“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!
The painter of this portrait is currently all of 15 years old.
Late last year in 2013, I embarked on a casual internet search for new Sibelius portraits for my Jean Sibelius Pinterest board and my eyes lit up as a a new one appeared amongst the images Google offered. A young man stands behind the portrait, the painter’s head dwarfed by the massive coloured bust of the composer, rendered in stark colours of black, blue, greys and whites.
The familiar 1949 photograph of Sibelius by Yousuf Karsh has been interpreted in a unique modern light by the young painter. The portrait captures Sibelius’s intent faraway look – perhaps it is a little less stern, the presence of the colour blue lending a little youth to the then (at the time of the photograph) 84-year-old composer, but it retains the magisterial quality of the original photo. The swaths of blue and smaller dashes of red give Sibelius’s face a certain life and dynamism, compared to the magnificent austerity of the photograph. Not that the portrait is better or worse – it is simply a new interpretation.
“I am a 15-year-old student from Los Angeles, California, ” Jack (left) wrote to me when I requested for an interview via email. “I have been an artist for most of my life, starting with drawing on the walls of my house with markers and painting blob-shaped objects on paper.
“I constantly explore new ways of creative expression, including playing cello (which I have done from grade two), making films, taking photos, composing music and writing. During my study of the cello, I was introduced to the fabulous music of Sibelius. I greatly admire his music; it is so expressive, and so filled with emotion.”
A quick click on the image on Google that day in December 2013 had led me to the blog of none other than famed Pulitzer prize-winning photographer David Hume Kennerly. He won – at age 25 – the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography for his portfolio of photographs taken of the Vietnam War, Cambodia, East Pakistani refugees near Calcutta, and the Ali-Frazier fight in Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971. Mr Kennerly has been named one of the 100 most important people in photography by the American Photo Magazine and has also photographed every American president since Richard Nixon.
In his blog post from 2 Nov 2013, Mr Kennerly showcased the new portrait his son Jack had just completed. “This made for a good black and blue moment!” Unable to ascertain how to contact the painter, I sent a message to Mr David Kennerly instead and was delighted to receive an email from Jack himself in January 2014. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Mr David Hume Kennerly for so kindly connecting me to his young son.
Jack calls Yousuf Karsh one of the greatest and most influential portrait photographers who has ever existed – and surely no one would disagree. He chose to paint Sibelius because the look on his face in the 1949 photograph (below) is “very intense and powerful, the lighting accentuating his bulging veins”. The photograph seems to contrast wildly with the image of the composer of such “delicate and complex passages that have made him famous”, says Jack.
“I originally wanted to faithfully copy the photograph onto the canvas, ” he goes on to explain. “However, I used a canvas on which I had previously painted an abstract form. I didn’t like the original work, so I decided to paint over it. When I was half finished with the Sibelius painting, I stepped back and noticed the interesting and beautiful way he looked with the color from the original abstract painting showing through into the portrait. So, I left the painting ‘unfinished’.”
This remark by Jack on his “completion” of the portrait will surely bring a smile to all Sibelians. We know of Sibelius’s own struggles with finishing (or not finishing) his masterpieces. More importantly, we know of Sibelius’s particular way of letting the music almost compose itself – and in this sense, it relates to the experience of realizing a work of art has been completed at an unexpected point in its crafting, in its time.
It was 6th December – Finland’s Independence Day. And I was attending a concert featuring some of Finland’s best: Osmo Vänskä , the composer Sebastian Fagerlund and violinst Pekka Kuusisto. The stars seemed to be all in the right places.
Mr Kuusisto was here in Singapore to perform Finnish composer Sebastian Fagerlund’s Violin Concerto, “Darkness in Light”. Considered one of Finland’s most interesting young composers, the music of Fagerlund (b.1972) has been described as an “appealing mix of pulsating rhythmic layers, expansive gestures and undulating extended chords. Sometimes these elements are separate, sometimes blended – but the texture is always intuitively compelling. Brimming with carefully crafted details and elegant transitions, Fagerlund’s music has one clear direction: forward.” (Finnish Music Quarterly http://www.fmq.fi/2011/03/sebastian-fagerlund-full-speed-ahead/)
I have never heard his music until now. To be frank, it is not easy to describe – but it is certainly very impressive. The opening of the concerto is ferocious as a fast-approaching storm, with skittering winds and wild energy. I pictured swirls of rain, torrents dancing. An exhilarating sense of flow and rhythm propels the first movement, “Energico”. The colours evoked by both orchestra and solo violin are spectacularly varied, with some truly alien sounds from the latter during cadenzas. An array – an aurora – of percussion, including piano with strings plucked directly by hand in the second movement, the “Lento intenso”, added to the post-post-modern soundscape of our century. The musical material warps through the orchestra with unstoppable energy in a multitude of hues, streaks and waves.
My words cannot do it justice, so I invite you to watch and listen to it yourself:
The sounds conjured by guest conductor Osmo Vänskä and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra ranged from ethereal otherworldly landscapes to mighty brass paeans reminiscent of one such occurrence heard in Sibelius’s Fifth – a work to come later in tonight’s programme.
I came to this concert because of Osmo Vänskä. He is, simply, a hero to me. The maestro has been instrumental in my education of Sibelius – he was simply revelatory with his work on BIS, bringing to me vast and precious treasure troves of rare Sibelius. His first visit to Singapore back in 2010 was to conduct Mahler, a matter I lamented slightly about. But on this night, Fagerlund’s concerto was an unexpectedly enjoyable bonus to the symphonic main course: Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony. As one of the first conductors to record the original version of the Fifth, Vänskä is unique, and thus to me, this concert was a must to attend.
More bonuses heaped upon bonuses, as in a rather unusual arrangement, literally, maestro Vänskä began the concert by taking up the 1st clarinet in Dvořák’s Serenade in D minor, Op.44. Together, the ensemble of 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 3 horns, cello and double bass evoked a beautiful atmosphere of quintessential Dvořák. Melodious, summery, nostalgic, “European”, their playing perfectly poised. And speaking of poise, one member of the ensemble pretty much stole the most of the show – Ng Pei Sian’s lively and poetic cello-playing was a thorough joy to watch.
Vänskä’s recordings of the Sibelius’s symphonies always have a special touch to them. When they are really good, they are an absolute revelation. Suffice to say, the performance tonight was simply the best “live” performance of the Fifth I’ve ever heard. Even the flubbing of the opening dawn calls by the horns, and some unsteady woodwind work in the beginning did not ultimately spoil my experience. The finale was taken very fast. The SSO strings kept up dutifully, unified and together, with impressive precision and energy – and the swan hymn was born out of that sweeping soundscape completely naturally and with grace and grandeur. The orchestra simply glowed. The E-flat gradually, and with a smoothness and logic rarely achieved “live” – evolved into the magnificent C major climax. My mouth was open with admiration. The triumphant brass paeans in the finale shimmered and blazed with confidence and life; the final life-affirming chords were perfectly forged, the intervals between the silences masterly timed by Vänskä, each chord reverberating in the Esplanade hall, booming with nature’s mysteries and answers. There I heard the silence that speaks, as Sibelius would’ve put it himself.
The date was 6 December – Finland’s Independence Day. Sitting at row E, I was not surprised to overhear snatches of conversation in Finnish. The man next to me had a Nokia phone. It reminded me, a little nostalgically, of the time I spent in Lahti and Helsinki last year. During the interval, Finns gathered at an embassy gathering, but I made my way to the queue for Pekka Kuusisto’s autograph.
“Mr Kuusisto, could you address this to ‘The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase’?” I gingerly asked. “It’s a nickname I used when I wrote about Sibelius in the past”.
“The Inkpot? That sounds familiar….. Oh it’s you!” To my delight, it seems he might have remembered the name. :)
After the concert, I was still wondering how I might be able to meet and shake Mr Vänskä’s hand. As I was waiting for the crowds to make their way out of the hall, I heard my name being called by a couple of friends. One of them, let’s call him HP, said aloud that he had been wondering where “Mr Sibelius” had been all night, while the other, let’s call her SY, gave me directions to reach backstage. We paused at the door of the hall to shake the hand of Mr Fagerlund and I told him how much I enjoyed his concerto, and then I made my way backstage. Or rather, to the entrance. I hung around at the door, wondering if the maestro might exit this way. To be honest, I wasn’t hopeful. But as I inched closer to the door, I spotted a familiar face just inside. It was Dr Chang, the local pianophile and reviewer, and not to my surprise he was inspecting his latest autographed CD. :) Anyway, I asked him for help, and with the kind aid of one of the SSO bassists and the generosity of the security guard, I was led in.
Mr Vänskä stepped out of his guest room just as we arrived. I was so happy – it was almost the next best thing to meeting Sibelius himself, perhaps – a master conductor of his music, a powerful spiritual link back to the composer. I told Mr Vänskä about my love and work promoting Sibelius, got him to autograph the original BIS issue of the original version of the Fifth Symphony, and showed him, using my iPad, the Sibelius Facebook Page I run. “On behalf of Sibelius,” he said genially, “Thank you.”
I plan to see him again in 2015 – he confirmed he will be doing one concert in Lahti, for the Sibelius 150th anniversary celebrations.
FOUND! A previously unknown portrait of Sibelius by Eero Järnefelt (1863-1937), Aino’s brother. The privately-owned artwork was discovered last week in conjunction with preparations for a 150th anniversary Järnefelt exhibition by the Järvenpää Art Museum near Helsinki. The lithograph has been examined and found to be authentic, and estimated to have been completed between 1906 and 1910, as reported by the Finnish national broadcaster, YLE.
Indeed it very much resembles Sibelius from around this period, perhaps after his throat operation.
The only thing is, his hair parting appears to be in a different place. In the Jarnefelt portrait, it is on the right side. But in the photos, his parting is on the left. Hmm.
Sibelius was returning to his home, Ainola, from his customary morning walk in the woods. Exhilarated, he told his wife Aino that he had seen a flock of cranes approaching.
“There they come, the birds of my youth,” he exclaimed.
Suddenly, one of the birds broke away from the formation and circled once above Ainola. It came so close that he could see it clearly for the first time in years, despite his cataract-ridden eyes. The bird then rejoined the flock to continue its journey.
Jean Sibelius died two days later at home, on 20 September, 1957.
“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.
31 August – 6th September 2015 (150th Anniversary of Sibelius’s Birth)
Most of Sibelius’s major orchestral works will be performed, among them “all seven symphonies, Kullervo, the Violin Concerto, the Lemminkäinen Suite and numerous symphonic poems”.
Lahti Symphony Orchestra, with guest appearances by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and BBC Symphony Orchestra (London)
Okko Kamu (Festival Artistic Director), Osmo Vänskä, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Sakari Oramo and Leif Segerstam.
15th International Sibelius Festival 2014
4 – 7 September 2014
Original versions of Sibelius’s orchestral works, including the Violin Concerto and Fifth Symphony.
* * * * *
The concept of the 2014 programme is apparently to act as a “prequel”, preparing the way for the jubilee programme of 2015. I was initially a little more excited by the 2014 programme, because the privilege to hear the original versions of the Violin Concerto and the Fifth is supremely rare. In my case, certainly, the chance of a lifetime. In particular, the original 1915 version of the Fifth Symphony – which in an old Inkpot review I described as being darker, and represents a sort of missing link between the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies (which are so very different). I look forward to hearing this “live”, even if I do feel a little guilt hearing something Sibelius wouldn’t want us to hear.
As for the 2015 programme, it is as it should be. Nothing less than all the major works have to be played, principally the seven symphonies, as well as the other “symphonies”, Kullervoand the Lemminkäinen Suite. I’m pretty sure Tapiola will be played, and that completes the picture.
Will you be going to Lahti in 2014 and 2015? I will. Look for me if you’re going.
BBC Symphony Orchestra (London) to make guest appearance at the Lahti Symphony Orchestra’s Sibelius Festival in 2015
In 2015 the musical world will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Jean Sibelius (1865–1957). The Lahti Symphony Orchestra will play its part in the celebrations by organizing its annual Sibelius Festival on a larger scale than usual, in terms both of the music played and of the artists taking part. The festival will last a week, from 31st August to 6th September 2015, and there will be concerts not only by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra but also by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra.
The total of six orchestral concerts at the sixteenth International Sibelius Festival will be conducted by Okko Kamu (artistic director of the festival), Osmo Vänskä, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Sakari Oramo and Leif Segerstam. Of these conductors Vänskä and Saraste, during their own periods in Lahti, have previously served as artistic directors of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra and Sibelius Festival, before Kamu took over as principal conductor in 2011. In particular during Vänskä’s twenty-year reign as chief conductor the Lahti Symphony Orchestra gained world renown, to a large extent as a result of its work with the music of Sibelius.
The BBC Symphony Orchestra will give two concerts, one conducted by Okko Kamu and the other by its principal conductor Sakari Oramo; the concert by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra will be led by its principal conductor emeritus, Leif Segerstam.
At the festival’s concerts most of Sibelius’s major orchestral works will be performed, among them all seven symphonies, Kullervo, the Violin Concerto, the Lemminkäinen Suite and numerous symphonic poems. In addition there will be chamber concerts and other Sibelius-themed events. Further programme and soloist details will be announced later.
The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s first visit to Finland was in 1956, then too in a Sibelian spirit
‘The 2015 festival will offer Sibelius enthusiasts a unique, week-long opportunity to hear performances of the composer’s most important works by conductors who have earned world renown for their Sibelius interpretations. My fellow conductors have been happily unanimous in agreeing to the programme that I suggested’, says the festival’s artistic director Okko Kamu, and goes on: ‘It is fantastic that the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which played Sibelius in Finland already in the 1950s, has accepted our invitation and will be coming to Lahti at its busiest time, during the Proms. And it goes without saying that we also invited the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, with its great history of playing Sibelius; my own father played in the orchestra in Sibelius’s time, and I myself have a close personal relationship with it. It is also excellent that we shall present such a major event in the obvious setting of our splendid home, the Sibelius Hall.’
‘It is a great honour for the BBC Symphony Orchestra to be invited to appear in the 2015 Lahti Festival most especially in such a significant year of celebration of the music of Sibelius. We are very excited to be appearing with our Chief Conductor, Sakari Oramo and a rare opportunity to work with Okko Kamu, performing alongside our colleagues in the Lahti Symphony Orchestra’, says Paul Hughes, general manager of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He goes on: ‘The BBCSO first visited Scandinavia on a four-country tour in June 1956. They gave two concerts in the Sibelius Festival, Helsinki, under the baton of Sir Malcolm Sargent on 10th and 11th June and the repertoire was all-Sibelius, including Symphonies 1 and 3, three Historical Scenes, Finlandia, Tapiola and En saga. And the orchestra and Sargent were entertained by Sibelius himself at his home in Järvenpää.’
‘The invitation to perform at Lahti’s famous Sibelius Festival in our national composer’s jubilee year is a great joy and honour for the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra’, says Gita Kadambi, general manager of the orchestra. Founded in 1882 by Robert Kajanus, the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra has throughout its long history regarded it as a matter of honour to nurture the tradition that arose from the many decades of collaboration between Kajanus and Jean Sibelius. Between 1892 and 1923 Kajanus’s orchestra gave the first performances of most of Sibelius’s symphonic works, conducted by the composer himself. Sibelius was also present on the orchestra’s first foreign tour in the summer of 1900, on which occasion his music was heard for the first time in European concert halls.
Single tickets for the 2015 Sibelius Festival will be available from 1st September 2014; group and advance bookings begin in the spring of 2014.
The Lahti Symphony Orchestra’s Sibelius Festival
The Lahti Symphony Orchestra, widely appreciated internationally for its Sibelius interpretations both on disc and on concert tours, organizes its annual Sibelius Festival in September, in the hall that bears the composer’s name. The festival has taken place ever since the hall was completed in 2000. The idea of the festival is to offer Sibelius enthusiasts from all over the world a long weekend (Thursday to Sunday) of wide-ranging programmes reflecting various aspects of the composer’s music, played by the finest performers. In the same way that the famous Bayreuth Festival is devoted entirely to the music of Wagner, so too the Lahti Symphony Orchestra’s Sibelius Festival offers exclusively Sibelius.
Right from the start the festival has attracted international attention. Members of the audience – both groups and individuals – have come from all over Europe as well as such countries as the USA, Canada, Japan and Australia. Up to 20% of tickets have been sold to international visitors.
Each year the festival also attracts international press coverage. In 2003, for example, the prestigious Austrian newspaper Die Presse named the festival as the most important of its kind anywhere in the world. Over the years the festival has been featured by The Times (London), Die Welt (Berlin) and by New York Public Radio (WNYC).
The Sibelius Festivals in 2013 and 2014
This year’s Sibelius Festival will begin with a concert at the Sibelius Hall next Thursday, 5th September 2013, conducted by Okko Kamu, the orchestra’s principal conductor and artistic director of the festival. The festival’s theme is Sibelius’s music for the theatre.
The 2014 festival, conducted by Okko Kamu, will take place from 4th to 7th September 2014. The programme of the festival will prepare the way for the jubilee programme of 2015 and its focus will be on the original versions of Sibelius’s orchestral works, including the Violin Concerto and Fifth Symphony.
In 2005, Finnish composer Osmo Tapio Räihälä (b.1964) and Sir Colin Davis (1927 – 2013) visited Ainola. In a 56-minute interview filmed by YLE, the Finnish public service television station, Räihälä and the late conductor discuss Sibelius. After the passing of Sir Colin in April 2013, the interview was made available to watch again on the YLE website, for a month (20 May – 20 June 2013). I took the opportunity to transcribe the entire interview. I’ve transcribed as accurately as I can hear, and only took select liberties with some sentences either for clarity or smoothness.
Räihälä: Jean Sibelius was a great observer of nature, and most certainly he wasn’t unique in it. But do you think there is some special side that doesn’t appear in other composers’ music?
Sir Colin: Oh most certainly. And I think I don’t know whether it is his attitude to nature that makes him so unique… but he doesn’t write nice comfortable tunes, for example like his lovely contemporary Dvořák. There’s always more mystery, more darkness, more unpredictability in Sibelius. Whether that was a reflection of himself or his relationship with nature around him – I can’t answer that.
Räihälä: He’s not just painting pictures of nature. His “nature” is a lot more, when you think , for example, about Tapiola. It describes mighty forests, and Tapio is a sylvan god, and it’s a dangerous forest. It’s not something sweet and peaceful.
Sir Colin: Yes, and the human heart is exactly the same. It’s a dangerous place. I’m not well acquainted with Finland, but I was here in a hot summer and stayed a few days in the forest. And it was quite unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. And when the light is so fierce and the birch trees are so white, and then the thing begins to become indefinite and hazy. And you can well imagine that you could see things. And that you will in fact subjectively people the forest with all kinds of spirits. You can say, “Well, that’s nonsense” – but it isn’t nonsense. Because I’m a human being and I experienced these things.
Räihälä: You can see things like wood nymphs [laughs].
Sir Colin: Well you probably need a bit of Vodka to go that far! [laughs]
Räihälä: Or whiskey as in Sibelius’ case!
Sir Colin: He provided whiskey?
Räihälä: Yes of course!
Sir Colin: Oh well, he was a civilized man.
Räihälä: Also at his time, he only could get blended whiskeys.
Sir Colin: Well I’m sorry he was deprived of the wonderful things we have now. But the effect is much the same. It’s that – and also when you’ve had a couple of drinks – your imagination sometimes bubbles up and produces the greatest effects. Although I got quite scared actually, when I was here, because there was no sound in the forest except [a] hawk [points up, at sky] and there was nobody there, and I was picking wild raspberries and at any moment some strange girl could have turned up. She might not really have been there but I could’ve imagined her. And I came home very fast [both laugh].
I don’t know whether that means anything to you, but all this is in the mystery and the flickering lights of a lot of Sibelius’ music, and human beings are as unpredictable as the storms that blow up in Sibelius’ music. Always, all over the place, there they are and they reflect something in us that a lot of other composers didn’t care to express or (maybe) they didn’t know about. But I don’t believe that – I think that they didn’t care to express them so directly. That’s why he is not greatly liked by the bourgeois countries. The French don’t like Sibelius, do they? Who was their favourite composer?
Räihälä: Well I would say either some French, like Debussy, but also composers like Stravinsky.
Sir Colin: I see, now I was thinking what did Saint-Saëns say? “There are good composers and there are bad composers, and there’s Massenet”.
And Debussy said that in every Frenchman’s heart there is a bit of Massenet. And if you think of Bizet and Gounod and Massenet, there is a kind of comfortable bourgeois taste to which to Sibelius must have been anathema because he is not “comfortable”. He is forever upsetting things. Take the beginning of the Fifth Symphony, wonderful morning and cocks are crowing and the sun is shining. But after five minutes whatever happens – we don’t know; but it’s as though the mists get up off that lake and unaccountable things are moving about in it.
Räihälä: The difference between the reception of Sibelius music in Germany and Britain must depend on the Germans having all these great symphony composers that the British didn’t, at the time when Sibelius popped up from the forests.
Sir Colin: No, they didn’t. Yes, but they had their forests. but Sibelius’ way of expressing himself didn’t fall into that kind of neat, classical formula. He wasn’t composing with antecedence or consequence – things of that kind.
Räihälä: For example, Brahms. He was very conventional, although he was [inventive] too. He was very conventional in the way he finished a symphony. From his style you can guess what is going to happen. And that doesn’t apply to Sibelius.
Sir Colin: Yes, and that, for the listener creates, probably…. instability. Because he couldn’t have expected that. Maybe another reason why he discomforts a lot of continental musicians. I would feel that Sibelius is actually out there [points outside, as if towards forest], not like Mahler who was in his study. You know when the birds irritated him, he got up and shot them [both laugh]. I hope that’s not true but I had been told it is what happened. So Mahler’s composing in his study, of course so is Sibelius but his spirit is actually out there. And it’s not irritating him that the birds sing, it is part of his thinking. I mean he was a contradiction, he spent so much of his time in the cities, enjoying the luxuries and the city life. And then he suddenly he couldn’t stand it any longer and then he disappeared again. And that appeals to me very much because a musician has to live in the city (there isn’t an orchestra out there in the woods), but after a bit I find that the emotional tension of being a musician too much. I have to get away to a house in the country where there really isn’t anything. But Sibelius actually lived, I mean he composed out of that. So when he was alone out here (in Ainola) and there was no sound except the sounds of the forest and so on, that must have made him in a great state of tension because it was from there that he took inspiration.
Räihälä: So it was really normal for Sibelius to have these two sides. The need for a peaceful place to live and composer, and at the same time he loved to socialize and “booze” with his friends and do things that all “wild” men like him do.
Sir Colin: Yes. Extraordinary. But I am worse than him because when I go out to the country, I dress like a tramp. Absolutely unrecognizable! But he loved to dress up in the latest stuff. He had his shirts and his shoes, but he hadn’t got the money to pay for them! He was a perplexing human being simply because his talent was enormous, and all the time in his head were these themes flitting backwards and forwards, and he is kneading them, pushing them, trying to shove them around till they had the shape he wants. He’s just like Beethoven with his sketchbooks. Beethoven wrote down incomprehensible scrap – and a couple years later it’s a fantastic string quartet. I mean, how did he do it?
* * * * *
Räihälä: By the way, when did you first discover Sibelius?
Sir Colin: He imposed himself on me, I think. I came from a family of 7, and I was no. 5 so I was really isolated. But my brothers -my eldest brother was very interested in Sibelius, and he brought home a lot of gramophone records. It was an old-fashioned machine that you wound it up…. Brilliant, it was great.
And there, I made the acquaintance of the Third Symphony and I remember as a boy of 8 or 9 being absolutely fascinated with this thing. When I was left alone in the house, I didn’t know what I did – jigsaw puzzles or … and I had this symphony. Always. Why it fascinated me I can’t tell you. It has a hypnotic effect which comes from the second movement, because there is a reiteration of this melody, this lullaby, whatever it is… I’m told that Sibelius used to play it on the piano while his daughters danced about in nightdresses…. [smiles] but this is probably another one of those inventions that people inflict on great men.
And then there was the famous recording of the Third Symphony by Kajanus which is still spoken of. And the other is the recording of the Seventh Symphony with Koussevitzky [YouTube] and I became more and more interested in this. Because it is so mysterious and it was so violent, and… so serene and… what on earth was going on? [Chuckles, then turns serious] When I look at the Seventh Symphony now, I don’t have the fear of the unknown which I had when I started all those years ago. I still think it’s a remarkable statement … I think it’s so remarkable because he compressed everything, more and more as he got older. When you think of Kullervo, it’s an hour and quarter – there’s some wonderful things in it. And he turned his back on that. And he tried to say as much as possible in the shortest possible time. And for that he should be praised. I think that’s another thing that disturbed some of the continental composers so used to big sprawling pieces.
Räihälä: Already in the Third Symphony he had only three movements, and in the Seventh he only had one. So what was logical was that the Eighth Symphony had no movements at all. :)
Sir Colin: In that case it doesn’t exist! [laughs]
Räihälä: Does it? [laughs]
Sir Colin: I don’t know! People say he did write the Eighth Symphony and that he destroyed it. And I think we should trust him. If it had been what he had hoped it would have been, surely he wouldn’t have burnt it. He must have felt somewhere that it wasn’t up to the other ones. And I believe him. I mean, he’s written seven pretty unique pieces and he wasn’t one of those people who kept writing the same symphony. I have been some of those. Beethoven wasn’t one. Mozart wasn’t one. But there’re others who’ve tried but found it difficult to escape, like Bruckner.
But his are…. you could never guess after the Third symphony, he would have the Fourth Symphony, like not like that. And then you wouldn’t guess the Fifth would again be what it is. Again a wonderful act of compression. And you wouldn’t believe that a man could hear a symphony that he’d written and be unsatisfied – dissatisfied – and go home and over the years, turn it into a masterpiece. That doesn’t happen very often!
Räihälä: No (indeed). The trouble that Sibelius was prepared to meet in remolding the Fifth Symphony only goes to show that he was really looking for something that only he could see but he couldn’t just find it straightaway.
Sir Colin: Yes. And that’s part of his greatness, I think. That he was prepared to do that. The remarkable thing is that he had the intellectual tenacity to pursue what it was that he was looking for. And having found it, he knew how to organize it. It’s the same with Beethoven really, that it would take him a long time to find the basic shape of what he wanted to do, and having done that, it then all followed. But Sibelius discovered that he’d left something half done, and he had the wit to recognize it – that’s what I think is extraordinary. There’re plenty of composers who didn’t have the wit to know that what they’d done was only half-finished. But he did and he was prepared to tackle to it, because he must have believed that he had found some precious corner of his own soul and that he was going to express that. But he wasn’t going to have a mis-shapened version.
That’s where I think he’s so wonderful. He worked and worked at it until it was what he wanted it to be. He was like a smith, like Ilmarinen. I’m glad that his wife wasn’t like Ilmarinen’s wife [laughs]. No, I think we’re really at the nerve of why he’s such a great man. He didn’t always do that, he wrote a lot of pieces just for fun or for money – but who didn’t? So did Mozart, he had to write minuets for the wretched balls of the court; Beethoven wrote all kinds of stuff which we don’t bother with and I don’t see why that should be held against Sibelius at all. Elgar did the same. They had to make money somehow.
Räihälä: They had family.
Sir Colin: Yes. what were they to do? They had to slog at that, but I don’t think it cost him too much to write superficial pieces. His tragedy was of course that he wrote Finlandia and Valse triste and made no money out of either of them. He should have made his fortune. But then that’s luck. Or perhaps it was also good, because it meant that he had to go on.
Räihälä: What is really interesting is that Sibelius didn’t want to save his better ideas or stronger themes [for] these large works only. He [had] fantastic themes/music in these small pieces too.
Sir Colin: Well I think Richard Strauss said he had an enviable gift for melody, which indeed he had. But if you look at Sixth Symphony or Seventh Symphony, there aren’t any “great” melodies. That isn’t what he was trying to do.
Räihälä: It’s not about the melodies, it’s more about masterful forging of music.
Sir Colin: Yes the symphonies are about that but some of the lighter pieces are not dependent on that.
Räihälä: But at some point while still working on the Eighth Symphony he must have realized that – although he was going deeper and deeper and trying to find that something that only he can see – that it doesn’t exist. So he gave up. That must have been a horrible moment for him.
Sir Colin: Yes, and it’s very difficult to understand how he could have spent the last 30 years of his life without composing anything. Because obviously from the time he was a young man his head was full of music. Wasn’t it full of music anymore? Or did he ban it from his mind? We don’t know. He doesn’t talk about it.
Räihälä: At the time when he moved here to Ainola, he wrote that while living in the city, all the song in him died. So moving here was something like being reborn and all these melodies, all this music started to flow again. I don’t know if it’s something he said to make it sound more romantic, but it happened at the crossroads of his style going from the more national romantic style to this more universal classic style. That was about the time of Pohjola’s Daughter. Which by the way, you have been doing quite recently.
Sir Colin: Yes I like that piece very much. And so much of it reminds me of some of the portraits of Sibelius himself. A man puts everything he has into something and of course it begins to sound like him. The weariness of the beginning and that snarling fanfare, which is supposedly Väinämöinen. It could very well be a portrait of Sibelius himself.
Räihälä:Pohjola’s Daughter is very interesting in Sibelius’ output because he gets so close to, for example, Richard Strauss of the time, because it [has] such colourful orchestration, when you compare it with other works that he had been doing or was going to do quite shortly. So it was kind of a crossroads.
Sir Colin: I never thought of Richard Strauss in the company of Pohjola’s Daughter, I must say…. because it’s so compressed, so tightly knit. All the material belongs to itself. Compared with Sibelius, Strauss is prolix – he takes his time [laughs].
Räihälä: Do you think he felt the pressure to get away from the style of Strauss because he was such a famous contemporary composer at his time?
Sir Colin: That’s possible. I don’t know. Didn’t he tell somebody that he wished to give the public “pure cold water” and not all these cocktails. Something like that. He wasn’t really in the business for entertaining the public with symphonic music.
Räihälä: He also had this flirting with impressionism, with the Oceanides. It’s a bit in the direction of Debussy.
Sir Colin: Yes but so are the fluttering creatures in the Sixth Symphony. As he’s chased through the woods there. Do you remember that? You know that chord at the beginning of the 6th. It’s called the seventh, it’s the Tristan Chord. He makes import out of that fluttering noise. It’s all pianissimo[Sir Colin sings]. Little nymphs are calling one another across the wood in the high summer, and there is this heat shimmer. Whatever you like to call it – that to me is impressionism. Much more than the Oceanides.
That is really – how many of them are there? See I think there are three. Two of them play the flute, and play in duets. The other one is really lovesick and is wailing like one of Wagner’s sirens in Tannhäuser. And it is she who conjures up that storm – one of the most terrifying storms there is. And what is so magical about it is [Sibelius] manages to find a colour and a harmony which to me reflects the horrible color the sky goes before there’s a storm. Everything is still and everything is anticipating disaster. So all the animals have long gone home and only the light is kind of all of purple and sick and yellow – and do you know it did that well? I think it’s amazing. If that’s impressionism, okay, but it’s not like the… “impressionism” we use for the great picture postcard revolution in French painting. That is not Sibelius! [laughs]
Räihälä: No, it isn’t! By the way, Sibelius was a great admirer of Wagner and went to Bayreuth – yet he never really tried his hand in opera.
Sir Colin: No, because the way I think of Sibelius – his music is never static, it’s always changing into something else. That wouldn’t do for trying to depict characters realistically on the stage. Simply wouldn’t. I mean they would be starting a conversation and then drifting away into themselves and not say anything. And where have they gone then? Or it would be like Harold Pinter where somebody starts a conversation and nobody answers or nobody says anything – then goes out. It’s not like that at all. It’s not a theatrical way of writing music. How could you do that? Because it’s an internal development in Sibelius, it’s not to do with “situations”.
That’s how it seems to me. What do you think? You’re a composer – you know more about it than I do!
Räihälä: Well I haven’t written an opera yet [both laugh]. I’m not a specialist!
* * * * *
Räihälä: You’ve been performing Kullervo lately.
Sir Colin: Yes, in London and New York.
Räihälä: It’s one of Sibelius’ earliest major works and something of …. it’s not a symphony or is it? What do you think?
Sir Colin: I don’t know. It’s full of wonderful things and it has a first movement like a symphony, a sonata piece and then it has a sort of rondo. I don’t know what it might be, the 2nd movement… and the third movement is an operatic number or it’s an oratorio number, it’s a scena. And then there’s a scherzo, so if you like, Lemminkäinen [sic] going to war. And then the last scene is left to the chorus and orchestra which is the death of a young man. You can say these are five movements strung along to the story of Kullervo. But that doesn’t make it a symphony.
Räihälä: He finished Kullervo just before he got married to Aino. That was sort of a graduation. He had to show the world that he is man enough before he could get married. But afterwards he didn’t allow a performance of Kullervo.
Sir Colin: Do you know why?
Räihälä: No, but he didn’t burn it.
Sir Colin: No, so he must have been secretly been rather proud of it. But as his ambitions changed, perhaps he didn’t want to have that forever thrown in his face as his successful nationalist piece. He really didn’t want to be a “narrow” nationalist composer.
Räihälä: No, he wanted to be a universal hero.
Sir Colin: Exactly, he had big ambitions. And he succeeded, I must say. But if he’d stayed with that kind of piece, in that genre, he would perhaps have never have escaped from it. And he was certainly, as we have already said, not the man who wanted to write the same symphony again. Already when he gets to the Lemminkäinen music, he’s changed. And I think the most remarkable piece in that – of course the Swan (of Tuonela) is wonderful – but Lemminkäinen in Tuonela is an absolutely one-off piece. I don’t know anything like that – do you?
[Räihälä shrugs with a smile.]
Sir Colin: Please, you’re the Finnish, not me!
Räihälä: Is it a nationalistic thing? That a Finn would know better.
Sir Colin: Well it’s often said that only the Finns understand Sibelius. Only the Finns can perform him.
Räihälä: But he’s our only real universal hero, I mean…
Sir Colin: That’s wonderful! But that doesn’t mean his music is only appreciated by Finns. That proves he’s universal. If only Finns could perform Sibelius, that would make him provincial. [laughs] I’m making all this up!
Räihälä: Do you think the First Symphony is in some way still “provincial”, or does it already belong to “Universal Sibelius”?
Sir Colin: Well, not quite – because it has so many echoes of other things. There’s a lot of the Flying Dutchman in the first, I always feel. The second movement is… “pathetic”… I don’t mean in the bad sense – a “pathétique” melody, which moves us. It does. The scherzo owes something to Beethoven and Bruckner; and the last, “quasi una fantasia”, is… well it opens with a very grand version of the lament (uttered by the clarinet in the beginning of the symphony) and then of course it is a furious movement with rhetorical gestures before we reach the important thing about the last movement which is that very grand tune. I must say, I’d love to have written that – wouldn’t you? [Räihälä nods]. I mean come on, you may say it’s not the greatest symphony, but he certainly had a ear for big melodies.
Räihälä: But isn’t it typical for a still youthful artist that – especially for a male composer – that in the early stages of his career, he wrote pieces that describe some kind of heroic things like the Second Symphony. It’s really a grand symphony. Then came the Violin Concerto. Of course Sibelius had wanted to be a great violinist himself. Then he gradually goes over to more peaceful things and tries to find more of the “inner” when in the early stages of his career, when things come more to the surface.
Sir Colin: And it’s certainly true, yes. The Second Symphony is as heroic as anything that ever ended.
Räihälä: In the beginning of the 20th Century, the western world, at least Europe was going through huge changes and there were things that led to the first World War. But in my opinion, most art were at their most interesting during the turn of the 20th Century,. and Sibelius lived through that time and at the same time there happened things in Vienna like Schoenberg and Stravinsky, who had a revolutionary effect on music in 1913. And the Fourth Symphony – do you think it was in some way Sibelius’ answer to all these big things going on around him?
Sir Colin: Well I think he saw that the – he must have seen – that what he was brought up to, what he knew as music was being destroyed. And there is in the Fourth Symphony an extraordinary nostalgia for the triad, for the basis of classical music as he knew it. It’s a very …. distorted view of music…. but suddenly in the first music, the horns play [Sir Colin sings] and then there’s an echo. And one wonders: what is that? Is it nostalgia for something that is forever gone? The slow movement is one of the most elusive, despairing pieces that have ever been penned. The last page of that is the loneliest music that has ever been written. And then in the scherzo, there’s the light and the beautiful day, the light-hearted oboe melody.. and all that goes wrong. And in the last movement, it’s as though if he’s set it up again, a lovely day and the sleigh ride and the bells… but two thirds of the way, something awful happens. The sled turns over, the inhabitants are killed, the dogs are all mangled… and he buries the lot of them. Under the grisly repeated chord of A minor. Smooths the grave over, and leaves. What is he talking about? The death of civilization? The death of music as he knew it? Or the struggle that already begun, that the heart writes music at all? Please, you help me with that.
Räihälä: Well only thing I can say is the Fourth Symphony is the dearest of his children.
Sir Colin: It’s almost as though he was protesting the time that he been born into. As Brahms always did but didn’t actually managed to express it. As Sibelius did. That’s why some people find this kind of music too bewildering, because what they want is confidence and resolution and what they get is a mirror of what was actually going on. And it’s not for nothing there are 11 of the 12 tones at the beginning of the Seventh Symphony. He knew what he was doing, I think. Maybe that’s why he was dissatisfied with his Eighth – because he had nothing more to say about what was going on around him. It was all too utterly bewildering. After Stravinsky, after Schoenberg turned to 12-tone music, which was something Sibelius couldn’t do. Couldn’t possibly have done… And there was the rise of the Serialists, which has come to nothing. No system has been devised which has replaced the old Classical system, which lasted for so long. And even now, composers – many of them are using Classical procedures and Classical harmony. Sometimes different keys simultaneously, in an effort to find a way of writing a musical sentence.
Now you are a composer. And maybe this is really what the trouble was. It wasn’t possible to write a sentence anymore, because without harmony there isn’t any syntax. So what are you going to do? Write a new language? But then whatever language you write, it’s got to have a subject a verb and an object. And that’s what music had lost.
Räihälä: Well, if every composer tried to speak his own dialect , no one’s going to understand each other.
Sir Colin: No they won’t! And they didn’t!
Räihälä: So it’s really isn’t possible to communicate with the audience or even with the musicians if a composer can’t get his or her message through. And that is a problem for composers, of course. So obviously, you think that Sibelius’ music will last longer than, for example…
Sir Colin: Stockhausen…
Räihälä: or Schoenberg…
Sir Colin: I certainly do. I mean Schoenberg imposed an intellectual solution on something which is not… won’t be subjected to that. You can’t say all 12 tones are equal and continue to write old-fashioned music which is what he did. It doesn’t work, because you got no point of beginning and no point of rest. And very few musicians have such acute hearing that they can pick up the 12 tones and versions of them going on and when they are all combined together.
* * * * *
Räihälä: I wonder why it was such a “drag” for Sibelius to write the concerto because he was a violinist… ?
Sir Colin: Well, that‘s probably one of the reasons why it was so difficult for him to do it. The opening is one of the most poetic moments in musical history, really. There’s just these oscillating fifths and one never really knows what’s going to happen and suddenly there’s this little voice comes out of nowhere. Extraordinary music.
Räihälä: It’s like hearing voices from outdoors that you don’t recognize. And the voices, by and by, they come closer and suddenly they are in front of you and indoors.
Sir Colin: That’s really beautifully put! Yes. I think that the most remarkable section of the Violin Concerto is the slow movement. It’s one of the final great tunes. It really is a grandiose arc of melody and that in itself is very moving. It’s very difficult to play. I think this is one of the reasons: the bow’s too short.
Räihälä: Although it’s a fantastic composition, in my opinion, there are some funny things that don’t really seem to belong. Maybe that is a result of him doing all these versions, trying to find the right solution, that things were left from elsewhere.
Sir Colin: I think that’s happening to the end of the first movement. For example there’s suddenly, it goes [sings]… and you think, “What the devil’s that doing here??”Because it’s quite extended in the earlier version, the first version. And then you know why it’s there. But the end of the first movement worries me, and the end of the last movement worries me. Difficult to bring it to a…. satisfactory ending.
Räihälä:I have a feeling he was in a hurry while he was finishing the concerto.
Sir Colin: Maybe he was. I mean he’s spent enough time on it.
Räihälä: Because the end comes so unexpectedly.
Sir Colin: Abruptly.
Räihälä: Yes. But obviously it has found its place in the repertoire quite well, because as far as I know it is the most often recorded violin concerto.
Sir Colin: Really?
Räihälä: Something that I read somewhere. And there was something funny written by a Finnish music critic a few years ago, who said that Sbielius’s Violin Concerto is such a fantastic work that a violinist should not be allowed to perform it more than once a year, so that the audience can enjoy it to the full effect! And that (the remark) was probably meant to be for fun, but I think it was pretty accurate.
Sir Colin: Well, you can probably think of all those wonderful classical pieces that shouldn’t be performed more than once a year!
Räihälä: But if there is one piece that will last forever… a work of music by Sibelius that you would take to a desert island, what would it be?
Sir Colin: Goodness me!….
Räihälä: And remember, you would have to listen to it more than once a year.
Sir Colin: Well I would take one gigantic symphony… which consists of numbers 1 to 7 [both laugh].
Räihälä: That is not an answer!
Sir Colin: I know it isn’t! [laughs] … [Seriously] I haven’t. Any. Idea. How to answer that.
Räihälä: That’s your personal view but do you think there is some work that will survive even longer than…. our civilization is changing all the time and classical music gets more and more marginal…
Sir Colin: I’m not even sure that’s true. I hope it isn’t. I don’t think it’s true because there will always be people who are fascinated by it. And the lovers of classical music are always a minority. And they are certainly a minority now but that’s nothing new. The only thing that would destroy classical music is if there were no more children playing instruments. The fascination over classical music will remain, I’m quite sure.
Räihälä: What would be the Sibelius work that most appeals to people?
Sir Colin: I haven’t the faintest idea… I can’t take one without the other. How can I take the Sixth without the Seventh? Or the Fourth without the Fifth? Or any of those four without the Third? You might do without 1 and 2 – you might. But you can’t go without the others. And then you have to figure in Tapiola as well. Then perhaps you could say, yes, I can go to this desert island. [laughs]
If you take that as a compliment, and I hope that you will – if you can – I think whatever happens, Sibelius’ place in the tradition of European music is unshakable. That’s a special voice that nobody can silence.
For Sir Colin Davis (25 September 1927 – 14 April 2013)
A Great Conductor.