The Bard of Finland: Jean Sibelius

If you had asked music lovers 100 years ago (around 1915, in other words) which living composers were most likely to stake a claim at immortality, one of the leading candidates would be Jean Sibelius, the pioneering Finnish composer whose works had taken Europe—and then America—by storm.  Along with contemporaries such as Mahler and Rachmaninov, Sibelius represented the last gasp of Romanticism, which both he and Rachmaninov were doomed to outlive.  But whereas Rachmaninov largely held onto the principles of Russian Romanticism, Sibelius found his own way to adapt to Modernism, producing works that are today every bit as bold and enigmatic as they were in the early 20th century.  Strangely, Sibelius quickly lost his foothold after WWII, dismissed as a cheap Romantic, either jeered for his “big hit,” the sentimental Valse Triste, or grudgingly tolerated for his moody tone poem, The Swan of Tuonela.  Serialism and the twelve-tone technique had no place for such a throwback to fin di seicle emotionalism, even if concert halls never entirely banished him to the purgatory of forgotten composers.  Important works such as Symphonies 1, 2, and 5 remained in the repertoire, and occasionally masterpieces such as En Saga, Pohjola’s Daughter, and Tapiola would make an outing.  The advent of CD technology encouraged complete cycles of his symphonies (notably by Simon Rattle in the late 80’s), and forced a reassessment of his symphonic legacy.  For someone considered a purveyor of second-rate Tchaikovsky, Sibelius conjured up works which defied all the “isms” of his day, whether Romanticism, Serialism, or New Classicism.  His stark, introspective Fourth Symphony left most scratching their heads, as did its polar opposite, the sunny, lyrical Sixth (can something so undramatic be a symphony, many asked)?  And what about the Third Symphony, which is neither Romantic, nor classical, nor Modernist, but a strange form which the composer, himself, never really followed up on? 

Now that we are squarely in the 21st century, it’s easier to distinguish his legacy and contribution to music, and see him not as an anachronism but as a vital, if ignored, branch of musical modernism.  I would argue that along with Mahler, he is one of the greatest symphonists since Beethoven, and his cycle truly stands up as a coherent whole, which each work seeming to build upon its predecessor without abandoning its musical language.  However, symphonic form as bequeathed to him from Beethoven through Brahms never quite suited him, so each attempt to write a symphony constituted a starting-over for Sibelius.  We find him responding to and expanding the Russian Romantics in 1-2, trying to forge a new language that balanced modernism and classicism in 3 & 6, seeking totally new tonal boundaries in 4 & 5, and then condensing the form into its absolute essence in 7.  Not surprisingly, the Seventh Symphony was originally entitled “symphonic-fantasy”, as if to suggest that it was more a free-flowing fantasy bound by its own rules than sonata form.  Perhaps for this reason the symphonic poem best suited his inspiration, as the story, alone, dictated the musical resources necessary for transcribing it. He wrote symphonic poems throughout his career, each one reflecting the innovations he brought to the symphony, but always with an eye to telling a story.  Here he did Richard Strauss one better, as his works require no detailed program to appreciate; indeed, like Rachmaninov’s The Isle of the Dead, one feels that the story merely inspired the music rather than truly shaping its outline.  The real story changes with each hearing, as small details dance out of the orchestral fabric. 

The most remarkable thing about Sibelius is how doggedly he stuck to his guns.  At a time when storytelling of any kind was seen as passe, he merely sought new means to make it valid.  When composers were eschewing programmatic titles for the purposely generic “Three Pieces” or “Music for Piano and Orchestra,” Sibelius penned a Tapiola or a Nightride and Sunrise.  Perhaps the man accused of being an anachronism was actually ahead of his time: the neo-Romantics often turned back to Sibelius in their harmonic language, and many living composers, notably John Adams and even Philip Glass, have paid homage to Sibelius in their works.  In short, he clawed his way back from oblivion while many more “important” composers have retreated into the textbooks.  
So where to start with Sibelius?  Obviously his 7 symphonies are a great launching off point, since they chronologically trace his development from nationalist composer to a man of all ages.  However, as suggested above, the symphony began as a foreign language for Sibelius, a language he mastered, but which required a bit of translation.  To hear Sibelius’ “mother tongue” one should start with the symphonic poems, and arguably the collection of poems that served as bridge from his early orchestral works to his First Symphony.  The Lemminkainen Suite, also known as Legends from the Kalevala, is to me, quintissential Sibelius, representing the apotheosis of his early style as well as a prophecy of his future voice.   

Lemminkainen Suite, Op. 22 (1895/1897): In many ways, this is Sibelius’ first 
symphony.  He was understandably reticent to write a symphony in the heady days of Brahms and Tchaikovsky, and instead pursued a middle path through Straussian symphonic poems that explored Finland’s national epic, the Kalevala.  Yet the pressure was mounting: he needed a major symphonic statement to cement his career, and all Finland demanded a major opus.  He complied with a work that is much more than a suite, perhaps not quite a symphony, but some loose amalgamation of the two.  He did the same with his first major orchestral work, the symphonic poem/symphony Kullervo, a sprawling work in five movements which traces the tragic downfall of Kullervo, a haunted hero from the Kalevala.  Lemminkainen is also one of the heroes of the Kalevala, and these “legends” musically recount several of his exploits, all of them very much in the Homeric vein.  However, whereas Kullervo is the work of a inexperienced genius, the Legends are the voice of experience—not a note seems out of place, and the length—which runs to about an hour—never seems lengthy.  It all works and it all sings, though sadly (as discussed below) it is more often heard in pieces than as a complete tapestry. 

The four movements are:
I. Lemminkainen and the Maidens of Saari
II. The Swan of Tuonela
III. Lemminkainen in Tuonela
IV. Lemminkainen’s Homeward Journey

Not surprisingly, the public embraced the two shortest numbers (II and IV), and more or less ignored the others.  Perhaps this work better than any other represents the problem with Sibelius, as he is at once popular and tuneful, as well as moody and obscure.  The most famous piece is the second (or sometimes, third movement), “The Swan of Tuonela.”  Truly, it’s a masterpiece of orchestral color, painting a grim nocturne enlivened only by the mournful song of the English horn.  Sibelius adapted the piece from an aborted opera, and indeed, there is something very Wagnerian and operatic about it.  The other famous piece is “Lemminkainen’s Homeward Journey,” which is a nail-biting, fast-paced piece depicting the hero being chased from the land of Tuonela (a theme he would return to in the more abstract piece, Nighride and Sunrise, Op.55).  Both of these works are short, pops-ready numbers which can be listened to easily and enjoyed, which is why they are so easily divorced from the suite.  Perhaps this also hints at the nature of this suite, which hangs together, but only just.  That said, it needs to be played as a whole, as individual chapters in a vast story, to make its truest effect.  The two “short” movements are almost resting points for the most expansive, dramatic works, which could suffer from a lack of diversity.  Some conductors actually switch movements II and III, claiming that the first movement is too “slow,” and that following it with a slow movement ruins the suite’s impact (Sibelius actually revised the score in 1947, moving III to follow I).  Yet I is not really slow or undramatic, and III is intensely dramatic, so having two dramatic works followed by a brief meditative number is odd and unsatisfying.  Like George Lucas’ incessant tinkering with Star Wars, he had it right the first time. 

Sadly, too few people know movements I and III, which are actually the heart of the suite.  I opens with a mournful, isolated horn call, which is slowly taken up by the orchestra in quiet, shimmering strings.  It’s perhaps the greatest tone poem of the 19th century, full of melodic and rhythmic wonders, and a masterpiece of musical storytelling.  The story is much more vague than anything we find in Strauss, yet your mind is instantly flitting between strange, half-glimpsed impressions of enchantment and seduction.  The same is true for the third movement, except here enchantment is switched for drama and tragedy.  The strings open with a quiet, yet disturbing motif, which grows in strength and seriousness until the orchestra explodes with cries of warning, as if to say “run, Lemminkainen, run!  Too late!”  In this movement, the hero is actually killed, and in a poignant middle section, his mother comes to resurrect him with a prayer to the gods.  Then the tragic music returns, just as desperate as before, reminding us that death isn’t always the greatest evil.  Sound-wise, the suite has some musical forebearers in Tchaikovsky, Strauss, and Russians such as Rimsky and Stravinsky, but it ends up sounding like none of them.  There’s a little of Scriabin and even early Rachmaninov thrown in as well, though I’m not sure how well Sibelius knew their music at this point.  What I find more striking are the hints of the Sibelius to come in the First and Second Symphonies, as well as the more mature masterpieces of Pohjola’s Daughter, The Oceanides, and even Tapiola.  So whether you see it as a romantic throwback or a modernist masterpiece, the Legends remain one of his most satisfying and original scores. 

A Few Versions to Consider
* Ormandy, Philadelphia Orchestra: this is the classic version, touted by many as the best version set down on record.  It is slick and cinematic, perhaps lacking in passion at times (as well as mystery), but it’s undeniably well-played and full of fire.  Easily a top recommendation, especially as it comes with a superb rendition of Tapiola

* Sakari, Iceland SO: A budget recording on the Naxos label, Sakari nevertheless knows this music through and through, and the Iceland SO shapes it beautifully.  Whereas Ormandy is slick, Sakari is soft; he creates a slower, more mythic atmosphere around the music which suits Sibelius’ inspiration.  It is probably the most atmospheric version around.  The album also includes lighter Sibelius fare well-played: the Karelia Suite and his ubiquitous overture, Finlandia

* Vanska, Lahti SO: Another Finnish conductor, Vanska has recorded every bit of orchestral music Sibelius ever set to paper—and most of it more than once!  He’s honed the Lahti SO into great shape, and they play beautifully—especially in pianissimos.  However, Vanska can be a bit eccentric in Sibelius, and he likes to really speed things up.  Listen, for example, to the tragic climaxes in “Lemminkainen in Tuonela,” which he takes at twice the speed of most conductors.  It ruins the mood for me, as he seems unwilling to make the music too Romantic, preferring a more visceral effect.  It works, but it’s not for all tastes, and might not completely service this music.  You can find this version on an MP3 of Sibelius’ complete symphonies and assorted orchestral works.

* Sinainsky, Moscow SO: A Russian take on Sibelius, and a very successful one indeed!  The sound is more raw, more primal, yet still very sophisticated and beautiful.  The recorded sound can be a little rough, too, which a good stereo system can easily pick out.  Yet this is accomplished playing and the recording includes almost all of Sibelius’ tone poems, which is a hard bargain to pass up. 

* Segerstam, Finnish NSO: Segerstam is a long-time Sibelian, in fact, one of the best.  A composer himself, he seems to instinctively know how Sibelius thinks, and has recorded some of the most eye-opening recordings of his works, especially the symphonies.  Unlike Vanska, he tends to slow tempos, creating mood and mystery at the expense of pacing.  Yet this almost always works, and his climaxes are truly earth-shattering.