Friday, November 13, 2015

Sibelius at 150: His 2nd Symphony

Not long after his 78th birthday, Jean Sibelius wrote to his son-in-law, “My second symphony is a confession of the soul.” What could he – or any other composer – mean by that?

This weekend's concerts with the Harrisburg Symphony celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the Birth of Jean Sibelius with a performance of his great Symphony No. 2, usually considered a masterpiece, a work he was working on when he turned 36. He was just beginning to achieve an international reputation beyond his native Finland.

The program also includes Rossini's incredibly famous William Tell Overture and a recent work by an up-and-coming young American composer Jonathan Leshnoff, the Double Concerto for Violin and Viola which will be played by violinist Alexander Kerr, returning to the HSO, and violist Michael Strauss who will be joining their fellow Curtis alumnus Stuart Malina for their first performance of this work and our first chance to hear a work composed only eight years ago.

The performances are Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg, and the pre-concert talk will be given an hour earlier by the orchestra's music director and conductor, Stuart Malina. (Don't forget to hang around after the concert for the Maestros' Talk-Back Q/A when he and guests from the concert will answer audience members' questions.

You can read more about the concert in David Dunkle's interview with Stuart in the Carlisle Sentinel here, and about the entire program in this previous post, which includes video clips of each complete work on the program.

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One of those commonplace things to say after hearing Sibelius' 2nd Symphony is that it's a depiction of the bleak Finnish landscape, its sound cold and forbidding like the Finnish winter, forgetting there could be any other type of landscape or season in Finland.

Rapallo, Italy
So I begin by pointing out here is where the 2nd Symphony came into being: it was on a visit to Rapallo in Sunny Italy in 1901 that Sibelius jotted down his first ideas to begin sketching what became the second movement, perhaps the bleakest sounds in the entire work. Perhaps, one might argue, he was homesick? Perhaps, another might respond, this was what music sounded like in Sibelius' soul?

After all, another might argue, it was a trip to Italy that produced one of Brahms' most light-hearted moments, the finale of his 2nd Piano Concerto. Why, then, was Sibelius' response so... dreary?

Kajanus & Sibelius, 1894
Sibelius was 35 years old when he began this new symphony in early 1901 – the previous year had not been an easy one. He had married Aino Järnefelt in 1892 and by the turn of the new century they had three daughters, but the youngest, Kirsti, born in 1898, died of typhoid fever in February, 1900, which sent Aino into a period of depression and Sibelius deeper into his drinking problem. Before this, his love of alcohol had been of a more “celebratory” nature, part of the partying lifestyle he had developed as a law student in Helsinki in his 20s. In the mid-1890s, it was part of his “Symposium,” the group that met at a Helsinki hotel cafe where discussions about art would last late into the night and be accompanied by vast quantities of alcohol. But now, after the death of his child, his drinking became darker and more dangerous.

That spring, his friend and fellow drinking buddy, the conductor Robert Kajanus, was taking his orchestra on a European tour of works by Finnish composers that would present 19 concerts in 13 cities, culminating at the Paris Exhibition. On the programs were several of Sibelius' works including his new 1st Symphony, revised after its premiere the previous year, along with the equally new and wildly popular Finlandia, two of the Lemminkainen Legends (including the Swan of Tuonela) written in 1895, and excerpts from the King Christian II Suite, written two years earlier for a friend's play. This would be the first time Sibelius' music would've been heard outside of Finland.

Swedish and Danish critics were enthusiastic, those in Berlin especially where one viewed him as “a composer of great talent, someone who knew how to express his elegiac feelings and pathos, but who went to extremes in his bursts of passion.” Another called him “a formidable talent.” Paris was less enthusiastic but given the successes particularly in Berlin, it was easier to take.

In October, a friend gave him money for a trip to Italy, suggesting it would do them good, so Sibelius took his family first to Berlin where they stayed till January but by that time, however, all of the money had spent and they hadn't even left for Italy. So he borrowed more money and soon arrived in the coastal town of Rapallo on the Italian Riviera where he began work on the slow movement of a new symphony which eventually took precedence over a proposed work inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy.

In the margins, he scratched out comments about the meeting of “Death with Don Juan,” a scene from the original legend comparable to the “Statue Scene” in Mozart's setting, Don Giovanni.

But soon his second daughter, 6-year-old Ruth, became ill with peritonitis and had a fever of 104°. She recovered but the family was grounded so she could convalesce. Sibelius traveled quickly to Rome where he jotted down themes in a notebook that would later be used in Pohjola's Daughter and Night Ride and Sunrise. Returning to his family, they went to Florence once Ruth was well enough to travel, then they returned home in May, stopping off in Prague where Sibelius met Antonin Dvořák.

But he was no sooner home than he was off again to Germany to conduct his music at a June festival in Heidelburg – again, to favorable reviews. Other conductors began performing his works elsewhere – music from King Christian II was the first music by Sibelius to be heard in England that fall.

Sibelius' home in 1901
In the autumn, once back in Finland, he resumed his work on the 2nd Symphony which he completed early the next year in time for him to conduct its March premiere.

A triumph, his newest work – regarded by one influential critic as “an absolute masterpiece, one of the few symphonic creations of our time that point in the same direction as the symphonies of Beethoven" – was viewed as a “heroic” symphony “imbued with a patriotic spirit” by Finns pessimistic over the state of Russian oppression.

(Keep in mind, Finland had been an autonomous Grand Duchy within the Russian Empire since 1809 but only recently had the Russians begun to censor nationalistic views in what was called the “Russification of Finland” – independence would not come until after the 1917 Revolutions toppled the tsar and that, only after a brief but fierce civil war.)

Though Sibelius denied he wrote the symphony in support of nationalism as any kind of outwardly patriotic statement (don't forget, his Finlandia had been an overtly patriotic work written only three years earlier: what would patriotic Finns hope for?) or that he wrote it inspired by his own dark drama ultimately overcoming Fate (if not Beethoven's 3rd, why not Beethoven's 5th?), he did write that one comment years later in which, looking back on his career over a distance of four decades, he described the symphony as “a confession of the soul.”

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In the usual scheme of things, we think of Classical Music Composers as child prodigies like Mozart or Mendelssohn or who, like Schubert, died young. Remembering that Sibelius completed his 2nd Symphony when he was 36, remember that at 36 Schubert had already been dead five years and Mozart, one; Mendelssohn would die at 38. Let's face it, judging from the 19th Century, becoming a composer was not a guarantee of longevity.

Sibelius, 1923 at 57
But Sibelius, born on Dec. 8th, 1865, died on Sept. 20th, 1957, at the age of 91. The only thing was, he had essentially stopped composing around the time he was in his early-60s, living an almost 30 more years as fans waited and hoped for new pieces from a composer who'd risen to become one of the most popular living composers – and then, without anything new to show, fallen quietly into a kind of old-fashioned oblivion.

To many younger musicians today, Sibelius is a music notation software on their computer developed by the Finns (actually, twins Ben and Jonathan Finn who were British students) in the mid-1980s.

But there was a time when Sibelius ruled the concert halls of Europe, especially England, and America. In the fall of 1920 when Sibelius was 54, the Eastman School of Music offered him a professorship which he considered for a long time before turning them down. He had already been to America as part of Yale's commission of a tone-poem that eventually became known as The Oceanides, premiered at Yale's summer music festival in Norfolk in 1914. Sibelius made the ocean journey, finishing the work during the voyage, then stayed to visit Niagara Falls, receiving during his tour an honorary doctorate from Yale, and meeting various American composers (as well as a former President, Howard Taft).

He made plans to return the following year for an extensive American tour which, he wrote home, would solve his financial problems. Unfortunately, by the time he returned from this trip, World War I had already begun which cut him off not only from his American plans but from his Berlin publisher and from the rest of the world.

Then, after the 1930s, when it became clear he was no longer producing new works – the long awaited 8th Symphony appears only to have been a myth, its near-completion and possible premiere a constant tease – his star began to fade. In 1938, the writer Theodore Adorno attacked Sibelius, writing, “If Sibelius is good, this invalidates the standards of musical quality that have persisted from Bach to Schoenberg.” And in 1955, on the occasion of the composer's 90th birthday, French composer and conductor René Liebowitz called Sibelius “the worst composer in the world.”

Sibelius' response, typical of any embattled artist, was to tell his friends not to pay attention to the critics, adding that no one ever raised a statue to a critic.

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Today, Sibelius has his champions and his detractors. It is curious, especially concerning how modern music evolved in the early-20th Century. Sibelius' style is hardly traditional – the 4th Symphony is undoubtedly one of the most austere works by a “romanticist” ever written – but he is not ground-breaking in the sense of Claude Debussy or Igor Stravinsky or Arnold Schoenberg. Perhaps part of that is because of his Finnish roots, outside the usual Western European circuit.

He is not a folklorist despite his reliance on ancient tales from the Kalevala that appear in The Swan of Tuonela of the Lemminkainen Legends or his early symphonic work, Kullervo. His musical language is not inspired by folk music though, for a time, he studied the “ancient runes” of Old Finland and incorporated some of them in his early music (the “Karelia” Suite, for instance) but otherwise, however much it might have shaped his melodies, it had little influence on his style.

Near Sibelius' birthplace
He is best known for seven abstract symphonies and his programmatic tone-poems ranging from Finlandia to Pohjola's Daughter to Tapiola, again, bristling with Nordic references. If anything, much of his music is shaped by the Finnish landscape: Nature was always one of his major influences and one of the typical responses by Westerners is to compare his music to Finland's “bleak wintry landscapes.”

In further posts to celebrate the 150th Anniversary, I'll summarize his biography – check back here for the link – but for now, I'd like to conclude with some quotes from Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Tim Page's 1996 article for the Washington Post about coming to terms with Sibelius at the end of the 20th Century:

“There are two things to be said straightaway about Sibelius. First, he is terribly uneven (much of his chamber music, a lot of his songs and most of his piano music might have been churned out by a second-rate salon composer from the 19th century on an off afternoon). Second, at his very best, he is often weird.

“For example, the Symphony No. 6 (1923) is one of the century's most curious masterpieces – serene, beatific, almost Mozartean in its clarity and grace, suffused with warm winter light. It is rarely played, has little to do with anything else Sibelius ever composed (what to make of the second movement, that long series of musical question marks?), and its interpreters have a habit of trying to turn it into Tchaikovsky or the more traditionally "romantic" Sibelius Symphony No. 5 or something else that they might recognize – trying, in other words, to make it fit into a pattern. And it doesn't fit – which is not at all to say it doesn't work.”

His music, for all its epic grandeur at times – thinking of the 2nd and 5th Symphonies – is also full of dramatic silences, that silence which is a significant part of Nature.

Page goes on to say, “If silence can be defined as an absence of sound, it may be helpful for the novice, when coming to Sibelius, to consider his music a temporary respite from quietude. The image of Sibelius as a brooding poet of the spare, near-motionless, unpeopled North is fairly hackneyed by now, but it is no less true for all that.”

- Dick Strawser

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The portrait of Kajanus & Sibelius is a detail from Akseli Gallen-Kallala's painting depicting the "Symposium" in 1894 which also features the artist and the (face-down) composer-conductor, Oskar Merikanto.

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