Helmuth Thierfelder’s 1935 Open Letter to Jean Sibelius

Helmuth Thierfelder’s open letter to Jean Sibelius from 1935,[1] drowned for decades, has suddenly surfaced as Timothy L. Jackson has maintained that Adorno’s renown ‘Glosse über Sibelius’[2] or, in fact, its nameless first printing,[3] which Adorno wrote in New York, is a direct answer to that letter and that Bengt de Törne’s Sibelius: A Close-Up,[4] as a review of which its presents itself, only served for him as a pretext.[5] Jackson, though, has no document to back up neither his assumption nor his claim that Adorno knew Thierfelder’s letter. His hypothesis is solely based on textual similarities, on words and concepts that he considers to be each other’s correspondences.

It seems to me that they are not each other’s correspondences. Instead, they have a common source that Viktor Klemperer called the LTI (Lingua Tertii Imperii).[6] Thierfelder’s use of this ‘Language of the Third Reich’ is authentic, whereas Adorno uses it sardonically, to show that Sibelius’s music is as half-baked as music appreciated by the Nazis might be expected to be.

To my knowledge, only Ruth-Maria Gleißner has commented on Thierfelder’s letter before Jackson.[7] She has not noticed its alleged connection to Adorno’s ‘Gloss’, nor have other scholars who have written on Adorno’s views of Sibelius.[8] Jackson goes as far as to maintain that ‘historians have ignored, suppressed, misrepresented or simply remained ignorant of the primary sources demonstrating Sibelius’s Nazi sympathies and active support for the Nazi regime.’[9] A serious accusation against the academic community, presented without evidence.

Thierfelder’s letter was one of many tributes to Sibelius on his 70th birthday. The reader gets an impression that the author wants to aspire the favour of his addressee. It is hard to imagine that Furtwängler or Karajan, who also conducted Sibelius’s works in Germany in the 1930s, would have written such a letter.

We don’t know Thierfelder’s motives, but Gleißner is scarcely mistaken when assuming a combination of personal admiration and political opportunism.[10] Thierfelder seems to have been obsessed by Sibelius’s music since he conducted the first performance in Germany of his Fifth Symphony in Leipzig in 1922,[11] but he also knew how to exploit the aesthetically and politically favourable atmosphere of the NS-state in order to gain maximum positive publicity to his idol.[12] So far, and especially in the Weimar Republic, Sibelius’s position had been practically nil, mainly because of what Alfred Einstein called ‘Germany’s musical self-satisfaction.’[13]

Thus, it would not be surprising, if Breitkopf & Härtel, Sibelius’s most important German publisher, had role in the publication of the letter. Ten years earlier its director and owner Hellmuth von Hase had written a long letter to Sibelius telling that he had rejected Wilhelm Hansen’s ‘large offer for the outright purchase of their Sibelius catalogue,’ complaining about the rupture of relations during the post-war inflation years and affirming the company’s dedication to his music.[14] Now, in changed circumstances, the publisher had a possibility and an economic interest to call attention to Sibelius and to promote as many performances of his works as possible. And it did not fail to do so. In the years 1933–45, German orchestras gave more performances of Sibelius’s works than of works of any other contemporary non-German composer, and of Germans only Strauss, Pfitzner and Reger outranged him.[15] At that time, though, the publisher of the Allgemeine Musikzeitung was Verlag der Allgemeinen Musikzeitung, not yet Breitkopf & Härtel, who took it over in 1937.[16]

Thierfelder, Breitkopf & Härtel, and Sibelius had a common interest. But even if the main purpose of the letter was to promote Sibelius’s music, it must be understood as a statement in Germany’s internal discussion on musical matters as well, as it aims to present Sibelius’s music as an antipode to ‘musical Bolshevism’. By emphasising this aspect Thierfelder may have sought to strengthen his own position as a loyal seconder of the Nazi cultural policy. Though a member of the NSDAP, he could not rely for sure on the support of his comrades. Expelled from his conduction position at the Hamburg radio in 1937, as Jackson relates, he complained to the Swedish composer Kurt Atterberg, in 1935–8 general secretary of the Ständiger Rat,[17] who then wrote to Walter Funk, officer of the propaganda ministry, on his behalf.[18] Why did not Thierfelder turn to Sibelius in his straits, one might wonder, if a close friendship had developed between them, as Thierfelder had given to understand,[19] and although Sibelius undoubtedly was a much bigger name than Atterberg, even in the eyes of the Nazis? Thiefelder’s behaviour seems to tell that he estimated Atterberg’s political weight to be much bigger than Sibelius’s: Atterberg was a willing and active partner of the Nazis, whereas Sibelius’s attitude towards the Nazi regime was suspicious, evasive, and formal.

According to Jackson, Thierfelder’s letter demonstrates (among other things) ‘Sibelius’s Nazi sympathies and active support to the Nazi regime.’[20] The idea that from a letter one can deduce something of its recipient’s thoughts and opinions is rather peculiar. Jackson maintains that Sibelius read and accepted Thierfelder’s text prior to its publication and that ‘Sibelius’s implicit sanction of Thierfelder’s letter must have angered Adorno.’ ‘Quite correctly,’ he continues, ‘Adorno reasoned that Thierfelder would never have dared to write and publish such a letter without Sibelius’s approval. Thierfelder must have sent his original German wording first to Sibelius; only then, i.e., after it had the composer’s imprimatur, was it published in the Allgemeine Musikzeitung, and translated into Finnish for Suomen Musiikkilehti.[21]

Jackson speaks about his research (‘My research suggests…’, ‘My research concerning Sibelius and Nazism…’). The above claims, though, are not research, but speculation.

First, as no document proves that Sibelius had read and accepted Thierfelder’s letter prior to publication, Jackson cannot know that he did. Getting the recipient’s approval does not belong to the practice of the literary genre known as ‘open letter.’ Would Thomas Mann have asked Bruno Walter’s approval or Helmut Lachenmann Hans Werner Henze’s prior to the publication of his open letter?[22] I doubt it. Whether the letter is a laudatio, as in the case of Mann and Thierfelder, or an objection, as in the case of Lachenmann, the idea is that it comes unexpectedly.

Second, what makes Jackson imagine that ‘Adorno reasoned that Thierfelder would never have dared to write and publish such a letter without Sibelius’s approval’[23]? How does Jackson know what Adorno reasoned, when he even cannot prove that Adorno knew Thielfelder’s letter?

Jackson’s claim that Adorno’s ‘Gloss’ is a direct answer to Thierfelder’s letter is based on textual criticism. In order to assess his findings, we need to compare Thierfelder’s original German text with Jackson’s translation,[24] and to discuss his conclusions.

Das junge Deutschland gratuliert! Und zwar von ganzem Herzen! Es verspricht alles das gut zu machen, was eine frühere Zeit an Ihnen, lieber siebzigjähriger Meister, versäumte. The New Germany [i.e., Nazi Germany] congratulates you! And from the bottom of [its] heart! It promises to make good for all that an earlier period, dear seventy-year-old Master, ignored.

Of interest is Thierfelder’s statement that the young Germany ‘promises to make good for all that an earlier period… ignored’. By what right does Thierfelder speak in the name of the ‘young Germany’? He certainly didn’t have such a position in the cultural organisation of the NS-state that would entitle him to give such a promise. He rather describes his own desired state that he, it is true, managed to practice quite successfully both during the Nazi time and after it.[27]The translation of ’young’ Germany as ‘new’ Germany is slightly inaccurate, but it doesn’t alter the meaning, since, in this context, both expressions obviously denote ’Nazi Germany’, as Jackson points out.[25] But ‘Young Germany’ (Das junge Deutschland) has also another meaning: It refers to a literary movement in the early 1830s.[26] It is unlikely, though, that Thierfelder wanted to compare the artistic atmosphere of his time with the liberalism of the ‘Young Germans’ hundred years ago.

Die angelsächsischen Länder, als Siegerstaaten nach dem Weltkriege weniger zersetzenden Mächten ausgeliefert… The Anglo-Saxon countries, [who were] as victorious states after World War [I] less at the mercy of subversive elements [or “were less corrupted by subversive elements” or perhaps, “less betrayed by” or “less undermined by subversive elements”]…

Jackson offers several alternatives for the verb ‘ausgeliefert’, of which ‘at the mercy of’ makes most sense to me. At the mercy of what? ‘Zersetzenden Mächten’ reads the German original, ‘subversive elements’ in Jackson’s interpretation. In my view, this is wrong and tendentious. The correct translation would be ‘disintegrating forces’, by which Thierfelder obviously means something quite different from ‘subversive elements’. From this misinterpretation Jackson’s thought takes a weird course: ‘So, Germany was defeated by the victorious western armies, because she was ‘delivered’ to them as a victim of ‘subversive elements or powers’ [‘zersetzenden Mächten’]. While Thierfelder never specifically identifies them, he means ‘Jewish’, ‘Communist’ and other ‘artfremde’ elements [i.e., ‘foreign to the German race’]. This is a reference to the ‘Dolchstoss,’ or ‘stab in the back’ myth, whereby Germany lost World War One because of betrayal rather than military defeat.’[28]

Jackson has read his Thierfelder carelessly, for Thierfelder speaks of the time after the World War (‘nach dem Weltkriege’), whereas the ‘Dolchstoss’ legend refers to the causes of Germany’s surrender, i.e. to Hindenburg’s and Ludendorff’s claim that guilty for the defeat was the social democrat revolution that stabbed the victorious front from behind.[29] This is clearly not what Thierfelder means. He rather means that because the Anglo-Saxon countries were victorious, their conditions were ‘less at the mercy of disintegrating forces’ than those of the defeated party, which the 1918/19 revolution threw down into a political, economic and social chaos.[30] Viktor Klemperer has described what this meant in practice: complete freedom of speech and writing, recklessly exploited by the national socialists for their subversive purposes, complete lack of scruples in art and science, aesthetics and philosophy, and complete freedom of choice in matters of morality and beauty.[31] In this turbulent environment, as Erik Levi has pointed out, ‘cultural attitudes, both progressive and reactionary, became increasingly polarised’.[32]

…haben Sie schon eher in Ihrer ganzen Bedeutung zu erfassen versucht, während man sich bei uns nach dem Kriege jahrelang einer ebenso unfruchtbaren wie volksfremden Kunstrichtung hingab. …already earlier did try to comprehend your complete significance (or meaning), while in our case after the war for years one was devoted to an artistic direction that was as unfruitful as it was foreign to the people.

Therefore, because the Anglo-Saxon countries as victorious states were less at the mercy of disintegrating forces, ‘they have already earlier tried to understand you in your complete significance’ (my translation). What does Thierfelder exactly mean? Jackson asks the same question as follows: ‘Is his point that both sides in the First World War were controlled by “International Jewry” following “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion?” Is that what he means? Conspiracy theory?’[33]

But Jackson is uncertain and turns to Gerhard Splitt, a German colleague, for help. In a ’private communication’ Splitt confirms: ‘Precisely. Thierfelder provides the answer himself: “an artistic direction that was as unfruitful as it was foreign to the people”. These are the atonalists, Jews, Bolsheviks, in short: the cultural- and musical-Bolsheviks. […] What he means to say is: the Anglo-Saxons were able earlier to understand Sibelius’s “complete meaning or significance,” because they were less subjected than Germany to the musical-Bolsheviks. The musical Bolsheviks are guilty. But also clear is that the Anglo-Saxon countries were not totally unscathed: they always TRIED to understand Sibelius. What is meant implicitly: but those who fully understand Sibelius are only the Germans.’[34]

Jackson’s inference is far-fetched, and Splitt’s response to his leading question doesn’t give it more credibility. Splitt has studied Strauss’s activities as president of the Reichsmusikkammer and shown that his role as an officer of the music administration was much more pronounced than previously known.[35] ‘Unfortunately,’ Pamela M. Potter remarks, ‘the author’s tone […] carries him to the point of exploiting and often misinterpreting material in an attempt to prove Strauss’s egocentrism, anti-Semitism, and political opportunism.’ And further: ‘Splitt falls into the same trap that had caught so many of his predecessors who were less interested in fact-finding than in reaching a verdict.’[36] Jackson’s own research seems to be afflicted by the same attitude.

As an example of what he thinks Thierfelder might have meant with his reference to people who, in the Anglo-Saxon countries, did understand Sibelius, Jackson has chosen Olin Downes’s 1925 New York Times article, in which the writer, comparing Sibelius to Wagner, says that former is ‘far simpler, less intellectual, more racial in quality…’[37] Did Thierfelder read The New York Times or even know about Downes? I doubt it. And it is very unlikely that he read English newspapers or English books on music, either. But as a practicing musician he very likely knew that many of the most prominent conductors in England and America were conducting and recording Sibelius’s music all the time. In this business information spreads in no time.

Rather unclear is Thierfelder’s wording that the Anglo-Saxons have tried to understand Sibelius in his ‘complete significance’? As Jackson notes, the same idea recurs in Thierfelder’s letter to Sibelius on May 19, 1942: ‘If I do not find myself applauding everything that the newspapers write, nevertheless most of it is good and correct and will show you with what open-mindedness your wonderful works are received in Germany, and how one is concerned to perceive you in your complete significance.’[38] If one is to believe Thierfelder, to comprehend Sibelius’s ‘complete significance’, whatever it means, seems to have been equally difficult for Germans and Anglo-Saxons, however hard they were trying. This contradicts Splitt’s interpretation that, according to Thierfelder, only Germans can truly understand Sibelius.[39]

Understanding of an artist’s ‘complete significance’ is of course nonsense. In Thierfelder’s language it probably means that Sibelius’s music was considered difficult and that one had to struggle in order to understand it. In the open letter, he puts it as follows: ‘He who would possess you must earn you since everything full of character and without compromise in this world presents twists and turns, so in your wonderful music everything is other than obliging. The Nordic-brooding, but also the demonic magical being of Finnish provenance resides at the furthest boundaries of humanity and does not only want to be heard but earned through struggle.’[40]

The Anglo-Saxons, relatively undisturbed by ‘disintegrating forces’, were able to try to understand Sibelius in his ‘complete significance’ already earlier, ‘while in our case after the war for years one was devoted to an artistic direction that was as unfruitful as it was foreign to the people’.[41] Thierfelder obviously refers to everything that since the 1918/19 revolution was called ‘musical bolshevism’: ‘socialisation of the keys’, renouncing traditional tonality, emancipation of the dissonance, atonality as negation and chaos,[42] practiced by expressionists, dadaists, and futurists, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Bartók, Scherchen, Golyscheff and many others, Jewish or half-Jewish musicians and other actors of the musical life, such as the music critic Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt, ‘porte-parole of musical Bolshevism’.[43]

Sie aber, allein Volk und Heimat verbunden, schufen inzwischen ein herrliches Orchesterwerk nach dem anderen. Und so bezwang in jener unseligen Zeit die Urkraft Ihrer Tonsprache alle die deutschen Menschen, für welche völkische Begriffe immer schon Ewigkeitswert besessen haben. But you, bound only to people and homeland, in the meantime created one wonderful orchestral work after the other. And thus, in that unholy time, all of the German people for whom national [völkisch] concepts still had an eternal value were captivated.

Sibelius was of another kind, according to Thierfelder: he was ‘bound only to people and homeland’. These were the virtues cherished by the Nazis. But there was nothing new in this perception of Sibelius’s music. Walter Niemann had written thirty years earlier that Sibelius’s music is pure ‘homeland art’ (Heimatkunst) and ‘direct expression of the people’s soul’.[44] And precisely because of this it appealed to nationally thinking people in that ‘unfortunate time’. Thierfelder refers to the period of the Weimar Republic.

Was ist nun natürlicher, als daß Ihnen dafür besonders das erwachte, junge Deutschland aus ehrlichem Herzen danken möchte! Sie haben in einer Zeit gefährlichster Umwertung fast aller uns heiligen Begriffe in der kleinen Front der wenigen Großen gestanden, die uns Jüngeren den Glauben an den Endsieg des Guten erhielten und die Kräfte zum Kampfe erneuern halfen. What is now more natural than that the awakened, New Germany [erwacht, neue Deutschland] should want to thank you from the bottom of its heart! In a time of the most dangerous revaluation of almost all of our most holy concepts, you stood in the small front [Front] of the few greats who preserved the hope of final victory [Endsieg] of the good and helped to renew the will for battle [Kampf].

The notion ‘awakened Germany’ comes from the refrain (Deutschland erwache!) of a battle song, written by Dietrich Eckart in 1919 and adopted by the NS-party. Eckart wanted Germany to become aware of the Jewish conspiracy that threatened it. He came to this conclusion after reading ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Sion’ (1903),[45] one of history’s biggest literary forgeries, later used by the Nazis as justification for the persecution of Jews and as a warrant for genocide.

‘Final victory’ became a slogan during the First World War. It was used to conjure victory that finally will be achieved in spite of all the crises and doubts. In the 1930s it infiltrated the LTI, in which its use became the more frequent the more likely Germany’s defeat in the subsequent world war seemed. So, according to Thierfelder ‘the awakened, young Germany’ should be grateful to Sibelius for having stood in the small ‘front’ of the few greats (?) who preserved the hope of ‘final victory’ of the good and helped to renew the forces for ‘battle’. Pompous praise that Sibelius, a man of sophisticated literary taste, must have felt as uncomfortable as Törne’s unholy hagiography a few years later.

In Jackson’s interpretation, Thierfelder employs the word ‘Endsieg’ to signify total annihilation of an ‘artfremde [“alien”] art, i.e, the music of Jews, Communists, Atonalists, and other undesirables’.[46] This is fraudulent. Jackson seems to have mistaken ‘Endsieg’ for ’Endlösung’ that, in LTI, refers to the ’final solution’ (of the Jewish question), i.e. to the total annihilation of the Jews. There was no knowledge of this in 1935. According to Bruno Walter, the Nazis moved carefully ahead in the first times after seizing the power, in order not to scare elder people. ‘There were also large circles among the Germans, who considered the atrocities and outrageous utterances of the party, even anti-Semitism, as temporary diseases of an essentially healthy movement, and believed that one would soon return to decency and normality’.[47] Apart from that, it is much more easy to destroy humans than music. Thierfelder hardly believed in that possibility, either. He only wanted his personal aesthetic taste, personified in Sibelius, to overcome all the radical movements of the Weimar era, many of which were more than alive in Nazi Germany, as well; for musical life in Hitler’s Reich was more diverse and less controlled than one usually thinks.[48]

Sie, verehrter Meister, haben uns den herrlichen Beweis erbracht, daß die einzige internationale Tonsprache nur jene ist, die in ihrem charakteristischen Ausdruck nicht einen Augenblick das Temperament der eigenen Rasse verleugnet. Das Gedankengut Ihrer großen musikalischen Tonschöpfungen entstammt dem Boden Ihrer an schönen Volksliedern so reichen finnischen Heimat, ist also volksliedhaft im höchsten Sinne – und doch wüßte ich nicht ein Volkslied, das Ihnen irgendwo zur bequemen Unterlage für eines Ihrer Meisterwerke gedient hätte. You, honored Master, have provided us with the wonderful evidence that the only international musical language is that which in its characteristic expression never denies even for a moment the temperament of its own race. The body of thought of your great musical creations stems from the soil of your Finnish homeland, so rich in beautiful folksongs, and is therefore folksonglike in the highest sense – and yet I am unaware of a folksong that anywhere served as a comfortable basis for one of your masterworks.

When writing that truly ‘international’ is only musical language that, in its characteristic expression, does not deny, for one moment, the temperament of its own ‘race’, Thierfelder takes sides against everything that in Nazi Germany was considered alien to ‘German music’. The characteristics of this music were intellectualism and internationalism. The virtue of Sibelius’s music is, Thierfelder explains, that it ‘stems from the soil of his Finnish homeland, so rich in beautiful folksongs, and is therefore folksonglike in the highest sense’, although it doesn’t use folksongs. This description corresponds to what Bartók meant when speaking of ’a deep comprehension of the spirit of the respective folk music, difficult to put in words’.[49]

What then, are the similarities between Thiefelder’s letter and Adorno’s ‘Gloss’ that Jackson considers as correspondences of each other. One of them is the notion of ‘nature’.

Nature! Nature! Nothing but Nature! This appears to me to be the key to understanding all of your music.[50] His followers want to hear nothing of all this. Their song echoes the refrain: “It’s all nature; it’s all nature.” The great Pan, and as needed Blood and soil too, appears promptly on the scene. The trivial is validated as the origin of things, the unarticulated as the sound of unconscious creation.[51]

Juxtaposed this way, cut from the context, the reader might get the impression that both writers speak of the same thing. But they don’t. Thiefelder speaks of orchestration, Adorno of triads. This becomes clear, when we also read what precedes the above lines:

The manner of expression of your orchestration, the frankly revolutionary sonic expansion of whole instrumental groups, but then also by contrast everything compelling delicateness of impressionistic tone painting, led certain critics to conclude “that there is nothing to object to in the instrumentation,” without suspecting how foreign to you is the so-called “art of instrumentation.” For you, in fact, the most glittering outer framework is never a goal in itself, but rather the precious container for even more precious contents.[52] The earthquake that found its expression in the dissonances of the great New Music has not spared the old-fashioned, lesser kind. It became ravaged and crooked. But as people flee from the dissonances, they have sought shelter in false triads. The false triads: Stravinsky composed them out. By adding false notes he demonstrated how false the right ones have become, In Sibelius, the pure ones already sound false. He is a Stravinsky malgré lui. Except that he has less talent.[53]

Thierfelder emphasises his thought by exclaiming: ‘Nature! Nature! Nothing but Nature!’ This formulation is the same kind of laudatio style as the rest of the letter, but what he means are basically in line with Sibelius’s self-understanding. Levas reports of Sibelius’s answer to his question ‘whether he ever had to consider which instruments he needed to use in a particular context’: ‘Never. My music is already arranged. The actual work of instrumentation is therefore entirely foreign to me. I allow the musical thoughts to speak for themselves.’[54] Even if it might be exaggerated to conclude, as Levas does, that Sibelius ‘heard his music already orchestrated’, it is nevertheless clear that Sibelius’s orchestral works do not sound ‘like arrangements from pieces for the piano’ as do, according to Busoni, most of Schumann’s orchestral compositions.[55] What is perceived as genuinely orchestral, is here understood as ‘natural’. Also Max Paddison seems to think this way when saying that ‘the most profitable way of understanding “music as nature” in relation to Sibelius is probably to regard the use of aspects of instrumental colour and texture as in some sense standing in for nature, particularly through the preponderance of long sustained drones, or repeated ostinato figures over lengthy stretches of time, a distinctive use of sustained brass harmonies, especially in the horns, and the use of primary instrumental colours as simply “being” themselves in some elemental and natural sense, to mention just a few possibilities.’[56]

Adorno’s thought is to be seen in the context of what he calls ‘tendency of the material’. ‘The earthquake that found its expression in the dissonances of the great New Music has not spared the old-fashioned, lesser kind,’ he writes in the ‘Gloss’. Later, in the Philosophy of New Music, he puts it as follows: ‘When a contemporary composer, such as Jean Sibelius, make do entirely with tonal resources, they sound just as false as do the tonal enclaves in atonal music.’[57] When Adorno maintains that Sibelius’s ‘followers want to hear nothing of all this’, his criticism changes course from Sibelius’s music to criticism of its reception. ‘Blood and Soil’ (Blut und Boden) was not an invention of the Nazis, it was used in literary criticism already in 1919, but it gained a central position in the LTI after R. Walter Darré published his writings ‘Neuadel aus Blut und Boden’ and ‘Blut und Boden. Ein Grundgedanke des Nationalsozialismus’.[58]

In his letter, Thierfelder definitely expresses his belief that Sibelius’s music has sucked its force from the soil of his Finnish homeland, ‘so rich in beautiful folksongs’, but the term ’blood and soil’ (Blut und Boden) does not occur in it. Therefore, Thierfelder cannot be the addressee of Adorno’s taunting remark, nor can anybody else in particular, but the artistic taste of the Nazis in general.

I finally return to the notion of ‘zersetzend’ (disintegrating, corrosive) that occurs both in Thierfelder’s letter and in Adorno’s ’Gloss’.

The Anglo-Saxon countries, as victorious states after the World War less at the mercy of disintegrating forces, have already earlier tried to understand you in your complete significance, whereas our nation conceded after the war for years to an artistic direction that was as unfruitful as it was foreign to the people.[59] It is as if for the autochthonous Finn all the objections ginned up in reaction to cultural Bolshevism were coming into their own. […] His music is in a certain sense the only ‘corrosive’ one to emerge from our times. Not in the sense of the destruction of the bad existing, but of a Caliban-like destruction of all the musical results of mastery over nature that were sufficiently hard-won by humanity in its handling of the tempered scale.’[60]

This verb ‘zersetzen’ has a long history that begins from its concrete meanings and proceeds towards figurative. In 19th-century historical and political literature its was denoting the dissolution of political, social and intellectual structures. After the First World War it was used to complain about the decay to be seen at all levels of the German society as a result of the fact that Germany did not lose only its system of government but also its internal feeling of security.[61] In these circumstances the Germans, according to Thierfelder, conceded ‘to an artistic direction that was as unfruitful as it was foreign to the people’.

When Adorno says that Sibelius’s music is ‘in a certain sense the only “corrosive” one to emerge from our times’, there is no reason to assume that this opinion has to do with Thierfelder’s letter. Thierfelder refers to ‘disintegrating forces’ in the society at large, Adorno to the opposition against new and radical currents in music, to ‘musical Bolshevism’. One of these antagonists was the Berlin critic Adolf Diesterweg, who practiced bitter polemics against ‘corrosive’, ‘hopelessly degenerated’ new music, cherished by ‘disabled intellectualism’.[62] Adorno did not, in fact, answer to Thierfelder, as Jackson assumes, but to all those who thought that future lies in Sibelius’s music, not in Schoenberg’s. The idea that Schoenberg is ‘Progress’ and Stravinsky ‘Restoration’ he then developed in his Philosophy of New Music from 1947.

Scholars have so far unanimously thought that it was de Törne’s Sibelius: A Close-Up, published in Boston and London in 1937, which gave Adorno the last impulse to write his ‘Gloss’. Why would he otherwise serve it as a book review in the porte-parole of the Critical Theory? Jackson still believes that Adorno only used de Törne’s book as a pretext for a direct response to Thierfelder’s letter.[63] In my view, there is nothing in the letter that could justify this claim. I agree that Adorno used de Törne’s book as a pretext, but as a pretext to get down to Sibelius and to show Sibelius’s music was a commodity in English and American culture, a fetish, and a sign of the regression of hearing that is his focus in another article written the same year and published in the same volume of the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung.[64]

Adorno immigrated to England in 1934. There he encountered another reality he had difficulties to comprehend: ‘To anyone who has grown up in the Austro-German musical sphere, the name of Sibelius does not say much. […] But come to England, and even America, and the name begins to become boundlessly inflated. It is dropped as frequently as the brand name of an automobile.’[65] Erik Tawaststjerna has supposed that the cause of his annoyance was the presence of his music at major festivals, such as Sir Henry Wood’s proms and Sir Thomas Beecham’s Sibelius Festival, and books like Cecil Gray’s monography (1931) and Constant Lambert’s Music Ho! (1934) with its provocative subtitle ‘A Study of Music in Decline’.[66] To these one could add Gray’s other book, Sibelius: the symphonies (1935), and Donald Francis Tovey’s Essays in Musical Analysis 2. Symphonies (II), variations, and orchestral polyphony (1935). Both includes music examples, and it is more than likely that Adorno had these books in mind when he wrote: ‘Long essays appear, larded with musical examples, in which he is praised as the most significant composer of the present day, a true symphonist, a timeless non-modern and positively a kind of Beethoven.’[67]

My conclusion is that there is no verifiable connection between Thierfelder’s 1935 ‘Open Letter to Sibelius’ and Adorno’s 1938 ‘Gloss on Sibelius’, as tempting as it would seem in the eyes of Sibelius’s detractors.


[1] Helmuth Thierfelder, ‘An Jean Sibelius. Finnlands großem Sohne zum 70. Geburtstag’, in Allgemeine Musikzeitung, 62/49 (1935), 759.
[2] Theodor W. Adorno, ’Glosse über Sibelius’, in Impromptus (Frankfurt am Main, 1968), 88–92; also in Gesammelte Schriften 17 (Musikalische Schriften IV), ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Darmstadt, 1998), 247–52.
[3] Theodor W. Adorno, [Glosse über Sibelius], in Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung 7 (1938), 460–3.
[4] Bengt de Törne, Sibelius: A Close-Up (Boston, Mass. and London, 1937).
[5] Timothy L. Jackson, ‘Thierfelder’s 1935 Open Letter to Sibelius and Adorno’s Critique. Some Preliminary Observations’, in Säteitä 2010 (http://sate.siba.fi/attach/Sateita2010.pdf), 19–42.
[6] Viktor Klemperer, LTI. Notizbuch eines Philologen. 24th printing (Stuttgart, 2010 [1946]).
[7] Ruth-Maria Gleißner, Der unpolitische Komponist als Politikum. Die Rezeption von Jean Sibelius im NS-Staat (Frankfurt am Main, 2002), 143, 317, 366–7.
[8] See Erik Tawaststjerna, ‘Über Adornos Sibelius-Kritik’, in, Adorno und die Musik (Studien zur Wertungsforschung, Bd. 12), ed. O. Kolleritsch (Graz, 1979), 112–24; Glenda Dawn Goss, Jean Sibelius and Olin Downes. Music, Friendship, Criticism (Boston, 1995); Ilkka Oramo, ‘Zur Rezeption der Musik von Jean Sibelius (1865–1957) in der deutschen Fachliteratur seit 1945’, in Zur Neuorientierung der finnisch-deutschen Kulturbeziehungen nach 1945, ed. Waltraud Bastman–Bühler (Helsinki, 2000), 119–28; Antti Vihinen, Theodor W. Adornon Sibelius-kritiikin poliittinen ulottuvuus [The Political Dimension of Theodor W. Adorno’s Sibelius Criticism], Studia musicologica universitatis Helsingiensis 8 (Helsinki, 2000); Vesa Sirén, ‘Adorno vs. Sibelius. Seconds out for the final round?’, in Finnish Music Quarterly (2002: 4), 46–55; Marc Vignal, Jean Sibelius (Paris, 2004); Tomi Mäkelä, ”Poesie in der Luft”. Jean Sibelius. Studien zu Leben und Werk (Wiesbaden, 2007); Max Paddison, Art and the ‘Ideology of Nature: Sibelius, Hamsun, Adorno’, in Jean Sibelius and his World, ed. Daniel M. Grimley (Princeton and Oxford, 2011), 173–185.
[9] Jackson, ‘Thierfelder’s 1935 Open Letter…’, 19.
[10] Gleißner, Der unpolitische Komponist…, 143.
[11] Ernst Tanzberger, Jean Sibelius. Eine Monographie (Wiesbaden, 1962).
[12] Gleißner, Der unpolitische Komponist…, 142.
[13] Alfred Einstein, ’Germany’, in Nationale und Universale Musik (Zürich–Stuttgart, 1958), 244: ’Man kann die Zeit zwischen Wagners Tod und dem Ausbruch des Krieges als die Zeit der musikalischen Selbstzufriedenheit Deutschlands bezeichnen. Man besaß eine so große Vergangenheit, von Bach bis auf Brahms und Bruckner; man brauchte sich um Leute wie Mussorgsky, Debussy, Sibelius (der nie Fuß gefaßt hat in Deutschland) kaum zu kümmern.’
[14] Erik Tawaststjerna, Sibelius, Vol. III, 1914–1957, ed. and transl. by Robert Layton (London, 1997), 256–7.
[15] Erik Levi, Music in the Third Reich (Houndmills, 1994), 217.
[16]Marc-André Roberge, ‘Focusing Attention: Special Issues in German-Language Music Periodicals of the First Half of the Twentieth Century’, in Research Chronicle (London: Royal Musical Association) 27 (1994), 71–99.
[17] A division of the Reichsmusikkammer. See Petra Garberding, Musik och politik i skuggan av nazismen. Kurt Atterberg och de svensk-tyska musikrelationerna (Lund, 2007), 82.
[18] Jackson, ‘Thierfelder’s 1935 Open Letter…’, 25 and Garberding, Musik och politik, 160.
[19] Gleißner, Der unpolitische Komponist…, 142.
[20] Jackson, ‘Thierfelder’s 1935 Open Letter…’, 19.
[21] Ibid. 35.
[22] Thomas Mann, ‘To Bruno Walter on His Seventieth Birthday: A Letter.’, transl. by M. D. Herter Norton, in The Musical Quarterly 32:4 (1946), 503–8; Helmut Lachenmann, ‘Open Letter to Hans Werner Henze’, in Perspectives of New Music 35:2 (1997), 189–200.
[23] Jackson, ‘Thierfelder’s 1935 Open Letter…’, 35.
[24] Both are given in ibid., 30–31.
[25] Cf. Das junge Deutschland will Arbeit und Frieden. Reden des Reichskanzlers Adolf Hitler, des neuen Deutschlands Führer (http://www.archive.org/details/DasJungeDeutschlandWillArbeitUndFrieden).
[26] See Helmut Koopmann, Das Junge Deutschland: Analyse seines Selbstverständnisses (Stuttgart, 1970).
[27] See Tanzberger, Jean Sibelius, 60–1 and Gleißner, Der unpolitische Komponist…, 141–4.
[28] Jackson, ‘Thierfelder’s 1935 Open Letter…’, 32.
[29] See e.g. Sebastian Haffner, Die deutsche Revolution 1918/19, 3rd printing (Hamburg, 2010), 241.
[30] See e.g. Hans Mommsen, Aufstieg und Untergang der Republik von Weimar 1918–1933 (Berlin, 2009 [1989]).
[31] Klemperer, LTI, 30.
[32] Levi, Music in the Third Reich, 2.
[33] Jackson, ‘Thierfelder’s 1935 Open Letter…’, 32.
[34] Ibid. In Splitt’s original wording: “Genau. Die Antwort gibt Th[ierfelder] selber: ‘ebenso unfruchtbare wie volksfremde Kunstrichtung. ’Das sind die Atonalen, Juden, Bolschewisten, kurz: die Kultur- bzw. Musikbolschewisten. […] Was er sagen will, ist: Die Angelsachsen konnten früher versuchen, Sibelius in seiner ganzen Bedeutung zu verstehen, weil sie nach WW I den Musikbolschewisten weniger ausgesetzt waren als Deutschland. Die Musikbolschewisten sind schuld. Klar aber auch, dass die angelsaechsischen Laender etwas abbekommen: sie haben immerhin VERSUCHT, den Sib[elius] zu verstehen. Was implizit meint: Die wirklichen Sibelius-Versteher sind wohl doch die Deutschen.” (Jackson 2010, 41, footnote 25.)
[35] Gerhard Splitt, Richard Strauss 1933–35. Ästhetik und Musikpolitik zu Beginn der nationalsozialistischen Herrschaft (Pfaffenweiler, 1987).
[36] Pamela M. Potter, ‘Strauss and the National Socialists: The Debate and Its Relevance’, in Richard Strauss. New Perspectives on the Composer and His Work, ed. Bryan Gilliam (Durham and London, 1992), 100, 101.
[37] Jackson, ‘Thierfelder’s 1935 Open Letter…’, 32.
[38] Ibid. 33. In Thierfelder’s original: ‘Wenn auch nicht alles, was die Zeitungen schreiben, meinen Beifall findet, so ist aber doch das meiste gut und richtig und wird Ihnen zeigen, mit welchem aufgeschlossenen Sinn Ihre herrlichen Werke in Deutschland aufgenommen werden, und wie man sich bemüht, Sie in Ihrer ganzen Bedeutung zu erfassen.’
[39] See fn. 6.
[40] Jackson, ‘Thierfelder’s 1935 Open Letter…’, 31. ‘Wer Sie besitzen will, muß Sie erwerben, denn wie alles Charaktervolle und Kompromißlose in der Welt Ecken und Kanten aufweist, so ist auch Ihre herrliche Musik alles andere als gefällig. Das nordisch-grüblerische, aber auch das dämonische Zauberwesen finnischer Herkunft rührt an die letzten Gründe der Menschlichkeit, und will nicht nur gehört, sondern auch erkämpft werden.’
[41] Ibid. 31. ‘…während man sich bei uns nach dem Kriege jahrelang einer ebenso unfruchtbaren wie volksfremden Kunstrichtung hingab.’
[42] Eckhard John, Musikbolschewismus. Die politisierung der Musik in Deutschland 1918–1938 (Stuttgart–Weimar, 1994), 31–32.
[43] Ibid. 360–1.
[44] Walter Niemann, Die Musik Skandinaviens (Leipzig, 1906), 137.
[45]Cornelia Schmitz-Berning, Vokabular des Nationalsozialismus. 2nd printing (Berlin–New York, 2007), 151–2.
[46] Ibid. 174–6.
[47] Bruno Walter, Thema und Variationen. Erinnerungen und Gedanken (Frankfurt am Main, 1950), 387.
[48] Pamela M. Potter, ’What Is ”Nazi Music”?’ in The Musical Quarterly 88:3 (2006), 428–55.
[49] Béla Bartók, ‘The Influence of Folk Music on the Art Music of Today’ (1920), in Béla Bartók Essays, selected and edited by Benjamin Suchoff (London, 1976), 317.
[50] ‘Natur! Natur! Nichts als Natur! Da scheint mir der Hauptschlüssel für Verständnis Ihres gesamten musikalischen Schaffens zu liegen.’
[51]Theodor W. Adorno, ’Gloss on Sibelius’, transl. Susan H. Gillespie, in Jean Sibelius and his World, ed. Daniel M. Grimley (Princeton and Oxford, 2011), 334.
[52] ‘Die Ausdrucksweise Ihres Orchesters, die geradezu revolutionär zu nennende klangliche Erweiterung ganzer Instrumentalgruppen, dann aber auch wieder die alles bezwingende Zartheit impressionistischer Tonmalerei, benützten gewisse Kunstrichter gern zu der Feststellung, “daß gegen die Instrumentation allerdings nichts einzuwenden sei,” ohne dabei zu ahenen, wie fremd gerade Ihnen die sogenannte “Kunst des Instrumentierens” ist. Für Sie ist in der Tat der glänzendste äußere Rahmen nie Selbstzweck, sondern das kostbare Gefäß eines noch kostbaren Inhalts.’
[53]Adorno, ’Gloss on Sibelius’, 334.
[54] Santeri Levas, Järvenpään mestari (Porvoo–Helsinki, 1960), 244. Quoted after Timo Virtanen, ‘From Heaven’s Floor to the Composer’s Desk: Sibelius’s Musical Manuscripts and Compositional Process’, in Jean Sibelius and His World, 68.
[55] Ferruccio Busoni, Sketch of A New Esthetic of Music, transl. Dr. Th. Baker (New York, 1911), 19. See http://www.gutenberg.org/files/31799/31799-h/31799-h.htm
[56] Max Paddison, ‘Art and the Ideology of Nature: Sibelius, Hamsun, Adorno’, in Jean Sibelius and his World, ed. Daniel M. Grimley (Princeton and Oxford, 2011), 174.
[57] Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophy of New Music, transl. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis–London, 2006), 33.
[58]Schmitz-Berning, Vokabular des Nationalsozialismus, 110–2.
[59] “Die angelsächsischen Länder, als Siegerstaaten nach dem Weltkriege weniger zersetzenden Mächten ausgeliefert, haben Sie schon eher in Ihrer ganzen Bedeutung zu erfassen versucht, während man sich bei uns nach dem Kriege jahrelang einer ebenso unfruchtbaren wie volksfremden Kunstrichtung hingab.”
[60] “Es ist, als ob bei dem bodenständigen Finnen alle die Einwände ihr Recht fänden, welche die Reaktion gegen den musikalischen Kulturbolschewismus geprägt hat. […] Seine Musik ist in gewissem Sinn die einzig ”zersetzende” aus diesen Tagen. Aber nicht im Sinn der Destruktion des schlechten Bestehenden, sondern dem der Calibanischen Zerstörung aller musikalischen Resultate der Naturbeherrschung, die sich die Menschheit teuer genug im Umgang mit der temperierten Skala erworben hat.”
[61]Renate Schäfer, ‘Zur Geschichte des Wortes ”zersetzen”’, in Zeitschrift für deutsche Wortforschung 18 (1962), 60, 67.
[62]Thomas Schinköth, Musik – das Ende aller Illusionen? Günther Raphael im NS-Staat (Verdrängte Musik 13). 2nd printing (Neumünster, 2010), 46–7.
[63] Jackson, ‘Thierfelder’s 1935 Open Letter…’, 23.
[64] Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Über den Fetischcharakter in der Musik und die Regression des Hörens’, in Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung 7 (1938), 321–56. Also in Gesammelte Schriften 14, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Darmstadt, 1998), 14–50.
[65] Adorno, ‘Gloss on Sibelius’, 333.
[66] Erik Tawaststjerna, ‘Über Adornos Sibelius-Kritik’, in Adorno und die Musik (Studien zur Wertungsforschung, vol. 12), ed. O. Kolleritsch (Graz, 1979), 112–24.
[67] Adorno, ‘Gloss on Sibelius’, 333.

English translation of “Helmuth Thierfelderin avoin kirje Sibeliukselle 1935”, Musiikki 3–4/2011, 69–87.

About Ilkka Oramo

Professor of Music Theory, emeritus
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