On the Vanguard of Chamber Music

[originally published in Finnish in the philosophical journal niin & näin;
for the original publication details & the text itselt, see "Julkaisut"]

Though I have in the recent years fallen entirely in love with the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival, this was definitely not love at first sight. My earliest recollections of the event, to the contrary, were tainted with prejudice. I recall to having childishly tasted the word “chamber music” in my mouth. Which chamber? What I could mostly think of was the sleeping chamber of the house my grandparents used to inhabit, and in that chamber my grandfather frequently took naps and whose ambiance was, in a word, dusty and stagnated…

In these days, the Chamber Music Festival is all but stagnated and stuck in routines. In the programme notes to the festival of the past summer, the artistic director of the festival, Vladimir Mendelssoh, unequivocally declares: “We are part of the avant-garde that is actively — if not furiously — trying to turn the tide with all the convictions we possess and stand for and with all the positive energy we can invest in a single cause.” The sentence suffers from somewhat convoluted phrasing yet succeeds in opening up an important perspective: perhaps in the pervasively anticlassical world of today — where classical music is used, at least in Finland, to drive idle youth away from hanging around the shopping malls! — it is precisely chamber music that stands for the free-thinking avantgarde. The basic concept of the festival indeed intelligently deconstructs the myth of elitism so often associated with classical music: seemingly difficult works are carried into a town bristling with natural beauty and thus made easily accessible.

From year to year, first-rate national and international musicians thus prove the viability of the original idea behind the festival. The festival concept had its origins, so the story goes, in the urban grind of a vibrating roller, as the then-student of the Paris conservatoire, cellist Seppo Kimanen came up with the idea of transporting chamber music from the hustle and bustle of the cities into the proximity of nature. Music abounding with complex ideas, indeed, called far nature to act as its own catalyst! During its 42–year journey, the festival has grown from its somewhat elitist origins into an eye-opening and ground-breaking musical gathering: this summer the climax of the festival was provided by the Finnish big band UMO, and last year saw the featuring of the eminent contemporary composers, Krzysztof Penderecki and Kaija Saariaho. New chamber music festivals both in Finland and worldwide often imitatete the original Kuhmo idea of merging the peace of nature with the interiority of chamber music, yet in Kuhmo this marriage receives its most precise and artistically unique expression.

When Kimanen was the artistic director of the festival, he would weave the programme of each year around a couple of themes. In 2002, for instance, the prevailing themes were Vienna (in particular, Schubert and Brahms), Russia (in particular, Shostakovich) and the music of the Mediterranean. In contrast, the artistist director of the festival since 2006, Vladimir Mendelssohn is keener on large strokes of brush and philosophical thinking. This summer the main theme of the festival was “Metamorphoses”, and the theme was further divided into daily sub-themes. Such a point of view is much to the point, given the very centrality of the idea of musical themes and their development to classical music. In Richard Strauss’s (1864–1949) Metamorphoses, composed for a string orchestra, such a method of varying themes turns so radical as to make the entire work breathe organically from the seamless blending of musical motives into one another.

In contrast to concertos and symphonies composed for large orchestras, then, music-making in chamber music takes place between a handful of artists. In consequence, chamber music comes to life via the communicative gestures emerging upon the performing of a particular piece; here body language as well as movements of the eyes become important. Using examples from this year’s festival, there are, on the one end, pieces composed for solo instruments, such as Beethoven’s piano sonatas or Bartok’s violin sonatas, while on the other end, one finds works composed for small chamber orchestras, for example, Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos or the Metamorphoses by Strauss just mentioned.

In chamber music, there is usually no conductor, but each instrument plays an independent part. Hence, the different instruments might be understood as taking up distinctive roles, engaged in a dialogue or a debate with one another. The common prejudice of faultlessly beautiful classicism needs no other means for its refutation than the listening of, say, Beethoven’s Die grosse Fugue op. 133 for a string quartet, where the four string instruments manifest the helpless cacophony of a conflicted soul. Some evidence for the radicality of the piece is gained from the very observation that the contemporanous audiences could not quite digest the discordant anger of the piece. Upon the request of his publisher, Beethoven was asked to compose an alternative finale to his antipenultimate string quartet op. 130, whose original climax the Great Fugue was originally intended to form. This year saw the performance of the mentioned quartet with its original fugue finale, after which the audience was feeling breathless yet cathartic.

Its own chapter in this year’s programme was the two-hour piece by Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992), Twenty Glances on the Jesus Child (Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus, 1944). Whereas chamber music is essentially absolute, this work by Messiaen stands for so-called programme music, where the composer himself puts to words the extramusical content of his composition. Messiaen not only named the piece but also its separate movements. Amidst the movements, for instance, one finds Glance of the Father (Regard du Père) and The Kiss of the Child-Jesus (Le baiser l’Enfant-Jésus). It srikes the listener as somewhat staggering, indeed, how far the composer went in supplying details describing the movements in his programmatic notes to the work. In a movement titled The Exchange (L’échange), to cite an essential example, he reports to having composed a theme of God in a major third, while Glance of the Virgin (Regard de la Vierge) reportedly depicts the perfect purity of Virgin Mary. At the same time the music is unyiledingly modernist, even avantgardist. A listener approaching the work from the shores of popular music may observe certain tones reminicient of blues or jazz.

Various attendants of this year’s festival seem to have found in Messiaen’s piece one of the climaxes of the festival. But I, to the contrary, find myself veering towards a degree of skepticism as regards the possibility of depicting God in music. I have no intention of denying the religiosity of Messiaen — he was, indeed, a pious Catholic, whose music was in his own words composed in praise of God — yet the strings of my own soul resonate more strongly to the attemtps of adumbrating divinity indirectly rather than directly (the latter attempt running the risk, so it seems to me, of dogmatism). For comparative purposes, it was thus illuminating to hear in this year’s festival the most serene, or if you like, spiritual, of Beethoven’s late string quartets, op. 132, whose composition was interrupted by the composer’s severe illness. The third and middle movement of the piece, lasting 15 minutes, carries the subtitle Holy Song of Thanksgiving from a Convalescent to the Deity (Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart). In this movement, one can hear the climactic and turn-taking moment of the work, a musical expression of the burgeoning lust for life (strong precisely because it emerges from illness) just before the work’s triumphant finale.

If Seppo Kimanen is anywhere near correct in claiming that chamber music belongs to the most sensitive forms of art — verging on what might be characterized as an expression of interiority — then the composer comer closer to truth, as I would think, through indirect allusions than strictly programmatic approach. A moving example may be found, indeed, in the later style of Beethoven, reaching its pinnacle only after the ninth symphony, when the composer had already fallen entirely numb, in particular, in the last six string quartets (in a chronological listing, opus number 127, 132, 130, 133, 131 and 135). In these intellectually and emotively inexhaustible late quartets the composer is not so much concerned with expressing human emotions — grief, despair, ecstasy or joy — as much as he is gesturing towards something braver, or if you like, an encounter with the abyss of being, on the fearless vanguard of darkness.

ENG: Enter Music Centre!

… thoughts on the first steps of the newly built Helsinki Music Centre …

[opened for audiences in September 2011 to replace the Finlandia
Hall as the primary venue for symphonic concerts in Helsinki]

Let me begin by saying this, though I have no doubts that the statement will sound somewhat pathetic to those with innate aversion to classical music: The fact that the capital of Finland – a country internationally renowned not only for its ubiquitous music education but also for its top-notch musicians, composers and conductors – has been lacking a first-rate music centre has been something of a cultural catastrophe. At any rate, the expectations with the new Musiikkitalo (Helsinki Music Centre), opened for audiences in September 2011, were on all accounts high, and hopefully not entirely unrealistic.

But they didn’t fall short of how the fall season has been! Let’s admit it, the first two or three concerts in the new Music Centre are spent wondering whether such a minimalistically bombastic edifice was really called for in the downtown of Helsinki –– or whether a more imaginative vision from the architects to have filed proposals to the competition might have captured the prize. The 360° auditorium takes some getting used to; there’s been a concert (with Ravel’s Shéhérazade being played) where the orchestral performance was interrupted and eventually cut short upon the command of Jukka-Pekka Saraste, due to dyskinesic clenching of teeth of an audience member seated in the auditorium sections behind the orchestra! (Such a disturbance might not have been audible in the first place in the Finlandia Hall, so marked is the difference in acoustics between the two venues!) All of that said, the Music Centre is beautifully located in what used to be the oddly nomadic no man’s intermediary space between the Finnish Parliament, Kiasma Museum of Modern Art and the railroad tracks: this no man’s land is now burgeoning with new life, as the interior views of the Music Centre open up to these central surroundings of Helsinki…

During the fall period, I’ve had seasonal tickets for the Thursday and Friday series by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orcherstra (I can’t help mention that the student price for the latter, including more than 10 concerts, was 79 eur for the whole year), so I’ll confine myself to addressing only their performance. With the halfway November concert, featuring pieces by Magnus Lindberg, Mozart (piano concerto nr 17) and Brahms (symphony nr 3), at the latest, the RSO started really getting wings under their violins. Feria by Magnus Lindberg – an impressively accessible modernist who’s lately been more frequently performed by the New York Philharmonic than by any Finnish orchestra – was bristling with dynamic energy, clarity of musical expression and intertwining themes. With Debussy’s Iberia, the soon-to-be conductor of the RSO, Hannu Lintu, craftfully conjured up a tangible world of Spanish sounds and moods, articulated with rhythmic clarity yet free of any pretence that such a programmatic music might on other interpretations occasion.

And what else? –– an impeccable high point of the season has been the 100-year anniversary concert of Erik Bergman (1911–2006), one of Finland’s ground-breaking avant-gardists to have inspired the later generation of Finnish composers form Paavo Heininen to Veli-Matti Puumala (the latter being the contemporary recipient of the Erik Bergman Prize). If you’re not familiar with Bergman’s music, the RSO concert’s exclusive Bergman programme lends itself to a great introduction to his work: Rubaiyat Op. 41, composed to the text of the Persian poet-philosopher Omar Khajjam offers, among other things, a refreshingly anti-Western, viz. unreserevedly blissful, depiction of paradise in its third movement “Här er min paradis” (the work is sung in Swedish); and Bardo Thödol Op. 74, composed to a German translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, has provided me with one of the most cathartic confrontations with unflinching musical modernism.

For now, I’ll abstain from explicating on the other, somewhat more expected treats of the fall season, but I will have to highlight, in a brief passing, a Kurt Masur-conducted Bruckner Symphony nr 7 (16 Sept 2011), Santtu-Matias Rouvali’s idiosyncratic albeit inspiring take on Sibelius’s En Saga (9 Dec 2011) – what a charismatic young man! – and finally, the impeccably lucid Lisa Batiashvili playing Brahms’s violin concerto (14 & 15 Dec 2011). And most appropriately for a philosophical music lover, the fall season winded down with pieces circling back to … philosophy … with Haydn’s Symphony nr. 22 “The Philosopher” and Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra featured in the final fall season concert (15 Dec 2011).

And I gather there was a great concert with Jorma Hynninen performing Kimmo Hakola’s Aleksis Kivi songs in 11 Nov 2011 that I had to skip, so I’m not in the least doubtful that we have good reasons to be optimistic about the performances and pieces to come in the Music Centre next year!

ENG: Music Centre 2nd season

The newly built Helsinki Music Centre has now completed its second season, adding the concerts of the spring to the starting season in the fall. With a well-considered concentration on shorter works during the fall season – tone poems in particular – I was more than happy to witness a fuller emergence of symphonies during the second season… Among my favorites, I finally had a chance to hear Shostakovich’s First being played live, and from Mahler there were two important later symphonies, the Sixth and the Ninth. Beethoven, for sure, was also featured, with a less surprising choice of the Third and the Fifth symphonies.

Amidst the symphonies, one performance of a concerto left an abiding trace in me: the French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet playing Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. In the same concert, Dvořák’s Eighth was the chief work, and Anders Hillborg – the always groovy and rhythmically explosive Swedish modernist – was the composer behind the opening piece of the concert, Four Transitory Worlds. But the ultimate high point of the concert, really, was Bavouzet’s rendering of Ravel’s Concerto… The story behing the piece bears repeating: Paul Wittgenstein, the famous Austrian pianist (and a brother of the famous Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein) had lost his right arm in the First World War, yet he refused the likely prospect of terminating his artistic career. After the war, Wittgenstein commisisoned works from eminent composers to be performed solely with the left hand. A century later, Ravel’s concerto has turned out to be the most successful piece, although the likes of Britten, Prokofiev and Richard Strauss also produced works for Wittgenstein.

What an experience, then, hearing a two-handed pianist use only his left hand with an expressive force nowhere short of – even, in a strange way, superior to – the power of two hands! Listening to the gifted young American conductor Joshua Weilerstein introduce the audience to the pieces performed (such introductions really go to contribute to the listening experience), I couldn’t help being struck by the sheer power of Wittgenstein’s character, how a man with just one hand, amidst war frenzy, draws the rudiments of a keyboard on a cardboard box and in freezing cold spends his days practicing an art that many a man in his position would doubtlessly have given up… Bavouzet, with his right hand eloquently suspended, made the calculated outbursts of the left hand even more impressive… He added his impressionistic touch to the concerto whose jazzy overtones are best brought to the fore with a quasi-improvisational, spontaneous hand.

The symphonies of Mahler – – What moves me, in particular, in Mahler’s Ninth is the strangely coincident merging of leitmotifs that in a sense made up the end of the 18th century: the dusk of classicism fused with incipient modernism, the fin-de-siècle decadence intertwined with the highly personal and erotic touch characteristic of Viennese symbolism. For some listeners, Mahler is infamous for swelling his later symphonies to vast five-or-more movement forms, with single movements sometimes lasting more than 20 minutes and the entire works often more than an hour. Yet it is this very encompassing of everything within the fabric of a single work that makes the later symphonies so touching – when only one is awake enough to sensitively receive them. Mahler’s Ninth encompasses, at once, a moving first movement that in paraphrase of Britten’s words expresses unusual love for life; a second movemet beginning with a cacophonic waltz anticipating Shostakovich’s later juxtaposition of the burlesque with the tragic; as well as the finale that for me is perhaps the most breathtaking expression in all of Mahler’s music of the divine… Jukka-Pekka Saraste conducted the work with masterful balance and power (although he might not be the foremost specialist on the delicate and miniature Mahlerian forms verging on chamber music).

A couple of mentions, moreover, on works that made the fall programme fresh as it was classical: Sofia Gubaidulina’s Offertorium offered a meditative violin concerto bristling with Innerlichkeit and beautifully played by Vadim Gluzman, while George Benjamin’s Ringed by the Flat Horizon provided another contemporary example of a work whose every element, including the highly evocative title, worked together to create what I am inclined to term claustrophobic tranquility. Then, there was Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin: always ahead of his times in ways half visionary and half mad, this is Bartók’s virtuoso showcasing of an avantgarde tone poem where the virtually dadaistic text (in the RSO version, projected in real time on the wall behing the orchestra in the Music Centre) and the delicately woven orchestration make up something more than mere programmatic music. In a word, Bartók’s musical treatment of the text – somewhat like turning the textual events into musical texture as opposed to using music to illustrate the events – challenges the very dichotomy between text and music, content and form.

While the acoustics of the Music Centre concert hall has been criticized in central forums – above all, in Rondo, the Finnish journal on classical music – my experience as a humble connoisseur is still most affirmative. I’ve been seated, usually, in the fourth row in front of the orchestra (section P in the above image) or further back in the ascending section of the stalls (section T above). To be sure, the music of certain composers such as Wagner and Mahler tends to grow too thick and when heard from within a close range, yet the seats further back in the stalls have been a great success. I could tell the difference in Mahler’s Ninth: what might have been a disconcertingly overwhelming show of sounds from within a close distance, turned out to be a most moving and beautiful work when heard from a further distance.

It takes time and space for the totality and infinity of the Mahlerian symphonies to acquire an understandable shape.

ENG: Beethoven op. 131

I have heard it said that Beethoven’s string quartet op. 131 — the fifth last work he ever composed — is his greatest string quartet and arguably the greatest of all his works. This is high praise for the composer of the Ninth Symphony and its immortal finale An die Freude, Missa Solemnis and the famous piano sonatas. So along the way I have approached op. 131 with distinctive curiosity, seeking to understand something of its mystique. Thanks to the Kuhmo Chamber Music festival, I have heard the work played in concert altogether four times, once in the church of Lentiira in 2002, another time in the Kuhmo Arts Centre in 2006 — both times by the Danel quartet — and in 2009 in the Kuhmo church by the impeccable Meta4 quartet and in 2010 as an orchestrated version led by the violinist Gidon Kremer. Beethoven’s complete string quartets by Alban Berg quartet is one of my most beloved and cherished recordings of music.

I feel like I’m beginning to be able to put to words something of my growing compassion for this work. Earlier, upon hearing the piece in concert for the second time, it dawned on me that the work amounts to pure form. Danel quartet played the work without pauses between the movements, as it indeed should be: the six-part movement structure of the work — with movements ranging in duration from 0:50 to 13:23 (this makes it nearly inappropriate to even call them “movements”) — makes the work downright radical.

Whereas, in the Western classical music “mainstream”, such formal experimentation with string quartets — or with symphonies for that matter — did not become popular until the 20th century (all the eminent classical and romantic string quartet composers, from Haydn and Mozart to Schubert, Brahms and Dvořák stick to the classical form of three or four movements), Beethoven indulged in thorough formal experimentation in his late string quartets in 1825–1826. Opus 131 uniquely anticipates the formal liberalism of much later music, say, the one-movement seventh symphony of Sibelius (1917) and the eleven-part fourteenth symphony of Shostakovich (1975).

The formal structure of Beethoven’s op. 131, however, sets it apart from virtually all later forms. Of course, it is commonplace that forms and themes may grow out of other themes and forms; either classically (along harmonic and contrapuntal principles), one might say, or organically. But the distinctive feature of Beethoven’s string quartet is that it contains only one theme, as it were, and endless formal variations of this.

It would be appropriate to go as far as to argue that the work has no movements, really — it is one single musical idea unfolding itself through endless mutations and transfigurations. This renders possible the unique experience one has listening to this work: there is no anticipation of repetition, no anticipation of one part following another, now an adagio, then a scherzo. The work is pure presence: it is infinite unity in infinite variety: the solemn opening slow fugue of the work has virtually nothing to do with the closing, agonized fugues of the finale; yet they are one and the same musical idea seamlessly growing out of one another through intermediary steps — all perfect in themselves. Every step takes the thematic elements onto another level, yet at no point is the living experience of the being of this music interrupted.

This music embodies a human transcendent experience of absolute presence, a humanly viable morality interlaced with divine everyday reality. This music does not attempt to tell or teach us anything; if anything, it teaches us to see and be. That those words rhyme may be no coincidence; that morality and reality almost rhyme may not be so either. I am indebted to this music for much of what I find valuable in human existence. Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that no one could understand his philosophical work without understanding how much music meant to him. Fewer than might be expected thinkers have attempted to put their experience of music into words.

* *

As we approach great works of art from different perspectives and different standpoints in our lives, they undergo versatile interpretations. When I heard the op. 131 string quartet in a concert for the third time — this time by the admirable Finnish quartet Meta4 — I came to think, somewhat differently from my earlier interpretation delineated above, that more than anything the work epitomizes a direct confrontation with death. Of course, It is no news to a connoisseur of Beethoven that he was much concerned with death: as early as 1802, indeed, two years before composing the Eroica Symphony, he authored a famous letter to his brothers, the so-called Heiligenstadt testament (see in the original German; or in an English translation), where he expressed his profound despair upon receiving the news of his incipient deafness, driving him virtually to the verge of suicide. It was only my art that held me back. Oh, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had forth all that I felt was within me. Or, at more length –

To you, brother Carl, I give special thanks for the attachment you have shown me of late. It is my wish that you may have at better and freer life than I have had. Recommend virtue to your children; it alone, not money, can make them happy. I speak from experience; this was what upheld me in time of misery. Thanks for it and to my art, I did not end my life by suicide – Farewell and love each other.

What strikes me in Beethoven’s greatest late string quartet, then, is the tangible fact that the composer looks at death in the eye, daring to face its grim abyss of nothingness yet finding the inner strength to begin to wrestle with and against death. It is the same voice of fate that may be heard in some of his most referenced musical passages such as the Trauermarsch (the 2nd movement) of the Eroica or in the final movement of the op. 130 quartet, famously referenced by Milan Kundera in central early passages of his Unbearable Lightness of Being. In the latter work, so the story goes, Beethoven sribbled over the notation of the central fatalistic phrase of the finale: Must it be? Yes it must. In passages such as these we can hear the first musical expressions, or so I’m inclined to think, of a modern human individual in naked confrontation with personal fate, and — what is more — with the transcendent gift of overcoming or appropriating the whims of fate.

Above and beyond the other cited works, however, it is in the op. 131 quartet where this confrontation finds its most personal and authentic expression. There are times when I listen to the finale of the work, then, trembling to the point of terror and crying to the point of ecstatic joy.

Notes on Sibelius 1/2

Subjective impressions of the Sibelius symphonies, part I/II
Or how to begin the work of overcoming some Sibelius stereotypes …


© Lehtikuva 1891 / MTV Oy

Although I’m a Finn – let’s put it that way – I find that Sibelius’s music embodies something universal and international. It is therefore that I’ve been interested, throughout the years, in putting to words some of my experiences in listening to the music. Here’s a shortcut: if you’re interested in getting to know Sibelius’s symphonies, begin with the Second and the Fifth (in that order). After some acquaintance, try the second movement of the Third. If that begins to work for you, try the entire symphony, try the Fourth and the Sixth… These notes were written in 2008 (and I’ve got some newer ones in the works, to be published soon), and the post is slightly long. Bear with me; the topic calls for it. I’m a complete dilettant; I speak less in terms of music theory than of subjective experience…

*   *

This past week I’ve journeyed through a box of CDs of Jean Sibelius’s collected symphonies. These have been multivariously recorded, and for about a year I’ve been the happy owner of the performances by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted by the leading international specialist of Sibelius’s music, Paavo Berglund (who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Seventh symphony). As a Finn, somebody might find me biased in the art of interpreting Sibelius, yet I count myself among those against an overly nationalistic view of the leading Finnish composer. If as a Finn, then, I could be lucky enough to stumble upon some important observations about the works of Sibelius, they might bear the stamp of objectivity precisely because they come from a biased Finn.

As I walk through the symphonies thoughtfully, one by one, I’m beginning to extend my understanding of the symphonies beyond the Second and the Fifth (the most popular amongst his symphonies). When the general audience receives Sibelius’s symphonies, these two usually stand above others, and in the worst case scenario, the audience has acquaintance only with these, alongside Finlandia, the Violin Concerto and a couple of other hits. But caricatures like this mislead the listener into believing that the composer never wrote anything quite as important. Here one falls prey to the grand old sin in interpreting Sibelius: one observes that which is powerful and uplifting while overlooking the unique sensibility and the ethically uncompromising frankness which, in my experience, make up the very heart of Sibelius’s symphonic oeuvre.

Each Sibelius symphony makes up its own world, as the composer himself has said. Like so many firsts, the First symphony is restless and dramatic: containing elements drawing from the then-popular trend of composing tone poems, this is for me the only Sibelius symphony bearing genuine resemblance to programmatic music. In the Second symphony – composed largely on a retreat to Italy in 1900 – the composer’s expression veers towards classicism, large scale and epic drama: amongst his symphonies, it was this one that captivated my attention first, and it is in this work that we can see the peculiarly triumphant character of Sibelius’s symphonic language manifesting itself with full power.

Against the backdrop of the other symphonies, the uniqueness of the Third symphony resides in the fact that the composer ventures in the direction of more modesty and, in a sense, even more absolute music than is the case with the second. The widely spread misunderstandings of his work begin here. Whereas the First and the Second symphony satisfy the needs of a listener’s craving for large scale and heroic struggle, the third symphony chooses, instead, to dispense with virtually all overt drama, practicing rather the art of silence and Innerlichkeit. Here we have, in an incipient form, what I’m inclined to view as Sibelius’s ownmost and mature symphonic style: the tranquil humility of the symphony’s second movement had not been – and perhaps never will be – heard in quite that register in symphonic music. In a word, the composer was astute enough to replace triumphant drama with added interiority: this is for me, indeed, one of his greatest achievements.

*   *

Against the background of the Third, the Fourth symphony represents less an odd act of introversion (for which it has occasionally been taken) than a natural development. Valued most highly by the composer himself, this work is perhaps more difficult to receive than the other symphonies. The work’s lucidity and the whimsical ellipses, let alone its admittedly introverted modernity, could well leave a listener yearning something more assertive somewhat unsatisfied. The most disturbing misinterpretation, however, arises from a notorious association of the work with the natural preserve of Koli in Eastern Finland. Visiting the area and climbing up to the Koli heights – a national landscape in Finnish cultural history – certainly inspired Sibelius at the time of authoring the work, yet the piece’s difficult musical language should not tempt us into accepting an extramusical explanation when the music itself can be heard quite differently. (Sibelius once remarked, indeed, to his peers: misunderstand me correctly.) For me, this is forceful music of inner maturation, an apt dose of Finnish melancholy coupled with inner strength to cope with the pain.

Of the Fifth symphony one often hears anecdotes mingled with great ambition and quasi-mystical legend, and I shouldn’t feign to deny that I’m still strongly impressed by the piece’s most organic unfolding of themes as well as the tragic force of the finale. Yet during this week, in comparative listening, the Fifth symphony has lost something of its appeal, while certain others (particularly the Third, Fourth, Sixth and the Seventhh) have gained in subjective importance. Perhaps the Fifth falls into a challenging intermediary space, inasmuch as it, for a moment, drifts away from the impressive interiority of the Third and the Fourth symphonies, rather tapping into the triumphs of the Second. But let me not be misunderstood: when Sibelius once remarked that the dawning of the musical themes of the Fifth was like an opening of celestial spheres for him – as if God himself had scattered disorganized pieces around the Earth – I don’t think he was exaggerating.

The Sixth symphony, in turn, forms a pair with the Third. It is intriguing to note that the composer worked on three stylistically diverse works virtually simultaneously (the 4th, 5th and the 6th), albeit in a long span of time. The Sixth is not so often played and therefore remains less well-known, and it takes some special effort to come to terms with the work’s reserved integrity. I’m not so sure whether Sibelius’s self-authored (and admittedly enigmatic) characterization of the work, ”as the shades grow longer” genuinely elucidates the work or not. I myself count the Sixth amidst the blissful because pure, happy because absolute, works amidst the Sibelius symphonies.

Coming to the shores of the Seventh symphony, I find myself falling short of words, not entirely unlike after reading the last pages of his impressive biobgraphy (by Erik Tawastjerna). Perhaps it was no coincidence, after all, that this composition was fated to be the composer’s last one: it is staggeringly difficult to imagine, indeed, what kind of music the eighth or the ninth symphony might have been after this one! Here one has abolished all musical glamour and the then-characteristic world-embracing aspirations of certain other contemporaneous composers. And at the same time this little world of the Seventh symphony unveils an entire universe of its own: in the worlds of pure interiority and sensibility we witness (if you allow me an outworn expression) our proper humanity taking place.

Inspired by the last pieces of Sibelius, I’m coming to think that the highest essence of music lies in its ethical character. In this respect, Sibelius will perhaps always remain misunderstood. Ethical overtones connote attentiveness – the rare gift of listening carefully – and the refusal to take on programmatic content without severe deliberation. Sibelius once remarked that it was the ethical character of Beethoven’s compositions that held highest appeal for him. Would it be too grandiose, then, to identify the greatest Finn ever to have lived with Beethoven precisely because both were highly ethical composers in their musical orientation?

With that question, I’m conjuring up a sense of ethics in the original sense of the word, which is to say that both Beethoven and Sibelius were not so much concerned with extramusical content as with something more fundamental, say, an originary encounter with reality. The Seventhh symphony contains everything that needs to be said. In its formal radicality and stricly organized disorderliness – remember that up to Brahms symphonies virtually always had three or four movements – it merits the same degree of attentiveness and aesthetic contemplation as the last string quartets by Beethoven.

*   *

Notes on Sibelius 2/2

Subjective impressions of the Sibelius symphonies, part II/II
Or value judgments about composers that move me

These notes were written in the aftermath of the complete cycle of Sibelius’s symphonies performed by the Tapiola Sinfonietta and conducted by the charming Leif Segerstam in the Main Auditorium of the University of Helsinki in the fall of 2010. It was in this Auditorium where six of the seven symphonies were originally premiered, so it goes without saying that I was excited about the cycle. My apologies for the slight overlap with the earlier musings from 2008 and for stretching the limits of what one might say without an extensive education in music.


© Yousuf Karsh 1949

The prevailing misunderstandings of Sibelius’s symphonies are rooted in two errors in the reception of his music: on the one end, in the misreading of interiority as nationalistic hegemony, and on other other end, in the misconstrual of the cosmic relation to nature so characteristic of his music as banal programmatic content. Not even Bruckner or Bach furnish the listener with the same transcendent world of sound as Sibelius in the celestial climaxes of his most lucid symphonies. These works are not composed so as to elevate certain melodies above certain rhythmic material but simply as soundscapes wherein the notes bespeak an other-worldly beauty and ethereality.

In Beethoven’s late string quartets, one witnesses a degree of earnestness virtually transcending life and death, yet his music always takes place within the sphere of this life. To be sure, Beethoven looks at death in the eye, starting a wrestle with death and well-nigh vanquishing mortality, yet ultimately his music does not offer glimpses of the afterlife. (Shostakovich poses the question but he was hardly ever concerned with providing an answer.) In contrast, Sibelius’s symphonic music situates itself in an important sense beyond death, in an other, more sacred world, the locks of whose doors are gently picked already by the transcendent fatalism and the triumphant finale of the second symphony. In the Third and the Fourth symphony, the composer focuses his gaze upon his own interiority, creating a most distinctive, neoclassical language of inner sensitivity. The modest minimalism of these two works, however, is still fitted to the classical three-or-four-part structure, while the holy ascetism (if you allow me the phrase) of the Seventh symphony, in particular, results from radicalized form and perfected inner maturity.

After the climax of the Second symphony’s finale, the composer’s music puts on increasing sensitivity (the Third), glances into the abyss of nihilism (the Fourth), sheds light on the laws of the divine reality (the composer himself virtually said as much about the Fifth!), dies and comes to life again. The sacrality of Bach’s music, ineffably beautiful though it is, is in its thematic thinking still rooted in the conventions of the Baroque, and its dramatic force cannot, as I think, be seriously juxtaposed with the likes of Beethoven or Bruckner (and it would be a musical anachronism to try that in the first place)… Yet even the religiosity of Bruckner – often cited as an equal to Bach, as regards the sacredness of their music – is in some ways contrived; his means of expression are, on my view, constrained by the grandiose drama of his musical idiom. By saying this I don’t intend to take any stance on the composer’s religiousness as such!

Sibelius, to the contrary, doesn’t try to be religious, he doesn’t try to be anything at all. His music simply is (as I imagine Sibelius the man to have been, i.e. such as depicted in the famous photo by Yousuf Karsh). In preparation for his Fifth symphony, he allegedly recounted to having intended to compose a symphony about Finnish nature, though no one, as he went on to note, would really understand the work. And so it seems: perhaps the most difficult task facing a listener of Sibelius’s music, indeed, is to comprehend the profoundly personal and the cosmically mystical relation to nature manifested by the music of this great composer – in philosophical language, an ontological relation to reality – emptied of any ”programmatic” content whatsoever.

The Sixth symphony, on second listening, appears to me as the most Beethovenesque of all Sibelius symphonies. I say this because I find the symphony integrating oddly rectangular, downright cubistic forthrightness and Volkmusik-idiom with subtle fatalistic wisdom. As is the case with some of Beethoven’s finest compositions (I’m thinking, in particular, of the string quartet op. 127), so also in this Sibelius symphony the mundane accessibility of melodic thinking and the music’s proximity to Earth serve the higher purpose of coming to terms with the whims of fate.

After all, the Seventh symphony is the all too natural and ultimately the only possible consummation of the symphonic ouevre of this grand master of organic thinking. In this work, the seamless contemplation of the world is condensed into one incessantly flowing movement of inner vigor. I remind the reader that such a formal radicality – virtually breaking down the multi-movement symphonic structure – wasn’t done by Beethoven, nor was it done by Bruckner or Mahler. What most of all impresses me in Sibelius’s Seventh are the very final chords of the work, entirely wanting the religiuos bravado of the Second and the Fifth, now replaced with the living experience of this intriguingly eccentric Finn, a return of sorts, if you like, to the roots.

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© Leif Segerstam by Richard Houghton

The interpretations by the Tapiola Sinfonietta conducted by the charming Leif Segerstam in the Main Auditorium of the University of Helsinki deserve a place, as I’m inclined to think, in the history of musical life in the capital of Finland. Their lucid world of sound and the most deliberate handling of rhythm (with bravely elongated caesuras so characteristic of Sibelius’s music) – combined with the neoclassical beauty of the Auditorium – encompass all the elements of tranquil beauty.

After writing this, I had a chance to read in the leading Finnish newspaper (Helsingin Sanomat) the three reviews by Hannu-Ilari Lampila, Veijo Murtomäki, and Vesa Sirén, of the three concerts (firstly symphonies 1 and 2, secondly 3 and 4, and finally 5, 6 and 7, respectively). What do the First and the Second symphony have to do ”with a feeling and grand heroism of nationalism”?! If whichever composer, say, Bibelius, had in those times composed symphonic music that was good and contained dramatic suspense and triumphant climaxes, of course that music would have been interpreted as a symbol of national integrity!! But what do such interpretations avail today? Do they in any manner advance our understanding of this complex, absolute music?

If not even the leading music journalists of Finland have overcome the stereotype of Sibelius as a nationalist composer, what chances may others have — ?

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Allow me to conclude with a personal Sibelius anecdote of sorts. When in the late winter of 2011 I finally had a chance to pay a visit to Ainola, Sibelius’s home in Järvenpää, Finland now open to the public as a museum, it was neither the beauty of nature nor the nuances of architecture (though both are admirable in themselves) that made the strongest impression on me. I had my liveliest experience, rather, on Sibelius’s grave which is nowhere near to a typical Christian grave, say, with a cross or a gravestone…

What his grave consists in, instead, is a massive block of lime-colored granite sitting solidly on the Ainola grounds, with the composer’s name in capital letters and Aino’s name in smaller handwriting. From dust you have come and to dust you shall return… Those were the words coming to me, as in a quick flash, while wondering what exactly I was doing by the grave. The master of transcendent music was also the master of the transient: amidst all the elevations, his music stems from the Earth and always returns to the Earth.

[notes written in the fall 2010, except for the last little anecdote]