Born in a Land where Yoghurt Rules the Roost

Paul Driver

Early in 1914 Jean Sibelius visited Berlin and went to hear Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet, in which an added soprano sings of ‘air from other planets’ as the music moves towards atonality. ‘It gave me a lot to think about,’ he wrote in the diary that he kept for much of the second half of his life and on which his biographer Erik Tawaststjerna relies heavily. A few days earlier, a Schoenberg song had made a ‘deep impression’ on him and he had found the Op. 9 Chamber Symphony ‘a legitimate and valid way of looking at things ... But it is certainly painful to listen to. A result achieved by excessive cerebration.’ This encounter with Schoenberg occurred just over halfway through Sibelius’s life and in the middle of the original five volume version of this biography.

There was no symmetry, however, in Sibelius’s composing career and by 1926, when he was 61, he had completed his last published work, the tone-poem Tapiola. Much of an eighth symphony – the object of great speculation – was written but Sibelius seems to have burned it. He published nothing for the last thirty years of his life, but survived Schoenberg, nine years his junior, and even entered the era of Boulez and Le Marteau sans maître.

If it is hard not to see Sibelius’s long silence as a reaction to atonality and serialism – he was neither a Stravinskyan chameleon nor a Rachmaninovian old fogey – it can also be thought of as an endorsement of the ‘solutions’ found in his work to 20th-century musical problems. His seven symphonies (all but one written in this century) could be described as the most original and integrated cycle since Bruckner’s nine or even Beethoven’s. Without abandoning tonality – though the Fourth Symphony, completed near the time of his exposure to Schoenberg, comes near to it – Sibelius consistently finds new ways of creating harmonic drama and establishing formal continuity, with the result that the symphonic form after Wagner retains its earlier interest and value, although radically changed in structure and material. Sibelius’s renewal of tradition, like Bruckner’s, is a matter of musical logic. He does not, like Mahler, rely on an essentially literary notion of narrative (the epic Kullervo symphony he regarded as juvenilia), still less on a co-opting of ballet in the manner of Stravinsky’s symphonies. Like Carl Nielsen, but on a grander scale, Sibelius shows that certain effects can be achieved only by tonal argument.

His long silence would seem to imply that there are limits to this. Today, compositional attitudes are so multifarious that it is hard to speak of a ‘musical language’ or a ‘way forward’; and if the latter is not simply a continuation of pluralism – vagary itself – it is as likely to follow a tonal path as an atonal or quasi-serial one. (Strict serialism of the early Boulezian kind has had its day.) But when Sibelius completed his single movement Seventh Symphony in 1924, an age of musical certainty and fierce ideology was dawning. The previous year, Schoenberg’s Five Piano Pieces Op. 23 and Serenade Op. 24 had introduced the world to the 12-tone row, which was intended to serve as a musical language far into the future. It is an intriguing historical conjunction: between one of music’s most influential examples of an artificial system and one of its greatest instances of organic coherence.

Sibelius’s symphonies had elided the four movements of the classical symphony in various ways. His Fifth Symphony thrillingly compresses two movements into the space of one by moving the first faster and faster until it becomes a scherzo. In the Seventh this principle is taken to a logical and deeply satisfying extreme. Though still recognisable, the movement categories interpenetrate in a way that makes for maximum compression and surprise. The work is small but dense and radiant: the ultimate destination of a symphonic journey that began with Haydn. And then along comes Schoenberg – who, in the pre-atonal Chamber Symphony that Sibelius had reluctantly approved, had himself fused symphonic movements into a single span – to reduce such a heroic peak of unity to the level ground of ‘Composing with 12 Tones Which are Related Only with One Another’.

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