The sounds we’re not meant to hear: is this Sibelius’ 8th?

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.

“Is this the sound of Sibelius’ lost Eighth Symphony?” By Vesa Sirén

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.

 “Is this the sound of Sibelius’ lost Eighth Symphony?” By Vesa Sirén

Words like these, “Sibelius had taken off in quite a startling direction” are to me, however, spine-tingling.

Possible score of Sibelius Eighth Symphony
Is this Sibelius’ 8th?

Screen from video at Helsingin Sanomat.

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.”

 “Is this the sound of Sibelius’ lost Eighth Symphony?” By Vesa Sirén

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 Helsinki Philharmonic
The Helsinki Philharmonic playing the drafts

Screen from video at Helsingin Sanomat.

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.”

 “Is this the sound of Sibelius’ lost Eighth Symphony?” By Vesa Sirén

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.