25.4.2015 Feed

”Sibelius 150” – Introduction at the IAMA conference in Helsinki. Finlandia Hall on the 25th of April 2015

Photo: Maarit Kytöharju


Photo: Maarit Kytöharju

As you may have already noticed, you have caught us Finns in the middle of a nightmare, a nightmare called ”Sibelius 150”.

All, our nation can think about right now is the Sibelius anniversary. We are frantically, one could say almost hysterically, concentrating on finding the best way how to celebrate this milestone in our musical history.The Finnish Broadcasting Company and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra are about to finish their own contribution. Therefore it is my pleasure this morning to present some extracts from a series of seven programmes we are currently making around the Sibelius symphonies.

But perhaps we should first take a closer look at the special position which, Jean Sibelius occupies in Finnish history. His great importance as one of the first artists who gave a voice to the secret hopes of a nation, striving for independence from Russian rule, is of course well known. Many works of his early period became symbols of this struggle, some intentionally, others accidentally.

In the 1890s , Finland had virtually no musical life of its own, compared with Europe as a whole. The national significance of Sibelius reminds the symbolic status of Giuseppe Verdi during the unification of Italy, except that Sibelius was not backed by a strong cultural heritage stretching back hundreds and even thousands of years.

There was no such thing as ”Finnish art”. Understandably, the spiritual awakening that took place here at the end of the 19th century relied mainly on folk tradition. Despite of that, or maybe because of that, Sibelius and his friends were the first to create really contemporary Finnish art.

It is also important to realise that Sibelius was the first Finn  ever to gain a reputation abroad. This partly explains his iconic position in Finnish history. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, he was the most famous Finn. As indeed, he may still be today. His image grew to epic proportions after the mid-20s when he stopped composing and partly against his own will became a national institution, whose job was to receive important foreign visitors and attend gala concerts organized for his honor. Three Finnish Presidents came to his 70th birthday concert in 1935.

Otherwise there was little sign of Sibelius himself, but his presence, called by some ”the shadow of Sibelius” was clearly felt. The Second World War reinforced, his status as a national symbol and as part of our collective  heritage. Finally, the young and anything-but-confident nation seemed to think Sibelius was an anomaly and became dangerously fixated by it for a long time, as if no Finn could ever achieve anything like that anymore.

He is still a national symbol. We Finnish musicians are often asked, how we first became interested in his music. It is virtually impossible for us to answer that question; we gradually get accustomed to it because it is all around us. We hear his Christmas songs while we are still children, and works like Finlandia occupy a prominent role on many annual occasions. A portrait of Sibelius hangs on the wall of every Finnish school, so that we recognise his suffering face before we even know his name or what he did. For such reasons, we still have not altogether tried to examine objectively every detail of his life and career. Despite the masterly biography by Erik Tawaststjerna, we still have some gaps in our knowledge. Basically all we have for Sibelius this year, are a few coffee-table books.

At the same time, Sibelius is surrounded by a host of stereotypes that we really should get rid of. When we were discussing the best way to celebrate this year’s anniversary, we decided to examine Sibelius, first within the context of his own era. How did he become the composer he was, and how did he stand in relation to the world and music around him. One thing that has troubled me for a long time is our inability to place many composers of past generations in the cultural context in which they wrote their music. This should be important to both, performers and listeners.We decided to address the issue by trying to tie Sibelius, the man and his music, to the astonishingly short period of time during which he wrote his greatest works.

Even in Finland, many people have only a vague idea when exactly his symphonies were written, not to speak of their cultural-historical context. We have also tried to correct the international belief that Sibelius was ”a man of the wilds” who spent his time roaming the vast forests of Karelia. Most often, the countryside was a place where he could work in peace, it wasn´t necessarily a starting point for composing. The sixteen swans of the fifth symphony are  a rare exception.  And he did´t have to travel far for them: they flew over his house. He had a profoundly spiritual attitude to nature: he did not actually describe it. He concentrated on the links between our inner world and nature. Man, artist and nature are one and the same thing.

By contrast, we also felt that it was necessary to draw attention to the dualism that tossed Sibelius from his native Finland to the hectic atmosphere of the European cities and back. In this sense he was a typical artist of the modern era. The urban world was one of the major sources of inspiration for him. It was also a place where he could escape the small cultural circles of Finland.

When I began studying conducting at the Sibelius Academy, the music of Sibelius along with the Viennese classics and contemporary music, became a tool for learning a profession. His scores proved to be valuable and useful; we discovered something new at every reading and performance.

This thrill of discovery continues to this very day. The Sibelius symphonies are diamonds, forever revealing new, unexpected aspects as they are viewed in different light and from different angles. It is my belief that these aspects have affected the way how I read the score and balance my orchestra. There is no end to their technical and musical challenges, and they serve as a painful reminder that a conductor can never say he knows it all.

According to Theodor Adorno, the Sibelius themes are trivial and useless. Rather like a baby that falls off a table and injures its back, they cannot walk properly, he claims. His originality, says Adorno, is in the category of those amateurs who are afraid to take composition lessons. Sibelius did not even know – and I am still quoting Adorno – how to write a chorale, or even decent counterpoint, which is why he had to bury himself in a land of thousand lakes in order to avoid his teachers’ critic. His success is a symptom of a cognitive musical disturbance and it questions the standard of musical quality that existed from Bach to Schönberg. Sibelius was an outdated composer working with old fashioned  – by which Adorno meant tonal – material.

It is worth reminding ourselves of these somewhat comic writings by Adorno because he was, in his own way, also perceptive; to some extent he manages to crystallise certain typically Sibelian features, even though his musicianship did not allow him to draw deep and far-reaching conclusions. Nowadays any conservatory student knows enough to reject Adorno’s comments about Sibelius’s themes and their development. Yet he is right in the sense that Sibelius really did question the standards, that prevailed from Bach to Schönberg. Adorno just makes the mistake of taking that tradition as the only hallmark of quality.

Adorno may have actually, quite by chance, hit the nail on the head: one reason for Sibelius’s unusual mode of composition and his distinctive texture may be his sketchy musical training, his morbid insistence on his own originality and his geographical isolation.  Despite all his problems, Sibelius had an exceptional awareness of what he was doing. Developing the necessary tools just required time and patience. Opinions on Sibelius were divided throughout the latter half of the 20th century: to some, he was a marginal dabbler, to others a modernist who could see clearly into the future. As we well know, these contrasting opinions also have a geographical distribution. I often find myself using the term “modernism” as my most cogent argument when someone questions the claim that, Sibelius is a major 20th-century composer. He certainly felt himself that he was renewing the symphonic tradition.

Maybe it’s the term “symphony”, a bit bold for the times, that gives some people a headache.Sibelius’s problem was that he was writing symphonies at a time when the symphony, as a form of composition, was going out of fashion. In the 1890s, Claude Debussy had already pronounced the symphony dead, and the second Viennese school was trying to abandon tonality and the traditional forms. Stravinsky and Bartók were modernising the use of folk music as material for classical compositions. In this new climate, a symphony had to be a deliberate choice. It was a choice that was also made by Nielsen, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and some others.

This was probably one of the reasons that led to the famous “silence of Ainola” (Ainola, as I’m sure you know, being the name of Sibelius’s home for many years). Sibelius must have experienced an almost cosmic loneliness in a world where the symphony was no longer a cornerstone of western music.The initial reactions to his fourth symphony in 1911 prove that it was felt to represent even an extreme form of modernism. Paradoxically, this view has subsequently been completely reversed.

Later Sibelius was not considered sufficiently modern in comparison with the new music of the first three decades of the 20th century. The view of Sibelius as a provincial, homespun composer and the Mahlerian view of him as a conservative national genius has remained firmly in some people’s minds.

The fundamental problem here is that “modern”, is such a vague term. It remained for the German musicologist Carl Dahlhaus to make a profound analysis of the problem. He pointed out that music historians who grouped together such diverse composers as, Strauss, Scriabin, Mahler, Debussy and Schönberg under the heading of “modernism” misinterpreted the evident aspects of the era. Not until modernism is understood via two basic concepts, ”modern music” and ”new music”, can we draw a line between those composers who subscribed to the new atonality, and dodecaphony and those who ultimately stuck to tonal modernism.

After the expressionistic and aphoristic fourth symphony, Sibelius decided to mould the outward features of his modernism to make them more introspective. In other words, to re-evaluate the underlying structures of the symphony. It was precisely to the fifth symphony that Morton Feldman was referring in 1984 when he said: “The people you think are radicals might really be conservatives and the people you think are conservatives might really be radical.”

Gradually in his own way, especially in the seventh symphony, Sibelius said goodbye to the traditional concept of symphonic form, traditional tonal architecture and the traditional concept of theme. The significance of this passed unnoticed for a long time. People simply could not grasp the idea that something radically new could be achieved within the confines of tonality. I´m sure Sibelius realized this and it bothered him but there was something else that was more valuable for him: he thought that the most important thing for a composer was not to renew music but to renew himself as a composer, again and again.

Each of his symphonies implement a specific symphonic and stylistic aspect, each in its own way. What mattered most to him was that the symphony should reflect as closely as possible the ongoing stage of the composer’s artistic life and state of mind. The research has possibly overemphasised the fusion form as the goal and end point of Sibelius’s symphonic journey.

The most essential thing should be the symphony’s aesthetic value as a unique work of art, not directly bound to the progressiveness or conservativeness of its forms or it´s musical language. Casting a symphony in a single movement is of course not the only way to achieve symphonic unity. Since we know now that the seventh symphony, symphony in one movement, remained his last symphony, we are easily tempted to regard it as a sort of symphonic testament and the end point of his symphonic development. It was not consciously meant to be that, for he went on to compose the eighth, the symphony he later burned. He was probably about to find new ways to express his tonal modernism.

In Finland, this anniversary year will hopefully prove to be something of a turning point. Our concept of Sibelius will, I hope, become more profound, and we will begin to adopt a more objective attitude to his music, stripped of its nationalist aura and all the futile myths. Internationally Sibelius is too often classified as “only” a national composer. In the light of his life and artistic personality, nothing could be further from the truth. It is also important for his music to become more natural part of the basic repertoire, even in countries where it is felt to be aesthetically problematic and marginal. Once the anniversary celebrations have died down here in Finland, we will begin preparing for the next programming nightmare: the centenary of Finnish independence in 2017. Maybe then we will be able to tell you what happened in Finnish music in the decades after Sibelius. And once we have got past 2017, we will, I hope, at last be able to look to the future with an open mind.