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.

*   *

© 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 — ?

*   *

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]

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