Tuesday, February 27, 2018

After 100 Years Jean Sibelius Triumphs

After 100 Years Jean Sibelius Triumphs

This blog is about the human experience of time. A major part of our experience is when and where we are born, i.e., the era and the environment into which we are born is part of our destiny. This blog is about two people and the era in which they found themselves, me and the composer Jean Sibelius.

Snow in Connecticut and an old gigantic console radio.
Snow in Connecticut and an old gigantic console radio.


In February at the age of thirteen, I was alone in our house in the mountains of northern Connecticut. Out the window, thick snow stretched as far as I could see. That afternoon in 1958 I turned on our huge old tube radio with a two-foot wide speaker and did my best to tune in a New York radio station that played live classical music on Sunday. To my delight the reception was perfect. For the first time, I heard the Symphony #1 of Sibelius. I already had a love of classical music and knew a few works quite well such as Schubert's Unfinished Symphony and Beethoven's Fifth.  

The effect this composition had on me has lasted a lifetime. His music turned the bleak white roads with snow banks into magical landscapes of hunters with their horns calling across the hills. Or something like that. In any case, he spoke to me.

Then I was sent to an even more remote and colder location, the prep-school of Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter New Hampshire. There I began to collect what were called LP or long-play records of the Sibelius symphonies. Over the next four years, I bought all seven symphonies along with his violin concerto and tone poems. In the cold, remote and oppressive atmosphere of this school, the music of Sibelius helped me survive. But not once did I find a music lover who thought his music was any good. In fact, my piano teacher hated Sibelius and was sure there was something wrong with me if I liked him.

A portable record player and an LP (long play) record   with the new technology of microgrooves.
A portable record player and an LP (long play) record 
with the new technology of microgrooves. 

People who hated his music often deferred to critics such as Virgil Thomson who wrote this about Sibelius's most popular Symphony #2, "I found it vulgar, self-indulgent, and provincial beyond all description. I realize that there are sincere Sibelius lovers in the world, though I must say I've never met one among educated professional musicians." 

For some reason, none of these negative opinions had any effect on me. I continued to listen to the work of Sibelius and to make it a cornerstone of my musical appreciation. 

Later I realized that the time period into which I was born had allowed me to hear music in a new way. The recording technology was important because I could now hear an entire symphony on one LP record instead of 20 sides in a 78 album which had been the technology just a few years earlier. And this made all the difference, It meant I could listen to a symphony over and over, study it and learn it -- which gave me an understanding that was not possible before.


But this blog post is about two people me and Sibelius. 

Sibelius was born in Hameenlinna, Finland in 1865 when Finland was part of Russia known as the Grand Duchy of Finland. The Czar of Russia was the head of state. It turned out to be the perfect time for this composer, as his work would reach to the deepest part of the Finnish spirit and play a major role in Finland's future. There are few artists who were given the opportunity to do what Sibelius did: to create orchestral patriotic music that would help the independence movement, to create music that an entire nation would sing, and to create music in the classical tradition that would eventually be considered one of the pillars of the tradition of classical music.

Early on Sibelius wrote tone poems and works based on Finnish folklore. These were widely acclaimed in Finland. Then in 1899, Sibelius wrote a tone poem for the Press Celebrations which was a disguised protest against new controls and censorship that were being imposed by the Russians. The piece was later known as Finlandia but went by a number of names such as A Scandinavian Choral March, Happy Feelings At The Awakening Of Finnish Spring, and Finland Awakes to hide its true purpose from the Russians. Designed to be a popular piece it succeeded in becoming a rallying cry for much of what was to happen in the next tumultuous 20 years.

He followed this work with his First Symphony which seemed to reach even further into the Finnish soul. In 1900 the Finnish government gave Sibelius a small annual stipend. They recognized that he understood the Finnish spirit and he did not disappoint. 

In 1902 his Second Symphony was performed and it went to the heart of the nation. One Finnish composer said, "There is something about this music — at least for us — that leads us to ecstasy; almost like a shaman with his magic drum." And yes, this is the symphony that Virgil Thompson said was terrible.

Jean Sibelius: Left to Right: 1904, 1913, 1928, 1940
Jean Sibelius: Left to Right: 1904, 1913, 1928, 1940

Sibelius would follow this symphony with five others -- each one unique in classical music and quite different from the others. He lived at a time when the symphony was changing so he was free to innovate and try out new ideas. Yet all seven symphonies can be taken as one gigantic work. They are now considered one of the world's great symphonic cycles. 

Much of what he did was technically innovative and added to the language of classical music. He is best known for rethinking and reshaping sonata form which the symphony and many other classical works are based on. Sonata form has been a principal part of classical music for hundreds of years. Generally, it is structured in this manner: exposition (the central theme), development (the theme broken up and reworked), and recapitulation (a restatement of the theme). This structure is also known as ABA. Sibelius turned sonata form upside down or inside out. To oversimplify, he starts with a development, moves onto an exposition where he puts the development together into a theme and then ends with a development in which the main theme is broken apart again. So at the beginning of a movement, he introduces a number of musical 'pieces' and then as the movement progresses he puts these pieces together in unexpected ways and often into magnificent themes that seem to come out of nowhere before they dissolve again at the end. For a long time, no one really understood how he did this and many critics simply did not 'get it'. 

In 1938 the critic Theodor W. Adorno wrote, "Sibelius’s scores are a ‘configuration of the banal and the absurd;’ all details sound ‘commonplace and familiar,’ but their arrangement is meaningless, ‘as if the words gas station, lunch, death, Greta, plough blade had been arbitrarily put together with verbs and particles...."

To 'hear' what Sibelius has to say, a listener must suspend their disbelief and let the inner logic of his work unfold. The 'pieces' that fill his work might be thought of as voices half-heard or as phrases from an old forgotten song. But eventually, they come together, combine in remarkable ways, and are filled with emotion. Today this aspect of Sibelius is greatly admired. 

Many musicians felt that sonata form had played itself out, so to speak, and were looking for other means of musical expression. Sibelius breathed new life into this form which allowed the classical tradition to continue to develop and work with the form's wonderful musicality.

Yet Sibelius never forgot that a sense of song was at the heart of music and so he created haunting melodies that seem both ancient and modern at the same time. And he had a very simple approach saying, "Whereas most other modern composers are engaged in manufacturing cocktails of every hue and description, I offer the public cold spring water."

While Sibelius wanted Finland to be independent and hoped to help it on its way, he could not have foreseen the break away from Russia after the Russian Revolution followed by a terrible Finnish civil war between the Reds and the Whites, as in Russia. Only, in this case, the Whites won. Also, Finland would again have to face Russia in 1940 when Stalin attacked in an attempt to make Finland part of Russia as it had been under the Czar. While Finland lost a significant part of its territory, it stayed independent.


After he turned sixty he reworked what was known as the hymn section of his tone poem Finlandia, into a stand-alone hymn. During the war with Stalin, this hymn was well known and probably sung by every Finn. Many people think that he just took a folk song and reworked it, but, in fact, he wrote it entirely on his own, showing that even in a simple short work he had a deep reach. The Finlandia hymn is the unofficial anthem of the country. It is also known worldwide and different words have been used with it across the globe. See the two videos here: one is of a flash mob singing it in a train station and the other is of a video of thousands of people (not an exaggeration) singing it at a celebration of Sibelius's birthday.

Thousands of Finns singing his hymn on his 150th birthday.

A flash mob in support of a political party in Finland.

Because of the nationalistic side of Sibelius, many European critics tried to write him off as simply a patriotic composer who was not important to the tradition of Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms. Yet now, finally after more that one hundred years, he is recognized for being a great late-romantic composer with his first two symphonies and a most important early modern composer with his last five symphonies.

Julian Anderson, a contemporary and well-respected composer said, ‘The influence of Sibelius on contemporary music is now so substantial and lasting that one can speak of him as a key figure in the shaping of current musical thought.’ Sorry, Virgil Thompson, today many well educated professional people in music love his work.

An orchestra performing the Sibelius Violin Concerto,
An orchestra performing the Sibelius Violin Concerto,
one of the ten most performed works of classical music today.

So now, more than 100 years after the premiere of his most popular 2nd Symphony, how goes his legacy? Since the year 2000, there have been about 150 recordings of just that symphony alone which is unheard of in classical music. And do people still argue about him? Well, in a sense, yes. I looked at a classical music forum that caters to professional musicians. They were arguing but the discussion was about which of the seven symphonies was their favorite and in what order. Dozens of people knew and loved all the symphonies and each list was quite different -- showing how diverse Sibelius's work is.

Sibelius lived his life in a manner that Bernard Shaw would agree with: "The man who writes about himself and his own time is the only man who writes about all people and all time." By staying true to himself, true to his period in time and true to his Finnish heritage, he was able to make a universal statement.

Unfortunately, Sibelius never lived to see the almost complete acceptance and praise of his work today, but he did know that he had touched the soul of his countrymen. He famously brushed off the various critics who disliked his work. He said, “Pay no attention to what critics say. No statue has ever been put up to a critic."

So in a sense, Sibelius lived in just the right time to say what he had to say and to innovate but in some ways, he lived at the wrong time for being appreciated as the genius he truly was. 

And I lived at the right time, to hear his music on LP records, to stick to my opinion and then later to have the music world come around to my point of view.

Photograph of the Finnish sculptor Eila Hiltunen creating the relief   of Jean Sibelius for the monument in Helsinki.
"Photograph of the Finnish sculptor Eila Hiltunen creating the relief
 of Jean Sibelius for the monument in Helsinki."