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Jean Sibelius Jean Sibelius
by Thanos Kalamidas
2009-12-08 09:33:33
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Even though I keep my distance from the pompous Finlandia, Jean Sibelius has managed to grow in me and become one of my most favourite composers especially with his Tapiola. Actually my love to his music has become the reason to give his wife’s name Aino to my daughter. So since December 8th is his birthday it is a good chance to remember some things about the great Finnish composer.

sibelius01Jean Sibelius born on December 8th 1865 Finnish composer of the later Romantic period whose music played an important role in the formation of the Finnish national identity. The core of Sibelius's oeuvre is his set of seven symphonies. Like Beethoven, Sibelius used each one to develop further his own personal compositional style. Unlike Beethoven who used the symphonies to make public statements, and who reserved his more intimate feelings for his smaller works, Sibelius released his personal feelings in the symphonies. These works continue to be performed frequently in the concert hall and are often recorded.

In addition to the symphonies, Sibelius's best-known compositions include Finlandia, Valse Triste, the violin concerto, the Karelia Suite and The Swan of Tuonela (one of the four movements of the Lemminkäinen Suite). Other works include pieces inspired by the Kalevala, over 100 songs for voice and piano, incidental music for 13 plays, the opera Jungfrun i tornet (The Maiden in the Tower), chamber music, piano music, 21 separate publications of choral music, and Masonic ritual music. Sibelius composed prolifically until the mid-1920s. However, soon after completing his Seventh Symphony (1924), the incidental music to The Tempest (1926), and the tone poem Tapiola (1926), he produced no large scale works for the remaining thirty years of his life. Although he is reputed to have stopped composing, he did attempt to continue writing, including abortive attempts to compose an eighth symphony. He wrote some Masonic music and re-edited some earlier works during this last period of his life, and retained an active interest in new developments in music, although he did not always view modern music favourably.

Johan Julius Christian Sibelius was born into a Swedish-speaking family in Hämeenlinna in the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland, the son of Christian Gustaf Sibelius and Maria Charlotta Sibelius. Although known as "Janne" to his family, during his student years he began using the French form of his name, "Jean", inspired by the business card of his seafaring uncle. He is universally known as Jean Sibelius.
Against the larger context of the rise of the Fennoman movement and its expressions of Romantic Nationalism, his family decided to send him to a Finnish language school, and he attended the Hämeenlinna Normal-Lycée from 1876 to 1885. Romantic Nationalism was to become a crucial element in Sibelius's artistic output and his politics.

After Sibelius graduated from high school in 1885, he began to study law at the Imperial Alexander University of Finland (now the University of Helsinki). However, he was more interested in music than in law, and he soon quit his studies. From 1885 to 1889, Sibelius studied music in the Helsinki music school (now the Sibelius Academy). One of his teachers there was Martin Wegelius. Sibelius continued studying in Berlin (from 1889 to 1890) and in Vienna (from 1890 to 1891).

Jean Sibelius married Aino Järnefelt (1871–1969) at Maxmo on 10 June 1892. Their home, called Ainola, was completed at Lake Tuusula, Järvenpää in 1903, and the two lived out the remainder of their lives there. They were married for 64 years and had six daughters: Iva, Ruth, Kirsti (who died at a very young age), Katarine, Margaret, and Heidi.

In 1911, Sibelius underwent a serious operation for suspected throat cancer. The impact of this brush with death can be seen in several of the works that he composed at the time, including Luonnotar and the Fourth Symphony.

sibelius02Sibelius loved nature, and the Finnish landscape often served as material for his music. He once said of his Sixth Symphony, "[It] always reminds me of the scent of the first snow." The forests surrounding Ainola are often said to have inspired his composition of Tapiola. On the subject of Sibelius's ties to nature, one biographer of the composer, Erik Tawaststjerna, wrote the following:
Even by Nordic standards, Sibelius responded with exceptional intensity to the moods of nature and the changes in the seasons: he scanned the skies with his binoculars for the geese flying over the lake ice, listened to the screech of the cranes, and heard the cries of the curlew echo over the marshy grounds just below Ainola. He savoured the spring blossoms every bit as much as he did autumnal scents and colours.

The year 1926 saw a sharp and lasting decline in Sibelius's output: after his Seventh Symphony, he only produced a few major works in the rest of his life. Arguably the two most significant were incidental music for Shakespeare's The Tempest and the tone poem Tapiola. For nearly the last thirty years of his life, Sibelius even avoided talking about his music.

There is substantial evidence that Sibelius worked on an eighth numbered symphony. He promised the premiere of this symphony to Serge Koussevitzky in 1931 and 1932, and a London performance in 1933 under Basil Cameron was even advertised to the public. However, the only concrete evidence for the symphony's existence on paper is a 1933 bill for a fair copy of the first movement. Sibelius had always been quite self-critical; he remarked to his close friends, "If I cannot write a better symphony than my Seventh, then it shall be my last." Since no manuscript survives, sources consider it likely that Sibelius destroyed all traces of the score, probably in 1945, during which year he certainly consigned (in his wife's presence) a great many papers to the flames. 

On January 1, 1939, Sibelius participated in an international radio broadcast which included the composer conducting his Andante Festivo. The performance was preserved on transcription discs and later issued on CD. This is probably the only surviving example of Sibelius interpreting his own music.

His 90th birthday, in 1955, was widely celebrated and both the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Thomas Beecham gave special performances of his music in Finland. The orchestras and their conductors also met the composer at his home; a series of memorable photographs were taken to commemorate the occasions. Both Columbia Records and EMI released some of the pictures with albums of Sibelius's music. Beecham was honoured by the Finnish government for his efforts to promote Sibelius both in the United Kingdom and in the United States.

Tawaststjerna also relayed an endearing anecdote regarding Sibelius's death: He was returning from his customary morning walk. Exhilarated, he told his wife Aino that he had seen a flock of cranes approaching. "There they come, the birds of my youth," he exclaimed. Suddenly, one of the birds broke away from the formation and circled once above Ainola. It then rejoined the flock to continue its journey. Two days afterwards Sibelius died of a brain haemorrhage, at age 91 (on 20 September 1957), in Ainola, where he is buried in the garden. Another well-known Finnish composer, Heino Kaski, died that same day. Aino lived there for the next twelve years until she died on 8 June 1969; she is buried with her husband.

In 1972, Sibelius's surviving daughters sold Ainola to the State of Finland. The Ministry of Education and the Sibelius Society opened it as a museum in 1974.

Like many of his contemporaries, Sibelius was initially enamored with the music of Wagner. A performance of Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival had a strong effect on him, inspiring him to write to his wife shortly thereafter, "Nothing in the world has made such an impression on me, it moves the very strings of my heart." He studied the scores of Wagner's operas Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, and Die Walküre intently. With this music in mind, Sibelius began work on an opera of his own, entitled Veneen luominen (The Building of the Boat).

However, his appreciation for Wagner waned and Sibelius ultimately rejected Wagner's Leitmotif compositional technique, considering it to be too deliberate and calculated. Departing from opera, he later used the musical material from the incomplete Veneen luominen in his Lemminkäinen Suite (1893). He did, however, compose a considerable number of songs for voice and piano, whose early interpreters included Aino Ackté and particularly Ida Ekman.

sibelius03More lasting influences included Ferruccio Busoni, Anton Bruckner and Tchaikovsky. Hints of Tchaikovsky's music are particularly evident in works such as Sibelius's First Symphony (1899) and his Violin Concerto (1905). Similarities to Bruckner are most strongly felt in the 'unmixed' timbral palette and sombre brass chorales of Sibelius's orchestration, as well as in the latter composer's fondness for pedal points and in the underlying slow pace of his music.

Sibelius progressively stripped away formal markers of sonata form in his work and, instead of contrasting multiple themes, he focused on the idea of continuously evolving cells and fragments culminating in a grand statement. His later works are remarkable for their sense of unbroken development, progressing by means of thematic permutations and derivations. The completeness and organic feel of this synthesis has prompted some to suggest that Sibelius began his works with a finished statement and worked backwards, although analyses showing these predominantly three- and four-note cells and melodic fragments as they are developed and expanded into the larger "themes" effectively prove the opposite.

This self-contained structure stood in stark contrast to the symphonic style of Gustav Mahler, Sibelius's primary rival in symphonic composition. While thematic variation played a major role in the works of both composers, Mahler's style made use of disjunct, abruptly changing and contrasting themes, while Sibelius sought to slowly transform thematic elements. In November 1907 Mahler undertook a conducting tour of Finland, and the two composers had occasion to go on a lengthy walk together. Sibelius later reported that during the walk: “I said that I admired [the symphony's] severity of style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motifs... Mahler's opinion was just the reverse. 'No, a symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.”

However, the two rivals did find common ground in their music. Like Mahler, Sibelius made frequent use both of folk music and of literature in the composition of his works. The Second Symphony's slow movement was sketched from the motive of Il Commendatore in Don Giovanni, while the stark Fourth Symphony combined work for a planned "Mountain" symphony with a tone poem based on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven". Sibelius also wrote several tone poems based on Finnish poetry, beginning with the early En Saga and culminating in the late Tapiola (1926), his last major composition.


Over time, he sought to use new chord patterns, including naked tritones (for example in the Fourth Symphony), and bare melodic structures to build long movements of music, in a manner similar to Joseph Haydn's use of built-in dissonances. Sibelius would often alternate melodic sections with noble brass chords that would swell and fade away, or he would underpin his music with repeating figures which push against the melody and counter-melody.

Sibelius's melodies often feature powerful modal implications: for example much of the Sixth Symphony is in the (modern) Dorian mode. Sibelius studied Renaissance polyphony, as did his contemporary, the Danish composer Carl Nielsen, and Sibelius's music often reflects the influence of this early music. He often varied his movements in a piece by changing the note values of melodies, rather than the conventional change of tempi. He would often draw out one melody over a number of notes, while playing a different melody in shorter rhythm. For example, his Seventh Symphony comprises four movements without pause, where every important theme is in C major or C minor; the variation comes from the time and rhythm. His harmonic language was often restrained, even iconoclastic, compared to many of his contemporaries who were already experimenting with musical Modernism. As reported by Neville Cardus in the Manchester Guardian newspaper in 1958, “Sibelius justified the austerity of his old age by saying that while other composers were engaged in manufacturing cocktails he offered the public pure cold water.”


         
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Emanuel Paparella2009-12-08 12:00:44
Interesting profile of a complex man whose music reflected his romantic ambiguities and social and political perplexities besides his beloved Finnish landscape. In a piece which appeared in The New Yorker on 2 July 2007 Alex Ross rewrites a modified version of chapter 5 of his book on Sibelius The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twenty Century and ends the piece with this intriguing comment: “In 1984, the great American avant-garde composer Morton Feldman gave a lecture at the relentlessly up-to-date Summer Courses for New Music, in Darmstadt, Germany. ‘The people who you think are radicals might really be conservatives,’ Feldman said on that occasion. ‘The people who you think are conservative might really be radical.’ And he began to hum the Sibelius Fifth.”


ap2009-12-09 03:18:20
if you don't know him, give a listen to Villa-Lobos (Radio France has been dedicating daily shows to his music this week - 50th anniversary of his death). first show here:
http://sites.radiofrance.fr/francemusique/em/compositeurs/emission.php?e_id=65000047&d_id=395001739


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