September 20, 2007


The silence of Sibelius: Why did Sibelius produce nothing in his last 30 years? On the 50th anniversary of the great composer's death, Tom Service travels to Finland to unravel one of classical music's biggest mysteries (Tom Service, September 20, 2007, Guardian)

In Jean Sibelius's house, about half an hour north of Helsinki and within sight of haunting Lake Tuusula, there is a massive green fireplace, the height of the dining room. Every brick has been carefully glazed, reflecting the light that streams in through the front windows like an evergreen glimpsed in a wintry woodland. For any visitor to Ainola today - the house is named after Sibelius's wife, Aino - the fireplace is a colourful interloper in an interior otherwise completely made of pine.

Such is the clarity of the design of the house, the restrained chic of the textiles, even the crockery, that Ainola feels strangely contemporary. You half expect Sibelius himself to come out from his office and greet you, then sit down at his piano and wave you to a seat. Everything in the house has been left almost as it was when he died, 50 years ago today: his white suit, in which he was often photographed in the last years of his life, hangs from the door of his study; his pens lie on his desk; and the phonograph sits in the library, where he spent much of his last years listening to recordings of his music by conductors such as Thomas Beecham and Leopold Stokowski.

But that fireplace holds the secret to one of the great mysteries in the history of music. For the last 30 years of his life, Sibelius - the father of Finnish music and, at that time, the most famous Finn alive, celebrated the world over with performances of his orchestral music, and one of the few living composers to be almost universally loved - did not produce any major works. It's a creative silence all but unparalleled in music. How can it be explained?

In fact, that silence may not have been as total as we think. Sibelius premiered seven symphonies in his lifetime, pieces that are among the most popular yet misunderstood of any composer, the last coming in 1924. But there was another. An Eighth Symphony was promised to Serge Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in the early 1930s, and its British premiere was even announced for 1933. The piece never appeared, despite letters Sibelius wrote to his friends discussing its structure. In 1933, he told Georg Schneevoigt, the conductor who was supposed to lead the symphony's world premiere in Helsinki: "You have no idea how brilliant it is." Later that year, he explained to a journalist that the Eighth "will be the reckoning of my whole existence - 68 years. It will probably be my last. Eight symphonies and 100 songs. It has to be enough." But all that remains of it today is one sheet of paper, a first page with a key signature and a list of instruments - but not a single note.

Yet the work did exist. It's just that Sibelius, probably some time in 1945, held a "burning party" at Ainola, in which he destroyed the manuscripts, sketches and finished copies of pieces he was working on - including everything to do with the new symphony. Only the inside of the fireplace at Ainola has any direct experience of what the symphony contained: a musical enigma that for decades has obsessed Sibelius scholars, who have tried vainly to look for traces of the score wherever he travelled; it has even inspired a novel, William Trotter's second world war thriller, Winter Fire. According to Aino, Sibelius was a happier man after he had burnt these scores, as if this act of seemingly incomprehensible creative vandalism had somehow released his spirit.

However, the real explanation for that 30-year silence at Ainola is more surprising - and more revealing - than the fruits of any hunt for the lost Eighth could ever be. And it is staring you in the face, or at least it is to anyone familiar with Sibelius's final works. Once you understand those shattering, unprecedented pieces, then the silence strikes you as not just understandable - but inevitable.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 20, 2007 3:19 PM

"Only the inside of the fireplace at Ainola has any direct experience of what the symphony contained: a musical enigma that for decades has obsessed Sibelius scholars, who have tried vainly to look for traces of the score wherever he travelled"

It's sitting next in our kitchen next to my wife's cookbooks. Not all it's cracked up to be...

Posted by: Greg Hlatky at September 20, 2007 6:01 PM

Based on this post I cut short my "New Magnetic Wonder" listen and put the only Sibelius CD I have (Symphony No 2 with the Oslo Philharmonic) in the CD player.
Since this is 2 of 8 probably doesn't add anything to the post. But, does reconfirm my decision on original CD purchase.

Posted by: Mike at September 20, 2007 10:04 PM

Unlike Mozart and J.S. Bach, who were still scribbling the day they died.

Chopin had all unfinished work burned.

In the exuberance of youth, everything we create seems better than it is. We grow wise and discover that nothing is good enough.

Hopefully, somewhere in the middle we produce something blessed and worth keeping.

Posted by: Randall Voth at September 21, 2007 1:51 AM

In the past two weeks, I have heard more Sibelius on classical radio (in Seattle, Richland, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, and here in NC) than I have in years. Now I know why.

When I was in college, I used to listen to Sibelius when I studied. It helped, certainly more so than listening to The Clash.

Posted by: jim hamlen at September 21, 2007 8:53 PM