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28 February 2024

Sibelius’s symphony without sequel

The composer lived for 33 years after his Symphony No 7 premiered a century ago. But he could never follow it.

By Phil Hebblethwaite

In the couple of years before he died in 1957, aged 91, the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius would invite musicians from the orchestras in Helsinki to visit him at his home, Ainola, 25 miles from the city. One such musician was Paavo Berglund, a violinist in the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Then in his mid-twenties, Berglund was soon to dedicate himself to conducting – in Finland first, and then internationally. No other conductor, except perhaps Herbert von Karajan, would do more to introduce Sibelius to late-20th-century audiences after decades in which his reputation had slipped. Popularity was never the problem – not in Finland, Britain and America, where most of his seven symphonies, the violin concerto and patriotic tone poem Finlandia always pulled big crowds. Rather, it was because in the last three decades of his life he produced no new major works. To critics, especially in Germany, he was a provincial has-been – the last, pathetic breath of romanticism before the modernist forward-drive of Stravinsky’s ballets and Schoenberg’s experiments in atonality.

As Berglund waited to meet Sibelius, he may have wondered if he’d glean an intriguing musical insight from a man who was born when Rossini and Berlioz were still alive and lived long enough to hear Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven”. Perhaps he’d get to ask about a movement in a symphony to inform his conducting, or learn something of what it was like to experience the birth of Finland as an independent nation in 1917. Instead, as Berglund recalled in a 1999 interview with Finnish Music Quarterly, “He asked me if we played Schoenberg. I said we didn’t. That was the whole conversation.”

Among musicians in a country where the inability to engage in small talk is a matter of national pride, the meeting has gone down in legend, while also raising a tricky question: why did Sibelius ask about Schoenberg? The pioneering Austrian composer had died in 1951 but his presence – and particularly his 12-tone compositional technique – still loomed large over postwar classical music. Was this a flash of insecurity? Was Sibelius worried that local orchestras would dump his music for the radical new sound? We can’t say for sure, but that’s not conductor Paavo Järvi’s reading of the short conversation. “Sibelius knew perfectly well his value,” he said in a 2015 Radio 3 programme, Northern Lights. “He knew exactly how great he was. He was looking at the world around him from seclusion and needing to talk to somebody, like, ‘Do you know his music? What’s going on?’ And he was also trying to evaluate himself within the context of this new music.”

Sibelius’s seclusion is often called “the silence of Järvenpää” – after the town where Ainola is located. Diary entries from his last 30 years can make for alarming reading. In 1927, he wrote, “Isolation and loneliness are driving me to despair… In order to survive, I have to have alcohol.” In 1943, he called himself a “fait accompli”, adding, “Life is soon over. Others will come and surpass me in the eyes of the world. We are fated to die forgotten.” But it wasn’t all misery. Copyright laws passed in Finland in 1927 gave him financial security and in those last three decades he did try to compose. More than once, he promised an eighth symphony to the conductor Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It never came. After Sibelius’s death, it was revealed he’d slung the score in the fire at Ainola, although some tantalising sketches do survive.

The burning of the eighth symphony puts heightened emphasis on his Symphony No 7, which premiered 100 years ago on 24 March, with Sibelius conducting. It wasn’t his last major work – he composed an hour’s worth of wildly imaginative incidental music to Shakespeare’s The Tempest in 1925 and a significant tone poem, Tapiola, a year later – but it remains his final symphonic statement. To some, Symphony No 7 will forever be an eccentricity – a meandering, one-movement work clocking in at just 22 minutes that implausibly took him ten years to complete. To others, it’s the supreme distillation of Sibelius’s investigations into symphonic form and the best explanation for why he never finished his eighth. He struggled, it has been argued, because he had nowhere left to go.

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In 1907, Sibelius met the other great symphonist of his age, Gustav Mahler. Their conversation, reported by Sibelius, reveals a stark difference in thinking. “I said that I admired [the symphony’s] severity of style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motifs… Mahler’s opinion was just the reverse. ‘No, a symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.’” Mahler had just completed his epic, 90-minute Symphony No 8 for three sopranos, two altos, tenor, baritone, bass, two mixed choruses, boys’ choir, organ and huge orchestra. Sibelius, on the other hand, was soon to work on his lean and menacing, 35-minute Symphony No 4 – a “psychological symphony”, as he called it. It moved away from the landscapes and mythical legends that inspired so many of his previous works, tackling his fears and anxieties.

Symphony No 4 flopped on premiere in 1911, although it was later recognised as a masterpiece. In response, Sibelius might have played to the crowd, but instead he went further, freeing himself of conventional form by increasingly thinking of symphonies as “an expression of a spiritual creed, a phase in one’s inner life”. With his highly innovative and popular fifth symphony, he began his experiments in blending symphonic movements. Of his sixth, he said he was offering “pure cold water” while rival composers were “manufacturing cocktails of every hue and description” – a dig at modernist stylings happening elsewhere.

His Symphony No 7 is rooted by a recurring trombone theme and built with lethal precision, always following the “profound logic” of the form. Sibelius originally called the piece Fantasia Sinfonica No 1, before giving it symphony status. Perhaps he knew in 1924 that the work would act as a sign-off, although he would live for another 33 years. The composer and critic Cecil Gray noted its “lofty grandeur and dignity, a truly Olympian serenity and repose”, but there’s something about its ending that feels brutally conclusive. “It’s almost like a scream,” the conductor Simon Rattle said of the last bars. “It’s the most depressed C major in all of musical literature. There’s no other piece that ends in C major where you feel it’s the end of the world.”

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that a man who was so clipped in conversation with a visiting musician would complete a symphonic career with his most terse creation. Sibelius’s stripping of the fat from orchestral music was no less progressive than atonalism and, if anything, looked beyond Schoenberg to the minimalism of Steve Reich and Philip Glass. He had, as the American composer Aaron Copland said, both “a romantic bias” and “a forward-looking element”, although the latter would take time to be recognised. In his 2007 book The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross recalled how the avant-garde composer Morton Feldman gave a lecture in 1984. “The people you think are conservative might really be radical,” he said, before humming a Sibelius tune.

[See also: John Tavener’s sacred music for a secular world]

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This article appears in the 28 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The QE Theory of Everything

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