Inspirational Essay Writing Songs With Sibelius
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865–1957), and it will surprise few that celebrations are scheduled to continue year-round in his homeland and elsewhere. But why should Australians be concerned?
Sibelius’s music has always had a divisive effect on its audiences. To 20th-century critics he was both the “last true successor of Beethoven” and “the worst in the world”, and his staunch political views certainly did little to ease this polarisation.
But at the heart of his complex and original music lay a deep struggle which, more so than any other composer in history, came to represent the struggle for a Finnish national identity.
Described as a “barbarian” by one of his teachers (Austrian composer Robert Fuchs), Sibelius is without doubt the most remarkable composer ever to emerge from Finland. Born in the southern city of Hämeenlinna, he moved to Helsinki in 1885 in a half-hearted attempt to pursue a legal career, almost immediately abandoning it for music.
He spoke no Finnish until the age of ten, when he enrolled in the country’s first Finnish-language secondary school (the Normaalilyseo). This may seem odd, but for many this was the norm. For centuries Finland had been ruled by Sweden, and in 1809 it became an autonomous grand duchy under Russia’s dominion.
By the end of the 19th century, passionate nationalist sentiments (the Fennicization movement) had gathered political momentum across the country, seeking to legitimise the Finnish language and establish a unified identity. Learning Finnish introduced the young boy to aspects of his culture many saw as authentic and elemental – in need of liberation – and no musician captured the mood of this struggle more poignantly than Sibelius.
During the 1890s he cemented his position as Finland’s leading composer, mostly owing to the 1892 premiere of his massive symphonic poem Kullervo, his first declaration of a mature, self-consciously “modern” aesthetic. The five-movement work draws elements of programmatic symphonic writing together with soliloquies, dialogues and recitations from the “runes” (poems) of the Kalevala, the national folk epic.
Haunting modal melodies in obsessively reiterative patterns (adumbrating minimalist and post-minimalist techniques of the 1970s and 80s) are threaded through intense, dark textures and uneasy, jolting rhythmic arrangements, creating within just a few seconds a sound-world unmistakably Finnish and Sibelian.
The work instantly identified him as the musical voice of pro-Finnish-culture activism, and in 1897 the Finnish Senate confirmed his status as a national artist by awarding him an annual pension of 3,000 marks.
In the following decade Sibelius’s reputation spread beyond national borders, with performances of his works given across Europe, under the batons of Hans Richter, Weingartner, Toscanini, and Richard Strauss.
His brief tone poem Finlandia (1899, originally titled Suomi herää, or Finland Awakens) would become his country’s unofficial national anthem and his best known work, with little effort needed to decode underlying nationalist subtexts.
Such was his cultural achievement that, in 1935, his 70th birthday was marked by a banquet attended by all the past presidents of Finland, as well as the prime ministers of Norway, Denmark and Sweden.
But Sibelius’s struggle was not solely against foreign political oppression; it was also a complicated process of reconciliation which may never have reached completion. He maintained a great attachment to his first language, Swedish, and composed around 100 Lieder to mostly Swedish texts.
These works have received comparatively little attention, but it was here that the most traditional aspects of his personality found expression, in their sentimental smoothness and their references to old-world social mores. Think, for example, of the potent evocation of sexual shame in Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte, (The girl returned from meeting her lover).
His early compositional style was also grounded in the traditional Viennese classicist models of Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert, but the opposite impulse – a radical, violently-progressive Finnish style captured in the great orchestral works – was by far the strongest and most transformative.
Sibelius composed seven symphonies (and an eighth he destroyed), as well as numerous stage, chamber, choral and piano works, but almost nothing in the final 30 years of his life. A bon-vivant of sorts, he was also highly self-critical, revising or completely re-writing many works throughout his career.
He battled health problems, including an alcohol addiction, which lead to throat tumours and one scandalously drunken appearance as a conductor of his sixth symphony in Sweden, in 1923.
Perhaps more than anything, his innovative music is marked by the search for a “pure-sound” — a sound released from its shackles — for which he sought inspiration in the vast lakes, pine trees and wildlife surrounding his home “Ainola” (after his wife Aino) and the Finnish landscape.
Many of us will never see those lands, but in Sibelius, at least we can hear them.
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In Jean Sibelius's house, about half an hour north of Helsinki and within sight of haunting Lake Tuusula, there is a massive green fireplace, the height of the dining room. Every brick has been carefully glazed, reflecting the light that streams in through the front windows like an evergreen glimpsed in a wintry woodland. For any visitor to Ainola today - the house is named after Sibelius's wife, Aino - the fireplace is a colourful interloper in an interior otherwise completely made of pine.
Such is the clarity of the design of the house, the restrained chic of the textiles, even the crockery, that Ainola feels strangely contemporary. You half expect Sibelius himself to come out from his office and greet you, then sit down at his piano and wave you to a seat. Everything in the house has been left almost as it was when he died, 50 years ago today: his white suit, in which he was often photographed in the last years of his life, hangs from the door of his study; his pens lie on his desk; and the phonograph sits in the library, where he spent much of his last years listening to recordings of his music by conductors such as Thomas Beecham and Leopold Stokowski.
But that fireplace holds the secret to one of the great mysteries in the history of music. For the last 30 years of his life, Sibelius - the father of Finnish music and, at that time, the most famous Finn alive, celebrated the world over with performances of his orchestral music, and one of the few living composers to be almost universally loved - did not produce any major works. It's a creative silence all but unparalleled in music. How can it be explained?
In fact, that silence may not have been as total as we think. Sibelius premiered seven symphonies in his lifetime, pieces that are among the most popular yet misunderstood of any composer, the last coming in 1924. But there was another. An Eighth Symphony was promised to Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in the early 1930s, and its British premiere was even announced for 1933. The piece never appeared, despite letters Sibelius wrote to his friends discussing its structure. In 1933, he told Georg Schneevoigt, the conductor who was supposed to lead the symphony's world premiere in Helsinki: "You have no idea how brilliant it is." Later that year, he explained to a journalist that the Eighth "will be the reckoning of my whole existence - 68 years. It will probably be my last. Eight symphonies and 100 songs. It has to be enough." But all that remains of it today is one sheet of paper, a first page with a key signature and a list of instruments - but not a single note.
Yet the work did exist. It's just that Sibelius, probably some time in 1945, held a "burning party" at Ainola, in which he destroyed the manuscripts, sketches and finished copies of pieces he was working on - including everything to do with the new symphony. Only the inside of the fireplace at Ainola has any direct experience of what the symphony contained: a musical enigma that for decades has obsessed Sibelius scholars, who have tried vainly to look for traces of the score wherever he travelled; it has even inspired a novel, William Trotter's second world war thriller, Winter Fire. According to Aino, Sibelius was a happier man after he had burnt these scores, as if this act of seemingly incomprehensible creative vandalism had somehow released his spirit.
However, the real explanation for that 30-year silence at Ainola is more surprising - and more revealing - than the fruits of any hunt for the lost Eighth could ever be. And it is staring you in the face, or at least it is to anyone familiar with Sibelius's final works. Once you understand those shattering, unprecedented pieces, then the silence strikes you as not just understandable - but inevitable.
The last big works that Sibelius did finish were the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, and his final major composition, the tone-poem Tapiola, written in 1926. In this music, Sibelius brought to fruition a musical world of complete clarity and compression. All three bear out something he said to Gustav Mahler in Helsinki in 1907, when Mahler came to conduct Sibelius's Second Symphony. Mahler talked of a symphony as being like "the world; it must embrace everything"; Sibelius, on the other hand, saw the symphony as a musical process in which a "profound logic [creates] a connection between all the motifs".
Where Mahler's symphonies are a form of musical gigantism, Sibelius's go the other way. You could play his last three symphonies in the same time it takes to perform a single Mahler symphony, but the musical power of these pieces is inversely proportional to their length. His Seventh Symphony, for example, condenses the entire symphonic experience into a single, 20-minute movement. And yet the piece somehow creates an epic cosmology. Time itself is manipulated, shrunk and stretched, creating a kind of musical black hole, in which massive, elemental experiences are expressed in mere minutes. It's a completely new way of thinking about musical time, about what music can do.
But Sibelius creates this radicalism under a surface that seems comfortingly familiar. During his life time his music was a rallying call for conservative critics and composers, one of the few bulwarks against the rise of the serialists and the neo-classicists such as Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Sibelius was the modern composer you liked if you didn't really like modern music. He wrote with key signatures, after all, and in forms - tone-poems, symphonies - that everyone knew and loved.
Not that Sibelius did much to help his own cause as a radical in the 1930s and 40s: not only did he accept the Goethe medal from Hitler's Germany on his 70th birthday in 1935, he also approved the formation of the German Sibelius Society - the brainchild of Joseph Goebbels - in 1942. Sibelius was no Nazi, but it's understandable, perhaps, that nowadays one of the few places his music hasn't caught on is in the concert halls of Germany.
It was easy to see him, too, as an old-school Romantic nationalist. After all, he had written his tub-thumping symphonic poem Finlandia in 1899 as a calling card for the struggle for Finnish independence, and he accepted his position as the most important figurehead of Finnish culture with ease (despite the fact that Finnish wasn't his first language; like most well-off Finns in the late 19th century, his mother tongue was Swedish).
And there was more grist to the conservatives' mill in his relationship with Finnish folklore and his love of nature. If you take Sibelius's relationship with the country's myths - above all, Kalevala, the Finns' national epic, which inspired him throughout his life - you're left, at face value, with the idea that Sibelius really was trying to portray the lakes, forests, birds and people of his homeland in his music. How else to think of the short poem he composed at the start of the score of Tapiola? "Widespread they stand, the Northland's dusky forests/ Ancient, mysterious, brooding, savage dreams/ Within them dwells the Forest's mighty God/ And wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets."
It's easy enough, then, to hear the "savage dreams" in the obsessive music of Tapiola, or to imagine the wood-sprites in one of its more playful episodes. But that disguises what is really going on in this work. The genius of Tapiola is that it turns music itself into a force of nature. The climactic storm sounds unlike anything else that had been written up to then: made up of weird shimmerings and clusters that grow from barely audible string sounds into a gigantic explosion for the whole orchestra, Tapiola prefigures some of the orchestral experiments of Gyorgy Ligeti or Iannis Xenakis in the 1950s and 1960s. The whole structure of the music, its repetition of just one short theme, makes it a terrifying, nihilistic vision, a blasted landscape whose beauty is stark, brutal and depopulated; as far removed as possible from a picturesque depiction of Finnish flora and fauna.
It's hard to know where Sibelius could have gone after the end of Tapiola. Silence, perhaps, is the only logical choice - the next and final stage in a lifetime of musical concision and compression. Whatever the Eighth Symphony consisted of before he burnt it, it's impossible to imagine how it could have expanded on what he had already achieved. Perhaps Sibelius knew the music could only let down his Sixth and Seventh symphonies, and that's why he destroyed it.
Something creative did come out of Sibelius's silence, though: his continuing influence on composers today. Every Finnish musician still has to deal with Sibelius's looming presence. After all, Finland's amazing musical culture - which has produced more world-class composers and performers per capita than any other country, from Kaija Saariaho and Esa-Pekka Salonen to singers such as Karita Mattila and Soile Isokoski - is entirely indebted to Sibelius. Magnus Lindberg, 49, doyen of Finnish composers, acknowledges and celebrates Sibelius's legacy, writing music that investigates worlds of texture and harmony that could not have been conceived without him.
Similarly, Sibelius's influence on British composers, from Peter Maxwell Davies to George Benjamin and Thomas Adès, accounts for his continuing relevance to today's musicians. It is in their music that we can hear where Sibelius carries on, realising the implications of the musical world he discovered. Fifty years after his death, Sibelius's concentration, his ability to distil a poetic power from music's essential elements, make him seem more modern, more necessary, than ever.
'He still has tremendous impact' Conductor Sakari Oramo on the battle with Sibelius's legacy
In 1955, the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara visited Sibelius at his home and commented, irreverently, that the old master had become his own monument: "His life story had become folklore, his private life poetry and his achievements national heritage."
After the turmoil of the second world war, the last years of Sibelius's life were peaceful. He enjoyed good health and followed musical life. In 1945, he told another composer, Erik Bergman: "I am often told that Finnish composers work in the shadow of Sibelius. Now I notice you are someone who doesn't want or need to be in my shadow."
Indeed, Sibelius's huge presence prompted many young composers to turn elsewhere for inspiration after the war. Einar Englund looked east and found Prokofiev and Shostakovich, while Rautavaara, Bergman and Usko Meriläinen flirted with dodecaphony. It was left for Joonas Kokkonen to develop and refine Sibelius's ideas.
So how much did Sibelius's shadow inhibit those who came after? The answer is not simple. He did play a key role in the creation of a distinctly Finnish cultural atmosphere, but by the 1930s, the climate in Finland had turned almost oppressively conservative, and the hardships of the second world war isolated this remote country further. Early modernists of the 1920s, such as Aarre Merikanto and Vaino Raitio, had to tone down their radical, free-tonal musical styles in order to gain some public acceptance and make a living.
In some ways, all this talk of Sibelius's huge presence is ironic. Detractors - such as Theodor Adorno and René Leibowitz (who described Sibelius as the "worst composer in the world") - dismissed him as a provincial conservative Romantic nationalist. He may have started as one, but, at a time when most composers enlarged their orchestras to giant phalanxes of countless musicians, Sibelius went in the opposite direction, reducing the numbers, and gaining a unique atmosphere in his later works.
Now, of course, it is widely accepted that Sibelius created an astonishingly innovative treatment of symphonic form, behind a surface of fairly traditional tonal and harmonic structures. Yes, he was a Romantic nationalist, but he was a modernist, too. And his music still has tremendous impact wherever it is played.
Today, Finnish composers have no qualms about declaring Sibelius among their main influences. Many, including Magnus Lindberg, Jouni Kaipanen and Kaija Saariaho, have done so with pride, and his music has proved a great stepping stone for countless Finnish musicians and soloists to international recognition. That said, my fellow conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen did state in the early days of his international career that he didn't "want to be just another Finnish guy conducting Sibelius". As chief conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, I, too, am careful to ensure that the orchestra tours with more than just Sibelius in the bag.
· Sibelius and Beyond, a celebration of Finnish music, is at various London venues until December 5. Details: sibeliusandbeyond.com.
· Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic in his first complete Sibelius symphony cycle, starting at the Barbican on November 1. Box office: 020-7638 8891.
· This article was amended on Saturday October 13 2007. The epic Finnish poem mentioned in the above article is Kalevala, not Kullervo. Kullervo is the character in it, about whom Sibelius wrote a symphonic poem. This has been corrected.