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’.

How could Sibelius’s approach not seem a dead-end by the side of serialism? Yet in its standing firm against vogues and panaceas, musical cocktails of all kinds, his work is proving rather more important than Schoenberg’s to composers at the century’s end. It is impossible to think of Sibelius’s music as in any way factitious, despite Simon Parmet’s claim that he used Golden Section proportions, just as Bartók and Debussy are supposed to have done. A certain amount of number-working is inherent to composition. What Sibelius demonstrates is that it was possible to write significant music in this century without the use of props: he is not 12-tone, impressionist, futurist, primitivist, neo-classical, folkloristic or even fundamentally nationalist.

His Beethoven-like devotion to getting his music right is thoroughly documented in the present volume’s second chapter, an account of the genesis of the Fifth Symphony. This highly popular piece with its ‘Thor’s hammer blow’ finale is often seen as a retreat from the dissonance of its predecessor, but in it he developed the technique of structural accelerando to compact four movements into three and thus prepared the way for the Seventh Symphony. The Fifth was, though, achieved at high cost Isolated by world war, Sibelius fought battles with himself: there were three complete versions of the symphony between 1914 and 1919, each publicly premiered. Tawaststjerna traces this evolution using a sketchbook of Sibelius’s that gives the visual impression of ‘struggle and demonic possession reminiscent of Beethoven’. This close analysis, replete with music examples, is, however, an exception in the present version of Tawaststjerna’s book. Aping Sibelius’s own habits of compression, Robert Layton has run the last two Swedish Finnish volumes into one, truncating or omitting the musicological I chapters that counterpoint the biographical narrative throughout and unbalancing his own English version, which retains them in Volumes I (a combination of the original first two volumes) and II (the original third volume).

His rather absurd reason is that we can examine the scores of the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies or Tapiola for ourselves. But these musicological chapters are the biography’s distinctive feature, and without them this volume often reads prosaically. Sibelius nearly always went to his diary for the purpose of whingeing – it is a locus classicus of Scandinavian gloom; while to see the mundane comments of so many newspaper critics preserved here for posterity is disconcerting. When musicology slips back in at the end with an examination of Sibelius’s marvellous score for a 1926 production of The Tempest, it is embarrassingly out of place.

Tawaststjerna’s caution, his desire to stick to the facts rather than to risk biographical conjecture, makes for a tame account of the mystery of the fate of the Eighth Symphony, and he scamps the ‘silence of Järvenpää’. The composer’s decades of apparent idleness and ever increasing world celebrity in his woodland home near Helsinki get a mere 14 pages. That is all the more disappointing and odd given that there exists a vivid ‘personal portrait’ of the composer by his secretary, Santeri Levas. Levas is mentioned only once in this volume (just five times in the whole biography), but Sibelius lives in Levas’s pages as rarely in Tawaststjerna’s. There, he is not the diary-grumbler but a character interested in the world and full of engaging remarks. We see him carrying about a matchbox filled with moss; lying on his stomach under a bush to inhale the earth; able to tell when a work of his was on the airwaves and turning the radio on to prove it; and so responsive to colour that ‘a particular blue banknote always put him out of sorts.’ His absolute pitch was such that he could complain about a workman on the veranda constantly ‘hitting a G that is about a quarter-tone out of tune’. He was so famous that a letter sent from America, addressed to ‘Jean Sibelius, Europe’, arrived without delay. He was regularly inundated with cigars.

But underneath the charm and geniality captured by Levas, Sibelius was never immune to creative and personal anxiety; he was depressive, easily piqued, alcoholic, guilt-ridden and rarely free from money problems. The biographical chestnut that he received a state pension early and was able to devote himself to composition is misleading. The money was never enough. Until the end of his career he had to put out a vast stream of salon trivia to keep afloat. In August 1922 he laments to his diary: ‘If only I could win some freedom without having to do these appalling – as Gallén [his painter-friend] calls them – bread-canvases.’ A month later: ‘If only I could see a way out But I am up to my ears in debt and, when I’m forced to compose, ideas simply don’t come.’

There is much of this sort of thing, but his more scorching anxieties are over his work. ‘I thought I would not live long enough to get down on paper what I had in my head, and that symphonies V, VI & VII would never be finished. O what terrible times we are going through!’ That admittedly was a response to a search of his house by Red Guards during the civil war of 1918; and the book is good on the turbulence that Finland endured on the road to becoming a republic. Although he lived to be 91, Sibelius was constantly afraid that time would run out The throat cancer that had threatened him in his early forties, informing the tautly spiritual mood of the Fourth Symphony and the Voces intimae string quartet cast a long shadow. He was only too ready with remarks such as ‘the only consolation is that life won’t last long’ – this comes from a letter to his soulmate Axel Carpelan, who really was dying.

Working on the Sixth Symphony in September 1922 Sibelius ‘felt life’s richness and my art’s greatness’. But a bad review could fell him instantly. Tawaststjerna’s decision to include reviews in his book is justified in as much as Sibelius certainly let their remarks affect him. He seems to have been as much addicted to newsprint as to cigars. When Carpelan advised him to bury himself in the wilds ‘without newspapers and emotions’, the author responds: ‘Sibelius without newspapers? The very idea is unthinkable.’ Just occasionally the quoted press comments come up trumps. Reviewing a 1916 Toscanini performance of the early tone-poem En Saga in Rome, La Tribuna noted that ‘two of its themes sounded more Spanish than Finnish’; indeed, a Spanish twist is an unlikely but integral feature of many of Sibelius’s tunes. Henry T. Parker’s Boston Evening Transcript review of the Fifth Symphony’s 1922 première in that city is worth attention for its handsome flush of Sibelius enthusiasm, presaging, as Tawaststjerna points out that of Cecil Gray, Gerald Abraham and Constant Lambert in Britain; though the composer’s pleasure in it was destroyed when he misunderstood a word and concluded that people had been spreading gossip about him.

The book’s accumulation of fact is impressive in a dour sort of way, heavily weighted – thanks to the copiousness of the diaries during this period – on the side of introspection. In late 1914, labouring simultaneously at what would become the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, Sibelius wrote in his diary: ‘The young are on the way up. My natural enemies! But all the same I am with them. I can’t be otherwise.’ Pressured by the composition of the Sixth Symphony at the time of the Boston première, he starts feeling threatened by Beethoven: ‘We live in a time when everyone looks to the past. I’m just as good as they were. As for Beethoven, my orchestration is better than his and my themes are better. But he was born in a wine country, I in a land where yoghurt rules the roost.’ One does, though, begin to miss the music itself. The Sixth and Seventh Symphonies and Tapiola – whose composition, along with that of the Fifth, is a single thread through Sibelius’s later career – are never brought into adequate focus here. The asymmetry of Sibelius’s career is no excuse for silence about the music that did get written; and one makes for the record player to remind oneself that there was more to Sibelius than his money problems. Then, of course, we encounter the Sibelius who will always elude biography: the composer with not only a supreme grasp of structure but a felicitousness of phrase and rhythm that has a kind of transcendent power. Since my early teens I have never been able to resist this phraseology: En Saga’s brooding yet catchy melodies; the joyous lilt of the Alla marcia in the Karelia suite, the glittering dance of Rakastava’s middle movement, the stepwise string figure that opens the Second Symphony so plainly but disarmingly and somehow nobly, the Third’s audacious, perky opening for unaccompanied cellos and basses, the sublime mutterings of Topiola. For a long time I thought Sibelius’s idiom was a purely ahistorical marvel, but on belatedly discovering the Swedish composer Franz Berwald (1796-1868) and his C major Third Symphony (Singulière) with its rhythmic pedal opening, I realised that there is a Scandinavian tradition to account for Sibelius’s characteristic sounds and freshness.

Tawastsrjerna makes no attempt at the end of the volume to put Sibelius’s achievement into a historical context, and such critical observations as he ventures lack the panache of, say, Constant Lambert’s in the Schoenberg and Sibelius chapter which concludes Music Ho! (1934). When Lambert compares Sibelius’s orchestration to Cézanne’s use of colour (both are integral to form, never decorative); points out that the overwhelming last five minutes of Tapiola are ‘a revelation of the effect that can be obtained by essentially normal and legitimate means’; or suggests that the Seventh Symphony ‘seems not only to contain all the elements of the old type of four-movement symphony, but also to create a satisfactory synthesis of the various “warring” forms of the last two centuries – the fugue, with its continuous development, the symphony, with its balanced sections, the symphonic poem, with its imaginative freedom’, one returns to the music gently warmed. Lambert sees Sibelius as ‘of all living composers the most interesting and stimulating to the postwar generation’, the key to ‘the music of the future’, though of the same generation as Strauss and Elgar. At a time of reaction against Elgar’s Edwardian ethos, Sibelius did indeed have an enormous impact on British composers (witness the Walton of the First Symphony) and on British musical culture (Granville Bantock, Thomas Beecham and Rosa Newmarch tirelessly proselytised for him, as Tawastsjerna recounts). Now it is the similarities between Elgar and Sibelius that are striking: both primarily orchestral-choral composers, their operatic activity negligible, their output of serious chamber music limited though masterly (each wrote a single great quartet), their quantity of salon music excessive. Both became national icons, and even their methods of working were comparable, each tending to assemble pieces in mosaic fashion from a diversity of inspirational fragments.

As with Elgar, the vogue for Sibelius was followed by a sharp reversal both in Britain and the USA, with the result that a composer like Elliott Carter has almost nothing to say about him that isn’t prosaic. Yet Sibelius seems uncannily to anticipate Carter’s interest in new ways of achieving continuity and flow, in the pun on ‘movement’ as a formal unit and musical action, in what he has influentially termed ‘metric modulation’. Lambert’s accuracy in casting Sibelius, rather than the ‘official revolutionary’ Schoenberg, as the musician of the future is also indicated by Peter Maxwell Davies’s acknowledgment of Sibelius when embarking on his own symphonic cycle. Whether one can detect a debt to Sibelius in the beautifully ductile scherzo compositions of Magnus Lindberg or the austere electroacoustic landscapes of Kaija Saariaho, leading Finnish composers and ‘researchers’ at Boulez’s Paris institute, IRCAM, is more doubtful. But these are auspicious times for Sibelius. Imaginative conductors such as Neeme Järvi and Osmo Vänskä have committed themselves to his work. The Swedish recording company BIS has been issuing a complete edition that allows one to hear hitherto inaccessible incidental music, melodramas, original versions of much revised scores like En Saga, the Violin Concerto and Fifth Symphony, and pieces like the early, hefty tone-poem, The Wood Nymph Op. 15, that had got lost altogether. With Tawaststjerna’s biography now in English, the composer’s reputation should reach ever farther. Soon he will simply be an uncontested classic from two centuries back.