Jean Sibelius: a man of all the seasons

If ever there were a composer of landscape, it was Sibelius, whose symphonies conjure up a realm of icy winds and scurrying clouds, morning mist and rustling leaves – with the occasional magnificent burst of sunshine.

Sibelius(1)“Wide-spread they stand, the Northland’s dusky forests,
Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams;
Within them dwells the Forest’s mighty God,
And wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.”

Sibelius approved these words for the score of Tapiola, one of his longest symphonic poems. Written to a commission by Walter Damrosch (1862-1950), long-time conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra, it was first performed on 26 December 1926.

Sibelius made sketches for the work before setting off for Italy where he visited Rome and Capri. But the Italian landscape was lost on a mind haunted by Tapio, the Finnish god of the forest who appears in the Kalevala – the 19th-century work of epic poetry compiled by Elias Lönnrot from Karelian and Finnish oral folklore. Tapio is lord of all the creatures of the forest and Tapiola is his domain.

Walter Damrosch, writing to the composer at New Year 1927, said:

“I consider Tapiola to be one of the most original and fascinating works from your pen. The variety of expression that you give to the one theme in the various episodes, the closely-knit musical structure, the highly original orchestration, and, above all, the poetic imagery of the entire work, are truly marvellous. No one but a Norseman could have written this work. We were all enthralled by the dark pine forests and the shadowy gods and wood-nymphs who dwell therein. The coda with its icy winds sweeping through the forest made us shiver.”

Tapiola is a bleak work, not quite experimental if one thinks of Sibelius’s contemporaries Stravinsky and Bartók, and somewhat aimless despite the appearance of a “closely-knit musical structure”. Conspicuous by its absence is a good tune – of the kind easily found in the symphonies.

Despite these misgivings, Tapiola was championed over the years by Serge Koussevitzky, Thomas Beecham, and Herbert von Karajan, and today many conductors perform it. Strangely, Sir John Barbirolli, whose recordings of the symphonies and other works by Sibelius are superlative, never seems to have conducted Tapiola.

Finland(1)In this day and age, when human impact on the environment is widely recognized and lamented, we know that whatever damage we do, we ultimately do to ourselves. And for music that extols the natural world and reminds us of its immense beauty – music that pricks the conscience, that is – Sibelius is our man.

Finland(2)The symphonies are more than mere “impressions” of wind and rain in a land dominated by trees, lakes, and boulders. Sibelius has the poet William Wordsworth’s way of intensely watching and listening and of metamorphosing what he sees and hears into lyrical expressions of great power.

It is the voice of Sibelius we could almost be hearing in lines from Wordsworth’s The Solitary Reaper (1803):

“I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.”

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