The Rest is Noise (4) – Debussy and Sibelius

So tonight we resumed our tour of 20th century music. The theme is still The Rise of Nationalism. Tonight this theme continued with a performance of Spanish and Finnish music—or, more precisely, music about Spain, and Finnish music. First up was Iberia, by Claude Debussy, followed by Sibelius’s Violin Concerto and Symphony Number 4, once again presented by the stalwart London Philharmonic under the lively direction of conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste, with violinist Henning Kraggerud on the concerto. I was not familiar with the Debussy work, which, like is a boisterous romp through a variety of Spanish folk tunes and his own impressions of the nature of Spain. It’s a short piece (from a series called Images), and the title pretty much sums it up. But quite lovely throughout, and a treat for Debussy fans.

This was followed by the violin concerto, which is one of Sibelius’s most popular works, a bit surprising given how gloomy the thing is. Interestingly, the Vienna Philharmonic figures in both of the Sibelius pieces in the program. Sibelius wanted to be a concert violinist—had dreams of this, in fact. But he failed his audition with the Vienna Philharmonic, and he eventually responded with this piece. I’ve never been one of its greatest fans, it has to be said, but it was well performed.

The Sibelius Fourth Symphony is an old favorite. It’s a dark symphony, presumably because he composed it shortly after an operation for throat cancer and was having a number of personal crises, including being in debt again. It’s also quite short—a bit over half an hour—but even more striking for all that. I don’t really find it desolate or dark—but I do find it riven with tumult. Interestingly, he was composing it at the same time he was also working on some music inspired by Edgar Allen Poe. That work was never finished, but it seems as if some of it found its way here. Also here is some obvious and quite lively counterpoint. It’s an inspired work, densely packed with ideas and lovely moments.

This is when I start thinking that maybe Schoenberg had it wrong. Schoenberg moved to atonal music because, among other things, he no longer believed that tonal music could capture the sort of pure expressionism he was after. But I think the Sibelius symphonies did this. This symphony, much like the 6th and 7th, involves a number of short abrupt phrases moving from one emotional stage to another—and Sibelius did it all within a tonal framework. Sibelius was often criticized at various points in the 20th century for not being modern enough—not moving to atonality, for one thing. But he didn’t need to. And there are more recent, and definitely “modern,” composers who get this–Morton Feldman, hardly a reactionary, for one. On the other hand, Adorno thought that Sibelius was a horrible composer. No accounting for taste sometimes.

Sibelius is interesting in a number of respects, one of which is the fact that, for decades, he has been considerably more popular in Britain and the US than on the continent. Just why this is isn’t exactly clear to me—perhaps it’s the Mahlerian fixation that characterizes much of European concert programming. But Mahler is popular in Britain as well. And Debussy is popular on the continent as well. I’m certain that critics with a better understanding of the tropes of European musical taste have proffered some sort of explanation, but I can’t be bothered at the moment to track it down. Sibelius has long been my favorite orchestral composer of the 20th century, but, after all, I don’t know very much about the 20th century, so I could be wrong. It’s an idiosyncratic view, and that’s fine. Given a choice between Sibelius and Mahler, I’m with the Finnish guy. In fact, given a choice between the Sibelius 6th Symphony and pretty much anything else composed after the 17th century, I’m still with the Finnish guy.

And the Vienna Philharmonic? Well, when they first tried to perform the 4th Symphony in 1912, the year after it was composed, they wouldn’t do it. They couldn’t get past the first movement. Whether Sibelius appreciated the irony of this is unclear. The first real performance by the Vienna Philharmonic didn’t take place until 1970, even though Loren Maazel recorded the entire Sibelius symphonic cycle with the same orchestral in the 1960s. (I have this version, and it’s the one I recommend. Do not go with the Leonard Bernstein/New York Philharmonic versions. Bernstein takes them all at a romp, trying to turn them into Mahler, which is a mistake.)

It’s easy to see how Sibelius fits into this month’s theme of The Rise of Nationalism. Finland was a young state at the turn of the century, and was fighting for, among other things, a degree of national identification (much like the Czechs and Poles). Sibelius, probably more than anyone else at the time, gave them that. And left us with some of the most striking music for orchestra ever composed. Leon Botstein provides an appreciation here, and Alex Ross has this to say, which includes a discussion of the fourth and other symphonies.

So we have another events weekend as well, with all sort of interesting talks lined up for the next two days. All of these revolve around the increased interest in, and use of, folk music by classical composers. Of course, this wasn’t particularly new—one thinks of Dvorak and Smetana in the 19th century, and Copland stealing shaker songs shamelessly. One can even go back to the 15th and 16th centuries and the use of The Armed Man, a popular song of the mid-15th century, by any number of renaissance polyphonic composers (who collectively composed about 35 Armed Man Masses, all involving variations on what was essentially a folk song.)

What distinguished the use of folk tunes in the 20th century was that it accompanied a rise in nationalism unseen in previous centuries. So the music of the weekend will celebrate some of that—Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen on Saturday, a celebration of Moravian folk music in the guise of an opera, and a folk show on Sunday night with Show of Hands and Port Isaac’s Fishermen’s Friends, who are what you would expect, a bunch of fishermen who sing really well. Show of Hands play everything, so that will be a treat as well. So Sunday night is all English folk music all night, and I’m happy as a clam.

And during the days? Ah, well, I’m already bushed. There’s a repeat of the wonderful Noise Bites sessions, little fifteen minute discussions of, well, anything relevant—which is quite a lot. So we’re getting talks on why composers embraced folk music during this period, Virginia Woolf, the idea of England, the impact of the Great War on poetry, William Morris, the invention of the recording cylinder, eugenics, and lord knows what else. Plus the Halle Chamber Orchestra is coming down from Manchester to regale us with Vaughan Williams, Ravel and more Janacek on Saturday evening. Once again, the days are just packed.

The above stamp containing a portrait of Jean Sibelius with a painting evocative of his favorite subject, nature, was issued in 2004 by Finnish Post. Both paintings are by the Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela, who is virtually unknown outside of Finland, but is well-represented in the Atheneum, Helsinki’s main art gallery. He is best known for his illustrations for the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic poem, and was heavily involved in Helsinki’s surprisingly lively Arts & Crafts movement.

2 replies »

  1. I’m envious that you write so authoritatively about music. I’m a Sibelius fan. Have been for a long time. Thanks for what you taught me in this post.