A Composer’s Life and the Awakening of Finland
by Glenda Dawn Goss
University of Chicago, 549 pp., $55
On a wintry day in January 1920, Alf Klingenberg, the recently appointed director of the newly formed Eastman School of Music in Rochester, offered Jean Sibelius a position as professor of composition. Klingenberg wanted to make a bold move that would mark the young school as a music conservatory of distinction, one with a European pedigree. Klingenberg explained to Sibelius that he would “teach composition to the up-and-coming geniuses in America.” At the same time he assured him that “the number of those will certainly not make your workload too heavy.”
Sibelius was 54 and at the peak of his fame. He had composed Finlandia, numerous symphonies, a greatly admired violin concerto, and many other works. He was known as the father of Finnish music and hailed in his homeland as a national hero. It was Sibelius, after all, who had helped to shape the culture of the emerging nation that had proclaimed its independence from Russia just three years before. His picture was displayed in homes, shops, and institutions throughout Finland. His music was performed throughout the world. Who could possibly be in a better position to put the Eastman School on America’s cultural map?
Sibelius considered the matter for a year before cabling Klingenberg “Yes” in January 1921. But then he wavered. Friends urged him to stay true to his country and not squander his energies on “young Americans,” in an environment that was both “strenuous and inartistic.” His British supporter and early biographer Rosa Newmarch, in particular, discouraged him from entering into the wilds of the New World. In the end, Sibelius reversed himself, declined Klingenberg’s offer, and remained “a good patriot” (as he himself expressed it), living out the remaining 37 years of his life at his country villa, where he died in 1957 at the age of 91.
But the steady flow of works ceased soon after the Eastman decision. Sibelius lapsed into bouts of depression and drunkenness that resulted in one of the longest and most famous periods of compositional silence in music history. Charles Ives abruptly stopped composing in 1918 at age 53, telling his wife, Harmony, that “nothing sounded right.” He lived for another 27 years. Gioachino Rossini stopped writing operas in 1829 at the age of 37, just after the immense success of William Tell. He lived for another 39 years. But it is Sibelius’s retreat into the Finnish woods, at the height of his international popularity, that has caught the imagination of modern music historians. What caused such creative angst—angst that seems to have been exorcized only by the ritualistic burning of unfinished pieces in front of his wife in the 1940s? What produced Sibelius’s grand compositional funk?
Getting to the bottom of this mystery is the goal of this magisterial new book. Glenda Dawn Goss, former editor in chief of the Sibelius critical edition, states from the outset that her objective is to unearth the roots of the composer’s withdrawal from the world, which she believes can be found in the cultural changes that took place in Finland during the century that led up to the Russian Revolution and the subsequent liberation of Finland. “To understand Sibelius, to try to fathom the mystery of his lost creativity, mortifyingly played out on an international stage, requires understanding more fully the world from which he came,” she writes in the introduction. She accomplishes this through a fascinating study of Finnish culture and politics, devoting 442 pages, 32 figures, 12 plates, and an extensive research apparatus to the task of putting us in Sibelius’s dandified shoes (no native clogs for this Scandinavian, we quickly learn). While psychobiographies of composers have become increasingly popular in recent years (one thinks of Maynard Solomon’s studies of Mozart and Schubert), Goss provides instead a cultural biography, a genre that seems entirely appropriate for a nationalistic composer such as Sibelius.
The basic signposts of his life are well known. Born the son of a military physician in 1865, he showed a natural affinity for music. He began piano at age nine before moving to violin and composition, and after a brief flirtation with law studies, enrolled in the Helsinki Music Institute, where he majored in violin and composition. Additional study in Berlin and Vienna led to the composition of his first great work, Kullervo, an immense, sprawling symphonic poem based on a tale from the Finnish folk epic, Kalevala. Completed in 1892, it made Sibelius an instant national hero at age 27.