Jean Sibelius


I have been trying for a while now to get my head around the music of the great Finnish master, struggling a bit, but finding the journey fascinating.  This blog is an “en route” recording of work in progress then, and something maybe to come back to at a later stage.  

I had picked up the idea from something I read that the seminal 4th Symphony grew primarily from the threat of throat cancer that he was living with at the time, and its melancholy seeking and occasional glimpses of light seemed to bear that out.  The parallel, so the argument goes, is that the positivity and defiance of the 5th reflect the lifting of the diagnosis and celebrate a kind of new lease on life.  Since then I’ve been reading a much more comprehensive biography by Erik Tawaststjerna in which it becomes clear that the first idea is simplistic to say the least!

I think I begin to see now that there were many different influences on JSs life, personality and music.  Finnish nationalism and the great Kalevala epic, and indeed the escape from Russian domination are one group of factors.  His own personal circumstances form another …. he’s always short of money and less than effective in managing it when he has some; he struggles with a dependance on alcohol and cigars and an ambition for “fine living”; he seems to have an insecurity about his direction in music, but also about his ability …. or at least his ability to please his peers and his critics (and indeed his publishers).  He does indeed have genuine anxieties about his health which do come to something of a climax at around the time of writing the 4th.  All and each of these are factors.

Above all though is that he is developing his musical voice.  I don’t have the musicological skill or knowledge to express this with any confidence, but I can hear and feel the newness of the 4th Symphony.  Tawaststjerna seems to make it clear though that those changes are musical choices by an exploring Sibelius rather than simply products of fear and apprehension or even of frustration and insecurity.  The 4th is Opus 63, the Bard is Op 64, Luonnotar is Op70 and the earlier Voces Intimae is Op56.  Tawaststjerna makes this suggestion:  “The magical closing bars of Luonnotar bring to an end the inward looking, metaphysical period of Sibelius’s development, which had begun in 1908 with Voces Intimae and reached its most concentrated and powerful expression in the Fourth Symphony” (Vol.2, p.255).

I can see the sense of that.  Intriguing though is what happens next.  I’ve just read the chapter entitled “America and the Oceanides”.  America where he is warmly and flatteringly received; Oceanides (Op 73) which is a wonderful tone poem.  Next up is Vol 3 which will introduce the 5th Symphony and perhaps begin to answer my question which is about whether he backtracks from his impressionism.

Should anyone read this who understands the man and his music better than I do – I would be delighted to hear from you!

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