Tuesday, September 20, 2011

800 Words: The Outer Darkness of Sibelius

(I'm sitting in the twilight in my castle (0:01). A stranger comes in (0:30). I ask him more than once who he is (0:37). Finally, He strikes up a song (0:50). Don Juan sees who it is, it is Death (2:05). Christus (4:11))

Sibelius never finished his Tone Poem about Don Juan, not even the program. Perhaps he found the subject matter too unbearable. This is something I can only surmise, since much of the material he wrote for it apparently made its way into the almost unbearably moving second movement of his Second Symphony. The fragment of program Sibelius wrote for the work fits so uncannily well into the music (both the program and the music displayed above this paragraph). One could easily construct a whole program around this music, complete with a dialogue about death and resurrection, sin and redemption, and memories of love lost and found.

In Sibelius's version, there is no statue to drag Don Juan into Hell. There may not even be a Hell. There is only death, and the inner demons of a man who has done everything he could to live to life's fullest extent, only to find himself meeting his end alone. This is a human, all too human Don Juan.

Without exception, every Don Juan seems as much a reflection of its creator as of the myth itself. As a man given to enormous excesses of women and drink - but also prone to the greatest extremes of depression, Sibelius understood the human meaning of Don Juan perhaps more than any other great creator. His Don Juan is free of illusions about consequence. The only satisfaction Sibelius derived from the excesses of his behavior were in the immediate short-term. After the party was over, Sibelius would return to his family only to find his long-suffering wife Aino and his children humiliated and frightened by his excesses. And thus would that cycle continue until his death.

(The Swan of Tuonela)

Purely as a parlor game, let’s ask how many other great musicians go all the way into the black places. Not just into the dark side, but into the kind of unremitting dark from which there is no redemption. It can’t simply be artists for whom suffering is part of their appreciation of life’s beauty or that there is redemption or enjoyment to be found in suffering. It has to be the musicians for whom there is no purpose to suffering but suffering’s own sake. To make this list, their greatest work cannot give us the sense that life is worth all the ugliness. The list is not nearly as long as you think it is.

Among composers, the list is small and very 19th-century heavy - but not necessarily the artists you expect. Beethoven was far too life affirming to stay in a dark place for too long. Mahler would immediately follow the blackest darkness with some crude joke or a manic turn to the high. And Schumann was simply unable to compose when he got too depressed. But any list of great composers who were content to stay unremittingly on the dark side would have to include Schubert, Gesualdo, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Shostakovich, Bartok, and...are there any others? I suppose it’s arguable that the entire movement of atonality is one long howl but they’d probably argue differently, so we’ll just assume that it’s cheating to put Schoenberg and company on the list. Among non-classical composers, it’s also not the ones you’d probably expect. Bob Dylan was far too much of a mystic to believe that there isn’t some kind of transcendence in emotional pain. Tom Waits was always too in love with the macabre to take his bleakness seriously. Nirvana’s songs were far too enamored with the idea that somebody else might be happier somewhere for Cobain to focus on his own unhappiness. Other early checkout artists like Hendrix and particularly The Doors were far focused on the glamor of destruction to understand what destruction meant. Both Heavy Metal and punk derive far too much enjoyment from emotional trauma to actually be about emotional trauma. But any list of pop music’s emotional wrecks would have to include some bluesmen like Robert Johnson, Skip James, John Lee Hoooker, Blind Willie Johnson. Perhaps it would also hold a smattering of 60s-70s rockers like Leonard Cohen and Johnny Cash, and and a surprising number of contemporary musicians: Bjork, Radiohead, Nick Cave and no doubt some others I’m forgetting. Is it probable that there is something about a generation of self-absorbed upper-middle-class narcissistic nihlists (present company included) that lends itself well to emotional darkness?

(Sibelius's exceptionally bleak 1st symphony)

But allow me to suggest that the patron saint of music’s dark side is Sibelius. Sibelius is hardly a composer of uniformly dark music. But in his darkest moments, there has never been a composer who saw a more crippling spiritual neither-region, and no composer who flinched less from confronting it. When we talk about what catharsis means, there is no better exemplifier of it than Sibelius’s music. The sheer bleakness of his vision is overwhelming, and from it there is no relief. We emerge from the experience purged and invigorated because nothing in our own lives can compare to the utter pitch of what we’ve just heard.

Is it all a bit much perhaps? Well, yes, at least sometimes. In Sibelius’s gloomiest pieces, there is nothing to stand in relief. When critics talk about the ‘Nordic Blues’ which you find in Ibsen and Bergman and Edvard Munch, it’s as much Sibelius to whom people apply that term. No one can stand to look into the abyss for that long without the abyss pulling him in.

(The Violin Concerto)

Sibelius’s career was like a gradual process of purging until all that remained were the most distilled elements of his music-making. For all the grandiloquence, there is no excess to his middle-period music - hardly a single note that cannot be justified. In his earlier work, he was very much of the ‘more is more’ school. He was a dyed-in-the-wool romantic, influenced by the musical he heard in 1890’s Vienna where he studied. All the way to the end of his career, you can find traces of Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Brahms and Liszt ad nauseum. But as his career progresses, he undergoes one of the strangest metamorphoses in music.

The young Sibelius became a symbol for Finland. This depressed alcoholic womanizer was universally hailed as the greatest artist Finland ever produced by the time he was thirty. By the time he was forty, his music was the soundtrack to a revolution in his homeland. By the time he was fifty, the revolution had succeeded and Sibelius was its cultural ambassador. For his part, Sibelius was rewarded with what nearly every artist dreams: the Finnish government granted him an enormous annual pension, and he got himself an enormous house and bigger estate in the country with a lakefront view - a place where he could work in peace. This estate, which Sibelius named Ainola after his wife Aino, was to be his home from 1904 until his death in 1957 at the age of 92.

(Has there ever been a darker opening than Sibelius 4?)

But if the Young Sibelius’s music resounds with the darkness of an extroverted, angry young man, his music turned into something far darker as he aged. Middle-period Sibelius was no longer a man about town. He was a member of the landed gentry - living on his estate with only his family and nature itself for company. Sibelius’s music was always grounded in nature, but never with the graphic detail of his middle period works. In every bar of middle-period Sibelius, we either seem to get the rustle of the wind, or the howls of thunder, or the calls of birds, or the business of insects or the utter stillness of the calm before the storm. Nature was his most reliable friend, and as he aged, his music seems more and more divorced from human emotion. By the time he turned sixty, all that is left in his music is the awe and terror of the natural world.

Every classical music lover knows the story of Mahler’s visit with Sibelius. When Mahler went on a conducting tour of Finland in 1907, he paid Sibelius a call. The two great symphonists of their generation went for a walk and discussed the meaning of the Symphony. In Sibelius’s words, what transpired was this:

“I said that I admired [the symphony's] severity of style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motifs... Mahler's opinion was just the reverse. 'No, a symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.”

What transpired was a debate about the meaning of music that began long before Mahler and Sibelius and continues long after their passing. Is music an inclusive activity or an exclusive one? Is form more important than content? Is greatness possible when errors like those in Mahler’s music (and many others) are so clear? Which of these attitudes ultimately does music a better service?

If either side really needs advocacy, both have it. But if one truly has to choose, let’s bare in mind one simple fact - Sibelius did not publish a single note of music for the last thirty years of his life. He ended his compositional career with three grand gestures.

(The Tempest. Perhaps Sibelius’s grand finale just as it was Shakespeare’s.)

The first was The Tempest. It wasn’t even an opera or a tone poem, it was music to accompany a stage play. But what music. For Shakespeare’s most outdoor play, Sibelius boiled down all those effects of nature to their pure essence. ‘Incidental music’ for old plays was a grand tradition for 19th century composers, and just as Mendelssohn inaugurated it with music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream - a light play about the folly of youth. Sibelius closed that chapter in music history with The Tempest, a heavy play about old age.

(The 7th Symphony)

In the middle of his final triptych stands The Seventh Symphony. In every one of Sibelius’s symphonies, he pulls out more elements of the symphony’s padding. In the 7th, he takes out the final element - the padding between the movements. The symphony is one movement that is not quite a half-hour long. Instead, we have the typical four movement scheme - a heavy opening movement, followed by a scherzo (literally ‘a joke’, meaning light relief), a slow movement and a grand finale. All growing with organic unity out of one another and without a pause. How can a grand symphony get any more condensed than this?


And finally, he gives us the twenty-minute tone poem Tapiola. This music is Sibelius’s depiction of Tapio, the Nordic Forest spirit. Merely by listening to it, we peer unflinchingly into music’s deepest abyss. All the sounds of nature are to be heard in this music. But no human expression is to be found in its pages. This is entirely the music of an otherworldly expression, neither human nor divine. I forget where I heard this quote, but someone once said that Tapiola is not about the experience of being in the forest, it is about the experience of being the forest itself. Sibelius has achieved such a zen-like stasis in this music that there no longer seems to be a need for human expression. There is only a feeling of a very bleak sort of transcendence. Nature was there long before us, and will continue on long after we are gone.


After Tapiola, there is no way to condense music further into its essential elements. Once you’ve wrestled the ultimate demon, there are no demons left. For fifteen years after Tapiola, Sibelius struggled to write new music. Yet the music never came to him. Always having been a depressive, Sibelius’s mood was never darker than in the early 1940’s. The world had waited so long for a new work that they’d moved on. The music world which once worshipped him now worshipped musical modernists like Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Sibelius refused to use his influence to help Jewish friends, and was (wrongly) thought of by many as a Nazi collaborator.

(Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. A very different kind of condensation.)

For ten years, Sibelius had worked on an eighth symphony, but he let the world know that no one would ever see it if he did not judge better than his seventh. After more than ten years of working on an eighth symphony, he gave up on composition in spectacular fashion. His wife Aino would later recall:

"In the 1940s there was a great auto-da-fé at Ainola. My husband collected a number of the manuscripts in a laundry basket and burned them on the open fire in the dining room. Parts of the Karelia Suite were destroyed – I later saw remains of the pages which had been torn out – and many other things. I did not have the strength to be present and left the room. I therefore do not know what he threw on to the fire. But after this my husband became calmer and gradually lighter in mood."

Whereas Mahler had gone to his all-too-early grave continuing his never-ending search to assimilate new music and new facets to human nature, Sibelius had distilled music down to such an essence that no music remained for Sibelius to write in his old age. For all the longeurs and errors in his music, Mahler is easily the greater composer. Late-period Sibelius is nothing but silence.

(The finale of Mahler’s Symphony no. 10 - the last thing he ever wrote. Based on his experience of watching the funeral of an American fireman in New York)

In the 1920’s and 30’s, Sibelius was considered the world’s greatest living composer. For composers, particularly in England, who still looked to 19th century models for inspiration like William Walton and Ralph Vaughan Williams, Sibelius was the great musical voice of the age. But when atonality spread its wings, Sibelius was considered a relic of a decadent era which had lost its musical standards. Twelve-tone music’s Parisian guru, Rene Leibowitz, referred to Sibelius as “the worst composer in the world.” Atonal music’s philosopher in chief, Theador Adorno, pronounced “If Sibelius is good, this invalidates the standards of musical quality that have persisted from Bach to Schoenberg: the richness of interconnectedness, articulation, unity in diversity, the ‘multi-faceted’ in ‘the one.’ It was a statement that was dumb even by Adorno’s lofty standard - no composer since Bach had ever written more richly interconnected, unified music than Sibelius.

(William Walton’s First Symphony, which might as well be Sibelius’s 8th)

The music of Sibelius became so distended that it could only trail off into silence. Having been boxed into an isolation which only great success could provide, he was cut off from the wellspring of new ideas and was forced to create his own language. He was so successful in that regard that some musicians say he sounds like Mahler, some say that he sounds like Debussy. Some are beginning to wonder if Mahler and Debussy sound like Sibelius.

Whereas most 20th century composers thought of Sibelius as a weird 19th-century anachronism, the 21st century seems to have embraced him to a point that he might again be the most celebrated composer of his generation. His music is still played constantly around the world, and composers from Thomas Ades to John Adams to Nico Muhly hail him as a spiritual godfather. Has any composer, Mahler included, undergone such a roller-coaster of public esteem?

(Einojuhani Rautavaara. Still composing in his mid-80’s. The closest thing to a successor Sibelius ever annointed)

Perhaps the explanation for how this happened is easier than it seems. In our day, when music education is the first program to be cut from schools around the world and classical music has barely a sliver of presence on the world music scene, it is Finland which churns out the army of great classical musicians that should come from America - great composers, conductors, singers and instrumentalists seem to emerge by the dozen every decade.

(L’Amour de loin by Kaija Saariaho. The most critically lauded opera of the past decade.)

Whereas most other countries have dozens of great cultural figures who appear as giants in cultural history, Finland has only a few ancient epics and one great composer. Classical music is the only place where Finland has made a world-defining cultural mark. Sibelius’s music is the glory of Finnish culture and the ambassador for the country. Were Finland to disappear tomorrow, the world would still remember the unprecedented spiritual darkness of Sibelius.

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