Sibelius’s Eighth Symphony – fact and fiction

1. Sibelius’s Eighth Symphony is probably the most talked-about symphony that no one has ever heard.

The first notice of a new orchestral work after the symphonic poem Tapiola (1926) is from December 20, 1926, ‘And now I am working on a new thing for orchestra, which is not finished.’ A week later Tapiola was premiered by the New York Symphony Society under Walter Damrosch. In April next year, Sibelius received a letter from Olin Downes, music critic for the New York Times.

My dear Mr. Sibelius, I am writing to inquire whether you would feel interested in undertaking a concert tour of the United States next season, with a view to conducting your choral and symphonic compositions. In writing you about this I am expressing a purely artistic interest of my own, and at the same time am transmitting to you the inquiry of one of the best and most reputable American managers. He is Mr. William Brennan, manager of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who is probably known to you, and for whose exceptional integrity and business ability I can vouch.

Sibelius was obviously tempted to accept the offer but delayed his answer for several months. In August, he finally cabled his refusal pleading close engagement with new works. The progress of the new work was slow. But Sibelius didn’t seem to worry about it. On February 28, 1928, he wrote his wife from Berlin, ‘My work will be splendid. It only seems to take so much time to work it out. But what’s the hurry?’

On November 9, 1928, Serge Koussevitzky introduced Sibelius’s Third Symphony to Boston, and a month later he approached the composer by letter. He told about the Symphony’s great success and his further plans to conduct Sibelius’s works both in Boston and New York. ‘I should be very pleased,’ he continued, ‘if you could send me a few lines and let me know whether you have any new works which have not yet been performed. Do you not think that it would be an excellent idea if you came to America? In view of the great sympathy that is felt for you here, you would be received with the greatest delight.’

Sibelius answered Koussevitzky’s letter promptly and with courtesy: ‘It was with great pleasure that I received your letter, which has great significance for me. I can only regret that I was not present at the concert, and thus not did have the opportunity of hearing and admiring you. It is impossible for me to come to America at the moment. But there is still a great deal of time. I shall soon be publishing new works.’ Later the same day he apparently realized that he had said too much, and he wrote a second letter in which he backs off: ‘My new work is far from finished, and I cannot say unfortunately when it is likely to be ready. I regret that I mentioned the matter. The only thing that I can promise is that you, dear Maestro, will be the first to have any news.’

In the spring of 1930, Koussevitzky invited Sibelius to conduct three concerts with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Sibelius answered on June 16, ‘Your letter has brought me much joy and great sorrow. Joy at your suggestion and sorrow because—although I am otherwise healthy—I would not really like to conduct, as my nerves no longer permit it. You, dear Maestro, who are born to be a conductor by the grace of God, will hardly be able to understand this.’

Sibelius’s answer was a disappointment for Koussevitzky. He had hoped to get the composer to Boston during the BSO’s 50th-anniversary season, and now he hoped for a Sibelius premiere at least. ‘I … would be very happy if you could keep something new for me to perform in Boston,’ he wrote. To this request, Sibelius answered with a fatal promise, ‘As things appear now I shall be able to send you a new work this season. […] It would be splendid, dear Maestro, if you would be the first person to present the work to the American musical world.’

Koussevitzky had now every reason to believe that— sooner or later—he would be able to conduct a Sibelius premiere in Boston. Sibelius continued to forge his material. On January 19, 1931, he answered Olin Downes’s question about the progress of his work:

You ask me what I have been occupied with during these two years. It is not only one work but several ones. I enjoy finishing my new works in my head and put off with writing them down—for many reasons, not least on account of my adoration of life an[d] Nature. However, I think that there will quite soon be a new Symphony ready for printing—this information strictly private: only for you.

In the spring of 1931, Sibelius travelled to Berlin, this time not to hear new music, but to work in complete isolation. On May 22, he wrote his wife:

Here I am living in my music. Am so caught up in my work—but anxiety about everything makes me so miserable right now. It would be extremely unfortunate if I were forced to interrupt my stay here. […] My plan is to remain here until the end of June. And then home. Must see if it’s possible. The symphony is making great progress. And I must get it finished. Whilst I still have all my mental strength. There’s something strange about the birth of this work. […] Then I still have other things this year. […] My hand is actually shaking less now. But my anxiety makes it difficult for me to write again.

Shaking hands were one of the things that made composing more and more difficult for him over the years. In all probability Sibelius, at old age, suffered from essential tremor, a movement disorder that forced him to use pencil instead of ink and that made his handwriting quite difficult to read.

But even more harmful must have been the ‘anxiety’ he often refers to in his letters and diary. Was it anxiety about not being able to realize the inner vision of a work that he had in mind or was he anxious in front of the massive expectations from the outside world? Work on the Eighth Symphony had apparently progressed well in Berlin, since August 20, 1931, Sibelius wrote to Koussevitzky, ‘If you wish to perform my new symphony next spring, this will, I hope, be possible.’

A month later he received a cable from Olin Downes, ‘Please ask publisher forward immediately score of your Eighth Symphony my expense. Best wishes. Olin Downes.’ Sibelius cabled an answer promptly, ‘Regret very much having told of my Eighth Symphony not yet finished most cordial greetings. Sibelius.’

The diary note on December 18, 1931, the only one from that year, is both confused and hopeful: ‘When I am now—at the age of 66—reading in my diary, I understand that my old age is impossible. But—why live. — Working on my Eighth Symphony and am pure youthfulness. How to explain this.’ A month later he cabled Koussevitzky a retraction, ‘No symphony this season have written to Cherkassy.’ Paul Cherkassky, the leader of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was an old friend. He had premiered Sibelius’s Humoresques for violin and orchestra in Helsinki in 1919.

Koussevitzky did not lose his patience. On the contrary, he once again thanks Sibelius for allowing the BSO to give the first performance of the Eighth Symphony, and Sibelius answered, again full of confidence:

It would be good if you could perform my symphony at the end of October. This would then be the world première. I will probably send you a handwritten score because—as you say—publishers respect nothing. With my best wishes I remain, dear Maestro, yours, Jean Sibelius.

This is what Koussevitzky wanted to hear, and he answered a couple of weeks later:

I look forward with the greatest of pleasure to performing your new symphony in Boston in October. In November I will also play it in New York. — It would be best to send the handwritten score to Paris, where I will arrive in about two weeks and where I will stay until September 15th. If it were possible, therefore, for you to have the material sent to Paris before September 15th, I could take it back to America myself.

In June–July, apparently, work did not progress to the composer’s satisfaction, since July 14th he wrote to Koussevitzky:

Unfortunately, I have mentioned October as the month for the premiere of my new symphony. But this is not certain as I have had all sorts of interruptions. Please do not advertise any performance.

Meanwhile, Olin Downes had approached Sibelius by a letter from Moscow announcing a visit to Helsinki and asking for a great favor:

You know I have never asked you to talk to me about your music or about music. We have talked of other things. But now I ask if you will talk with me, for publication, about your music, particularly the 8th symphony, which I understand is now finished, and your opinions on music, etc. I ask this for two reasons. First I wish to write about the new symphony in advance of its performance by Koussevitzky, whom I saw in Paris. Secondly, I wish to include this subject, and say something about my visit to you, in a radio talk that I will make, for America, probably from either Berlin or Vienna […] Is the 8th symphony in print? And if it is printed, may I have a copy to take with me to America.

Downes and Sibelius met when Downes came to Helsinki at the end of June. There is no record of their conversation, but it obviously was in line with Sibelius’s answer to Koussevitzky two weeks later.

Koussevitzky didn’t give up. On October 5th, he wrote to Sibelius:

This season I intend to perform all of your symphonies in Boston. My plan is to include one of your works in the programme of each concert. Now I should like to know whether you approve of the symphonies being played in chronological order. – I urgently beg you to let me know whether I could have your Eighth symphony within 1 1/2 – 2 months. If this is not possible by the end of December, I will arrange my programmes so that your symphonies are played in every other concert and that the season ends with the first performance of your Eighth symphony, – I also beg you to let me know whether I will receive the score in the form of orchestra parts or only as a handwritten score. In the latter case, we can write out the orchestra parts ourselves here in Boston.

On October 26, Sibelius answered:

Dear Maestro, I thank you with all my heart for your letter of October 5th, with its particularly important information. I feel that giving the symphonies in chronological order is the best way. I just do not know if I can send the work by December. I shall try. Unfortunately, I was forced to promise the London Royal Phil. Society the first performance in Europe. This will take place after your world premiere. And so: either I will send you the handwritten score in December or the printed material a couple of months later.

The last sentence of the letter included a very concrete promise. Was Sibelius cheating himself or was he, this time, confident that he would be ready with the symphony in time?

In early November, Koussevitzky reported on the success of Tapiola in Boston and told that the complete symphonic cycle was about to begin. On New Years Eve, he sent Sibelius a telegram that ended with a question, ‘Am worried has the score to the Eighth Symphony been sent?’ No answer. Ten days later he repeated the question. On January 17, 1933, Sibelius cabled: ‘Regret impossible this season have written to Cherkassy January 2nd yours Sibelius.’

Koussevitzky couldn’t hide his disappointment. On February 1, he wrote to Sibelius:

Your telegram greatly discouraged me but I perfectly understand that you cannot release a composition until you feel satisfied with every single note you are giving to the world. This, naturally, does not change my plans, and I am continuing the cycle of your symphonies. […] I still hope in my heart that the Eighth Symphony will come: even if you send it at the end of March, I could give it in Boston and New York in April.

In June 1933, Koussevitzky told Sibelius of the reception of the symphony cycle in Boston and of the recording he had made of the Seventh Symphony with the BBCSO in London. The letter ended: ‘Do write me to the Paris address and tell me is there any hope to have your Eighth Symphony for the coming season, and may we still have the privilege of its first performance anywhere?’

Sibelius answered in July praising the recording: ‘Everything was full of life and natural, and I cannot thank you sufficiently.’ But he added: ‘I beg you not to advertise the new symphony. I shall write about it later.’

Sibelius had by no means abandoned the project, as a diary note from May 4, 1933, reveals: ‘It is as if I had returned home. In my art. Am writing, i.e. forging the first “movement”. Take everything in another way, deeper. A gypsy in me. Romantic.’

But he never wrote Koussevitzky another line about the Eighth Symphony. Koussevitzky touched the subject once more, in a letter from January 5, 1934:

‘I should like to express here my inmost wish and hope that your Symphony No. 8 may be given to the world before the year 1934 ends. […] With all good wishes and heartiest greetings, I am Always yours, Serge Koussevitzky.’

In the summer of 1933, Sibelius had apparently finished the first movement of the Symphony and sent it to his trusted copyist, the German musician Paul Voigt, previously second violinist at the Helsinki Philharmonic. On September 4, Voigt sent him a letter in German with a bill:

Most Honoured Maestro, I hereby deliver the completed work and hope that you, Herr Professor, will be satisfied with the result. I also wished to draw your attention, Herr Professor, to page 2, as it is not clear in the bassoon and cello parts where the bass clef should be inserted. – The Price is 8 mk per page = 184 Fmk. Yours faithfully P. Voigt.

On the back of the letter, Sibelius had drafted a reply in German:

My best thanks. Please do not bind the copy yet. Title: Sinfonia 8. At the end: fermata. The Largo continues without a break. The whole piece will be roughly eight times as long as this. As for your honorarium, I beg you to accept at least 10 marks per page. With best greetings. Sincerely, J.S.

Eight times 23 pages make 184 pages. The first symphony from 1899/1900 has 163 pages in printed score. Even if one cannot compare a printed score with a manuscript on a one-to-one basis, a large work was apparently in the making. And if the first movement goes attacca over to a Largo, the symphony was going to have several movements.

Professor Erik Tawaststjerna, who wrote a five-volume biography of Sibelius in the years 1965–1988, tells about his conversations with Mrs. Aino Sibelius after her husband’s death: ‘I learned that she and Sibelius together had either taken to Voigt or fetched from him a thick bunch of manuscripts. The composer’s daughter, married to the orchestral conductor Jussi Jalas, visited Voigt on the same business. This is evidence that several movements, perhaps the whole symphony, had been completed.’

She also told that ‘In the 1940s there was a great auto da fe at Ainola. My husband collected a number of manuscripts in a laundry basket and burned them on the open fire in the dining room. Parts of the Karelia Suite were destroyed – I later saw remains of the pages which had been torn out – and many other things. I did not have the strength to be present and left the room. I therefore do not know what he threw on to the fire. But after this my husband became calmer and gradually lighter in mood. It was a happy time.’

2. A new chapter in the story of Sibelius’s Eighth Symphony opened in 1982 when the Sibelius family donated the Helsinki University Library all the musical manuscripts from the family archives. A complete catalog of the manuscripts, including those previously in the Library’s possession, was published in 1991. According to the catalog, there are some unidentified sketches that ‘may include music for Symphony no. 8.’

One of the first scholars to make an inventory of the sketch material in view of the Eighth Symphony was Nors S. Josephson. He published, in 2004, a detailed article ‘On Some Apparent Sketches for Sibelius’s Eighth Symphony.’ His conclusion was that ‘Given the abundance of preserved materials for this work, one looks forward with great anticipation to a thoughtful, meticulous completion of the entire composition. A painstaking, conscientious undertaking would restore at least part of Sibelius’s ultimate musical legacy, one the composer labored over for at least ten years before apparently completing it in 1938.’

Other scholars are more careful. According to Kari Kilpeläinen, editor of the manuscript catalog, ‘All that remains of the Eighth Symphony is one page of a draft score and one snatch of melody ringed for the Eighth among the sketches for the 7th Symphony…’ In addition, there are ‘some unidentified sketches dating from the late 1920s and the 1930s. In particular some of the sketches akin to the ringed melody in G minor […] could be for the Eighth symphony. But … this is mere conjecture.’ On the reverse side of the draft score page, there are two pencil written words: Sinfonia VIII and Commincio. They have been rubbed later but are still clearly visible.

The most thorough scrutiny of the sketches related to the Eighth Symphony is Timo Virtanen’s article ‘A Jigsaw Puzzle Without a Picture. Jean Sibelius Late Sketches and the Eighth Symphony’ published in 2011. Dr. Virtanen, editor-in-chief of Jean Sibelius Works, the critical edition of all of Sibelius’s compositions, has found among the sketches three hitherto ignored orchestral score fragments and four other sketches containing orchestration markings that could be related to the Eighth Symphony. He made a fair copy of three of the sketches and, at the request of the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, also wrote parts for the instruments. In late October 2011, the three sketches were played for the first time at a rehearsal of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra under John Storgårds. Storgårds also recorded them with the BBC Philharmonic in 2014.[1]

More or less contemporary with these fragments are Five Esquisses for piano, Op. 114. In these pieces, Sibelius uses a technique he fully exploited in the 6th Symphony for the first time. Melodies use scales that are combinations of modal scale fragments, i.e. Aeolian and Ionian in the Winter Scene, Lydian and Mixolydian in the Song in the Forest, etc. The aesthetics and techniques of a short character piece for piano is, of course, completely different from that of a large orchestral composition. Sibelius, however, often used small-scale pieces as a testing ground for certain modal and tonal techniques that he then developed further in large-scale compositions. In this sense, the Five Esquisses can be considered representative of his late style.

3. The mystery of Sibelius’s Eighth Symphony has excited the imagination of not only musicians, musicologists and critics but of several writers and a composer.

The first one to write a fantasy about it was the American historian and novelist William R. Trotter. His Winter Fire: A Novel of Music and War was published in 1993. Two years earlier he had published a history of the Russo-Finnish Winter War (A Frozen Hell) that was awarded the Finlandia Foundation Arts and Letters Prize.

Winter Fire is essentially a story about Sibelius’s Eighth Symphony. The plot is pure fantasy. Erich Ziegler, the conductor of the Mannheim Symphony Orchestra, is serving during the Finno-Russian Continuation War in 1941–44 as an officer in Finland. By accident, he comes into contact with Sibelius, who lives in an isolated wartime safe house guarded by the military. Sibelius invites him to dinner. Lots of alcohol is served, and finally, Ziegler brings up a sensitive subject.

‘Maestro, what I should really like more than anything else is a peek at the Eighth Symphony. Just to get some idea of how it sounds. My curiosity is frankly enormous and I …’ Sibelius dropped his hand stiffly. His eyes narrowed and grew cold, his lips compressed into a thin line. A faint tremor fluttered his cheeks. ‘It is not finished. And questions like that are keeping me from finishing it.’ He turned away, his shoulders hunched with rage, and stalked from the room. Somewhere in the depths of the house, a door slammed.

Aino Sibelius explained the visitor her husband’s vehement reaction:

He has had … difficulties with the Eighth, Captain Ziegler. You must understand: the worldwide expectations for it are so great and so daunting, so many claims had been advanced for it by critics who have never heard a note of it. He agonized over it, for fear that, when it is released, it will disappoint those who have made so much of it. It’s become a kind of talisman for all those who have taken a look at all the fashionable musical styles and have said ‘No, thank you.’ The weight this has put on him is enormous, and tonight he was overstimulated.

This vividly narrated scene shows that Trotter was well acquainted with the literature on Sibelius and the Eighth Symphony. But it also shows that, for entertainment, he departs from realism and makes a caricature of the composer. The next scene borders on the bizarre and the grotesque.

Before Captain Ziegler leaves the villa, a telephone message from a front-line observation post imparts that Russian bombers just crossed the border and were expected to fly directly overhead. Everybody leaves the house. But Sibelius, cursing the Russians in at least two languages, runs back into the house and emerges, seconds later, ‘brandishing and old Tsarist Mosin-Nagant rifle nearly as tall as he was.’ At the sight of the twin-engined Tupolev SB-2s, the old man, wheezing out curse after curse, begins shooting at them.

During the following months and years, Ziegler meets Sibelius on several occasions at Villa ‘Tapiola,’ named after his latest orchestral composition. Finally, the composer consents to play his guest the Eighth Symphony on condition that he mustn’t tell anyone that he has heard it. Ziegler accepts, and Sibelius plays him the work on the piano.

Ziegler was impressed. He noticed that the Eighth grew organically from the composer’s previous works ‘and expanded upon the techniques explored in the best of them. Although it adumbrated images of vastness, yet it was constructed from the most economical materials, developed with a sureness of touch that bespoke a lifetime’s ascent to this level of craftsmanship. The transformational techniques of Tapiola were raised here to heights of power, expressiveness, and formal logic beyond even that work’s level of attainment.’

The lengthy description of the symphony, of which I just quoted the beginning, is worthy of a professional music critic’s review of a real composition.

As Sibelius stubbornly refuses to publish the work and insists that it will never leave ‘Tapiola,’ Ziegler decides to take the manuscript by force, menacing the composer with his Luger. He gets the score and then flees with German troops towards Norway. Soon Finnish forces track the Germans. A soldier opens fire, and ‘the bullets shatter the leather straps of the dispatch case that dangled over his shoulder. Leaves of paper, fluttering like dove’s wings, blown by the force of the Suomi’s big slugs into a cloud that settled very slowly on trembling surface of the bog.’

Ziegler desperately tries to retrieve them, but suction and the weight of his body carried most of the papers with him down into the bog. The Finnish troop commander was curious to see what kind of document was valuable enough to be worth the risk of such a monstrous death. Perhaps something that Finnish intelligence would be interested in. He was able to retrieve a few sodden pages from the bog but saw at a glance that there was nothing whatever of military value on them—only a few lines of barely legible music.

In Trotter’s novel, the mystery of Sibelius’s Eighth Symphony is embedded in an adventure beyond all realism. In some odd way, it nevertheless sheds light on Sibelius’s struggle with his creativity under the nerve-racking pressure from the outside world.

A different approach to the mystery of the Eighth Symphony is Julian Barnes’s short story ‘The Silence’ in a book called The Lemon Table (2004), a collection of eleven short stories on the subject of aging and death. Julian Barnes is an English writer whose books include Flaubert’s Parrot, England, England and The Sense of Ending that won the Man Booker Prize in 2011.

The Lemon Table is a puzzling name. It is appropriated from Sibelius’s diary note from February 17, 1925, quoted in English in the third volume of Erik Tawaststjerna’s Sibelius. It reads as follows:

‘The lemon table at the Kämp! – [Sibelius’s favorite restaurant in Helsinki] – The lemon is the emblem of death with the Chinese. And in one of her poems Anna-Maria Lenngren [a Finnish poet] writes, “buried with a lemon in his hand.” That is a blessing!’

The name of the short story, ‘The Silence’ is identical to the name of chapter 22 in Erik Tawaststjerna’s book and most of its content is drawn from that book as well, transformed into the composer’s internal monolog. His name is not mentioned. Readers ignorant of Sibelius’s life and music may wonder who that elderly composer might be. Three other persons are referred to by a single initial only, making their identification even more difficult. A. is Mrs. Aino Sibelius, K. is Koussevitzky, N. is the Danish composer Carl Nielsen, born the same year as Sibelius, in 1865.

The composer’s reaction to a visitor’s question about his Eighth Symphony is essentially the same as in Trotter’s novel, but it is here told in the first person. ‘He asked when exactly would my first symphony be finished? I smiled no more. “It is you who are keeping me from finishing it,” I replied, and rang the bell to have him shown out.’

‘The Silence’ reproduces the atmosphere one encounters in Sibelius’s diary. An elderly composer is thinking about his life. ‘How dreadful old age is for a composer! Things don’t go as quickly as they used to, and self-criticism grows to impossible proportions.’ Time to call for a lemon.

Most sophisticated of the stories related to Sibelius’s Eighth is a novella in Lars Gustafsson’s The strange animal from the North and other science fiction stories, a collection of short prose tales modeled after The Decameron. There is a French and a German translation of the book, but, strange enough, not an English one. Esa-Pekka Salonen recently tweeted: ‘Most likely the best SciFi book I’ve ever read. Not translated so far, publishers, hello!?’

Sometime during the 40th millennium, eight space lords are gathered together in the mess of an old solar wind spaceship Pascal II traveling toward a remotely solar system. Actually, the eight lords are not separate individuals at all. At the beginning of the trip, the First Lord had quickly divided his complex mental structure into eight subdivisions who then could tell each other stories during the voyage that lasted for decades. ‘A cheerful circle of narrators who all seemed to surpass each other in life-experience, wit and the art of presentation.’

One of the stories, told by the Sixth Lord, is ‘Jean Sibelius’s Night.’ In early spring of 1948, Sibelius is sitting at an open window in Villa Ainola waiting to hear the year’s first cranes: ‘Their voices are my life’s guidelines.’ Suddenly, he hears a strange noise from beneath. Leaning forward in his chair, he sees a young girl climbing the wall, her blue eyes looking at him mindfully. He stretches his arms to help her inside and is surprised by her lightness. She is ‘light as a feather,’ as they use to say.

”Who are you, little girl?” Sibelius asks. ”It’s a bit difficult to explain,” the girl says. ”I’m dreaming you, of course. Say as it is: I have fallen asleep at the window. Do you think I’m going to get pneumonia.” ”Oh, there is no danger,” said the girl in plain Swedish. ”What’s your name, then, little girl?” ”Mélisande, of course,” said the girl.

”Now, since you have come such a long way,”—Sibelius thinks the girl is an American music student—”I suppose I must talk to you a little bit, after all. What can I explain to you? The trumpet theme at the end of the Fifth Symphony perhaps?” ”Oh, there is no problem with that, it is the same as in the ‘Scene with Cranes.’ ”Aha,” said Sibelius with sudden indignation. ”Now I got you, you little seductress. Everybody knows that there is no Eighth Symphony. So, I’m in fact dreaming you.”

”But tell me, Why are you so light?” Sibelius asked. ”It has something to do with the transfer. It is fairly difficult for me to keep staying in the probability continuum in which the configuration ‘Jean Sibelius’ has been realized. I could have been heavier, but it would have been dangerous. It seems to you that am stable, but, as I see it, I have to move very quickly to stay with you. It’s a little bit difficult to explain. But it is so,” the girl said.

”Now, since you are such a clever little student, you can perhaps tell me how that symphony goes on,” Sibelius said. ”Sure. After the G. P. there is the famous tempo change to Allegro that starts with parallel fifths in the strings, then we have E–Ab–E–B on the trumpets and then, as is typical for you, a drill on the oboes,” the girl starts describing the events in the score. ”Hussy!” Sibelius exclaims. ”But go on by all means. I’m very interested in how a young musically educated person understands my 8th Symphony.” Mélisande continues to describe the symphony and to croon its motives. ”Very strange, Mélisande, that I should dream you. You seem to know something about me that I didn’t.” ”I don’t believe that, but how do you know that I am not dreaming you? Isn’t it always the logically stronger system that describes the logically weaker one?”, Melisande says. ”Who would you be then, little girl?” Sibelius asks. ”It’s a little bit difficult to explain. If I say it, you’ll only be unhappy about not having asked me more. Let us say that I was your eighth symphony. And that I thought you had the right to see me once.” The white curtain fluttered, and the girl was gone. Sibelius survived that night. He nevertheless remained melancholic until his death.

4. The fundamental question is: Why didn’t Sibelius finish the Eighth Symphony and—if he did—why did he destroy it?

From Sibelius’s correspondence with Serge Koussevitzky and Olin Downes, it is clear that the pressure on the composer was enormous. In the 1930s, Sibelius had a strong position in America. But in Europe, he was a controversial figure. In The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross puts it as follows: ‘The crisis point of his career arrived in the late nineteen-twenties and the early thirties, when he was being lionized as a new Beethoven in England and America, and dismissed as a purveyor of kitsch in the tastemaking European music centers, where atonality and other modern languages dominated the scene.’

As the Nazis got the power in 1933, things got even worse. Jewish composers, such as Schoenberg, had to leave the country. Performances of the music of historical Jewish composers, such as Mendelssohn and Mahler, were banned. Works of non-Jewish composers like Hindemith and Webern were banned because their aesthetics was wrong. The Nazis called it ‘entartete Musik.’

At the same time, the cultural policy of the Nazis favored Sibelius. During the Nazi regime, he was second only to Richard Strauss and Hans Pfitzner in performances of orchestral music. In 1934, he was elected, without permission, vice-president of the Ständiger Rat, the new international composers’ union, of which Strauss was the president. In 1935, Hitler awarded him the Goethe medal, and in 1936, the Heidelberg University bestowed an honorary doctorate on him.

In 1938, Theodor W. Adorno, in American emigration, published his ‘Gloss on Sibelius,’ in which he mocks Sibelius’s scores as being ‘the configuration of the banal and the absurd.’

Each thing sounds quotidian and familiar. The motives are fragments from the current material of tonality. We have already heard them so often we think we understand them. But they are placed in a meaningless context: as if one were to combine indiscriminately the words gas station, lunch, death, Greta, and plowshare with verbs and particles. An incomprehensible whole made up of the most trivial details produces the false image of profundity.

According to Adorno, ‘There was probably no one more astonished than he to discover that his failure was interpreted as success, his lack of technical ability as necessity. In the end, he probably believed it himself and has now been brooding for years over his Eighth symphony as if it were the Ninth.’

In Adorno’s view, tonal music associated with Nazi-mindedness and atonal music with anti-Nazism and anti-Fascism. Supporters of the Schoenberg school shared this view. It is unlikely, although not impossible, that Sibelius was made aware of Adorno’s Gloss. But even if he wasn’t, this line of thought must have been familiar to him, and it may have affected his decision not to release the Eighth Symphony and, finally, to destroy it. His conclusion might have been, ‘My music does not belong to this time.’

Politicization of the musical language during the 1930s is a much more plausible explanation for the silence of Sibelius than any such that relates to health, lifestyle or mental condition: shaking hands, weakened eyesight, alcoholism, the drying-up of creativity, excessive self-criticism, etc. Besides, there is another, a purely musical explanation that makes sense to anybody who has followed his path from Kullervo to Seventh Symphony and the symphonic poem Tapiola. In these two late orchestral works, both in one movement, condensation reaches its utmost limits.

The final note on the Eighth Symphony in Sibelius’s Diary is from September 13, 1943, ‘Symphony is in my thoughts. Our critics here are beneath contempt. Only very few understand what I have done and want to do in the world of symphony. The majority have no idea of what it is about.’

Tom Service of the London newspaper The Guardian comes close to an answer when writing in 2007, ‘Time itself is manipulated, shrunk and stretched, creating a kind of musical black hole, in which massive, elemental experiences are expressed in mere minutes. It’s a completely new way of thinking about musical time, about what music can do.’

Talk at the Finnish Embassy in Washington D.C. on May 13, 2015

[1] Chandos CHAN 10809(3). Another recording, with a fourth sketch (00:24), has been recorded by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä.

About Ilkka Oramo

Professor of Music Theory, emeritus
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