Obituary: Jean Sibelius (Dec 8, 1865 - Sept 20, 1957)

Gramophone Fri 24th July 2015

The original Gramophone obituary from December 1957, by Harold Rutland

Jean Sibelius was in his 92nd year when he died on September 20; his birthday would have occurred on December 8. No other composer of comparable stature has lived so long. But he gave to the world no music of importance during the last 30 years of his life: the Seventh Symphony dates from 1924, Tapiola from 1925, and the incidental music to The Tempest from 1926. After these works there was nothing except, in 1929, a few choral and piano pieces. Rumours of an eighth symphony persisted, and it is possible that this was actually completed, but withheld from performance because Sibelius was dissatisfied with it. Some of those who visited him at his home at Järvenpää have assured us that he spent several hours at his desk each day, and a pile of precious manuscripts may yet be revealed, though this would seem to be unlikely. 

There is, of course, no reason why we should expect a composer to go on providing us with new works until the end of his days. He has as much right to retire, fuIl of years and honour, as any other man. And to do so at the age of 60, or thereabouts, is a custom sanctioned by tradition in many spheres of life. Elgar, it will be remembered, wrote his last important work, the Cello Concerto, when he was 62. During the remaining 15 years of his life he produced only a handful of pieces; at times he even professed to be indifferent to music. Sibelius evidently retained his interest in the art to the end: he listened to the radio and to gramophone records; he read scores and made acute comments on present-day composers and trends in music. 

Richard Church, pointing out that so many poets have done their best work when young, once described a gift for writing poetry as a 'morning strength'. The same may well apply to a composer like Sibelius, whose music has a special poetical and personal quality. With the passing of years the sap, as it were, leaves him and, rather than go on writing to a formula and producing music which, however estimable it may be as craftsmanship, has little genuine impulse behind it, he prefers to remain silent. It would in fact be difficult to imagine Sibelius writing to a formula. Each of his major works gives an impression of organic growth. Each is an individual entity, yet at the same time all are clearly the work of a single master-mind. There is, moreover, no diminution of power at what we may take to be the end of Sibelius's creative life: the Seventh Symphony and Tapiola are among the greatest of his compositions. 

The influence of Tchaikovsky and other Russian masters has been discerned in Sibelius's First Symphony; this was natural, in view of the nearness of Finland to Russia and the impact made by the Russian symphonies during the Finnish composer's formative years. Yet how different is the total effect of Sibelius's music, even in its early, more rhetorical phases, from that of Tchaikovsky. On the one hand we have something stern and rock-like, with, in spite of its fascination, scarcely a hint of human weakness and indulgence; on the other, we have nervous excitement, a plangent quality, a sense of 'living for the moment', and a marked feeling for theatrical effect. Already, in En Saga (1892) and The Swan of Tuonela (1893), we hear the authentic note of Sibelius, heroic in the first work and tender in the second.

The First Symphony, with its rhetorical splendour, burst upon the world in 1899, and has remained one of the more popular of his works. The most popular of the other symphonies are No 2, with its ingenious and attractive opening movement, its melodic appeal and its exultant finale; No 5 (commissioned by the Finnish Government for the composer's fiftieth birthday), which has a rather puzzling first movement, an intermezzo-like Andante and, again, a spacious finale which ends in a glorious blaze of sound; and No 7, a tour de force in one movement. No 3, it is worth recalling, is dedicated toGranville Bantock, who, with Sir Henry Wood and one or two others, was among Sibelius's first champions in this country. It is said that the extended passages in semiquavers, which are a prominent feature of the opening movement, were suggested by fog-banks drifting along the English coast. No 6, like parts of No 7, reflects Sibelius's study of the music of Palestrina; this symphony, more than any other, calls to mind Sibelius's oft-quoted saying that whereas other contemporary composers provided cocktails of every hue, he offered to the public a draught of pure water. 

The Fourth Symphony, enigmatic though it may be at a first hearing, probably contains the quintessence of the composer's genius. He began to write it in the spring of 1910, at a critical time in the history of Finland, and his letters at the time make it clear that the symphony dominated his thoughts; it was evidently intended to be a work which should demonstrate, more than ever before, the severity of style and profound logic, which he had declared, in conversation with Mahler a few years earlier, to be the qualities he most admired in a symphony. Such a result was not to be achieved without much concentrated thought. In December, 1910, however, he wrote from his home in Järvenpää to say that the symphony was 'breaking forth in sunshine and strength'. Early the next year the work was completed, and in the following April the first performance took place in Helsingfors. 

The Fourth Symphony is dedicated to Fero Järnefelt, the composer's brother-in-law, with whom, in the autumn of 1909, he had gone on a trip to the Koli hills in Karelia. It was known that this trip had made an unforgettable impression on Sibelius; he had seen some magnificently stern and rugged scenery, with the sun shining at one moment, and the sky overcast, with hailstorms and a bitter wind blowing, the next. It was perhaps inevitable, therefore, that the symphony should have been regarded by some critics as a series of nature­ impressions. When, however, one writer went so far as to relate each movement to a particular scene, Sibelius felt called upon to protest. The symphony, like much of Sibelius's music may conjure up for us the landscape of Finland, with its lakes and forests, its swift changes from storm to sunshine; it may also be regarded as a human document, in which a great artist expresses his deepest thoughts about man's nature and the spiritual world. But, above all, the Fourth Symphony, like Sibelius's other important works, should be looked upon as a sustained piece of musical thinking, terse, compelling, powerful; sometimes cryptic, but always fascinating.  

It was a performance in Berlin in 1890 of the Aino Symphony of Robert Kajanus, the Finnish conductor and composer (1856-1933), which revealed to Sibelius the possibilities of the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, as a source of inspiration. He first turned to it shortly afterwards as the basis of his Kullervo Symphony for solo voices, chorus and orchestra, a work he withheld from publication in spite of the success it won when performed in 1892. In the following year came the sketches for an opera, The Building of the Boat, of which all that survives is the prelude, which became The Swan of Tuonela, one of Four Legends for orchestra; the other Legends, which concern the adventures of Lemminkäinen, one of the heroes of the epic, date from 1895. Pohjola's Daughter, which is dedicated to Robert Kajanus, belongs to the year 1906 and is an elaborate musical description of part of the story told in Runo VIII of the Kalevala

In view of the fact that early in his career Sibelius thought of becoming a concert violinist, it was natural that his single essay in concerto form should have been for that instrument. (A piano concerto by Sibelius is almost unthinkable!) He began to take violin lessons when he was 15 or so. 'The violin,' he said, 'carried me away entirely: the wish to become a great violinist was to be my greatest desire, my proudest ambition, for the next 10 years.' Later, when the desire to create music had become stronger than the desire to perform it , he would take his violin with him on his summer rambles, so that he could at once express his inspiration in music; and when sailing, he often stood in the bows with his violin and 'improvised to the sea'. The Violin Concerto was written in 1903, revised in 1905, and first performed in the latter year in Berlin, when the soloist was Carl Halir and the conductor none other than Richard Strauss

In addition to the works already mentioned, Sibelius wrote orchestral suites and tone-poems (one of which, The Oceanides, was recently recorded by Sir Thomas Beecham at the special request of the composer); incidental music for plays (including Pelléas and Mélisande and Strindberg's Swanwhite, for which at one time Strindberg thought of composing music himself!); a string quartet, Voces intimae, composed during a visit to London in 1909; a good deal of choral music, much in demand in Finland; and a large number of songs and piano pieces; which a Finnish writer has aptly termed 'chips from the composer's work-table'. No survey of his music, however sketchy, can omit mention of Finlandia and Valse Triste, which attained a wide popularity. Only an angry young (or old) fool would condemn music simply because it has won the affection of a large public; and though Finlandia is not vintage Sibelius it is a stirring piece which did much to make the composer's name familiar all over the world, and doubtless paved the way for the appreciation of his greater works.

To call Tapiola, his last major composition (1926) an astonishing piece of music is to speak no less than the truth. Its power to evoke the elemental grandeur of a vast forest, with its 'savage dreams' and 'magic secrets'; a forest rocked sometimes by a wind with the force of a hurricane: this is impressive enough and almost terrifying in its impact. But the marvel lies in the fact that the effect is produced, not by any meretricious means, but by the most highly skilled craftsmanship. The work lasts about 18 minutes, but there is scarcely a bar in it that is not derived from, or has some relevance to, the brief theme heard at the outset. 

All who knew Sibelius agree that, though he was an ardent patriot and his music is essentially Finnish in character, he was, as a man, highly cultivated, with wide, international sympathies; in his younger days he had travelled a good deal. Owing a self-proclaimed allegiance to the classical masters, particularly Mozart and Beethoven, Sibelius nevertheless stamped his individuality on almost every bar that he wrote. It has often been remarked that there is scarcely anything unorthodox in his harmonies, but the effect is invariably fresh and idiosyncratic. France and Germany, one gathers, have never cared for his music. But in Scandinavia, in this country (where we have several persuasive advocates of his work), and in America, Sibelius long ago took his place among the immortals.

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