For the coming generations – the birth of a national composer

Siitäpä nyt tie menevi, ura uusi urkenevi.

“From here today the path is going, a bright new star the way is showing.”

Thus were these words written on a celebratory wreath presented to Sibelius by the eminent conductor and his close friend, Robert Kajanus, on the premiere of the Kullervo Symphony, in 1892.

Sibelius was born in a Finland that had yet to fully call itself a nation. At that time, it was part of the Russian empire. His coming was timely, for the yearning for independence would soon need a voice, the hand of a great composer and the song that would awaken Finland.

The fact is, the Finnish people have never had a lack of tradition nor culture – at that time it was, perhaps, simply not given the chance to shine. A few decades before Sibelius’ birth, Elias Lönnrot had compiled the Kalevala, the single greatest collection of Finnish ancient literature – a gathering of epic poetry from Finnish and Karelian oral folklore and mythology, which has played an enormous role in the rebirth of Finnish national identity.

When Sibelius met Kajanus in Berlin, he heard the premiere of the latter’s Aino Symphony, also based on the Kalevala. Elliot Arnold eloquently describes Sibelius’ reaction in his book “Finlandia: The Story of Sibelius”:

“It was a never-to-be-forgotten experience for Sibelius. He sat in the great music hall and something awakened in his soul. He was in Berlin, yes, but listening to that music he was again tramping in the forest lands of his beautiful Finland, was again standing at the edge of a lake seeing the setting sun redden the water.

The music stirred him like nothing else he had ever heard. It seemed as though the very roots of his being were being summoned to life, as though everything that had gone into him, in his blood and his body and his heart and his brain, were awakened from a slumber.”

Finland awakes.

“No music had ever done this to him. Nothing had ever before touched the racial stream that now tore through his veins. He wanted to scream. His skin tingled. Tears filled his eyes. This was Finland and this was music.

He met Kajanus and breathed his appreciation. He tried to explain this new excitement, this home-love, this patriotism he had never known before. He knew he was a Finn. He knew he had to say things that only a Finn could say. He felt a wild love for Finland which was built on something infinitely more vast than love of landscape.”

Kullervo Goes to War, by Akseli Gallen-Kallela
Kullervo Goes to War, by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1901)

Kullervo caused a stir. Granted, not everyone in the audience was impressed nor understood what this new work was doing. It was big, it was brazen and it was loud. It had a choir, a male chorus singing about snow and blue socks, seduction and shame, abject tragedy, the grim disdain of a sword and ultimately, heart-rending death. Above all though, it had the sounds and rhythms of Finnish runes. Whether the audience realized or admitted it, there was a latent sense of familiarity. When Kajanus presented the wreath to Sibelius, the audience seemed to realize…

This is their sound.

A Japanese composer once said, “I wish to evoke the melodies not yet sung but which dwells in us, the Japanese people. ” By adopting rhythms and modes from Japanese poetry and  music, “I intend to reveal our collective unconscious as a nation.” (Akira Ifukube)

The audience cheered. Over the course of the next 30 years or so after Kullervo, that was what Sibelius did for the Finnish musical psyche. With the poetry of the Kalevala compiled, words from the landscape, Finland now had a new musical champion who would go on to evoke melodies not yet sung as a nation.

While musicians like Kajanus had already begun writing such melodies, Sibelius went deeper. Cultural identity goes even further than words, runes and heroes. One universal quality of any cultural mythology is a connection to the natural universe. From creation myths to magic blessings, nature is a vital force of power, inspiration and conviction. As I have written about concerning Tapiola – Sibelius’ music is not so much about man’s perception of, or his feelings about nature, but man’s place within the vastness of nature. We are but tiny tiny beings within her great inexplicable beauty.

It is a nature that would inspire Sibelius throughout life, from the time he tried to match piano tones to the colours of the stripes under his mother’s square piano, to transcribing the smell of drying hemp and flax into music; he distilled Finland’s snow and lakes into symphonies, cast the text of the Kalevala into song, and bade orchestras intone the voice of forest gods. It seems Sibelius did not so much see the world as a painting, with eyes; but he saw the world as a symphony, with his ears.  Finland became his orchestra and stage, and the world began to listen to her.

One hundred and forty-six years ago today on December 8, 1865,  Jean Sibelius was born. Along with Lönnrot, Kajanus and many others, their birth would shape the rebirth of Finland. On December 6, 1917, Finland declared independence.

Sibelius Monument
Sibelius Monument - photo by Daniel Aragay (proteusbcn, Flickr)

….Be not thus, my worthy people,
Blame me not for singing badly,
Unpretending as a minstrel.
I have never had the teaching,
Never lived with ancient heroes,
Never learned the tongues of strangers,
Never claimed to know much wisdom.
Others have had language-masters,
Nature was my only teacher,
Woods and waters my instructors.
Homeless, friendless, lone and needy,
Save in childhood with my mother,
When beneath her painted rafters,
Where she twirled the flying spindle,
By the work-bench of my sister,
In the cabin of my father,
In my early days of childhood.

Be this as it may, my people,
This may point the way to others,
To the singers better gifted,
For the good of future ages,
For the coming generations,
For the rising folk of Suomi*.

The Kalevala – Epilogue (trans. John Martin Crawford)

*Suomi is Finnish for Finland

 

Steve Jobs, 1955 – 2011

I’ve never looked back since I got my iPhone in Dec 2009. It’s ease of use and that sense of delight when it just got things right, is unsurpassed.  Apple affirmed for me again why I love the organic and the intuitively logical approach when it comes to art, science, technology and life.

Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs, 1955 – 2011

Steve Jobs once said, “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” And he went on to give us – or at least the Apple fans – exactly what we never knew we wanted so badly.  Many people said they don’t need an iPad because they already have a notebook computer, and it’s hard to explain to them they are two different things.  But let them have an iPad, and they’ll see it.

Steve Jobs’ Apple devices carried their own logic and appeal with them. It has always been hard to explain to people why they are so popular – you only realize why when you use or own one for a time.

Similarly, it is excruciatingly difficult – but perhaps a pleasure of a challenge – to explain to people why Sibelius’ music is unique and ingenius. To explain the concept of organic development, or Sibelius’ particular brand of logic – where “The symphony must always be internally compelling and inevitable.” – is in many ways the same challenge as explaining Steve Jobs’ almost magical ability to make his devices logically usable and user-friendly, which to me is a different way of describing “internally compelling”.

When you first start off trying to solve a problem, the first solutions you come up with are very complex, and most people stop there. But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can often times arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions.

— Steve Jobs, 2006

Amazingly, this is precisely what Sibelius kept doing with his music. He wrote something, and unsatisfied with it kept revising – kept peeling more layers off, kept excising extraneous notes, cutting off entire movements, until he arrived at nothing short of elegance.

Mr Jobs, thank you for all that you have done for technology on earth. As this tweet from Matt Galligan so “app”ly puts it:

RIP Steve Jobs. You touched an ugly world of technology and made it beautiful.

Wherever you have gone now,  Mr Jobs, I hope you have found what you never knew you wanted, and that you will forever be happy for it.

 

The Chagrin of a Nationalist Romantic – Sibelius’ First and Third Symphonies

An Essay on Sibelius’ First and Third Symphonies. These notes were published as the programme notes for The Philharmonic Orchestra’s 3rd concert of the complete symphonies of Sibelius, performed on 4 Oct 2007, which is reviewed here.

© All Rights Reserved (Text). Permission is NOT granted to reproduce any of the following text without authorization from the author. Please see Copy/Write for more information.

To the casual listener, Jean Sibelius is popular as a “Romantic Nationalist” composer; to the serious listener, he is a unique master symphonist. To both, Sibelius is one of Nature’s greatest musical avatars.

Mosaic of Sibelius made of stamps, for the Finnish Stamp Jubilee Exhibition

Sibelius once described his Third Symphony as “thoughts crystallizing out of chaos” – his music drawing order out of unshaped chaos. This idea does not sound new. But Sibelius did not seem to mean that the chaos is completely random.

He also once commented that his compositional process was like having “mosaic pieces” thrown down from heaven with which he had to put back together. In this sense, the chaos is not completely without meaning. It exists in a disconnected state which has not yet come into full being. Like seeds waiting to be grown. Like molecules waiting to crystallize. Sibelius believed his task was to grasp these unformed potentials, and utter them in a form meaningful to their origin.

Written in 1898-1899, Sibelius’ First Symphony is often associated with Romantic music of the Tchaikovskian vein, venting Finnish Nationalist emotion. With its large-scale scoring (including tuba and harp), outpouring of memorable melody, melancholic song, full-blooded brass exhortations and urgent defiance, this association is not surprising in the historical context of the Finns’ struggle for independence .

The audiences loved it. The First made a name for Sibelius outside Finland. But admirers also placed the label “Romantic Nationalist” on composer and symphony.

Sibelius himself never ascribed any program to any of his symphonies. To him they were essays in symphonic art, no more and no less. Coupled with his extremely self-critical attitude and his desire to be recognized as an accomplished composer, the “just another late Romantic Nationalist” label did not sit well with him.

Thus, by the time of the Third Symphony, his symphonic path had visibly changed. Continue reading The Chagrin of a Nationalist Romantic – Sibelius’ First and Third Symphonies

Northern Exposure

Today, as children of the modern, we still experience the loneliness of individualism, the helplessness of being one among billions, and the desire to be significant, respected.

Sibelius was no different. Writing in the high modern period of the early 1900s, when great artists each sought their own style, he steadfastly defined one path in music which remains admired today by fans, musicians and scholars alike. Continue reading Northern Exposure

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…”
Continue reading Sibelius’ Farewell: Ossia – Prospero’s Epilogue from The Tempest

Concerto for a Beauty

Above: Singapore-born violinist Kam Ning. Photo from her official site.

When we were writing at the Flying Inkpot, back in the late 1990s, the rise of “cover model”-style marketing (and make-overs) had begun in earnest. No longer satisfied with dignified stares,  contemplative poses, faraway looks in E minor, concert-ready tuxedos and sequined dresses with mezzo-equipped bosoms, recording labels had realized that if you put a pretty face on the cover, the CD sold more copies. As they say, you can play the violin and still look cool and sexy, you know.

So anyway, those days, it was preeeetty obvious what was happening, and no doubt, we skeptical reviewers had to pick on the performances in the name of protecting you, the reader who has but S$twenty-something to spare for one CD and facing 18 recordings of the Sibelius concerto, from buying a pretty cover with an average performance (which happened to me maybe once. Twice perhaps). Continue reading Concerto for a Beauty

The Piano in Art

I was looking for eye candy for this retro-published review of Håvard Gimse’s second volume of Sibelius’ Piano music recorded by Naxos, when I came across this blog post at The Collaborative Piano Blog.

The post directs the reader to an eclectic collection of paintings featuring pianos and pianists, compiled by Bruno Dillen, on Art in the Picture. Continue reading The Piano in Art

Sometimes magnificence deserves a better name

In September 2009, in a fit of inspiration, I decided to make a video – make that music video – of one of my favourite unknown pieces of Sibelius, which up till then has never had any presence on Youtube.

Continue reading Sometimes magnificence deserves a better name