A special voice that nobody can silence: Sir Colin Davis’ Sibelius

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.

01a osmo

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.

Sibelius on balcony of AinolaSir 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.

08 osmo it doesn't exist2Räihälä: 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.

09 exactly

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.

10 a-minor

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.

"Here in Ainola, the silence speaks." - Jean Sibelius
“Here in Ainola, the silence speaks.” – Jean Sibelius

For Sir Colin Davis
(25 September 1927 – 14 April 2013)
A Great Conductor.


Echoes of the Forest God

Ten days ago in the middle of March I received an email from Gerry Henkel, the Editor of New World Finn, a quarterly journal on Finnish culture in the New World. The approximately 30-page journal features Finnish newsmakers, musicians, artists, writers and more, in North America. A downloadable sample is available on the website, as well as instructions for submissions and subscriptions.

To my pleasant surprise, Gerry asked for permission to reproduce my 13-year-old article on Tapiola, which I published on Earth Day (April 22) 1999. Over the last 13 years, this article has attracted the most number of comments among all my Sibelius articles. While I’ve always considered it one of my good pieces of writing, I never thought of it as something that would attract widespread attention or anything. It was after all, about a piece that is decidedly quite advanced listening, Sibelius’ most sophisticated essay in tone painting – his final published word in symphonic thinking. Indeed, his “9th” Symphony.

I wrote the piece when great swaths of forests were being burned in a nearby country. This affected me deeply and greatly influenced my thoughts on the essay, about how mankind has seemingly forgotten we are not a separate thing from nature. Tapiola illustrates this relationship to spine-tingling, soul-searing effect.

Mr Henkel wrote to me again just this morning to show me a post made by a reader of New World Finn, Markki Mungerin of Cloquet River Press, who makes mention of my essay in his post “A Wonderful Piece of Music“. Thank you, Mr Mungerin. He has picked out a Tapiola music video from YouTube (made by berrik500) to introduce his readers to the work.  The complete tone poem can be heard here.

The performance is conducted by Neeme Järvi, with film footage from Christopher Nupen’s film “Jean Sibelius – The Early Years, Maturity and Silence”. It so happens that I watched this video a month ago and left a comment for the creator myself – so once again, Tapio works to keep us connected.

I am thoroughly humbled and very happy by the fact that something I wrote so long ago still has the capacity to spread and advance the musical thinking of Jean Sibelius. I never thought this far when I wrote in 1999. I never thought that a piece of music this dark, this “supernatural”, this advanced, could enthrall fresh listeners. The fact that it does is testimony to Sibelius’ magical power to reach deep into our humanity, and find the threads of a common force – our spiritual link with nature – to bind us across time, space and culture. I am but a wisp singing the song of my forest gods, a tiny thread of light among the magic secrets of wood sprites in the gloom. I have shared the mysterious spell once 13 years ago, and it thrills me that the enchantment continues to echo.

Sibelius at Hawk Lake, a poem by Tom Henighan

(“We were all enthralled by the dark pine forests and the shadowy gods and wood-nymphs who dwell therein. The coda with its icy winds sweeping through the forest made us shiver.” On the Sibelius tone poem Tapiola. From a letter to the composer by Walter Damrosch, who conducted the premiere of that work in 1926.)

The cabin walls groan,
I step out, under articulate stars,
their wild canopy excites me,
those icy exclamations
make the black scroll sing,
and punctuate the night
with a dazzling syntax
that lets the heart speak in parables.
When something lumbers by in the darkness,
I retreat to my fireplace.

This is Canada.
We are an outpost of terror.
Mountains, granite ridges,
chill mornings, mist-shrouded
lakes, the bleak sun,
the slow turning of the endless day.
Marshes and moors,
the smell of mud and decay,
glacier-tossed boulders
like the severed heads
of an ancient enemy.

What’s trivial in the human
he cast out–
and most of all our frenzy
to remake the world,
creation’s paradox and bane,
the junk piled high,
earth and space littered
with false dreams.

Implacable nature, in Tapio,
god of the forest.
by another name lurks
in these rough shaggy pines,
cedars and elders,
dark birches, like runic figures,
boundaries and portals of time,
of our deep hidden life,
to be entered only at twilight
or when the wind shrills
bleakly across the lakes,
the mind full of music
and what moves in the woods,
by cloven nature bound
to another earth.








In the drawing rooms of Europe
the sad waltzes ceased,
the sun swallowed up
by its own serpent tides,
as in his knotted glance
by Karsh, looking inward
and downward
to where creation stops
at the boundaries
of feeling.

At the end, endless silence.
Ambition burned out,
mind falls back to its source:
the drowned book’s spell
alive in rugged lines,
in fractal clouds and waves,
this globe’s solemn music–
while time flows unhurried
to its own desolation,
the great swans gather
on the lost lake.


Evening Forest. Photo by Ari Helminen (Click photo for link)

Sibelius at Hawk Lake – A Poem by Tom Henighan

Art inspires art, and sometimes not in the form you expect. The poem above is by Canadian author Mr Tom Henighan (born in Manhattan) who is also Professor Emeritus at the Carleton University of Ottawa,  and “a very busy free-lance scholar and writer, with a special interest in Canadian culture, mythology, and popular culture.” Among his other eminent qualities is a tendency to “get jumpy if [he] can’t stay in touch with the natural world.” Mr Henighan is an active author and has an extensive publication history.

In the last few years beginning around 2008, in my gradual return to writing about Sibelius, I have had the immense honour and pleasure of becoming acquainted with Sibelius fans from around the world, including conductors, musicians, painters and now a writer. Tom left a kind comment on Dust of Hue here (which I have barely begun to do justice in terms of a reply, and in subsequent emails, he sent me this Sibelius-inspired poem – essentially an act of kindred sharing.)

You have to know something about Sibelius to get the references, Tom explained. And indeed that was definitely the case. Of forests, mountains, stars, the slow turning of endless time, endless silence – the words and images include many that I have used in near poetic futility to capture the essence of Sibelius’ music in words. It made me eager to share with you, fellow Sibelians. About the poem, Tom wrote:

“I was sitting outside my cottage one dark-bright summer night, a cottage that’s on a very quiet lake next to the huge provincial park Papineau-Labelle in Quebec. I was listening to Sibelius, probably Tapiola as I recall, and I remembered how similar to the Canadian landscape the landscape of Finland looks, at least in photographs…”

And that’s how it often begins for us Sibelians. We find ourselves in the midst of nature, almost always quiet nature. And then we hear – sometimes imagine – his music. Sibelius himself often composed in silence. But for us, “nature music” isn’t always the romanticized, sentimental lyric tune written to admire her beauty. For us, Sibelius casts a spell as binding as it is often fearsome – “the mystery of nature in the dark woods”, as Tom puts it, where wood sprites weave magic secrets.

… and I thought how beautiful and peaceful that night was, but also, in a way “terrifying”–as wild, sublime nature sometimes is.  So I began to fuse my experience of nature in Sibelius’ wonderful sound-landscapes with my immediate experience of the sublime natural setting all around me.

Sibelius in 1945
Jean Sibelius (1945). Photo by Yousuf Karsh

Tom mentions Yousuf Karsh, the celebrated photographer responsible for a handful of the noblest photographs of Jean Sibelius, among other famous portraits. He refers especially to the one showing Sibelius in deep meditation (pictured above). “I imagine him contemplating “creation” –the natural world–and his own shackled powers” – Sibelius locked away his magic for the last three decades of his life, Prospero-like.

At the end, endless silence. Readers from either today or at the Inkpot will know how often I say Sibelius’ music often ends in a “vast silence” you dare not disturb; and that in the inexorable flow of his music, time often feels timeless. Time indeed “flows unhurried to its own desolation.”

 I try to evoke the indifference of time that rolls everything into oblivion but dissipates itself in so doing, and at that point I bring in Sibelius’ beloved swans, in some lost dimension, poised for a kind of rebirth, signaling the perennial unfolding of nature and its mysterious qualities (and of course the power of Sibelius’ music to announce such transformations and celebrate them.)

Tom calls his final stanza, “enigmatic” – but Tom, I want you to know that for me, it rang – it glowed – with clarity. In it, I hear the endless silence of the Seventh Symphony’s post-conclusion. I see the composer letting go of his final spell, not yet fully cast, and receding back into his mysterious wellspring of creation. His book of creation purposefully destroyed, yet his music –  the ancestral DNA of the Eighth Symphony, still alive, soaring in the clouds and waves of its predecessors, flowing unhurried as time. Desolation, “logical collapse”, the final breaths of Tapiola, the Fourth Symphony.  The final image, the great swans of his Fifth Symphony, gathering on the lost lake, invokes the nostalgia and heartache Sibelius spoke of in the birth of this symphony.  They settle gently in the still waters, knowingly, paying silent homage.



dark forests

Wide-spread they stand, the Northland’s dusky forests,
Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams;
Within them dwells the Forest’s mighty god,
And wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.

– Preface to published score

On the occasion of Earth Day, April 22, 1999.

A bassoonist friend of mine had the fortune to play Tapiola once. It was a run-through conducted for fun, not meant for the orchestra to perform. When I asked him how it was like, he opened his eyes wide and said it was awesome and terrifying; that the sensation of sitting in the orchestra as it weaves its way through the tone painting of the forests made one feel very small. During rests, no one dared to move or make a sound. Continue reading Tapiola

The Lahti Sibelius Cycle – Symphonies 6 & 7 and Tapiola (BIS)

Symphony No.6 in D minor, op.104
Symphony No.7 in C, op.105
Tapiola, op.112

Lahti Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Osmo Vänskä

BIS Records BIS-CD-864 (Details)
[68:16] full-price

An original Inkpot review by the Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase

* * * * *

At last, the final installment of the Lahti SO and Osmo Vänskä’s 1996-1997 BIS Sibelius Symphonies cycle. Appropriately, it ends with the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies and the Symphonic Poem Tapiola – in many ways Sibelius’ “last symphony”.

Here we have a bright and winsomely beautiful performance of the Sixth Symphony (1923), as in the first movement, full of fairy lightness and glittering sunlight. Indeed, the Lahti players bring much light to a D minor symphony, something which I found very heartwarming. The second movement opens nostalgically, with distinctively flavoured orchestral colours despite the economy of the score. As usual, the Lahti/BIS team is wondrous at revealing every intricate detail in the score, especially with the shimmering strings and fluttering birdsong – like some magical trip into a half-lit forest. (There is a story of Sibelius and his habit of turning on the radio to full volume when his music was being played, so that he could hear every single note.)

The third movement poco vivace includes a quaint passage which I call a “march of the fairies” which is joyfully yet nobly delivered here. Throughout this performance there is beautifully luminous stringwork, including the harp. This is one of very few recordings I know of where the harp sits comfortably in the orchestra, playing as an orchestral harp sprinkling a field of sparkling stars over all, without screaming out for attention.

The Allegro molto finale is satisfyingly unified – all the different threads and moods are beautifully weaved together. The final moments are both heartwarming and heartbreaking to the core, with its gentle, serene yet infinitely sad ending, half yearning, half hymning. It is ephemerally fleeting and all the more sad, full of some fading distant sorrow, and yet smiling with contented resignation.

This performance broke and healed my soul – it is the most endearing Sixth I have ever heard. The CD is worth its price for this alone.

Sibelius in 1920

As for the Seventh Symphony (1924), I found the reading here rather cool, similar to the straight-faced account by Blomstedt on Decca. With the Lahti strings singing in a soft, glowing tone, there is a slow and noble buildup to the first appearance of the great trombone theme. The orchestral soundscape is deep and sweeping, like a great field of clouds surrounding the Alpine trombone peak. Like the harp in the Sixth, the trombone soloist stays within the orchestral picture without sticking out.

The central sections of the Symphony are performed relaxed – it is almost graceful. The second climax in C minor is similarly expansive and dark, but not really intense in the manner of Karajan. The buildup to the last appearance is the most magnificent, with a long drawn-out prelude. The 2nd and 3rd trombones weave into the principal’s solo with a powerful and grand choral effect. The ensuing section of bass rumblings is surprising quiet. The high strings soar impressively into the heights before introducing the horns; then a natural link to the quiescent flute solo that preceeds the final Largamente. And here, the Lahti’ans bring the Symphony to its grand conclusion with all due grandeur. The final bars are concisely uttered, neither drawn out nor clipped. Generally, I prefer it drawn out, but I guess this one makes its point.

A noble performance – not an emotional one, but certainly musically moulded, with the score cleanly held together with intelligent – not sterile – hands. Above all, the Lahti orchestra’s colours are breathtaking. To be honest, I found this performance very difficult to describe. As you all know, I’m totally biased towards the Lahti “Dream” Team and the Seventh is my favourite symphony – yet, I found this rendition hard to praise and also hard to fault. It is not a reading that really moves me, but neither can I seriously call it inadequate – the decision depends on your needs then.

 * * * * *

The great tone poem Tapiola (1925-6) is Sibelius’ last major symphonic work, depicting the forest essence of the Finnish God of the Forests, Tapio. Within five years of its premiere, it was already being called “the culminating point of [Sibelius’] entire creative activity, and a consummate masterpiece… Even if Sibelius had written nothing else this one work would be sufficient to entitle him to a place among the greatest masters of all time” (Cecil Gray).

There is an understatedly terrifying quality to the music – not in the stereotypical relentless, noisy, “avant garde” style, but in a deliberately quiet, brooding way, as of the Forest’s eyes watching your every move as you tread between the trunks, the winding roots of his children. Vänskä has a way with the quick phrases – very sudden and frightening flashes of terror. Yet he never dwells on these excessively, rearing the vision of Tapio only long enough for you to catch a good look – and shiver. His masterly moulding of tempi is very effective, every shift like the undulating breaths and unseen movements of the Forest God. In contrast to the (very sudden!) loud utterances of terror is the gloomy chill of the slowly breathing, mist-enshrouded sections.

Scandinavian orchestras are experts at creating the chilly, glowing, steely tone that fits the stark yet varied textures of this tone poem. (A notable exception is the Berlin Philharmonic in Karajan’s legendary and spine-tingling 1984 recording on DG 413-755 or 445-518.) It is like looking at the simple silhouette of a tree (canopy and trunk) – as shafts of light stream through the canopy, you realize the immense intricacy of the branches, the leaves, the grooves and cracks of the bark or even the invisible root system embedded in the ground.

At 14’16”, the orchestra suddenly disappears – the CD goes silent. I know many listeners will think either the disc has ended or “There goes BIS again, with their ridiculously extreme volume range.” This part of the score (between letters P and Q) is marked “dim(inuendo) possibile” and pp. I am now convinced that the inclusion of silence is deliberate. As in the conclusion of the Fifth Symphony, there is meaning in silence (but I’m not referring to any postmodernist idiocy regarding 4’33”). Those of you who might have walked into the middle of a forest alone will understand.

You suddenly stop and stand among all these ancient trees. Listen. Don’t make a single sound, just listen. The silence is at first deafening, but then you realize it isn’t that quiet. Listen carefully, and you may hear a distant bird calling out, or a rustle of leaves.

Listen on and you will hear the trickle of water somewhere, or the sound of a leaf falling, forest sprites weaving their magic secrets. Listen, and you will hear the sap of tree-blood coursing through the ancient wood. Now you can even hear the orchestra. You can hear the wooden limbs of trees moving ever so slowly, stretching with primeval strength toward the light.

Finally, you will hear Tapio himself breathe, his heart pulsating in the Earth beneath your feet. The living wood of the string instruments begin to sing of their true homeland, as they hymn the misty final chords in the serene glow of B major… Then you know… for you are in… Tapiola.

Also reviewed: Symphonies 1 & 4 | Symphonies 2 & 3 (BIS Lahti Cycle)