「20th Century Composers: Jean Sibelius」 by Guy Rickards

J E A N · S I B E L I U S


ISBN-10: 0714847763 / ISBN-13: 978-0714847764

soft-hard cover, 240 pages, 22cm x 15.6cm
contains 100 b&w illustrations
This edition 23 Apr 2007. First published October 1997

An original review by The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase

Reading this book was above all a learning experience. First it was very very sobering – for its lucid account of the financial/material excesses and terrible debts of Jean Sibelius, as well as his strained but somehow unbreakable relationship with his wife, Aino, to whom he was married for over 60 years.

And yet it subtly brings to light the essentially “nature” genius that is Finland’s greatest composer. Rickards does not talk so much about Sibelius’ music (which to the unfamiliar reader, would perhaps be a flaw in the book), but writes around them, showing the reader the overall environment which surrounds Sibelius and his works. The result is often like a sudden realization of something you already know. A stone looks different when it is seen in a desert, in a river, or among the mountains.

I was stirred by Rickard’s account of Sibelius’ struggle with the premiere of the Kullervo Symphony, of how the then 32-year old composer employed the “sheer force of his will” to unify the multi-cultural group of German musicians and a choir of Finns and Swedes that was to perform it. The churning maelstrom of the music seems to speak of this. In fact, Rickards, as in his careful account of Sibelius’ long struggle with the Fifth Symphony, makes you want to hear the music again. The author’s selection of quotations with regards to Sibelius’ compositional aesthetics really hit home. On the title-page of Chapter 6, aptly called “The Forging of Thor’s Hammer” (a reference to the Fifth’s “Swan Hymn”), the following quotation is printed:

“My symphonies were a terrible struggle. But now they are as they must be.”


Phaidon Press - Jean Sibelius by Guy Rickards
Original edition cover (1997)

Sibelius’ pursuit of organic unity, of “inner logic”, is unobtrusively taught to the reader. There are powerful descriptions of the composer’s near mystical kinship with nature. Sibelius recounted that at the moment he finished the final version of the Fifth Symphony (which he revised four times in four years), twelve white swans settled on the lake (outside his house), and then circled the house three times before flying off – spine-tingling stuff. Again, my impression is that Rickards lets the power of such imagery demonstrate itself. In the same way, Sibelius’ music demonstrates its musical material for itself.

Like the composer, the author of this book recognizes himself as a middleman. Sibelius once called himself the composer of a jigsaw puzzle that dropped from heaven. He only (re)constructed that which already existed. Likewise, Rickards is a faithful story-teller of Sibelius’ life, not seeming to do more than the pieces demanded. Both therefore act as the artist who allows the art to speak for itself.

Like this inner logic, I found myself connecting the things Rickards writes about. He makes a number of attempts to defend Sibelius’ rather strange habit of composing salon pieces next to symphonic masterpieces. One of these is the key quote regarding the Sixth Symphony, that each symphony is a “phase in one’s inner life.” In this, the inevitability of change (as excruciatingly shown via the composer’s intense self-criticism and rampant revision of his works) and the recognition of ‘permanency’ (“phase”) is somehow explained.

It’s just so difficult to explain. I’ve always known this quote, but after reading this book, I finally understood what it meant, and yet I am unable to explain it. Not surprisingly, this is the same with nature and with Sibelius’ music. Things you “understand” but cannot explain. And so, it was with genuine pleasure and high spirits that I read the penultimate sentence of the Epilogue:

“His music survived the vicissitudes of fashion across a century and has still been found to contain within it the seeds for the future…”


Something which I have always believed. It is something which I seem to know, to feel; in saying this, Rickards, whom I do not know, echoes my sentiments, and makes me feel that thing which I have always felt when conversing with fellow Sibelius fans: natural, unspoken kinship of the type which we infrequently realize we all share. This, ultimately, is the same relationship we embrace with Mother Nature.