The first notes in the original space were Jean Sibelius’ Finlandia. The piece was commissioned in 1899 as part of a three day arts festival to celebrate the Finnish press. At the time, Tsarist Russia was cracking down on the press in Finland, so this festival was planned as a way to show solidarity. The selection was one of seven composed to be played against tableaus of scenes of Finnish history. The pieces were played in a new music hall.
Given the political nature of the music, subsequent performances of it were often given fake names to avoid Russian censorship in the ensuing years.
Because of the fact it had been played at the opening of a new facility, Finlandia was chosen to be played at the opening of the Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium in February 1940. It would be played by the Arkansas State Symphony Orchestra (a forerunner, though not directly connected, to the current Arkansas Symphony Orchestra).
In the weeks leading up to the opening of Robinson, the Russians invaded Finland sparking the “Winter War.” Against overwhelming odds the Finnish people fought back though the Russians had far more soldiers and military weaponry. However, by February 1, the Russians started breaking through lines on several fronts, and it became apparent that they would likely best the Finns.
With Finland dominating the front pages of newspapers, the performance of Finlandia took on additional significance for the audience at Robinson’s first performance on February 16, 1940. Press accounts indicate that the selection was very warmly received by the audience.
Though not noticed at the time, there was another reason that Finlandia was an apt selection to open the building. The location of Robinson Auditorium had been chosen by Arkansas Gazette editor J.N. Heiskell. It was no one else’s first choice as the site for the building. As other options fell away, Heiskell kept trumpeting the northeast corner of Markham and Broadway. So it was appropriate that the first piece of music be a selection that celebrated newspapers and the people who published them.