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Sibelius' magic secrets
by Thanos Kalamidas
2007-09-20 09:43:59
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There is only one way to appreciate Jean Sibelius' music: Close your eyes and let his music fly you into the forest. Johan Julius Christian ‘Jean’ Sibelius was born December 8th 1865 and died exactly 50 years ago on September 20th 1957. He is one of the most influential classic composers of the 20th century and his music was very important for the newly-born Finnish identity.

Following Beethoven’s steps he composed seven symphonies influenced from his nationalistic romanticism for the new country and its need for a historical and ethnic identity. Despite the fact that he was born in a Swedish-speaking environment he totally followed Finnish-based education, which became a critical element in his artistic and political approach.

Finnish history and legends gradually became the center of his work and inspiration with the Finnish epic poem Kalevala taking a big part of the Karelia Suite and my favorite Tapiola, which was one of his last works. Sibelius stopped composing after finishing the Seventh Symphony in 1924 and Tapiola in 1926, and that lasted until the end of his life. According to his wife’s memoirs, Sibelius one day said that since he cannot compose something better than his Seventh Symphony it is not worth to keep trying to send a lot of his work up in flames.

Naturally you can find a lot of information about Sibelius on the internet or in books - there is even a film production about his life – so nothing will help if I just add more facts about him that you can find elsewhere, but I can say how I feel about Sibelius' music.

The first time I heard anything of Sibelius was a long time ago, before I even made sure where Finland lay on the map and the first composition I heard it was Finlandia. I have to admit that I couldn’t listen even to the whole part because the pompous rhythm and the strong militaristic feeling kept me away, far away, for a long time. A few years later in Paris I heard for the first time a piano concerto from a song by Sibelius and it wasn't until much later that I heard all of the Fourth Symphony.

The sadness that the melody carried had nothing at all to do with the composer of that military rhythm I had first heard. Here was a romantic, traveling through music and inspiration searching for his inner-self. The way the strings accompanied the piano, the slow walk of the sounds took me with them on a journey that ended in my own inner-world. I think that period my record player had Sibelius for days.

And then I came to Finland to really find Sibelius. As I mentioned before, Tapiola and the Karelia Suite gradually became my favorites without that meaning that I don’t enjoy the rest of his work. For some reason Tapiola is much more Finland than Finlandia will ever be. Tapiola is the sound of the forest, the breath of the frozen wind and the sound from her people. Tapiola is a soft carpet that can transport you into a dreamland and the forest can become yours.

As I said in the beginning, the only thing you have to do is close your eyes and let Sibelius do the rest. Sibelius' music is often performed in Finland, as anybody can imagine, and there are some very good performances on records for those of you without easy access to Finland. The best way to finish this remembrance of the great Finnish composer is a part of the Tapiola poem Sibelius loved:

Widespread they stand, the Northland's dusky forests,
Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams;
Within them dwells the Forest's mighty God,
And wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.

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Emanuel Paparella2007-09-20 13:41:27
Some personal observations on Sibelius: in my classes on Humanities Sibelius always occupies a prominent place as a great Romantic nationalist. Under that particular rubric the student is assigned to listen to Sibelius’ Finlandia, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, Verdi’s Nabucco and Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung. When it comes to suggestions for research paper, one of the suggestions is this: a research into why Sibelius is not played very often in Germany and, on the other hand, why Wagner is not played very often in Israel. Another topic is: why did both Giovanni Verga and Sibelius create nothing in the last thirty years of their lives? These suggestions usually take the student into some interesting historical byways such as Wagner anti-semitic letters to his wife, and the fact that Sibelius was misguidedly beloved by those who rejected modernism in music, and that he accepted the Goethe award from the Nazis on his 70th birthday in 1935. Those topics are also sure to raise a vigorous discussion when it comes to class presentations on the last day of class. Indeed nationalism has created some weird and distorted behavior in some of the greatest artists of all times. Nevertheless, while their political actions as individuals can and in fact ought to be examined and judged, it is a mistake to judge the quality of their art by their ideology or their nationalism. Art is judged only by its universal approval and appeal. On that score Sibelius is and will remain a giant of art.

Eva2007-09-20 16:34:52
I always feel a pang of homesickness when I listen to Sibelius. For me, his music sums up the Finnish soul.

Thanos2007-09-20 22:43:04
Interesting lesson!!! However as you have already mentioned I learned long time now not to judge artists from their political views. I think and I say that from personal experience; some are so romantic that they lose any contact with reality. A contemporary of Sibelius, Ezra Pound is a very good example of a schizophrenic situation where the poet is totally different than the man.

Eva hi! Funny but Sibelius for me is the Finland … I love!
BTW had a small accident (!!!) with my computer and lost my mails, please send me a mail!

Emanuel Paparella2007-09-21 10:56:14
Quite right Sir. Another schizophrenic situation is that of Martin Heidegger who wrote some wonderful things regarding modern Man's existential situation and then he heard the voice of Being in Hitler and joined the Nazi party for a short while. Extreme romanticism? I doubt it. More likely extreme rationalism. Go figure. I had a professor once who gave a whole course on Heidegger and never mentioned this bizarre situation. When I dared mention it in my research paper he was very displeased (and showed it with the low grade he assigned to the paper)as if I were attacking his philosophy per se. Had he made a pet of a monster, albeit a very clever one? One wonders.

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