Delving Into an Enigmatic Icon

Book review: SIBELIUS AND HIS WORLD edited by DANIEL M. GRIMLEY (Princeton University Press)

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By Bradley Bambarger <2012>

Since 1990, the Bard Music Festival and Princeton University Press have produced a series of essay collections devoted to a single classical composer and “his world,” focusing on canonical figures from Haydn to Copland. These books are invaluable opportunities for music lovers — whether lay or professional — to delve more deeply, guided by top scholars. Sibelius and His World, the 22nd in the series, is characteristically absorbing. Jean Sibelius (1865–1957) is a man as mysterious as his music, with the great Finn’s creative process, influences, personality and milieu, as well as the varying reception for his music, all fascinating avenues for exploration.

Edited by Daniel Grimley of Oxford University (who also edited the kindred-spirit Cambridge Companion to Sibelius), this 370-page collection takes a yin and yang approach, including with the response to Sibelius’s music: from the warm reception in the U.K. and U.S. nearly at the start to the strange, even chauvinistic resistance in Germany and Austria that hasn’t entirely abated. Referenced throughout is the just identification of Sibelius’s music with, to quote Glenn Gould (a keen enthusiast of the composer), “the idea of north” — not only the awesome, wintry landscape of Finland but a heightened sense of elusiveness, individualism, isolation. The conflict between two of the ideals in art at the time — reflecting nature versus driving modernity — is also a thread in the book’s cumulative tale, as is Sibelius’s role as a catalytic exemplar of Finnish national identity.

The life’s work of Sibelius centers on seven sublime symphonies and his many, often deeply moving orchestral tone poems. But he also wrote scores to numerous theatrical productions, and two chapters focus on this more infrequently heard output. “Theatrical Sibelius: The Melodramatic Lizard” deals with the obscure chamber music bound into the symbolist play Ödlan (which revolves around a character whose name is close to Finnish for lizard). It’s the rare theatrical score that Sibelius didn’t later adapt into a concert suite, as he judged “the music impossible for anything but the theater.” And the chapter “Storms, Symphonies, Silence: Sibelius’s Tempest Music and the Invention of Late Style” explores echoes of past scores in the composer’s final work, that for Shakespeare’s last play; this chapter also considers the Finn’s identification with Prospero, the isolated conjurer who chooses to give up his magic. Although he lived until age 91, the composer was silent creatively for his last three decades, living as an enigmatic icon.

Among the period documents included is an excerpt from a novella by a member of Sibelius’s decadent circle during post-graduate days in Berlin. Sketches of a young composer in Adolf Paul’s A Book About a Human Being depict Sibelius as leaping up in reverie to improvise “a disjointed fantasy” at the piano, with such music having the power of synesthesia for him — evoking in his mind colors, moods, times of day. The description of Sibelius “being the unhappiest man in the world” until he satisfied cravings for a cigar or alcohol buttresses what we know of him as an addictive type; yet — even if Paul says the composer could sometimes have difficulties coming up with “a normal, commonsensical idea in the way of the decent citizen” — Sibelius was able to find “connections between the most incompatible objects” via “the wonderful machinery of his brain.”

(Originally published in the winter 2012 issue of Listen magazine.)

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