Updated: Helsinki Philharmonic plays Sibelius’ Eighth fragments

Martin Cullingford
Thursday, November 17, 2011

This is an amended and updated version of the article first published on 17.11.11

Nobody with a passing interest in the life and works of Jean Sibelius would ever have thought it remotely possible: that one day the composer’s old employer, the Helsinki Philharmonic, would gather in a rehearsal room with pages of the ‘non-existent’ Eighth Symphony on its music stands.

But the ensemble did just that last month in a strangely atmospheric appendage to a normal daily rehearsal which has now been broadcast by the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat (view here). The scenes are extraordinary for the simple reason that many believed every trace of the Eighth Symphony gone forever – burnt by the notoriously self-critical composer at his home in 1945. But the ‘idea’ of the Eighth has never been far from the conscience of Sibelius lovers or from the musical life of Finland – what it might have meant and how it might have moved the composer’s distinctive language forward.

The Helsinki Philharmonic’s chief conductor John Storgårds admitted to the newspaper that ‘cold shivers ran down his spine’ as he took his players through the newly edited fragments. On the rehearsal footage Storgårds seems, uncharacteristically but expectedly, to be feeling his way tentatively through the score.

The Helsingin Sanomat’s music critic Vesa Sirén described the ‘almost scary’ feeling inside the rehearsal room at the city’s Musiikkitalo as the fragments were played and the orchestra’s press officer burst into tears. Sirén, despite being a biographer of Sibelius, has been critical of his country’s obsession with the composer and particularly its decision to programme three Sibelius works at the recent opening of the Musiikkitalo. Even so, Sirén described his intense excitement at the chance of hearing the fragments, referring to the music of the Eighth Symphony as the ‘holy grail’ of Finnish classical music.

In truth, a leap of faith is required for any Sibelian hoping to use these snatches of music to chart the composer’s symphonic journey beyond his final completed symphony, the Seventh. Speculation that parts of the Eighth Symphony might have survived the ‘great bonfire’ at Järvenpää date back to 2004, when Nors Josephson suggested that a raft of material in Finland’s National Library might contain ‘some apparent sketches for the Eighth Symphony.’ Only recently has musicologist Timo Virtanen posed a more assertive claim that some of the orchestrated fragments, though minimal, are likely to be from the missing symphony. 

Minimal they may be, but they are undeniably revealing. The first fragment launches with an appoggiatura-like timpani roll not unlike that which opens the Seventh Symphony. That’s followed immediately by an almost Coplandesque procession of modal chords and curious dissonances on winds and low strings – a conceivable but no less striking line of development from those late Sibelius works that are already familiar.

As the music proceeds, there are hints of the late forest-inspired tone poem Tapiola, with typically winding figurations in the winds. Sibelius it most certainly is, just not quite as we know him. ‘The harmonies are so wild and the music so exciting’, said Storgårds. ‘You can identify the composer’s late style from the fragments.’

That could be said to chime with the ‘legend’ of the Eighth: that a tortured Sibelius spent many years trying to move his symphonic voice forward in a piece which would inspire the Finnish populace during the difficult years leading up to the Second World War and the nation’s fragile early period of independence. Gramophone critic and Sibelius biography Guy Rickards points to the apparent influence of this unheard late style on another musician: Joonas Kokkonen, composer of one of Finland’s most exported indigeounous operas, Viimeiset kiusaukset (The Last Temptation).

So is it really the Eighth Symphony we’re hearing in these newly-played fragments? It’s impossible to say with absolute certainty, though Virtanen believes so. He suggests the first fragment heard on the Helsingin Sanomat film are likely to be from the symphony’s opening paragraphs; the second fragment from ‘page 9’. The composer’s handwriting is a vital clue, matching that from other documents of the 1920s and 30s when letters and diary entries suggest the composer was working on the symphony and the symphony alone. There are also markings of ‘VIII’ on some of the manuscripts, including the explicit label ‘Sinfonia VIII Commincio’ on the reverse side of one sheet. Rickards believes there are ‘good grounds for the attribution.’

Robert Suff, the A&R director at BIS records responsible for compiling and recording every playable note from the pen of the composer for the label’s Complete Sibelius Edition, has been marginally more sceptical, despite welcoming the emergence of the playable fragments. ‘There is no conclusive proof that they are from the Eighth Symphony’, Suff told Gramophone, but admitted that the label would be keen to record the newly edited scores. ‘We don’t want to be without any music by Sibelius if it’s in a playable condition’, he said.

A completion, however, still seems unlikely at best – not least given the fluidity with which the construction late symphonies evolved in Sibelius’s mind, a process the composer referred to as ‘miraculous logic’. ‘With this material the symphony should not be completed’, Vesa Sirén told Gramophone. ‘To do so we would need much more material Sibelius orchestrated himself. But we are hopeful that something might emerge from his copyist's estate.’

If we’re ever lucky enough to be in that position, there’ll still be hoops to jump through – like the nod of approval form the board of Sibelius Rights’ Holders, who approved the performance arranged by the Helsingin Sanomat. Only they can authorise further performances or recordings, however ad-hoc, and the realisation of any further sketches, too. We’ve had to wait some 80 years to hear less than three minutes of music, and the mystery of the Eighth isn’t set to unfold any more rapidly from here. 

Andrew Mellor

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