Sibelius’ Farewell: Ossia – Prospero’s Epilogue from The Tempest

I’ve finally completed my second music video. Sibelius of course. Like my first little experiment, it deliberately highlights a lesser-known work, from the very end of Sibelius’ incidental music for The Tempest, Op.109. This little project has been in my head for more than half a year, and I’m relieved that it is done.

In Shakespeare’s final play The Tempest (1610-1611), the great magician Prospero steps out once more after the tale is done, to speak to the audience. His famous Epilogue is often interpreted as Shakespeare’s own farewell to the world of drama, The Tempest being his last play. Prospero beseeches the audience to set him free of his obligations, and allow him to retire his magic. If he clings on to the art, his ending would be despair. Think Spiderman, “With great power…”

Interestingly, Sibelius faced a similar dilemma in the final decades of his life. After his Seventh Symphony (1924) and the tone poem Tapiola (1926), he released no more work of equivalent calibre, even though he lived another 30 years until 1957. For some time, the existence of an Eighth Symphony was merely fantasy and rumour. But in the recent decade, increasing evidence has shown that the Eighth Symphony did exist in some form, in various states of “completion”, all the way to bound manuscript. But in 1945, Sibelius destroyed it in the fireplace of his home Ainola.

Why?

I mused about this in my 1998 article, Sibelius’ Farewell: Thoughts on Sibelius’ Silence and Dilemma, Prospero’s Art, and Shakespeare’s Final Play, which was originally published at The Flying Inkpot.

My new music video attempts a more aesthetic explanation:

A rather less subtle way of putting the point is simply: “you have to know when to quit.” Many well-known figures in history achieve their greatest, then try to push on for one reason for another. Many fail after their peak, and continue to persist – in the end, they fail and end life in misery, dejection, poverty or worse. Of course, not everyone is blessed with enough foresight to know when to quit, and hindsight always has perfect vision.

Nevertheless, it is an important lesson in life: if you have had the fortune, the power and the chance to achieve your ultimate goal – take a moment and wonder to yourself if you should – need? – to “do” more. Or rather, would doing more cause damage rather than good? To put it another way, if you write a new piece, and it simply isn’t good enough to you, would you be willing to let others see it?

The fact is Sibelius did write music after the Seventh and Tapiola, and while he worked on the Eighth. You can see a list starting from the 1920s here at sibelius.fi. But by his standards, the Eighth that he had was not good enough to be No.8.

There is a fitting paragraph here from the licensing owners of the Jean Sibelius brand (yes, brand), Jean Sibelius Marketing that sums up what I’m trying to get at:

Jean Sibelius was tremendously self-critical.
He was unwilling to compose a single meaningless note.
He would polish his compositions over and over again, and would even go back to revise them after publication. He wanted them to be flawless.
Only the best was sufficient.

In the end, the one with the power to set Jean Sibelius free, was Jean Sibelius himself.

Published by

Leon

Leon is Singapore's resident champion of Jean Sibelius.

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