Thursday, December 3, 2009

Free Jean Sibelius!

(Wilhelm Furtwangler conducts Sibelius's En Saga in 1943 Berlin) let me get this straight. This whole thing about Sibelius being a Nazi is still not dead no matter how many times people bury it. The music of Sibelius, a reclusive composer who neither published a single work or even left his estate in Northern Finland more than a few times after 1927 (he lived for another thirty years), should be tainted with a Wagner-like question mark because of associations with the Nazi party starting in 1935.

(The Swan of Tuonela)

The evidence given that Sibelius was a Nazi? He accepted the Goethe prize from the German government in 1935 and he allowed Goebbels to found a Sibelius society. He collected a large pension from the Nazi government and refused to help a Jewish musician friend of his for fear that an intercession would compromise his pension.

In the 1920's and 30's, Sibelius was the most popular composer in the world, living or dead. But the association with the Nazis constituted a blow to his reputation from which he never recovered. The deathblow for highbrow acceptance of Sibelius's music came from the pen of (who else?) German Marxist philosopher Theodore Adorno, a half-Jewish unashamedly Teutonic bully who derided everything from Stravinsky to jazz to his most ardent followers. But he reserved a very exceptional degree of invective for Sibelius, whom he called "the worst composer in the world." Adorno wrote of Sibeilus's fans that "Sibelius's supporters scream in chorus: 'nature is all, nature is all'. Great Pan, and where necessary blood and earth, step up into the picture." The Nazi-like taint is clear even then, but the hypocrisy of the charge was not. Years later Adorno's letters would show him to have initially welcomed the Nazi regime with open arms until he realized that as a half-Jew he too would be consigned to the death camps.

(Pojhola's Daughter.)

There's little doubt that Sibelius's behavior was far from heroic. But in his private diary Sibelius acknowledged his own cowardice and noted the Nazi regime with unequivocal revulsion. He never refused prizes and especially not the money that came with it, but neither did he accept positions in the Nazi culture cabinet after the manner of Richard Strauss or Wilhelm Furtwangler. Both Strauss's and Furtwangler's papers display a private support of many of the Third Reich's more abhorrent policies. But unlike Sibelius, both of them went to enormous lengths to save Jewish friends at considerable personal risk to themselves. Is one act worse than the other? Who cares. Most people in life are not heroes, particularly most famous people. Sibelius was not a particularly heroic human being, but he did not believe in the Nazi cause regardless of how much the Nazis believed in Sibelius. His tone poems about Norse mythology could have made him the most beloved composer of the Nazi regime short of Wagner. For a quick Deutsche Mark could have easily churned out 2nd-rate awful propaganda pieces after the manner of Shostakovich and made extra untold millions from the Nazis. But instead, he kept his pen silent through the entirety of the war years. In his way, I think his behavior was more admirable than those who openly collaborated.

(Tapiola. Sibelius's final and perhaps greatest work. A description in sound of Tapio the famously bleak Finnish forest.)

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