And incredibly, the day has come! 150 years and stronger than ever – Happy 150th Birthday, Jean Sibelius!
Thank you to the variety of people who made this possible, including friends and Sibelius champions Okko Kamu, CEO of BIS, Robert von Bahr, Sibelius scholar Andrew Barnett, Sibelius pianist Folke Gräsbeck, and more. Kiitos!
What has Jean Sibelius got to do with Walt Disney? It seems in December 1940, Disney approached Sibelius to propose featuring The Swan of Tuonela in the famous animated film Fantasia. Although by that time, Fantasia was already running in the theatres for a month, Disney already had plans to continually revise and improve the film – an approach that would surely have received more than a few approving nods from Sibelius!
Throughout 1941, story material was developed based on the addition or substition of new pieces of music, including Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries, Weber’s Invitation to the Dance, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee and Debussy’s Clair de Lune.
On 9 December, 1940, a day after the composer’s 75th birthday, a letter arrived from the Walt Disney production company, bearing the Fantasia title decorated with cartoon characters. The message it carried was from John C. Rosen of Disney, who described Walt Disney as being a long-time admirer of Sibelius’s music. Although The Swan of Tuonela is not under copyright protection the United States, he added, Mr Disney did not want to proceed with using it in the film without the composer’s blessings.
Rosen explained the film’s intention to depict the “awe and reverence” for the souls of the departed on its journey through Tuonela, accompanied by the beautiful and majestic Swan. He assured the composer that each scene in the film would be as faithful to to the spirit of Finnish mythology, and will be accompanied by corresponding verses from the Finnish national epic, Kalevala.
The letter was accompanied by a note of support from the Finnish Ambassador to the US, Hjalmar Procopé , who said the project would be of great significance to the promotion of Finnish culture.
Sibelius’s interest in the matter is only known from the fact that he contacted his publisher, Breitkopf & Härtel, about it. I say “only” because – alas, in the end, nothing came of it. Perhaps the composer’s interest was piqued because of the involvement of Leopold Stokowski and the Philadephia Orchestra in Fantasia – the very same musicians who made the first recording of The Swan of Tuonela in 1929.
In any case, the proposal did not come to fruition. Any correspondence between Breitkopf & Härtel and the composer regarding the project has not survived, and thus we do not know exactly why it was rejected or not taken up.
Could it have been indeed a copyright issue? Considering the potentially huge earnings a film of Disney’s stature could earn, did Breitkopf & Härtel desire a cut … which Sibelius might have felt too awkward to ask of the Americans? Did Sibelius perhaps feel that a “cartoon” was not befitting his “serious” music? I speculate.
I leave you with this animation-style YouTube video of The Swan of Tuonela, featuring the classic Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic.If it had been featured in Fantasia, it might have looked something close to this.
“PICTURES make the great Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius, appear still as a powerful, sturdy man. The bald shiny head is ivory white. His aquiline features are drawn and purposeful. The clear eyes sharp and penetrating. His voice too, is firm and sonorous, belying his 90th birthday last Thursday”. …
“It was not always easy, with five daughters and little money, ” Aino sighs, “but now, it is quiet, the children have flown to their own nests. Now I have only Jean to look after…”
“Now I am the only child left in the house,” he smiled, looking tenderly at his wife.
This description and anecdote seem to come from Sibelius’s time – and indeed they do. They come from an article published in the Dec 12, 1955 edition of The Deseret News, the oldest and longest-running newspaper published in Salt Lake City, Utah, United States. Thanks to the internet and Google, it is now possible to find and read a wealth of newspaper archives online – and even better, you can search by keyword. However, as it turns out, it’s not as simple as going to Google and just making a search. You need to specify a search in its newspaper archives in order to find Sibelius newspaper articles. You need to enter this phrase into a Google Search bar and press search:
site:google.com/newspapers sibelius – this phrase will also work.
And be prepared to spend some time if you’re a Sibelius fan. The collection is extensive and colourful, many articles from the time when Sibelius was still alive. Numerous anecdotes, quotations and remarks by writers and journalists are available. Among the articles, this one – with the anecdote that I opened this article with – comes from Jean Sibelius At 90 Is The National Hero Of Finland And A Musical Giant Who Towers As Creative Master, written by Michael Salzer of the London Observer Foreign News Service (link). It is a particular favourite of mine so far:
“I am proud to be a Finn,” he said, his dreamy eyes now flashing. “We have a 600-year-old tradition of fighting for freedom behind us. Freedom, what a strange gift from heaven – and so much abused. Like health, most appreciated only when it is amiss.”
And I’ve barely scratched the surface of this immense archive. Will we miss newspapers in the future? Maybe. But for now, do enjoy this gift of history from the internet – and do help single out those articles worth reading and post a comment here!
“Meeting Sibelius for the first time, I had the impression of being in the presence of someone almost superhuman. Here was a being I had admired and looked up to all my life — and suddenly I was in his presence. He was a towering man, a towering personality, with a magnificent head and powerful face. His beautiful home was full of records, many of which we had sent him from America throughout the years. Goddard Lieberson [President of Columbia Records, 1956-71, 1973-75] sent him many recordings from Columbia Records. I remember that I once sent him a recording taken off the air of his Lemminkäinen suite, which we later recorded for Columbia. He didn’t want it to be performed; that was one of the works he had a strong aversion to, and he wanted to keep the score from the public. But I managed to get a copy from Helsinki, studied it thoroughly, liked it and performed it. Then I sent a special recording to Sibelius. I understand that he put it away for weeks before listening to it. He was afraid because he was such an uncompromising critic of his own work. But when he heard it he was pleased and sent me a cable followed by a kind and enthusiastic letter. When we recorded the work officially, I sent him several copies and he was really touched. I like to think that I was instrumental in getting Sibelius to appreciate one of his own works!
Sibelius’ First Symphony was the “first” for me in another sense — it was the first of the master’s symphonies I ever conducted. This was in 1932, with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra — and we recorded it for RCA Victor in that year. I think perhaps it was the first Sibelius symphony to be recorded outside of Scandinavia. Of course the great Finnish conductor, Sibelius’ friend Kajanus, had broken ground for Sibelius years before, and so had Koussevitzky, Stokowski and Beecham. I have played the First Symphony many times in the intervening thirty years, and it never loses its fascination for me. Recordings have changed a great deal since 1932, and so have interpretations of his works to the end, and he always had admiration for the work of my colleagues Stokowski and Koussevitzky. I will risk immodesty to add that he praised my readings too. His enthusiasm is a source of great pride to me.
Strangely enough, Sibelius has never been popular in the Germanic countries — excepting, of course, Scandinavia. Germany and Austria never took him to their hearts the way the British and we did. And yet he studied in Germany and the German masters influenced his musical development — I remember a dozen years ago when the State Department asked me to conduct some concerts in Berlin with the RIAS Orchestra. I programmed the Sibelius Second Symphony and it didn’t take me much more than one measure to realize that the orchestra had never seen it before. When we had played it through, the very Germanic concertmaster said to me, “This isn’t such a bad work after all,” and left it at that. The work seemed to make even less of an impression on the critics — one of them began his review with the question, “Why Sibelius?” Fortunately, there are still a few conductors around whose answer to that question would be, “Because Sibelius is among the giants.” The Fourth I love, the Fifth I love and the Seventh — all of them free, wild, beautiful things, more like elemental forms of nature than consciously shaped works of art. –>
It is difficult for me to choose a favorite among the seven symphonies of Sibelius. The first is still under the influence of Tchaikovsky, but it is a healthy thing for a first symphony to recall the past, and Sibelius does so gloriously. The Second Symphony shows the composer struggling heroically to free himself from this influence, but not fully succeeding; the very tensions created by this struggle give the work its power. Like the First, it is filled with passages that only Sibelius could have conceived. The Third I don’t understand, frankly. The Third and Sixth remain enigmas, as far as I am concerned. The Fourth I love, the Fifth I love and the Seventh — all of them free, wild, beautiful things, more like elemental forms of nature than consciously shaped works of art. And I wish I could say that I love the Eighth, too, but alas, like everyone else I have never heard it and don’t know if it exists or ever existed.
The Eighth Symphony is a mysterious subject. Everytime I saw Sibelius — and I saw him four or five times, perhaps more — in his home about twenty-seven miles away from the city of Helsinki, I asked him about it, sometimes very tactfully, sometimes quite directly. And his response was always the same: he became very upset and nervous and quickly changed the subject. He seemed to be disturbed that anyone should bring up the subject of the Eighth Symphony. His son-in-law, Jussi Jalas, a very fine conductor and a good friend of mine, had told me that he was convinced that there was an Eighth Symphony. On the other hand, Sibelius’ oldest daughter assured me that there was no such symphony. If there was one, he destroyed it. Sibelius is reputed to have said to intimate friends, “If I cannot write a better symphony than my Seventh, then it shall be my last.” Apparently he was not satisfied — if he wrote an Eighth Symphony — with what he had done. At any rate, he seems to have enjoyed the mystery surrounding the existence of the work.
Naturally, I always told him that if and when his Eighth Symphony was ready for performance I hoped he would give me the opportunity to give it its world premiere. There was never any response: his fine, nervous hands would begin to tremble even more and he would look away with a troubled expression. Out of my admiration and respect I would never press the matter, although I felt puzzled and disappointed. Twice I went to his house with Olin Downes, who was one of his greatest admirers and had written a book about him. Mr. Downes promised me that he would bring up the subject, because I told him I didn’t dare to anymore. But he got the same reply, or rather non-reply: a strange twist in Sibelius’ face, a nervous intensity in his eyes, and the trembling hands. I said in an aside to Mr. Downes, “We’d better drop the subject.” We did. It shall always remain a tantalizing mystery for me.
As wonderful as it was to meet Sibelius for the first time, it was even more wonderful to have been able to introduce him, some years later, to the members of The Philadelphia Orchestra. That occurred in June 1955, and there is a rather touching story connected with the meeting. For some months previous I had been in correspondence with Dr. [Nils-Eric] Ringbom (See bio in Finnish), the director of the Helsinki Philharmonic, in order to arrange for the orchestra to meet the master while we were in Finland on tour. Sibelius was very ill at the time, very old and fragile and tormented by ear trouble. The day we were to go to his secluded villa at Järvenpää arrived, and though it was cold and raw and raining, the men were as excited and eager as children. And I was as excited as any of them. Imagine my disappointment when Dr. Ringbom called to confess that when he had written to me in Philadelphia to say that everything was arranged he had not mentioned that Sibelius himself knew nothing about the projected visit. He had only spoken to Mrs. Sibelius, who had agreed at the time but now flatly said no, her husband was too ill to receive us.
There we were, in Helsinki, thousands of miles from home and within twenty-seven miles of Sibelius. “Dr. Ringbom,” I said, “you must not disappoint us. Please call up Mrs. Sibelius and explain to her that this orchestra, from the very earliest days with Stokowski, has done as much to spread Sibelius’ fame as any orchestra in the world. All they ask in return is to see him.” It worked.
My wife and I were having tea with him, and the orchestra came in two buses. Even then he hadn’t been told that they were coming. He was so sensitive — perhaps the most sensitive, shy man I ever met in my life — that the knowledge that he was to meet 110 musicians would probably have incapacitated him if he were given too much time to think about it. And those poor colleagues of mine were standing out in the cold rain with thin raincoats on, waiting! Finally I took the bull by the horns and said, “Mr. Sibelius, do you know that the entire Philadelphia Orchestra, the orchestra that played your music when nobody else did, is waiting outside, hoping to meet you? Would you just go out on the balcony and say hello to them?”
“But I cannot speak English well enough,” he protested. “They will not understand me.”
“Speak German, they’ll understand you. Just look at them, don’t say anything.”
And so he got his heavy winter coat and hat — there are pictures of that visit — and came out with me. “Gentlemen,” I said, “Mr. Sibelius needs no introduction.” They applauded him and bravoed him until I had to tell them, “Gentlemen, Mr. Sibelius is not well, but he wanted to come out and say a few words to you.” And then he told them, with the beautiful simplicity of his few English words, how grateful he was to them for playing his music so nobly. At last his oldest daughter pulled him back, saying, “Daddy you’re going to catch cold.” Fortunately, he didn’t catch cold, but we were worried that he might, for it was bitter that day.
He died two years later, in 1957. And I think today we perform his music better for the memory of those few minutes when he came out on his porch and spoke to us. It was an experience that none of us will ever forget.”
EUGENE ORMANDY (1899 – 1985)
– Essay from Sibelius: Symphony No. 1 in E-Minor, Op. 39. The Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy. Columbia Masterworks MS-6395.
100 years ago on 29 May, 1913, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring collided with Paris concert-goers, its (in)famous audacious arrival greeted with shock.
They were two titans of the music world, but Sibelius and Stravinsky, two of the 20th century’s greatest composers, certainly had many things NOT in common. It is said that when the Finnish Cultural Foundation awarded Stravinsky the Sibelius Gold Medal in 1956, Sibelius was “appalled”. (It is further said that Stravinsky later sold the medal for charity!).
Stravinsky once said that Sibelius “can’t do much”, to which the latter replied sarcastically, “That, I believe, is the greatest compliment I have received in my entire life! Mr I.S. is always imitating someone. I like his ‘Oedipus’ best, in which he imitates Gluck. Musical talent is not something you learn in school with the rod. In that sense, Mr S(travinsky) is certainly almost at the top of his class. And I am almost at the bottom…” ( Jean Sibelius, Tomi Mäkelä, Boydell Press, 2011, p.248)
Despite their differences, Sibelius and Stravinsky probably bore each other a great deal of grudging respect. Both were artists of immense intellectual capacity. Not just that, but artists who possessed artistic integrity and a clear sense of self and musical direction. They knew within themselves what they are capable of. They knew that the other is a great composer – they simply differed in their musical beliefs. Sibelius presented the world “pure cold water”, while Stravinsky gave it “cocktails of every hue and description” – but what cocktails!
In 1963, Stravinsky was awarded the Wihuri-Sibelius Prize, and perhaps felt compelled to do something in return. He arranged Sibelius’s Canzonetta, Op.62a (from Kuolema) for 4 horns, clarinet, bass clarinet, harp and bass. Stravinsky had earlier visited Helsinki in 1961, and is quoted by his amanuensis Robert Craft as saying that he was fond of this Sibelius work – “The first half of it, anyway. I like that kind of northern Italianate melodism —Tchaikovsky had it too — which was a part, and an attractive part, of St. Petersburg culture.”
Whatever else he was fond or not fond of in Sibelius, we today are left with this indelible image of Stravinsky laying a bouquet of flowers on the grave of Sibelius, in 1961. A master greets a master in a different rite of spring.
News is emerging in the English language world of music that significant parts of Sibelius’ Eighth Symphony may have been truly found. Not only that, but they’ve been played and recorded. My friend KH alerted me via Facebook, quoting the English version of the report by Finnish music critic Vesa Sirén, who ponders if they have indeed found “the Holy Grail of Finnish classical music”. Words that I’ve used myself to describe this lost work, a work so shrouded in legend and awe that it has indeed attained the status of “Even if we found it, its light would be impossible to behold”. The article was written for the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper some two weeks ago – gosh, I can’t believe it takes two weeks for the information to travel out to the English-speaking world. This story really begins in 1982, when the Sibelius family handed a massive collection of manuscripts to the Helsinki University and the National Library of Finland. It took the Sibelius scholar Kari Kilpeläinen the next decade or so to complete the cataloging of these manuscripts.
Among this body of material are a good many unidentified drafts dating from the time Sibelius was supposed to be working on the Eighth Symphony, but there has been no prima facie evidence to link them to the work itself. One page does admittedly bear the words “Sinfonia VIII commincio”, suggesting the beginning of the work, but the reverse of the sheet of music paper contains nothing more than a sketch for a few bars of orchestral music. Another page contains drafts for the Seventh Symphony and the cryptic “VIII” attached to a particular fragment of melody. Basically, that was all that was assumed to exist.
Subsequently, Sibelius scholar Nors Josephson, while examining a large collection of unidentified manuscripts in the collection, concluded that fragments of the Eighth do survive. Enough, he argued in a 2004 paper, to reconstruct the entire symphony! This point fills me not with joy, but with fear. It may seem a little strange for a Sibelius advocate to say, but I’ve always believed Sibelius destroyed the Eighth Symphony for good reasons. It was not good enough, I always argue. He could not write a symphony better than the Seventh or Tapiola, so he consigned it to the flames of the fireplace at Ainola. In doing so, he meant that these are sounds we are not meant to hear. It may even pain or offend him if we did. I know the counter-argument: Sibelius was enormously self-critical, perhaps too much so. He was critical even of works we may deem to be exemplary today, like the original Fifth Symphony. Would the Eighth Symphony have been a work as remarkable as we imagine it might be, even if Sibelius rejected it? Yet another Sibelius scholar, Timo Virtanen, editor-in-chief of the critical edition of the collected works of Jean Sibelius – does not quite agree with Josephson’s conclusion. “It is not possible to patch together Sibelius’s entire symphony from these sketches”, he argues. And I am inclined to agree. In Virtanen’s view, Josephson may have simply jumped to too far a conclusion. Siren writes:
In Virtanen’s view, Josephson drew some interesting, bold, and ultimately probably also false conclusions from what were basically only a few isolated instrumental lines for a couple of bars of music. At the same time, Josephson did not take any account of sketches found in another file of archived documents that hinted at orchestration. “These [other] sketches could well point us towards the Eighth Symphony, and they indicate that Sibelius had taken off in a quite startling direction”, says Virtanen.
Virtanen assembled “from the later sketches and drafts a fragment that Sibelius has worked up for orchestration and a couple of other drafts with hints at an orchestral treatment” and copied them out. He then brought them to Sakari Oramo, Chief Conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and to John Storgårds at the Helsinki Philharmonic.
“Phew. This is pretty heady stuff” , says a dazed Oramo. “It stops right there just as Aino [Sibelius] has called from the kitchen to tell Janne to come and eat”, he jokes. But then he tries out the harmonies on the piano and his mood grows altogether more serious. “There is a sense of searching and exhaustion in here. The material has an archaic dissonance to it.”
The turn in mood is telling. Even Oramo has sensed something familiar, spine-tinglingly familiar – exactly the sort of feeling you get when you hear the unique sounds of a Sibelian orchestral score. In Sibelius’ music, it is sometimes not the tune that marks it as Sibelian, but the peculiar combination of tone and harmonies – layers of being, whiffs of the organic, and yes, that sense of searching, and sometimes of inevitable collapse and exhaustion as the music winds down. It is conductor John Storgårds who brings us a little closer. When the drafts are presented to him, he agrees to give them a try with the Helsinki Philharmonic.
The clip begins with an interview by Siren with Virtanen. The musical experiment begins around 2:07. Siren later described the almost fearful atmosphere inside the hall of the Musiikkitalo as the fragments were played. The orchestra’s press officer burst into tears.
The sound is indeed familiar, then startling. I hear, very soon, Tapiola-resque woodwind – it is as if the Seventh has fused with Tapiola, both light and darkness together. It is definitely the sound of Sibelius. The second fragment has sounds from the Sixth Symphony. Next fragment… First? Woodwind figures from the Fifth?
“Whoo. Chills going up and down the spine there”, confesses John Storgårds after it is all over. “You can recognise the composer’s late style from the fragments. But particularly in that opening passage the harmonies are so wild and the music so exciting that I’d really love to know how he went on with this.”
Indeed, that first passage is the most astonishing. and definitely sounds like something Sibelius might have written anytime between 1920 and 1940. I feel as if we are amateur astronomers looking through a powerful telescope in the backyard, staring into infinite space, looking for a fabled alien planet, and one particular twinkling light seems to beckon us. Is this it? But it is too far away, too far away in time, too far away for details and verification. We can only stare through the telescope of best educated guesses, and wonder whether we are staring at truth or merely hope. Either way, we know the field of stars we are watching, scrutinizing the tapestry of constellations, is home to the seven symphonies. Within them dwells the Forest’s mighty god, and wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.
On September 20, 1957 – only 53 years ago, Jean Sibelius passed away. Sir Malcolm Sargent, who was in Finland to conduct the Fifth Symphony, said, “Finland has lost its king, and there is no successor.”
This is a short review from about 1999 that I’m republishing as I revive and freshen up my original Inktroduction to Sibelius’s First Symphony. Originally available as a single CD with the Third Symphony, released under EMI’s Classics for Pleasure budget line in 1996, the recording is now available as part of a “Sibelius Edition” of all the stereo recordings Sir John Barbirolli (1899-1970) made for EMI with the Hallé Orchestra. All good men and women, these. Details of the recordings at the bottom. Let’s do the review first: Continue reading Barbirolli conducts Sibelius’s First (1966)