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October Books 17) Jean Sibelius

17) Jean Sibelius, by Guy Rickards

I was in the Hague for work yesterday, but happened to pick up this biography of my favourite composer during my lunch break (at Van Stockum, for those who know it); a handsomely illustrated Phaidon Press publication, a real bargain at €9.95.

Sibelius was a particularly long-lived composer (born 1865, died 1957) but the productive part of his career was really only from 1891 to 1926 - mind you, 34 years of production is still pretty good.

He was a real bastard to his wife and daughters, basically drinking and smoking away every mark he ever got, surviving on handouts from the Finnish state and from wealthy patrons, which he had often spent even before the cash arrived. Even a period of medically enforced abstinence from alcohol and nicotine from 1907 to 1915 didn't improve his general spending habits. And yet... his most lasting works are those from the first half of his career - the Kullervo symphony, the First and Second Symphonies, the Swan of Tuonela and of course Finlandia - written when he seems to have been permanently drunk. (Symphonies Three and Four are the product of sobriety, but he was drinking again by the time he wrote the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh.) Then he spent thirty years agonising over the Eighth Symphony, which Rickards suspects he had actually completed in 1933 but then burned in 1945, while pretending almost to his dying day that he was still working on it (a bit reminiscent of a certain never-published sf anthology).

Sibelius was two when his father died; he grew up in an atmosphere of unstable poverty; and his sister ended up in residential care for (unspecified) mental illness. There's obviously an untold psychiatric story here, and Rickards is rather disappointingly superficial about this - he mutters about ADD and SAD, but I think I want more substance than that - Sibelius clearly had an addiction problem, and also tended to a self-destructive perfectionism in the way he treated his own work (the lost Eighth Symphony being merely the best known case).

Rickards is particularly good on tracing Sibelius' intellectual and patronage links with other composers, especially in his early studies in Berlin and Vienna (though there are later links with Bax and Vaughan Williams as well). And the illustrations are great, tracking the composer's transformation from young seducer with floppy hair and trailing moustache to national monument with totally shaven head.

One of my fascinations with Sibelius is how he got folded into the politics of the time, to the point where he became a national icon. He was always a Finnish nationalist, but a Swedish speaker, yet devoted to the Kalevala legends. The period of his career exactly coincides with Finland's national awakening and evolution to an independent state, and his music was a vital part of that national awakening - it is, after all, so very evocative of the Finnish landscape, which Swedish speakers and Finnish speakers, Red and White, had in common. That is all right until independence and civil war transform the situation; Rickards hints that the political uncertainties of the inter-war period may be part of the explanation for his three decades of silence.

Sibelius seems to have coped well with becoming a fixture on the tourism agenda of distinguished visitors in his final years. No doubt he had a few drinks with them as well. I'll look out for more books about this fascinating and aggravating character.

Comments

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
bellinghman
Oct. 22nd, 2008 10:32 pm (UTC)
Sibelius seems to have coped well with becoming a fixture on the tourism agenda

As I'm sure you're aware, the Sibelius memorial in Helsinki is an astonishing piece of public sculpture. Metal pipes invoking weeping silver birches.
flexor
Oct. 23rd, 2008 06:54 am (UTC)
I like Sibelius. The first piece I heard of him was (of course) Finlandia, but my favourite is "Valse Triste". Someone used it as a background for one of the "Feline Fantasies", a Disney Fantasia-style thing.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0gIy4jkL4c

I dare you to deny having a lump in your throat after that one.
qatsi
Oct. 23rd, 2008 08:56 pm (UTC)
Another fan here - the relatively early tone poem En Saga is my particular favourite.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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