The Sibelius Problem

‘Whatever became of Jean Sibelius? For the first half of the 20th century, the square-headed Finn was the totemic symbol of a heroic nation and the most admired living symphonist,’ wrote Norman Lebrecht in June 2007. ‘Today, half a century after his death, the commemoration is being marked by virtual silence. Apart from an October symphonic cycle planned in Los Angeles and London by Esa-Pekka Salonen and another in Birmingham, England, by fellow Finn Sakari Oramo, few Sibelius retrospectives have been announced beyond the Baltic,’ he continued.

In Lebrecht’s analysis, ‘in the second half of the 20th century, Mahler won the argument for inclusivism while the serialists took over logical purism. Together they put Sibelius out in the cold, a Baltic hero consigned to the fringe of continental civilization.’ True, this is how the development in the 1950s and 1960s may be seen. But it must be added that both Mahler and the serialists were backed up by people of considerable influence.

One of them was Theodor W. Adorno. In 1938 he published a review of Bengt de Törne’s book Sibelius: A Close-Up (Faber & Faber, London, 1937). He was irritated by the uncritical personality cult in that book, but his actual target was Sibelius. ‘If Sibelius is good, then all criteria of musical excellence valid from Bach to Schoenberg, such as complexity, articulation, unity in diversity, multiplicity in oneness, are frail.’ Sibelius’s scores are a ‘configuration of the banal and the absurd;’ all details sound ‘commonplace and familiar,’ but their arrangement is meaningless, ‘as if the words gas station, lunch, death, Greta, plow blade had been arbitrarily put together with verbs and particles.’[1]

In his Philosophy of Modern Music (1949/2006)[2] that Adorno wrote in American exile during and after World War II and that he called an ‘extended appendix’ to his and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947/1972) Schoenberg stood for ‘Progress’ while Stravinsky represented ‘Restoration.’ In this dialectic picture composers who did not belong to either of these lines were slightly marginalized. Bartók was an exception, since he made an attempt to reconcile Schoenberg and Stravinsky, but ‘Edward Elgar’s trumped-up fame seemed to be a local phenomenon and Jean Sibelius’s fame an exceptional instance of critical ignorance.’[3]

For Adorno, Sibelius was a perfect example of what he called ‘fetish character in music.’ When music became consumer goods, an ‘abyss developed between public taste and compositional quality.’ The consequence was that all kinds of dilettantes were celebrated as great composers, and Sibelius was a dilettante who could neither write a four-part chorale nor work up proper counterpoint. Worst was that his music was tonal. ‘When a contemporary composer, such as Jean Sibelius, makes do entirely with tonal resources, they sound just as false as do the tonal enclaves in atonal music.’[4]

The reverse side of Adorno’s argument was political. In Hitler’s Germany Sibelius had a strong position. Between 1933 and 1945 he was fourth in number of orchestral performances (after Strauss, Pfitzner, and Reger), while any music written by Jews (e.g. Mahler and Schoenberg) and any music inconsistent with the Nazi aesthetics (e.g. Webern and Hindemith) was banned. Sibelius had unwittingly ended up in the wrong company, and he had to pay for it after the war.

The reason for his popularity in the Third Reich, in Adorno’s interpretation, was that his music had certain features in common with Nazi nature mysticism: ‘The Great Pan, also Blood and Soil when needed, promptly offers assistance. The trivial stands for the original, the inarticulate for the voice of unconscious creation.’[5]

Adorno was a leading intellectual figure in post-war Western Germany, and he had a large number of single-minded devotees in contemporary music circles both there and in neighboring countries, such as Austria, Switzerland, and France. One of them was the French composer and conductor René Leibowitz (1913–1972), a former student of Schoenberg and Berg. In 1955, to ‘honor’ Sibelius’s 90th birthday, he published a pamphlet entitled Sibelius, le plus mauvais compositeur du monde (Sibelius, the world’s worst composer),[6] which is, in fact, a paraphrase of Adorno’s book review from 1938. How much this little invective affected Sibelius’s reputation in the francophone countries is difficult to estimate, but it may be symptomatic that one of Leibowitz’s most influential students, Pierre Boulez, never has conducted a single work of Sibelius.

Leibowitz later explained that the title of his pamphlet was a joke: ‘In France, we had a questionnaire about who was the best composer in the world. Sibelius was mentioned. I reacted to this over-exaggeration by saying that he was the worst.’[7] This explanation does not sound very trustworthy. It rather seems to me that the title has been inspired by another of Adorno’s essays from 1938, Über den Fetischcharacter in  der Musik und die Regression des Hörens (On the fetish character in music and the regression of listening): ‘The realm of musical life that peacefully extends from such compositional enterprises as Irving Berlin and Walter Donaldson—“the world’s best composer” [in English]—via Gershwin, Sibelius and Tchaikovsky to Schubert’s Symphony in B minor, labeled The Unfinished [in English] is one of the fetishes.’[8] Adorno’s essay was republished in Dissonanzen (1956), but Leibowitz probably knew it already from the original location, the same volume of Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung (7:3, 1938) that also contains the review of Törne’s book.

German historical criticism has not unwillingly followed Adorno’s footsteps. In Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht’s Musik im Abendland (1996), a history of western music, Sibelius’s name is not mentioned. Hermann Danuser claims in his Die Musik des 20. Jahrhunderts (Music of the 20th Century, 1984) that Sibelius wrote ‘the music to the film The Unknown Soldier (1926)’[9]—a strange example of deficient source criticism. In fact, a film by that name, based on Väinö Linna’s famous novel (1954), was directed by Edwin Laine in 1956, and Sibelius’s Finlandia op. 26 (1899/1900) was used in it to accompany the opening scene, in which soldiers carry bodies of their dead comrades from the frontier. The first Finnish film with a soundtrack was made in 1931.

Carl Dahlhaus, the most prominent music historian of post-war Western Germany, acknowledges that Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony (1911) has a place in history as a genuinely modern work that is not ‘in need of special geographical pleading to justify it aesthetically in the midst of musical modernism.’ In this work, Sibelius had ‘reached a “state of musical material” (to borrow a phrase from his detractor, Adorno), which he was never to surpass, not even in his Seventh Symphony (1924).’[10] This assessment, James Hepokoski, a musicologist from Yale University, claims, means ‘nothing less than that after the Fourth Symphony Sibelius’s music no longer belongs to “history”.’[11]

What belongs in the history of music, according to Dahlhaus, is determined either by the aesthetic quality of a piece of music or by its significance for the art’s future development. But critics are often ‘incapable of making aesthetic judgments without first establishing a figure’s historical “import”,’ and this explains why composers such as Sibelius and Busoni ‘fell into an aesthetic no-man’s-land’: they simply failed ‘to conform to historiographical formulae.’[12]

The historiographical formula Dahlhaus had in mind obviously was the Adornian dichotomy of ‘Progress’ and ‘Restoration,’ represented by Schoenberg and Stravinsky, respectively. True, Sibelius does not fit into it. He cannot be seen (like Mahler or Strauss) as a precursor of Schoenberg and the New Vienna School, nor did he have any influence on Stravinsky. The easiest way to dodge the problem was to label him, a detrimental outsider in the realm of German symphonic music, as a national romantic composer, one whose late orchestral works were nothing more than the continuation of the national tradition he had created in orchestral and choral music at the turn of the century.

Danuser ultimately nails down Sibelius’s place in history by assuming that the extraordinary esteem his music enjoyed in the U.S. at that time (early twentieth century) was, in the first place, based on the impression that he had—with his large-scale, yet ‘easily understandable works of some artistic ambition’ (my italics)—‘implemented in Finnish national music something that America was looking for on its own.’[13]

Music history is always written from within a certain position. Germany—as a country of such a great musical tradition ‘from Bach to Schoenberg’ (as Adorno put it)—has had difficulties with intruders in their traditions that they, nevertheless, see as ‘universal’ rather than ‘national.’ For a German, Schumann’s piano concerto is ‘music,’ while Grieg’s is ‘Norwegian music.’ The geographical attribute hints at inferiority—or at least at something outside the mainstream.

Sibelius was aware of this problem, as his diary entries from 1914 to 1918 show.[14]

— ‘Probably has this name “symphony” been more of harm than of benefit for my symphonies’ (10/18/1914).

— ‘Perhaps has the name harmed them. But— they are symphonies after all. The notion has to be widened. At least have I made a contribution’ (11/21/1914).

— ‘Very strange that the name of my symphonies should be their worst enemy. These old gentlemen with their “concepts” would of course prefer to call them fantasies or something—what would I know’ (2/5/1918).

If German criticism under the influence of Adorno’s philosophy of history had difficulties to place Sibelius in a context and accept him as a major figure in early 20th-century music, British and American criticism had no such problems. Early champions of Sibelius’s music in England were Ernst Newman, Eric Blom (Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 3rd edition, 1928), Cecil Gray (Sibelius, 1931; Sibelius: The Symphonies, 1935), Constant Lambert (Music Ho! A Study of Music in Decline, 1934), Donald Francis Tovey (Essays in Musical Analysis, 1935–39) and Gerald Abraham (Sibelius. A Symposium, 1947). In America, his cause was most efficiently promoted by Olin Downes in the Boston Post (1907–1922) and the New York Times (1924–1957).

Lambert confirms that Sibelius’s concern about the name of his symphonies was not unjustified. The Fourth Symphony (1911), for instance, ‘although in every respect as remarkable and challenging a work as the famous “spot” pieces of Debussy, Stravinsky, and Schönberg… seems to have made singularly little impact on the consciousness of the time, and even today it remains among the least comprehended and most neglected of his works. The reason is that it obstinately refuses to be fitted into any category, ancient or modern.’[15]

A more recent commentator, Arnold Whittall, thinks on the same lines when speaking of the Fifth Symphony (1915/1919): ‘It is scarcely surprising (though profoundly depressing) that such a radical yet organic transformation of the traditional sonata design should have passed uncomprehended.’ He does not share the commonplace opinion that the Fifth Symphony was a retreat from the ‘austere perfection’ of the Fourth ‘into a safer world of the better known and the well tried.’ The last three symphonies, on the contrary, ‘stem from the determination to pursue the implications of the masterly Fourth’ (Music since the First World War, 1977).[16] This insight has since then only deepened in the rapidly increasing scholarly literature on Sibelius’s music.

It seems, however, that a number of contemporary composers have found innovative qualities in Sibelius’s music before the academics did. One of the first composers to apprehend Sibelius’s radical but subtle innovations was Per Nørgård in Denmark. He studied Sibelius’s works in the early 1950s and became increasingly aware of its ‘virtually limitless depth and novel implications.’[17] One such device was the superimposition of two speeds in the Finale of the Fifth Symphony, on the basis of which Nørgård developed his so-called ‘infinity row.’

In France, the Symphonies 5, 6 (1923) and 7 (1924) and the tone poem Tapiola (1926) inspired composers whose names are associated with ‘spectral music,’ such as Hugues Dufourt, Tristan Murail, and Gérard Grisey, and more indirectly Alain Blanquart and Pascal Dusapin. What they discovered in Sibelius was, as Julian Anderson put it, ‘a bold and experimental attitude towards time, timbre, musical texture and form which transcends the late Romanticism of his origins and places him amongst the most innovative composers of the early twentieth century.’[18]).

Out of contemporary British composers Peter Maxwell Davies, George Benjamin, Oliver Knussen and Julian Anderson are devoted Sibelius enthusiasts. For Davies and Benjamin, the tempo transformation in the first movement of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony has been a model for a continuously unfolding structure, Knussen has mentioned Sibelius’s textures and his powerful bass writing as major sources of interest, and the opening of Anderson’s Symphony (2003) has been described in a review as ‘Sibelius re-imagined by Ligeti’. In recent American music, Sibelian undertones can be heard in pieces as different as Morton Feldman’s Coptic Light (1985) and Steven Stucky’s Second Concerto for Orchestra (2003).

Finland is a special case when it comes to Sibelius, unsurprisingly. His immediate successors were overshadowed by his ‘mountainous figure,’ and as late as in 1996 one of Finland’s most prominent post-World War II composers, Einar Englund (1916–1999), entitled his autobiography ‘In the Shadow of Sibelius.’[19] But shadow also means presence: there is an extraordinary high level of awareness of Sibelius’s music in Finnish culture, and hence it has a potential subconscious effect on all Finnish composers. This effect may become apparent as direct quotation, as it does in The Adventures of Lemminkäinen on the Island (1935) by Uuno Klami (1900–1961), as subtle allusion or associative reference, as homage or involuntary reminiscence, as overall model or absolute rejection, or as anxiety of influence, from which relief is to be found only by ‘misreading’ one of Sibelius’s works or compositional devices and swerving it into a new direction.

Some of these types of relation to Sibelius can be discovered also in the music of Kaija Saariaho (b. 1956), Magnus Lindberg (b. 1958), and Esa-Pekka Salonen (b. 1958), three prominent contemporary Finnish composers, whose works are included in the programs of Sibelius Unbound.[20]

According to Julian Anderson, Saariaho’s first orchestral composition, Verblendungen (Dazzlement, 1982–84), creates ‘a claustrophobic, somewhat doom-laden atmosphere reminiscent (probably coincidentally) of some later Sibelius works, such as Tapiola or the Prelude to The Tempest.’[21] Similarly, another British observer, Stephen Pettitt from The Times, wrote about the world premiere, in London, of Saariaho’s Amers (1992): ‘There was a vastness and a mystery about it, connecting it to Sibelius, however different the language.’[22] It is difficult, however, to know whether such observations are real or just imaginary, a fallacy stemming from the observer’s knowledge of the composer’s nationality.

Magnus Lindberg has admitted that he has carefully studied Sibelius’s late orchestral works, especially the Seventh Symphony and the tone poem Tapiola. The ear can catch in his music a multitude of allusions and references to other composers’ music, even quotations from well-known masterpieces by Mahler, Debussy, and Stravinsky, to mention a few. But it is not easy to catch in it something that sounds like Sibelius. His influence on Lindberg seems to be deeper inside, in harmonies based on the use of a virtual fundament. The strange unity of harmony and timbre in Sibelius’s Seventh that Lindberg has pointed out on several occasions is a precursor phenomenon. One might also add that the form of Lindberg’s single-movement orchestral works, such as Fresco (1998) is very similar to the monolithic grandeur of Sibelius’s Seventh.

Nor does Esa-Pekka Salonen’s music sound like Sibelius. But similarities in compositional strategies may be pointed out. Years ago, when I was asked to write liner notes for a recording that included his LA Variations (1996–97), I was struck by the opening of that piece, and I wrote: ‘Compare the opening section, the first ten bars, with the opening of Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony. The gesture is the same: a fortissimo outburst followed by a lengthy diminuendo until the first theme is heard.’ In the same work, there is also an explicit salute to Sibelius-the-progressive in the form of a couple of brass chords in the so-called ‘Big Machine’ section. After writing the above sentences I took a closer look at Wing on Wing (2003–04) and noticed that, in this piece, there is a section that even sounds like Sibelius: the second scherzo (immediately after the ‘Cadenza’), with its long pedal points, violin tremolos, and brass chords.

Lebrecht feels that, in spite of the symphonic cycles in Los Angeles and Birmingham, England, ‘Sibelius was declared off-message this year, his fall from grace complete.’ ‘But fashion is reversible,’ he adds, ‘and Sibelius’s day must dawn again.’ Although this comment is in line with Roman Ingarden’s remark that any work of art may pass through ‘periods of brilliance and obscurity,’ one might ask where exactly the fate of a composer’s œuvre is decided upon: in the concert hall, in historical criticism, or in the praxis of composition. All three are pertinent, and mutually reinforcing, I believe. The Sibelius Unbound project in Los Angeles, it seems to me, stems from an assessment that Julian Anderson has expressed as follows: ‘The influence of Sibelius on contemporary music is now so substantial and lasting that one can speak of him as a key figure in the shaping of current musical thought.’[23]

[1] Theodor W. Adorno, ’Glosse über Sibelius,’ Gesammelte Schriften 17 (Musikalische Schriften IV), ed. Rolf Tiedemann, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1998, p. 250. English translation of this and other quotes from sources in German are mine.
[2] The former year refers to the publication of the German original and latter to the English translation.
[3] Theodor W. Adorno, The Philosophy of New Music, translated, edited, and with an Introduction by Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2006, p. 10.
[4]Ibid., p. 33.
[5] Adorno, ’Glosse,’ p. 249.
[6] René Leibowitz, Sibelius, le plus mauvais compositeur du monde. Liège: Aux Editions Dynamo. P. Aelberts, éditeur,  1955.
[7] Ernst Tanzberger, Sibelius. Eine Monographie. Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1962, p. 65.
[8] Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Über den Fetischcharackter in der Musik und die Regression des Hörens,’ Gesammelte Schriften 14, ed. Rolf Tiedemann. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1998, p. 21.
[9] Hermann Danuser, Die Musik des 20. Jahrhunderts (Neues Handbuch der Musikwissenschaft 7. Sonderausgabe 1996). Laaber: Laaber Verlag, p. 272.
[10] Carl Dahlhaus, Nineteenth-Century Music. English translation by J. Bradford Robinson, Berkeley, and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989, p. 368.
[11] James Hepokoski, Sibelius: Symphony No. 5 (Cambridge Music Handbooks), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 2.
[12] Dahlhaus, Nineteenth-Century Music, p. 367.
[13] Danuser, Die Musik des 20. Jahrhunderts, p. 221.
[14] See Jean Sibelius, Dagbok 1909–1944, ed. Fabian Dahlström, Helsingfors: Svenska Litteratursällskapet i Finland, 2005. English translations of the following quotations are mine.
[15] Constant Lambert, Music Ho! A Study of Music in Decline [1934], London: The Hogarth Press, 1985, p. 260.
[16] Arnold Whittall, Music since the First World War, London, J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1977, p. 18.
[17] This letter and Sibelius’s reply are quoted in full in the composer’s own translation in Edward Clark, The Forest’s Mighty God: A Celebration of Sibelius, London: United Kingdom Sibelius Society, 1998.
[18] Julian Anderson, ‘Sibelius and contemporary music,’ The Cambridge Companion to Sibelius, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 197.
[19] Einar Englund, I skuggan av Sibelius, Helsingfors: Söderström & C:o Förlags Ab, 1996.
[20]Sibelius Unbound was the name of a series of concerts in Los Angeles in October 2007, planned by Esa-Pekka Salonen, Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
[21] Julian Anderson, ‘Seductive Solidarity,’ The Musical Times, Vol. 133, No. 1798 (Dec. 1992), p. 617.
[22] Stephen Pettitt, ’Firsts from the Finns,’ The Times 10. Dec. 1992.
[23] Julian Anderson, ‘Sibelius and contemporary music,’ p. 216.

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(An abridged version of this essay was published in performances magazine, October 2007, pp. 19–20)

About Ilkka Oramo

Professor of Music Theory, emeritus
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