CB 89 JEAN SIBELIUS
To Michael Mullen)
That, after all, is the significanceOf the swan: he sits on his Father’s knee;
With a power of lifelong resonance,
A short-lived man will stay with him only
In showing him the picture of a swan.
Just this recollection will soon be there,
With the music of strange isolation
Candidature’s cries excite forever.
The swan of the underworld swims and sings
On Tuoni’s river as on the lake, seen
By him, or soars between two worlds, its wings
Spreading and working on air, and its keen,
Weak-toned call is made hope in art’s reply
To loneliness and the child’s unheard cry.
Copyright, M Burrows, 5/11
This programme was first Broadcast in 2010 and is repeated in celebration of the composer’s birthday (December The Eighth), and of his country’s Independence Day (December the 6th). Here is the script - slightly fuller than in its broadcast form. Rupert will be listening in from across The Pond. His three deputies send their best wishes!
Mike, Jayne and Suvi
Signature Tune: The Birch, Five Pieces (Trees), Op75, No 4.
Hullo, this is Classical Break, and I’m Mike Burrows. Today’s programme is a tribute to the Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), whose birthday falls on December The Eighth.
We have just heard his piano-piece, The Birch from a set of Five Pieces, Opus 75, written in the Autumn of 1914. The trees stood in the grounds of his house. He enjoyed rural seclusion; about his home, the artists’ colony of Järvenpää afforded contact with like minds, but the trees were a great source of inspiration; he would get to know them as they and he grew to age: they possessed very different qualities and their company inspired clearly distinct emotions in him. All his life, he had loved birdsong, the trees helped support the birds, but were beautiful personalities in themselves; trees, like all living things, had souls and could speak.
The largely timber house was named Ainola, The Domain of Aino, his Wife, and had been built on loans raised by his admirers.
A famous Finnish composer? It is not so strange an idea now as it was in 1890s Europe... In a long, eventful life well-embroidered by a man who longed to be seen as a great man as well as a great composer, and succeeded well in the ambition, no matter how the outside world disillusioned him with its mass cruelties and changes for the sake of change, Jean Sibelius’ life began in financial and personal uncertainty as the son of a doctor with a taste for high living who died bankrupt when Janne was two.
It is possible that Janne never knew precisely who he was, if not a musician. Like many children who have not had the time to get to know a parent or other close relative he has lost, he threw himself into not so much a hobby as a way of life, which for him had to be music, playing and later composing for, the violin, and dreams of personal heroism.
Now, let’s move onto a short cantata, Tylen Synty, or The Origin of Fire. Written for the opening of a new National Theatre in Helsinki, in 1902, and revised in 1910, this is based on words from the Finnish Epic Poem, Kalevala - The Land of Kaleva, in which a land of archetypal heroes, the magician, the smith, the lover, the dispossessed sufferer, et cetera, vie with one-another or join forces against the rivalry of the Land of The North, Pohjola, the land of Pohja, which is ruled over by the witch, Louhi, and contains the Underworld, Tuonela or Manala. The primeval world of Kalevala exerted a great spell on Sibelius; an unnumbered Choral Symphony and many of his tone poems and shorter orchestral and small instrumental pieces were generated by it or refer to it.
In Runo 47, the land of Kaleva is in utter darkness - sun, moon and all hearth-fires have been stolen by the Witch of the North and hidden in a far mountain to spite the magician-hero, Vainamoinen. The music of the opening is sad, growingly plangent - the brass, deep woodwind and strings at the outset succeeded by violins and violas and then oboe: interestingly, the oboe was often used almost vocally by Sibelius - a famous solo coming in the trio of the Scherzo of his Second Symphony, and the related cor anglais having a wonderful solo in the tone-poem, The Swan of Tuonela, for two examples. In the music for Viborg University’s Karelia tableaux, the oboe and cor anglais have a prominent part, made to mimic the female voice, that, perhaps, of the suffering Motherland.
A baritone solo narrates the state of things with bassoon prominent, flecks of oboe and deep-toned string and subdued horn coloration. Higher-toned strings and oboe come in, a birdlike call on oboe and flute is followed by a sturdy homophonic entry by the choir, sonorously accompanied, telling of how Ukko, the chief god of the Finns recreates fire, a new sun and moon, with his sword and body - flute and and triangle sound the striking of sparks; Ukko puts these treasures in a double container - gold and silver - and gives this into the keeping of the Daughter of The Air, Ilmatar, who after nursing it, drops it, thus illuminating the world!
The sense of making is ever-stronger in the choir and surging orchestra, climaxing in a chant to cause the hair to stand on end, as the clouds of darkness are rent by light and the fire falls through nine heavens, through six spangled vaults of heaven. There, the music ends abruptly with one disjunct, crashing chord like a swung hammer landing on anvil.
Sibelius’ music is full-throated with his instinctive identification with the independence movement of a proudly unique country that is today still splendidly confident, sympathetic and stunningly imaginative in its popular culture.
Track Two: Tylen Synty, Op 32.
This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Mike Burrows. Today, the programme is about the Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius.
He liked to say that the Sibelius Family had been well-connected but fallen on hard times; that his musical style had formed without a study of folk music; that he was a Finn through and through.
In fact, there were no wealthy antecedents, he had studied folk music at source, and he was a Swedish Finn who learned Finnish as a second language, in his teens.
He became one of life’s aristocrats, dissolute, craving, absent-minded and generous, spending others’ money and managing always to repay his debts, contriving always to live the high life of a cosmopolitan that he chose, with wife and children or not, though a loving husband and father when present and not working; also, he became the supreme nationalist Finnish artist, and, in time, spoke Finnish unless excited, agitated - or counting!
Very conscious of profile, the composer who in his middle-age dreamed wistfully that he was twelve and a virtuoso violinist, arrived almost comically at his professional name. As a young man, Janne Sibelius - in full, Johan Julius Christian Sibelius - adopted a seafaring Uncle’s first name, “Jean” - thus gaining a ready supply of calling-cards!
Between 1926 and 1957, the year of his death at the age of almost ninety-two, many stories were told of the composition of a four-movement Symphony, one lasting thirty or forty minutes; new music was sent to be bound in fascicles building to a major new score; there were contradictory rumours of bonfires at Ainola.
In the ‘long silence’ of retirement, he revized, re-arranged or banned earlier works, tried his utmost to leave his chaotic opus-list in properly baffling order and issued a few small pieces through his publishers. The Symphony remained a ‘work in progress’, tantalizing his many admirers and piquing and making curious detractors.
When speaking to a young composer who enquired, Aino Sibelius did not rule out the possibility of the organ-piece Surusoitto - that is, Funeral Music - ’s, being based on material from the Eighth Symphony. It was ostensibly written for the funeral of the great Finnish artist, Akseli Gallen-Kalela in 1931, at which Sibelius, as an old friend, was a pall-bearer. It is weighty, concentrated music, strong in fourths, and sounds bardic, an entirely appropriate quality, seeing that Gallen-Kalela’s work was an attempt comparable to Sibelius’ at creating Truly Finnish Art, inspired by folklore.
I hear nothing incommensurate with symphonic writing in this impressive piece. That it is not in conventional sonata-form in the Nineteen Twenties, is not a disqualification. Sibelius had been moving towards a form of his own, generated not so much by established structure, but by a logic generated from the motifs and fragments of harmony as they occurred to him. It is a scrupulous system based on both intuition, a strong imagination and fine ear, on a kind of deductive lateral thinking, but also on training and intense self-criticism. Surusoitto is harmonically searching, its turns opening up doors on what in an opening movement, would afford glimpses of a new world - all of Sibelius Symphonies seem to be distinct world-views in themselves, and this Eighth Symphony-world is a step further on from the Seventh and his Tone Poem, Tapiola. It is strongly controlled in its thematic material, a superb introduction to...either a longer movement of a more conclusive nature, in which allegro-material provides contrast, possibly by thematic transformation, or to a more active second movement, possibly a brief scherzo.
Surusoitto (Funeral Music)
Track 3: Surusoitto Op111 (Funeral Music)
In the present day, composers have used computer-programmes to create pitched synthesizer- or ensemble-music out of everyday and elemental sounds. My bet is that Sibelius’ peculiar gift was in capturing just this kind of music from his suroundings and doing so moreover within the constraints of the techniques of art-music tradition ever-more originally and intelligently applied.
The ‘rightness’ of the notes on the page was this - the ‘internal logic’ of his symphonism the sounds of nature, of the weather and all living things about him. The reconciliation of European Classicism and Romanticism and national folk-music was complicated by this more peculiar compulsion. It caused him endless pains while composing - “Can’t be alone. Whisky. Going downhill, not strong enough for this...”, but also, moments of “glorious ego”, when he must have felt like the great magician that he had become.
Nonetheless, to hear the cries of flying swans - of sixteen of them once - of cranes as they migrated or returned, their note of pathos the note of life’s suffering and nobility, or the moods of the wind in the birch or solitary fir, a note keenly attended-to for many reasons through the Arctic year, as to hear a pair of folk-singers sing runos from Kalevala to the accompaniment of the kantele - or Finnish zither - bewitched and enthralled, but one must always get closer - closer whatever one has achieved; there must be art-music to express both the occasion and the sensitive human reaction. To hear even the contraction of house-timbers or groan of them under snow or their creaks of expansion in the sunshine of the thaw... To know the light gone or returning: to see the shifting colours of Aurora Borealis or feel the exaltation of ‘white nights’ - after all, light has a frequency and therefore, sound...
To hear the dripping of rain or drops of thaw...
Waten droppar, “Water drops”, was Sibelius’ earliest piece. It is a simple pizzicato for violin and cello, a real achievement in spite of its simplicity and onomatopeia, when one thinks that he was only ten when he composed it.
Track 4: Waten droppar, Water Drops
Now, three very spare compositions of Sibelius’ maturity. All were written for theatre productions. The discipline of writing incidental music undoubtedly helped sharpen Sibelius’ symphonic skills of focused meaning and sense of proportion.
Written for an overheated Bible-based melodrama by Procopé, Belshazzar’s Feast exists as an original score of several numbers and a concert-hall sequence of four pieces. Let’s hear the slow meditation Nocturne, for flute and strings. It is one of the most evocative, poignant and beautifully-shaped pieces in Sibelius’ entire oeuvre. In Sibelius’ music lifelong, there is a glorious sense of ‘world’, of time and nature and our place in them; its expression is universal, directly humane or with an element of bystanding pity in all its moods and its intended evocations are pin-sharp in aptness. There could not be better company than its spirit.
At the time of the run of the play, a cartoon depicted Sibelius carrying Procopé on his shoulders, a clear perception of the evident disparity in the talents of dramatist and composer. If Sibelius remarked famously on another occasion that “No statue was was ever raised to a critic,” there is still no arguing with the cartoonist’s judgement in this matter.
Track 5: Incidental Music for Belshazzar’s Feast, Op 51, Nocturne
First, Listen! - The Robin Sings, written for Strindberg’s fairy-tale play, Swan White. This is a beautiful, if stylized, evocation of birdsong - more accurately perhaps, the feelings on hearing birdsong. The orchestration favours cool woodwind and strings, of course, and is as fascinating as the subject. Listen for how cleverly Sibelius captures the suddenness of the bird’s awareness of a human presence, the hesitancy in his voice and his flight at the end, and with the listener’s sadness that the moment has passed.
Track 6: Music for “Swan White”, Op 54, “Listen! - The Robin Sings.”
A typical work in one of Sibelius’ most congenial veins, is the music for the play Everyman by Von Hoffsmanthal. Everyman tells of how Death is instructed to bring sinful Everyman to judgement. Everyman and his mistress, Paramour, are holding a banquet tonight. The fourth number of the incidental music is the dance-song Tanssilaulu: Me Kutsun Saimme, sung by guests in homage to Everyman, A Friend Has Invited Us Here.
“Everyman” contains music much of which is elliptical and elusive away from the stage, but it is enjoyable to create for oneself a drama consonant with its dramatic contrasts. Folksong-like in nature, “A Friend Has Invited Us Here” is a simple song and pleasant listening in its own right, but its warmth is ironical in context.
Track 7: Incidental music for “Everyman”, Op83: “A Friend Has Invited Us Here.”
The Sixth Symphony in D Minor is the nearest that Sibelius came to writing a ‘Pastoral’ Symphony. It is mainly in the Dorian mode and its structure is both free-flowing through four movements and astonishingly bound together by the organic growth of its themes. It was of this piece that he himself said that while other composers gave the public multi-hued cocktails, he gave them pure cold water. The work can be seen as an Arctic Spring Symphony looking forward to Summer. The nearest it comes to a slow movement is in the second movement, Allegretto Moderato.Opening with tympany taps, flute and other woodwind and harp, then strings, it grows out of what sound like the dripping of thawed snow, made strange by there being the antithetical notes of tritones. The rest of the orchestra is slowly drawn in, the strings, woodwind and brass in uneasy scalic melding in contrary motion; the opening figure comes in altered with the addition of repeated notes on the second note of the interval, and is succeeded by curious mixed-scored scalic triplet-shifting, like a fitful breeze in trees, the brass entering briefly, the strings and woodwind developing the material with a more baroque-seeming resolution. The scalic figure returns and flute sounds like birdcalls in this uneasiness - finer, higher string-writing cross-hatches and into a forest glade, flute, oboe and clarinet form antiphonal birdcalls in which other woodwind join; this leads to further development of the scalic figure heard near the beginning, the birdcalls drawn more agitatedly together, and the close comes on the glow of a warm, major cadence. How this all makes musical sense is by its masterly - and almost painterly - sense of mood, its beautiful suggestion of musical narrative. The Allegretto Moderato.
Track 8: Sixth Symphony in D Minor, Op 104.
Sibelius’ last conducting engagement was in 1939, for the New York Fair: the piece was a short movement for strings and drums. Andante Festivo was originally a commission for music for the opening of a factory and based on a piano-piece, The Village Church, Op 103, no 1, but now his choice for performance at an international event as the world neared another total war.
This is a work in Sibelius’ later style, classical in purity. It is in a lighter than symphonic style, but its themes, like those of Surisoitto, might have been susceptible of symphonic development: a more elborate string-music opens the Sixth and Seventh symphonies, in the Sixth to just this luminous effect. Was it ever intended for Symphonic use? Sibelius’ interpretation of the piece in 1939 was far more long-breathed than is customary nowadays, though the music does take deliberate treatment well; it is very dignified and memorable for its gravely melodic style. It is a genre-piece that invokes images of ceremonious dignity without pomposity, and divorced from the context of an official ceremony, it may come across as a hymn of thanksgiving and valediction: perhaps Sibelius chose to conduct it because in it, the craftsman plies his unaffected trade with skill and creates a pleasant impression; one fittingly humble and straightforward in tone for all its solemnity. As a violinist himself, his career-long, Sibelius’ writing for strings was superb in every respect, often innovative-seeming, but here, it is pared back with all other aspects of his craft to create a hymn quietly inspiring, easy to follow and possessing considerable eloquence. Andante Festivo is in every way an improvement on the piano-piece that gave it much of its material...
That unfinished Eighth Symphony...
At one time, during and just after the First World War, Sibelius had had three great symphonies on the go, the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh, piecing them together from a wealth of motifs and progressions: he once said that the Almighty threw down the pieces of a mosaic, and the artist’s occupation was to fit them together. Somehow, all those Symphonies had been completed, revized, published. Then, his last tone poem, Tapiola - the domain of Tapio - god of the forests in the Kalevala - and the incidental music to The Tempest had been his last profound achievements, Tapiola almost destroyed by him in a fit of despair after it had taken its final shape. How haunted by the the Eighth Symphony, promised to the musical world for thirty years, Sibelius’ admirers remain.
He was honoured internationally to an unprecedented degree, showered with invitations to festivals and with presents, flowers and cigars - from the Forties onwards, he was regarded as joint-most famous cigar-smoker with Winston Churchill. He was consulted on occasions other than musical, but was seen as a kind of oracle. He was famous for being totally bald. An intensely nervous individual, hypochondiacal in his youth, seriously ill with growths in his throat and troubled by arthritis caused by alcoholism in his mid-forties, he was living long enough to be a grand old man. Of his apparently still proceeding Eighth Symphony, he let it be known that."One does not sell the bearskin till one has shot the bear’.
His craggy image appeared on U--S postal stamps during Russia’s attempt to retake Finland, the Winter War, beginning on the Thirtieth of November, 1939 and ending on March the Twelfth-Thirteenth, 1940,with onerous territorial demands in the South and South-east, the lands and places of strategic importance to be occupied by Soviet forces. Then, on the Nazi invasion of Russia in June of 1941, Finland joined the Axis and attacked Russia. It was put about that Der Führer enjoyed Sibelius as well as Wagner and Bruckner. As a nationalist Finn, Sibelius was undoubtedly flattered by the new ally’s regard for him, unaware of Nazi atrocities, but well-aware of the evils of the Soviet Union.
He was an intensely fellow-feeling man; the Second World War - so much more horrific than even the First - very possibly proved that the logical or expressive parameters of his new Symphony could have no currency in a world capable of such madness as genocide or area- and atomic--bombing, in the face of which ego or civilization came to fathomless grief.
Very late in his life, Aino, his Wife of over sixty years may have been prompting his conscience. “Tell the truth, Janne,” she advized him in front of one visitor to Ainola, “there is no Eighth Symphony.”
Let’s hear the Andante Festivo.
You have been listening to Classical Break on Somer Valley FM. This Is Mike Burrows. I hope that you’ve enjoyed this programme and that I’ll have your company again soon. Cheers!
Track 9: Andante Festivo