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Sibelius by Andrew Barnett. Yale University Press, New Haven and London. 2007. ISBN 978-0-300-11159-0. 445 pages including appendices, index, catalogue of works, an appendix of musical examples mostly from relatively unknown works, and 18 B&W photographs. RRP: USD40, GBP25.
Experience Classicsonline


A question which has always bothered me is: how did a Finn acquire a Latin last name and a French first name? Well, it seems Sibelius’ grandfather had latinized the family’s original last name, Sibbe, a fashionable thing to do in the early nineteenth century. Our Johan (sic) Christian Julius Sibelius was born at 12:30 Helsinki time in Hameenlinna, Finland, on December 8, 1865, a nearly portentous date since Finland would later declare its independence from Russia on December 6, 1917. Johan was immediately shortened to the affectionate Janne, and later his friends and family would privately refer to him as Janne Sibbe. “Jean Sibelius” came into being when he signed his name that way on his first written out student compositions, and he kept to that name for the rest of his life.

Sibelius’ family spoke Swedish as did most middle class Finns, even though Russian was the official language of the government as a semi-autonomous grand duchy of the Russian empire. It wasn’t until Sibelius was in school that Finnish language consciousness began to grow seriously with the establishment of Finnish newspapers and a Finnish language University. Naturally, Sibelius would learn German and Latin, the languages of scholarship, in school, so that when his violin teacher lent him theoretical works on composition in German, Sibelius could study them profitably. Apart from these books, he was largely self taught as a composer although he took lessons and advice from various individuals. Later Sibelius learned English, and was at one time offered a professorship at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, USA. He had also been offered a professorship at the Vienna Academy, but he had been denied a position at the Helsinki University, a fact which embittered him for life. Eventually he turned down both foreign jobs as he needed to keep his home in Finland to compose. His English was never good enough to provide English texts to his songs, so an anglophone friend would translate for him from the German. His intense emotional bond to the natural environment never actually replaced his Evangelical Lutheran Christianity (he complained when one of his daughters wanted to marry a Theosophist) but he wrote virtually no formally religious music. Once he declared that his vision of God was one of harmonious inter-working of the forces of Nature. The grand theme of the finale of the Fifth Symphony came to him in a flash of inspiration while watching a flight of swans in the sunset.

Sibelius’ first triumph was Kullervo, a long symphonic oratorio on the Finnish folk legends of the Kalevala. This made him a hero of the Finnish nationalist movement, a position he was to retain. However this was not always a blessing as those critics opposed to Finnish nationalism, mostly Russians and Swedes, viciously attacked Sibelius’s music. Finland was fortunate; after their declaration of independence on December 6, 1917, the Leninist government of Russia recognized their independence on January 4, 1918 (try to imagine a world in which Great Britain had recognized American independence on August 2, 1776). A brief civil war between the “reds” and “whites” was all but over by April with the victory of the whites. By then most European countries had recognized the new nation, the Sibelius family could move back to their country house, and life went back to normal. In future years Russia came to regret their generosity and seized back quite a bit of Finnish territory, but for now all was friendly.

So, why did Sibelius never publish his Eighth Symphony? The score was virtually complete by the Spring of 1931. But the two people outside his immediate family who meant the most to him, his brother Christian and his lifelong friend Axel Carpelan, had both died leaving him feeling alone and abandoned. “Who will I write for now?” he said. Sibelius always revised his scores extensively after hearing them performed with orchestra several times; the situation with Tapiola, where the score was to be published before the first performances out of his hearing way across the ocean, frightened him, and likely made him all the more determined never again to release a score until he was sure it was perfect. His later attempt to fuss with Tapiola was squelched by his publisher. His alcoholism, always severe, (He once said, “alcohol is the one friend who never lets me down”) had caused tremor in his hands which became worse with age, making it painful to write out music, hence the extensive revisions he felt necessary would be difficult and slow. Eventually so much time had passed that in 1943, along with much other music, he burned the score, no doubt feeling distanced from it and unable to work on it further. His wife said that after that he was much calmer and more relaxed.

The author points out a musical figure used by Sibelius in virtually all his works, a sort of signature motif. I won’t tell you what it is, I’ll let you read the book to find out; you will kick yourself as I did for not figuring it out yourself.

Soon all of Sibelius’ works will have JSW numbers, from the in-progress Breitkopf & Härtel systematic-thematic catalog. In the meantime, beyond the opus numbers assigned by Sibelius, there are JS numbers and HUL (Helsinki University Library) numbers for every surviving small piece, sketch, and fragment.

I was surprised to read that Sibelius was so prolific. Most people know his symphonies, but they form a minority of his orchestral music which in turn constitutes a minority of his total output. In the complete list at the back of the book his large orchestral and choral works occupy ten pages, followed by 31 pages listing hundreds of smaller works — songs, choruses, violin pieces. The author tells you more than you really want to know about every one of these smaller works in the narrative as they were written, so after a while you may do some skimming as I did; but be careful: there are berries hidden among the leaves. I wondered why there was no map of Finland, only to discover it after I finished the book buried in the appendices; it should have been a frontispiece and could have had more detail. Sibelius at one point specifically repudiates Wagner and adopts Liszt as his model; nevertheless, in the author’s analysis of the First Symphony I would have pointed out the similarities between that work and Liszt’s Symphonic Poem No.1 “Ce qu’on entend sur le montagne.” It would have been nice to have included photographs of Jussi Jalas and of the young Aino. Apart from these tiny cavils, the work is exhaustively complete, beautifully balanced, acutely perceptive, well written, a real page turner.

Paul Shoemaker



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