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Ah, Wilderness Sibelius by Andrew Barnett

Winter 2009 - Vol. 51, No. 1

R.J. STOVE lives in Melbourne, Australia and is the author of A Student's Guide to Music History (ISI Books).

Music-lovers today have certain consolationsnot available three decadesago, even if we do have to share theplanet with Britney Spears and 50 Cent.For one thing, we need no longer feel remotelyapologetic about defending fourlate-Romantic giants: Sibelius, Elgar, Puccini,and Rachmaninoff. All four, and Sibeliusin particular, have inspired duringrecent years quantities of serious researchthat even in the early 1970s would havebeen unimaginable. Given this newfoundcritical respect, the abrupt dismissals thatSibelius once inspired from fashion-conscious(and less fashion-conscious but stillsqueamish) pundits in America, above all,make in retrospect for a surreal experience.Paul Henry Lang, the Hungarian-bornColumbia University professor, made preciselyone reference to Sibelius (and thatdecidedly hostile) in the 1,107 pages of hisalmost unbelievably erudite 1941 surveyMusic in Western Civilization. A year earlier,and inhabiting a far lower intellectual levelthan Lang occupied, Virgil Thomson—the New York Herald Tribune journalist andapparatchik—found himself provoked bySibelius's Second Symphony into argumentumad verecundiam mode:

Twenty years' residence on the Europeancontinent has largely spared meSibelius . . . vulgar, self-indulgent,and provincial beyond all description. I realize that there are sincereSibelius-lovers in the world, thoughI must say I've never met one amongeducated professional musicians.

Equally, we should not overlook thesustained, frequently frenzied, wrath towhich Sibelius moved progressive spiritsin Central Europe: notably Schoenbergdisciples René Leibowitz (author of a twopageessay entitled Sibelius: Le Plus MauvaisCompositeur du Monde) and T. W. Adorno(who, when not engaged in the higherreaches of anti-family junk-science, fanciedhimself as a musicologist and composer).In his characteristically shrill and uncouthidiolect, Adorno denounced Sibelius asrepresenting "Aunt Jemima's ready-mix forpancakes extended to the field of music."Not only did Adorno regard as a personalaffront Sibelius's absence of interest inSchoenbergian methods, but he sufferedfrom the widespread and simple-mindedbelief that any preoccupation—like Sibelius'own—with wilderness and with folklegendsconstitutes unassailable evidenceof Nazi affinities.

Today it is hard to credit such pamphleteeringas Adorno's, Leibowitz's, andThomson's with any significance exceptthe historical and the psychiatric, so inextricableis it from Marxist-modernistworldviews that are themselves museumpieces.Meanwhile, quietly, gradually, anddiligently, genuine scholars have beenenlarging our comprehension of Sibelius'musical mind. The late Finnish criticErik Tawaststjerna made his life's workthe production of a three-volume Sibeliusbiography; British critic Robert Laytonnot only translated Tawaststjerna's magnumopus into English, but provided—andrepeatedly revised—his own, indispensable,single-volume guide to Sibelius's lifeand art. Now comes Andrew Barnett'sbook, which occupies the philological endof the analytic spectrum. Barnett, benefiting from the Sibelius-related discoveriesannounced by cataloguer FabianDahlström as recently as 2003, does whatLayton never set out to do: he discusseseverything Sibelius wrote, concentrating inparticular on the copious juvenilia (muchof it for chamber ensembles) that Sibeliushimself suppressed. Because, to putit politely, not all of Sibelius's publishedjuvenilia bears the stamp of greatness, thetemptation is to disparage the unpublishedmaterial as justly neglected. Unfortunatelyfor this neat conclusion, Sibelius demonstratedseveral times his own lack of judgmentin deciding what music he should letout of his study and what he should not.After all, he permitted one of his finestearly pieces, the choral symphony Kullervo,to be performed exactly once before hewithdrew it. Only in 1958, a year after hisdeath, was Kullervo ever heard again. Afterthat, its innate excellence—and its rightto a place alongside his seven canonicalsymphonies—remained unquestionable.

At times Barnett's commentary suggestsa slightly desperate roll-call of trivia hewould rather ignore: "It is hard to summonup much enthusiasm for the Suite in AMajor"; "The Prelude for brass septet . . .is perhaps best seen as an experiment"; "apallid Mélodie for piano [with] . . . a ratherhalf-hearted fanfare-like idea"; "an attractiveenough but by no means a distinctivework"; and so forth. More often than not,though, Barnett is both enthusiastic aboutthe forgotten efforts he has uncovered andthe cause of enthusiasm about them in hisreaders. He mentions a Piano Trio, from itscreator's twenty-second year (1887), whichsounds enticing enough for comprehensiverevival. Since the Swedish record companyBIS is steadily working its way towards acomplete Sibelius edition, we shall dulybe able to test Barnett's reportage forourselves. Until then, the musical examplesin Barnett's appendix cannot fail to beuseful.

Much of Sibelius's method can besummed up in a solitary anecdote. Duringhis old age, his numerous visitors includedBritish recording producer WalterLegge, who asked whether Sibelius'sSixth Symphony—that post-apocalypticpastoral—had been influenced by Monteverdiand Palestrina. There immediatelyfell an embarrassed silence, in which thecomposer's eyes "froze harder than ever,"and he stalked out to the garden. Leggeapologized for having made so indiscreetan enquiry, whereupon the followingdialogue ensued:

LEGGE: Forgive me—I promise not
to ask such a question again.
SIBELIUS: If you want to pee, do it
here; it's better than inside sanitation
in this part of Finland.

This response epitomizes Sibelius'sdisposition: the terseness, the downrightness,the indifference to surface polish,the gnomic unpredictability. One featureof his idiom which continues to perturb,despite the half-century that has elapsedsince his passing, is his disdain for conventionalconclusions. Most of his masterpiecesdo not end so much as stop. Still,such is his gift for timing that they neversound unfinished. Nor would we havethem cease in any other manner: a Sibeliuswithout brusquerie would not be Sibeliusat all.

In recounting the broad outlines ofSibelius's career, Barnett has no astonishingrevelations. Sibelius's financial ineptitudehas long been known: he sold for apittance the rights to his greatest popularhit, Valse Triste (much as Rachmaninoffsold for a pittance the rights to his greatestpopular hit, the Prelude in C Sharp Minor).Barnett quotes a poignant letter fromthe composer's wife, attempting in herhusband's absence to fight off creditors:"We have here a whole collection of billsand demands and my head is simply spinning. . . I think about you all the timeand I don't have the will to stop myselfcrying." Likewise openly admitted hasbeen Sibelius's drinking problem, a conditionquite beyond the normal alcoholicintake that Nature allots to Finns. (Afterone binge at Gothenburg, Sweden, in1923, he managed to stagger up to theconductor's rostrum on time; but in hissoused state, he mistook the concert for arehearsal, and therefore brought the performanceto a halt). Yet whatever connectionSibelius's boozing had with his ultimateinactivity must be conjectural. That inactivityitself, although famous, was hardlyuninterrupted. While Sibelius publishedprecious little new music in his last thirtyyears—years which Barnett deals with in amere twenty-seven pages—he revised hisolder music till a few weeks before the end;and for long he hoped against hope thathis artistic conscience would allow him torelease his long-awaited Eighth Symphony.Sadly, it never did. "How tremendouslytragic," he confided to his diary when amere fifty-nine, "is the fate of an agingcomposer. The work doesn't flow as fastas before." Self-criticism, almost alwaysexcessive in his case, eventually metastasizedinto outright creative paralysis; andhe burned the symphony's entire manuscriptduring World War II. Did he subsequentlyregret doing this? Possibly, sincehis diaries indicate something of a bipolartemperament from his youth onward. Onconsecutive days in August 1896 he wrote"my life often feels empty" and "Life feelsso rich again." At any rate, the deed wasdone, and we are forced to guess at whatmusical treasures the flames consumed.

Along with Sibelius's profound doubtsin major matters went a certain harmlessvanity in minor matters, this vanityderiving in part from his small size.Camera-shy on the whole, he neverthelesssomewhat enjoyed giving in photographs—like another vertically challengedtwentieth-century artist-patriot, YukioMishima—the impression of awesomephysical bulk. He found "Jean," theFrenchified version of his Christian name,more congenial than the "Janne" withwhich he had been baptized. Periodicallyhe had delusions of aristocratic lineage,and on occasion he could resemble EvelynWaugh: "Flirting with the workers,"he noted in the 1890s, "[is] worse thancurrying favor with the upper class. Onehas to crush so much of one's own personality."Amid the Bolshevik-engenderedFinnish civil strife of 1918, he endured suchmalnourishment that he lost twenty kilogramsover two months. Russian governmentsconsidered him blatantly subversive:Finlandia, the most renowned of his earliercompositions, had the rare distinction ofbeing banned twice, first by Czar NicholasII's regime, and again (in 1939–1940) byStalin's. With Sibelius's eightieth birthdayin 1945, his pre-eminence among Finnslay beyond dispute, and was acknowledgedby Finnish presidents and prime ministers,who made pilgrimages to his home, whoproffered wreaths at his funeral, and whonow and then permitted his portrait toappear in his lifetime upon postage stamps.But no amount of adulation could removehis tendencies to black despair.

If there are sadder, bleaker utterancesin orchestral music than Sibelius's quintessentialexpressions of melancholy—TheSwan of Tuonela, the Fourth and SixthSymphonies, the Violin Concerto'sopening movement—they cannot readilybe identified. (Tuonela is, in Finnish folklore,hell: leave it to Scandinavians toenvisage hell as freezing.) Joy, when it doesoccur in Sibelius's output—as in the FifthSymphony's finale—seems inseparablefrom laborious heroism. It never belongsto the realm of what Gustav Holst called"domestic emotions." Sibelius himselfdescribed his style as "pure cold water";and with the passing of years it becamecolder and colder, less and less conventionallyhumane. His last tone poem, Tapiola(Tapio being Finnish mythology's forestgod), is a seventeen-minute hymn to themost desolate pantheism. For its literaryequivalent, one must go to Robert Frost'sfebrile eschatological rumination, "Fireand Ice," (dating from 1920, only six yearsprior to Sibelius's score), which observesthat "for destruction" the power of ice is asgreat as fire "and would suffice."