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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Growing Up With Sibelius

My father was the son of Finnish immigrants. So I grew up with the music of Jean Sibelius. Finlandia, the Valse Triste, the Second Symphony were in regular rotation in our apartment, an old-style high-ceilinged Finnish co-op in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. Today, I live in another apartment in the same building.
100 Finnish Marks, with Jean Sibelius on the bill.
These bills are no longer in circulation, since Finland uses the Euro.
It's hard to explain what Finlandia means to me--and still does. I've never been to Finland, much less Karelia where my family comes from. But this is ten minutes of music that "feels" like my national identity: the stern opening, the sturdy march, the tender, haunting center section, and the wild frenzy of brass and percussion that brings the whole thing home.

Finlandia played an important role in my birth. The "B" melody was the alma mater of the Brooklyn high school where my parents taught, met and married. And when I went with my buddies to see the Bruce Willis action flick Die Hard 2, the presence of the work on the movie soundtrack (orchestrated and arranged by Michael Kamen) had me ignoring the crashed airplanes, machine-gun battles and wisecracks of the film. (The director, Renny Harlin, is another Finn.)

Sibelius is the most famous composer to come from Finland. His music was heavily influenced by the folklore of that country, the epic poem Kalevala, and the snow-swept pine forests and frozen lakes of this northeast corner of Europe. Most importantly, his works, (particularly the tone poem Finlandia, became the soundtrack of Finnish national identity and independence from Russian rule, achieved in 1917.

As I grew up and found myself working in the music industry, I came to learn and love not just those childhood tone poems, but the major works of this great composer. His output is centered around eight symphonies: the "song symphony" Kullervo and seven numbered examples of the genre. Each of the seven is an exercise in brevity, from the patriotic early symponies, to the tight-lipped Fourth, to his Seventh, which packs an entire four-movement sonata form into about 17 minutes with each movement flowing into one another like fast-running water.
Sibelius in later life.

I started today with the juxtaposition of the Fourth and Fifth, two very different works. For the record, I was listening to the Paavo Berglund recordings on EMI with the Helsinki Symphony Orchestra, though I also own good cycles from Sir Colin Davis (with the Boston Symphony Orchestra--currently out of print) and the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Vladmir Ashkenazy. The Fourth (as I mentioned above) is a dark, cynical exercise in tragedy, where themes are expressed, developed, and then curtly cut off in mid-expression, like a blooming flower snipped at the stem.

The Fifth is a much warmer piece, rich and expansive. The final movement, where a stately, down-shifting theme on the horns plays as accompaniment to an elegaic outburst in the strings, stands as the most beautiful, most noble thing ever written by this composer--and that includes the second theme in Finlandia.

A statue in honor of Sibelius, part of the
Sibelius Monument in Helsinki.
Sibelius stopped composing in 1926, (my Dad was three years old) following the premiere of his tone poem Tapiola and incidental music for Shakespeare's The Tempest. He lived for another three decades. His music, championed by conductors like Eugene Ormandy and Serge Koussevitzky, remained a popular staple of concert repertory in the United States, even though his work was savaged by German and British critics. Then again, Sibelius once said:

"Pay no attention to what the critics say. Remember, there has never been a statue raised in the honor of a critic."

Alex Ross' excellent book The Rest Is Noise has a terrific chapter on Sibelius. Mr. Ross mentions that the composer was working on an expansive Eighth Symphony, which he planned as a choral work along the same lines as Beethoven's Ninth or Mahler's Resurrection. The composer decided one morning to burn the score, along with a number of other musical manuscripts. His decision was our irreplaceable loss.

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