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Refuge in the forest

Review of Jean Sibelius and His World, ed. Daniel M. Grimley

Published in The Times Literary Supplement, January 2012

No twentieth-century composer has provoked more strongly contrasted critical reaction than Jean Sibelius. At one extreme, we have Cecil Gray and Constant Lambert claiming that Sibelius's symphonies are the most important since Beethoven; at the other, Theodor W. Adorno lambasting Sibelius as an amateur "who obviously hasn't mastered four-part harmony", and whose works are meaningless: "What is expressed is nothing at all". Sibelius's orchestral music is now securely in the repertoire, at least in this country, in the United States and in Scandinavia (in France and Germany his position is more uncertain). His current critical reputation is epitomized by Leon Botstein in a thoughtful essay in this book comparing Sibelius with Richard Strauss:

Having receded into the background as old fashioned and politically suspect during the heyday of mid-century modernism, Sibelius and Strauss emerged at the end of the twentieth century as dominant figures of influence. No longer marginal, they became representative figures of the twentieth century, harbingers of postmodernism, and suggestive of music's future. Sibelius in particular offered a model of an alternative modernism. Together they vindicated the potential of a tradition of an accessible and expressive eclectic musical discourse in contemporary life.

Not all the contributors to Jean Sibelius and His World, the latest volume of critical essays published in connection with the Bard Music Festival, make such unequivocal statements. Byron Adams, for instance, writes entertainingly about Sibelius in Britain and his huge reputation here in the interwar years, but he quotes Gray's view that "The Symphonies of Sibelius represent the highest point attained in this form since the death of Beethoven" as an extreme example of hyperbole.

Yet who are the greatest symphonists since Beethoven? Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler - surely Sibelius belongs in their company.

The shadow of Adorno hangs rather too heavily over the book. Both Max Paddison and Daniel Grimley discuss Adorno's 'Gloss on Sibelius' (reprinted here as an appendix). Neither of them goes quite thoroughly enough into the origins of Adorno's critique, originally published in 1938 in Studies in Philosophy and Social Science, the journal of the Frankfurt School's Institute for Social Research, which had moved to New York in 1934. As Philip Ross Bullock has pointed out in his edition of the correspondence between Sibelius and Rosa Newmarch, the 'Gloss' reflects Adorno's reaction, while living in exile in Oxford between 1934 and 1938, to the Sibelius cult in Britain and especially to Sibelius's pupil Bengt de Törne's biography, Sibelius: A close-up. What must have especially incensed Adorno was not simply Törne's adulation of Sibelius but the unflattering comparisons made with Mahler, whose symphonies, according to Törne, "will sink into oblivion because they lack intrinsic life". This, and Adorno's outrage that both Mahler and Schoenberg were scorned in Britain while Sibelius was exalted, combined to produce perhaps the most wrong-headed judgement of a great composer that has ever been written, one that should now be quietly forgotten.

Because Adorno published the 'Gloss' in German, it would not have reached many Sibelians in the US and Britain. Did Sibelius read it? We do not know, but if he did, such a vicious attack on his music might have contributed to his decision a few years later to destroy the Eighth Symphony. The destruction of what was almost certainly a masterpiece will ultimately remain a mystery, though, as Adams points out, expectations were so high that Sibelius probably found it impossible to live up to them. It was not, I think, that Sibelius was still concerned about being 'modern' enough, as he had been at the time of Schoenberg's break with tonality. In a wide-ranging essay, Tomi Mäkelä has much to say on Sibelius and modernity. His "protest against the compositions of today", as Sibelius described his Fourth Symphony to Newmarch, and the contemporary Voces Intimae string quartet, showed how it was possible to be new while staying loyal to the past.

Modernism - best defined by Schoenberg's atonality - remained alien to Sibelius. Both Botstein and Sarah Menin, however, write about the affinity between Sibelius's music and progressive architecture: Botstein on Eliel Saarinen, whose buildings transformed Helsinki in the early years of the century, Menin in particular on the younger, decidedly modernist Alvar Aalto. As Menin says, "both Sibelius and Aalto crucially had a childhood refuge - the realm of the Finnish forest - something that remained a creative stimulant throughout their lives". Aalto's architecture was organic rather than mechanistic, and always made extensive use of wood. His pavilion for the New York World's Fair in 1939 included a wave-like wall of wooden posts like trees in a forest. Sibelius's Andante Festivo for strings was played within this forest space; as Menin says, it should have been Tapiola, Sibelius's last and most profound meditation on the Finnish forest landscape.

Sibelius's musical journey began when Finland was still a Grand Duchy of Imperial Russia. In a fine opening essay, Philip Ross Bullock points to the unsurprising influence of Tchaikovsky and other Russian music on Sibelius's early style, also to Karelian folk music which was both Finnish and Russian, since the Karelia of the Kalevala extended beyond the Finnish border. Another of the book's appendices is a well-informed lecture on folk music given by Sibelius in 1896. The contours of Karelian folk song were absorbed into his early music; like Elgar, Sibelius invented his own folk melodies rather than using existing ones. He quickly found a personal voice, though the influence of Romanticism was hard to throw off. The Fourth Symphony still has links with Wagner (Tristan, not Parsifal as Mäkelä suggests). In the final three symphonies and in Tapiola, the exploration of entirely new territory finds its culmination and all influences are subsumed. Tapiola and the work that immediately preceded it, the large-scale incidental music to The Tempest (extensively discussed by Grimley in his essay), both contain violent depictions of storms and, as Grimley notes, both end on the same chord of B major. Grimley finds these endings negative: "Nothing lies beyond except obliteration". Mäkelä, however, hears the last chord of Tapiola as "a simple 'Amen' or benediction", and I would agree. If Sibelius here is laying down his staff, he does so, it now seems, in the calm confidence that future generations of composers will take it up again, and that he will be there to guide them.