Sibelius’ Farewell

Thoughts on Sibelius’ Silence and Dilemma, Prospero’s Art, and Shakespeare’s Final Play.

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.

– Caliban, The Tempest.

Image: prozac1 /

The Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare. Anonymous, early 17th c.

The world’s most famous playwright was born in 1564, and died in 1616, on his 52nd birthday exactly. The Tempest was William Shakespeare’s last play, written around 1610-11. Sibelius’ music for the play was commissioned after the successful premiere performances of his final and greatest symphony, the Seventh. The request came from the Royal Theatre at Copenhagen, and the vocal parts were done first in Danish (although Sibelius’ copy of the play was Swedish; this recording in Finnish).

The Tempest (1925), along with the tone poem Tapiola (1925-6), is the last of Sibelius’ major works. From here until 1957 is the period of the composer’s life now known as the “The Silence of Järvenpää”. Although he lived for another 32 years until 1957, no more music of this scale or quality came from his hands, or to be more accurate, has been approved for public eye.


It is fitting, and a bit ironical, that the play chosen by the Royal Theatre was The Tempest. In the story, the protagonist is the noble magician Prospero. Powerful, intelligent, wise, human and yet austere, Prospero is exiled with his daughter to an island. There, he learns and practises his great magical powers, controlling the spirits, nature, and the tiny world of which he is master.

The play is representative of Shakespeare’s own art as a playwright. Prospero is, in essence – Shakespeare. Just as Prospero controls the actions of the people, spirits and beasts on his island, he too is their playwright. For example, he causes the magical storm which shipwrecks his scheming brother on the island. When the brothers are reconciled, the spirits set free, and Prospero leaves the island, he renounces his magical powers by breaking his staff and throwing his magic books into the sea. Likewise, Shakespeare, coming to the frontiers of playwrighting with his final play, begs leave of his art by producing a play in which its central character controls an internal play.

How fitting it is then that the themes of the play are those of magic, creation, balance of power, humanity, spirituality – and above all nature. Fitting because all these are exactly the concerns of Sibelius.

How fitting it is that the play opens with a furious storm at sea. The unparalleled Overture to The Tempest score has been called “the single most onomatopoetic stretch of music ever composed.” (Onomatopoeia being the imitation of natural sounds). The strings’ chromatic augmented fourths, the keening chords of winds, the humming, growling brass, the booming thunder of basses and lightningbolts of snare-drums – all these join to declare Sibelius as Nature’s greatest musical avatar.

How natural the spiritual kinship Sibelius had with Nature: listen to the melancholic “Chorus of the Winds”, the mists from which “The Rainbow” arises, or the mystical song of “Ariel in The Oak Tree”. In all, the humanity infused in the embrace of nature is always evident. Try “Ariel’s First Song, with Introduction and Choir” – after an orchestral introduction of swimming strings, listen for the enchanted humming of the wordless chorus – human voices, yet sounding as of the winds of nature.

Even in the grotesque signature tune for the ‘monster’ Caliban, there is a trace of human yearning. “Stepano’s Song”, sung half-drunk, is in contrast full of good humour and defiant merriment – remember Sibelius was a heavy drinker too! There is also the celebrating strains of “Juno’s Song” and then the absolutely beautiful waltzing “Dance of the Naiads” – so soft, gentle, swaying with the dusk of an evening meadow.

Sibelius in 1955, one of the last photos of the composer.

How fitting it is that the music for Miranda, Prospero’s daughter, is so gentle, lyrical, yet so sad. In it, I hear the sorrow Prospero knows for his innocent daughter, exiled with him to the island as an infant, barely remembering her mother. In the music, I hear Sibelius’ sorrow for his third daughter (he had six) Kirsti, who died aged 15 months. This becomes all too real in the Intermezzo: Alonso mourns, which depicts him (Alonso) lamenting for his son Ferdinand, presumed dead after the storm.

But without doubt, one of the most human pieces in the score is the “Interlude: Prospero” It begins in deep tragic sorrow – thinking. Thinking of a heroic past no longer possible, and yet full of pride in the knowledge of one’s place in and contributions to humanity. Thus, the central section of the piece is a noble but restrained celebration. To the ennobling heralding of the trumpet, the flights of woodwind and the hum of the strings, I picture Prospero standing on a high cliff, basking in the love and honour Nature was bestowing him. Fittingly, this is a near perfect portrait of the composer himself.

This too is the final place for Sibelius, who understood, at the end of his compositional life, that his time was past, and the world was going in other directions. But as in the greatest of artists, his music will (and did) return.

HOUNDED, pestered and disrupted by supporters, fans, critics and conductors alike, Sibelius struggled with his Eighth Symphony through the 1930s and the 40s. In 1945, he even said that he had “finished [it] many times”, but was unsatisfied with it.

But how could he, let alone anyone, write anything after the apotheosis of his symphonic thought, the awesome Seventh Symphony? How could one of music history’s most self-critical composers, whose supreme philosophy and technique of organic development was utterly and irrevocably manifested in the Seventh, compose another symphony? Can a circle less round than the last one one draws be called a circle?

Jean and Aino Sibelius

Around the mid-1940s, Sibelius’ wife Aino stumbled across her octogenarian husband sitting before the fireplace with a laundry basket full of manuscripts. Sibelius was feeding the papers to the flames, undoubtedly with much personal pain, discipline but also relief.

“[A]fter this my husband became calmer and gradually lighter in mood. It was a happy time.”

By the time you reach Ariel’s final song in The Tempest, that is what you will hear: happiness and contentment. All problems have been solved: Prospero is reunited with his kin, Miranda is to wed Ferdinand and the villains punished. And Ariel is, like Sibelius wanted – set free.

There remains only one last thing, and I’m sure it is what Sibelius desired in the face of those torturing him for the Eighth: let me rest. Likewise, as Prospero embarks for home, he leaves his magic behind. No more will he compose with his great art, and no more should anyone force him to.

The final piece in the complete music is the “Ossia: Epilogue”. It is a powerful and beautifully melancholic work. At 1’20”, its resonant nostalgia is utterly heartbreaking, and breathtakingly brief. Leaving behind the burden of the world, in its single breath of life, the Ossia encompasses in total spirit the final and very human farewell of Shakespeare, Prospero… and Jean Sibelius.

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint.
… Let me not … dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so, that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

– Prospero’s Epilogue, The Tempest.

Recommended Recording

The Tempest, op.10 – Incidental Music to Shakespeare’s Play.
Complete Theatre Score, sung in Finnish. (World Premiere Recording)

Ariel Lilli Paasikivi mezzo-soprano. Juno Kirsi Tiihonen soprano. Stephano Anssi Hirvonen tenor. Caliban Heikki Keinonen baritone. Trinculo Paavo Kerola tenor

Lahti Opera Chorus · Lahti Symphony Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä
(Complete Sibelius Vol.33)

[67:20] full-price. Includes libretto in Finnish with English translations.

The music of The Tempest was also rearranged into two orchestral suites. These are available on BIS-CD-448 and I highly recommend the Ondine recording by Segerstam (reviewed here).

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Leon is Singapore's resident champion of Jean Sibelius.

One thought on “Sibelius’ Farewell”

  1. Just wanted the Sibelius Nutcase to know that a kindred krazy dropped in, read his/her/its essay on the Tempest music, and thought it thoughtful. Thanks.

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