
Wegelius was born in Helsinki in November of 1846 and died there in spring 1906. His father was an administrator at the Helsinki University and thus young Martin was provided a fine general education. Studying music privately, he entered the University as a student of literature and philosophy, taking a master's degree in 1869. In 1870, he traveled to the Continent, supported by a Finnish government scholarship, for formal musical training, first under organist Rudolph Bibl in Vienna and then at the Leipzig Conservatory (until 1877). He returned to Finland in 1878 with enough credentials to gain the conductorship of the Finnish Opera in Helsinki. In 1882, he founded the Helsinki Conservatory (aka Helsinki Music College) and he directed it until the day he died. In 1898, the Wagner Society in Helsinki formed with Wegelius' support. He was named a member of the Swedish Royal Academy of Music in 1904.
During the late 1800s, Wegelius was second only to conductor Robert Kajanus in fame as a Finnish musician; although the two did see eye-to-eye on some matters (most notably their admiration of Wagner and their support for his followers), they wound up bitter enemies. Sibelius risked the wrath of his teacher Wegelius by becoming a dear friend of Kajanus, though it must be said that Kajanus did as much or more than Wegelius to help Sibelius in his uncertain early days as a composer. Wegelius wrote a number of textbooks for his Conservatory's use and spent much of his time searching for new and better educational tools. Little room was left for his own composition, and in the end he produced only a small amount of original music: a few orchestral items, a concert piece for piano and orchestra, some songs, a cantata, and miscellaneous instrumental pieces.