April 13, 2007


Sibelius - A hostage to history: Sibelius was once the world's favourite composer but, thanks to German fascist admirers, his star waned after his death. Fifty years later, it's time to rediscover his genius (Jessica Duchen, 09 April 2007, Independent)

Jean Sibelius, Finland's finest export, along with cranberry vodka and the Moomins, died in 1957 at the age of 91. In 1935 he was identified as the most popular classical composer of all, ahead of Beethoven, in a poll by the New York Philharmonic Society. But, on the 50th anniversary of his death, he is receiving scant attention in British concert halls, even though he was as fine a composer as the more popular likes of Shostakovich and Mahler.

He is set apart from his rivals by his conciseness and originality of voice, a combination of the translucent and the transcendental. Each of his seven symphonies is unique in structure, unpredictable, even startling; tautly written and organic in their use of motifs, they possess a sense of austere wonder; personal yet universal. At the time of their composition, they represented a radical departure from the symphonies of the past. Beside them, Mahler can seem self-indulgent, while Shostakovich can never be divorced from his fearsome Soviet context.

But the mysteries of Sibelius run deeper than his relative neglect. For the last 30 years of his life, he produced next to nothing. He worked on an eighth symphony, declaring several times that it would be his greatest work, but it never materialised. Eventually, said Sibelius's wife Aino, there was a bonfire at the family home. Her husband had consigned the eighth symphony to the flames. [...]

The death blow was delivered after the war by the German philosopher, sociologist and musical theorist Theodor Adorno. Certain critics, notably Olin Downes in New York, had used Sibelius to berate composers such as Schoenberg and Stravinsky; Adorno, consequently, bore Sibelius a grudge for his very popularity, so was keen to associate him with Nazi ideology. "Sibelius's supporters scream in chorus: 'nature is all, nature is all'. Great Pan, and where necessary blood and earth, step up into the picture," he blustered, evoking the Nazis' blut und boden slogans.

Nothing could have been further from the truth, as revealed in Erik Tawaststjerna's definitive five-volume biography of Sibelius: in his diary the composer lambasted anti-Semitism and declared the Nazis' race laws "the most complete hogwash". But the damage had been done.

Adorno was an influential thinker, and contributed greatly to the prevailing post-war aesthetic in which critics condemned new music that seemed "conservative", and failed to toe the line of the 12-tone system.

Like it's a bad thing...

-Sibelius' Symphony No 2 (BBC, Radio 3)
-Sibelius -Tapiola (BBC, Radio 3)

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 13, 2007 6:53 AM

Adorno was an influential thinker, so was Gunter Grass.

Posted by: ic at April 13, 2007 2:48 PM

When I was little, my mom would play Sibelius No. 2 on her bad days, usually as loud as possible. Even at 4 or 5 (hearing it upon entering the house), I knew it was special. I used to play it in my dorm when I studied for finals at college, much to the confusion of my Led Zeppelin addicted hallmates.

Posted by: jim hamlen at April 13, 2007 11:57 PM


And the Finns fought the Red Army to a standstill. Another reason for the chattering classes not to forgive them.

Posted by: Mikey [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 14, 2007 2:05 PM