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The Finlandian

The composer whose name and homeland were indistinguishable.

Mar 22, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 26 • By GEORGE B. STAUFFER
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“Men do not laugh in the Kalevala,” Goss reminds us, and then cites Arnold Bax’s observation that Sibelius “gave the impression of never having laughed in his life.” While the somber tales of the Kalevala enthralled Finns in the 1880s and ’90s, their appeal faded in the new century. Nor did they translate well to the outer world: Kullervo was never performed outside Finland during Sibelius’s lifetime. Unlike Bach’s Mass in B-Minor, with its universal Latin text, or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with its broad message of worldwide brotherhood, Kullervo addresses issues of myth that are of interest mainly to Finns, who seem ready to contemplate the nefarious undertakings of legendary forebears during the long nights of the Nordic winter. Few outside Finland appear willing to take the time and trouble to study the text of Kullervo to understand how it is enhanced by Sibelius’s meandering but remarkable 80-minute score.

To make matters worse, Sibelius remained committed to a conservative musical language, the tonal idiom of Wagner, Brahms, and other Romantic composers. By the second decade of the 20th century the three other S’s—Schoenberg, Scriabin, and Stravinsky—were introducing progressive forms and idioms that would have a global impact on musical language. Sibelius seemed hopelessly provincial by comparison, and he was painfully aware of the fact. As Alex Ross notes in his marvelous overview of 20th-century music, The Rest Is Noise, Sibelius confessed in his diary that “not everyone can be an ‘innovating genius’ ” and hoped that he would have a “small, modest place” in history.

The plight of Sibelius and other nationalist composers is nowhere clearer than in the realm of the symphony, which reigned as the supreme measure of musical stature in the 19th century. One could write virtuosic piano sonatas, witty quartets, or charming songs, but the symphony stood as the ultimate test of greatness. In this instrumental world, Beethoven at the beginning of the century and Mahler at the end set the gold standard, creating immense, highly integrated, architectonic symphonies against which all other large musical works were judged. Schumann and Brahms delayed writing symphonies until they were well advanced in their careers. Schubert feared competing directly with Beethoven and, in his last years, experimented with an innovative, highly lyrical type of work that resulted in an extended series of incomplete symphonies, of which the famous “Unfinished” is but one.

Sibelius fully recognized the problem and, like Schubert, tried to find a new way. Instead of writing works with a straightforward classical structure, he turned instead to creating symphonies that act as vast musical landscapes, with themes and transitions that float before the listener like states of mind. But by the time Sibelius began issuing symphonies in 1899, he was so firmly linked with the Finnish national awakening that even his abstract works were given patriotic programs. As Goss points out, commentators explained the perplexing, rapid mood changes of the Second Symphony by assigning it a patriotic program relating to Finland’s drive for independence. One writer gave it the epithet “Finland’s Struggle for Freedom” and labeled its four movements “Development before the Conflict,” “The Storm,” “National Resistance,” and “Free Fatherland.” This may have won favor among the Finns, but it held little meaning abroad. Even in America, critics viewed the music of the Second Symphony as “gruesome” and “neurotic,” with too much “meaningless repetition.” At best, they praised its “attractive weirdness,” and even Olin Downes, a strong Sibelius supporter, pronounced it “gloriously rude.” In light of such criticism, one can understand why Sibelius could not complete the Eighth Symphony, which he labored over for years before finally abandoning. Here Goss speculates: If Sibelius had accepted the Eastman post in 1920 and had come to the Land of the (ideologically) Free, might matters have ended differently?

Sibelius’s most successful instrumental work may be the Violin Concerto of 1904, with its classical forms and
Mendelssohn-like features. Here the dazzling cadenzas, figurative passagework, and heroic themes overcome dark, brooding Finnish melancholia and divert the listener’s attention from the less conventional formal aspects of the piece. The jury remains out on the symphonies, however, and they continue to spur spirited debate among Sibelius’s supporters and detractors. Goss cites the German critic Julius Meier-Graefe on Finnish painting: “In Finland, art is a cry of oppressed self-confidence. We do not understand the pictures because we do not have time to read the Kalevala or the other Finnish epics.” 

That may be the central issue of the music of Jean Sibelius. Do we have the time, or interest, to fully understand it?

George B. Stauffer, dean of the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers, is general editor of the Music Masterworks Series at Yale University Press.

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