ON December 8, 1940, Jean Sibelius completed three quarters of a century. A small nation, but one vividly conscious of its racial antiquity, still close to the soil and possessing an authentic traditional epic, yet also advancing with the first rank of modern culture, has produced the symphonic talent which spans from the nineteenth century into the twentieth. It is a nation further solidified by resistance to repeated pressure from Russia, whose latest assault only last winter aroused the indignation of all free peoples.
Helsinki combines the dignity of a capital with the charm of a big town. In the same degree of latitude as the lower end of Greenland, its position suggests that with Sibelius the symphony, in a double sense, has reached its farthest north. What with university, libraries, museums, repertory theatres in Finnish and Swedish, symphony orchestra, conservatory of music, schools of art, a bookstore whose size in Europe is exceeded only by one in Paris, Finnish culture gives one the sense of being in a modern Hellas with Russia as its Persia, Germany as its Egypt, and Britain as its Rome. How close the present there is to the past may be inferred: late one afternoon in August, crossing three fields and a stream which lie between the villa of Dr. Sibelius and the Paloheimo estate, the son-in-law of the composer remarked, ‘I know these people; let’s step in.’ A peasant’s family with gracious rustic manners, who addressed Mr. Paloheimo affectionately as ‘Squire,’ were cooking supper over a fire of twigs on a raised and open hearth which looked queerly familiar. It was. You see its duplicate when the curtain rises on Act I of Die Walküre. This is within twenty miles of Helsinki, which has put up some of the very best of modern architecture. It is thus a land where doors still stand open to the legendary past, and a people whose ancestral mythology, the Kalevala, with the Edda and sagas, is just around the corner.
In a book which Sibelius appears to know almost by heart, Eckcrmann’s Conversations with Goethe, the aged poet says, ‘I had the great advantage of being born at a time when momentous events agitated the world.’ Seven Years’ War, American Independence, French Revolution, Napoleonic era . . . ‘thus I have attained results and insights impossible to those who must learn all these from books which they will not understand.’ He was speaking in 1824, at t he start of a comparatively quiet century: 1814 to 1914. But quiet has been no word for Finland since Sibelius arrived at manhood, nor can he complain of having been born into an epoch devoid of world events.
Son of a regimental doctor who died when the boy was two and a half years old, active and a mighty hunter though bored by boys’ games, quick at studies but diligent only when those studies are congenial, he is reared in a musical household, and at fifteen music takes possession of him. His instrument is the violin, and for the next ten years his consuming ambition is to become a concert virtuoso. Discovering Marx’s theory of composition in the school library of Tavastehus at the age of sixteen, he tackles the study by himself, and a year later (1883) is composing chamber music. Middle-class respectability vetoes music as a career and condemns him to a year of law at the university, which would have been drearier if he had not neglected his law for his music. Then a wise uncle effects his release and he espouses music.
The marriage was not at first entirely happy. As ambitious boys will often do, he had cast himself for a part, that of concert violinist, which he was not fitted to play. But somewhere behind the scenes of any notable career is generally a discerning and devoted teacher, and in this one he was Martin Wegelius. Strict classicist and stern drill-master, he did for Sibelius what Theodor Weinlig, the worthy Cantor of the Thomasschule at Leipzig, did for Wagner — kept him at severe technical exercises until he understood the fundamentals of his craft. Wegelius is one reason why you never hear Sibelius fumble his orchestra.
Another lucky schooling dropped into his lap. Here and there a lad takes to the Greek and Latin authors like a bee to honey, and such a lad was Sibelius. He read them in their originals (as indeed, until of late, who ever suggested that they be seriously read in any other form?) and their intellectual integrity has gone into the forming of his style. Homer fostered his taste for the heroic saga, and Horace for terseness of phrase. In fact, his style is so like that of the ancient classics that until he told me otherwise I had thought they had been consciously his models, but the case seems to be that he took to the classics because he is by nature a classicist, and he did say, ‘What I find in them is clearness of form, and depth of feeling without sentimentality.’
Young men who studied music in Berlin during the ‘80s and ‘90s knew alternate leapings and sinkings of the heart. ‘Speak not of Rome, for what should I do there . . .’ Imperial Germany was feeling its oats, and whoever cares to know how it pranced can still hear it in Strauss’s Don Juan, composed in 1889, the year Sibelius went to Berlin as a student. Twenty years later Don Juan and the Second Symphony of Sibelius turning up on the same program made historic irony: the swagger was all with Strauss, the depth was all with Sibelius.
Freedom of the stacks in a university library best describes the volumes of music Sibelius was able in Berlin to hear for the first time. Albert Becker taught him composition still in strict style, ‘until I knew the German psalter backward.’ It was not exciting, but the pupil was shrewd enough to know that practice in strict style is ‘as important for a composer as the study of anatomy for a sculptor.’ At Berlin, too, began his friendship with Robert Kajanus, conductor of the Helsinki orchestra, for only in Germany could they meet, owing to a feud of local musicians in Helsinki. The Finnish epic, Kalevala, was not then the national textbook which it later became. Kajanus opened this Finnish Homer to Sibelius. Meanwhile in Berlin the boy from the provinces was making a not uncommon discovery: ‘I gained the impression that in many respects the educated classes in Finland were considerably more advanced.’
Vienna went better. It was his second year abroad (1890-1891); Robert Fuchs, a trained orchestrator, was one of his teachers; Goldmark the other. Goldmark’s instruction was largely oracular, but Sibelius has always been good at interpreting oracles. Genial and highhearted himself, the young Finn found the gayety and friendliness of Vienna to his taste, though his wife, when he was saying so, corrected him a point: ‘Some of the letters I had from you in Vienna — you have forgotten — were very gloomy.’ In the city where Brahms still lived and worked, a student of orchestration was a corporal dreaming of a Field Marshal’s baton.
Naturally he wanted to meet Brahms. It was not easy. The encounter finally came by chance in a café. ‘Brahms,’ relates Dr. Sibelius forty-two years later, ‘was very correct.’ (Standing, he lays one forearm at right angles against his heart, the other held stiffly at his side, then bows low and formally. The mimicry is respectful, but it is also comic and contrived to signify that he and Brahms did not get very far personally, though I understood him to say that Father Nordicus was civil about one of his songs that was sent to him.) All the same, the fact that the pair ever met at all shows how closely linked this lineal succession of master composers has been. Field Marshal to Field Marshal, Sibelius meets Brahms; Brahms knew Schumann; Schumann (in 1838), only ten years after Schubert’s death, blew the dust off the neglected manuscript of his Ninth Symphony and got it to a publisher; Schubert was at Beethoven’s deathbed; and Beethoven studied with Haydn. The sequence of personal encounter has only one break in that span of six lives which carries us back to the date of Haydn’s first symphonies (1755), making a life cycle for this specific symphonic form of about two centuries. The epic poet Choerilus of Samos complained in the fifth century B.C. that everything had been written: νûν δ’ ȍτε πάντα δέδαται (‘Now that all has been apportioned’). Young Sibelius might have thought the same. Two mountain barriers must be passed by any corporal aspiring to the baton of Field Marshal: the last quartets of Beethoven were one; the other was Wagner’s Tristan. The question for Sibelius, as for Brahms, was: Had the symphony fulfilled its life cycle?
So now he must go home and see what he can do. At heart he is glad to go. At Vienna he had sketched music for the Kullervo myth. Czarist Russia was at its infringement of Finland’s popular liberties. The political ferment set Sibelius turning these sketches into a symphonic poem for orchestra, solo voices, and chorus. It was performed in April 1892, the composer conducting, and its effect was electrical. In a language explicit yet not seditious, and in an art form at once politically timely and aesthetically imperishable, a poet had appeared who could voice the spirit of Suomi. His countrymen knew what it meant. At twenty-six he was a national spokesman.
Two questions were settled. He need no longer doubt his calling: ‘Long enough have you timidly waded, holding a plank by the shore; Now I will you to be a bold swimmer. . .’ And in June of that year he married Aino Jarnefell, daughter of a distinguished Finnish family.
A smashing success early in life, if an artist understands its proper value, releases him into the world of his peculiar individuality. Lesser men it sets worrying about a repetition of the success: hardier spirits, disencumbered of selfdoubt, plunge into exploration of the faculties which make them what they uniquely are. With Sibelius this followed almost at once. Kajanus, on the strength of Kullervo, advised him to write a piece which could go into the regular repertory of orchestras and make known his name without exacting too strenuous mental effort from audiences. For this viking voyage Kajanus lent him his own orchestra. The landfall was En Saga, and a rugged coast it was. On a wall of Dr. Sibelius’s library at Järvenpää hangs a canvas which a painter composed from this saga. Weird and chaotic, it depicts nothing so much as the astonishment of audiences hearing it in 1892 for the first time. One is reminded of Wagner’s resolution, after having written two and two-thirds operas of the Ring, to knock off from that seemingly chimerical undertaking and compose what he termed ‘a thoroughly practicable work.’ That ingratiating potboiler turned out to be Tristan, which, after seventy-four rehearsals in Vienna, was abandoned as ‘unsingable and unplayable.’
For the rest, resemblance between Sibelius and Wagner ends before it begins. To young composers in the 1890’s vigilant of their individualities, Wagner was a wicked ogre who devoured little children and threw their bones under the table. Sibelius was not afraid, but he was careful to keep out of harm’s way. The attempts of Martin Wegelius, and of his brother-in-law Armas Järnefelt, to induct Jean into the Temple of the Grail at Bayreuth are amusing to read in the light of their sequel. The neophyte liked the Bavarian hills better than the performances in t he Festspielhaus. He was a young Athenian philosopher asked to admire a sermon by Saint Paul on the Areopagus; or, if it came to Nordic myths, he knew a few himself. Later in life his aversion to Wagner wore off and he conceded that some of it might have been an instinct of self-preservation, but there has always been a strong antithesis between his conception of music and Wagner’s. When Sibelius does translate Northern mythology into tone poetry, it is without costumes, scenery, lighting, or stage rhetoric. He can create Valhalla without theatre; but when he comes to final grips with his art, it is music, music in pure symphonic essence, and nothing else — no literary connotations. Thus the route which eventually carries him past the barrier of Mount Wagner is introspection. Turning his eyes within, he explores that vast, unmapped wilderness whose farthest expedition hitherto has been the last quartets of Beethoven.
A composer with no taste for politics as such is next tossed into the thick of the fray. Russian pressure is resumed, and Finland retorts with passive resistance. The year is 1899. The popular repertory work which Kajanus proposed turns out to be Finlandia. At its first performance it passed off as little more than a hat-and-coat piece. But the Russian Government soon smelt something scorching and forbade its performance. In Berlin it was played as ‘Vaterland,’ in Paris as ‘Patrie,’ but the grimmest joke — and Sibelius recounts it with relish — was that when he conducted the performance at Riga it had to be entitled ‘Impromptu.’ That it has survived forty years of mayhem by movie organs (tremolo and vox humana), café orchestras, and brass bands attests its fibre as music. Last winter in Finland, when Russia struck again, it was played everywhere.
By the turn of the century, it was plain that the composer must get out of Helsinki. Too well known, he was too much sought after. Like Ibsen, he had found the solitude of a foreign city conducive to composition, but, unlike Ibsen, he had the alternative of seclusion in the countryside of his native land. Eventually he employed both. But the hermit of Järvenpää was no recluse. For a dozen years he conducted concerts of his own music in the capitals of Europe and mingled with distinguished contemporaries: Strauss, Mahler, Busoni, Weingartner, Debussy, d’lndy. His First Symphony was performed in April 1899, and Breitkopf and Hartel, the publishers of Beethoven, became his publishers. Being asked three decades later, ‘What becomes of your manuscript scores?’ the composer glanced across at his wife with a look of comic guilt and answered, ‘The publisher keeps them.’ ‘I think that arrangement,’ said Madame Sibelius demurely, ‘was a little naive of my husband.’
The decade from 1900 to 1910 is decisive. It begins brightly. A smallish government stipend has enabled him to resign his teaching posts; at Rapallo in a radiant Italian spring (1901) he erects the scaffolding of his Second Symphony; the frustrated virtuoso, reversing one of life’s little ironies, composes (1903 to 1905) the next great violin concerto in the classic succession after that of Brahms (1879); and on a pine-wooded knoll overlooking the lake two miles from the railway station at Järvenpää (Lake’s End), in the summer of 1904, he watches his rustic villa rise log-tier after log-tier, until, moved in and settled, he records in his diary at the equinox: ‘Have begun my Third Symphony.’
But clouds were gathering. From 1901 to 1905 he suffered an impairment to his hearing which threatened to become total. After release from this, an affection of the throat which had troubled him for years required an operation. Attempts in Helsinki were failures. In May 1908 he consulted a specialist in Berlin. This surgeon, eminent but elderly, insisted on performing t he operation himself. Thirteen attempts without result. ‘Tedious and painful,’ says Sibelius, with his habitual understatement. Then a glitter-eyed young assistant was allowed to take over the case. ‘He lowered his instrument into my throat and found the bad spot. A strong jerk, a shout of triumph: “Jetzt hab’ ich’s!” — and he pulled out the instrument. I was released from torture.’ But not from anxiety. For years he must live under the shadow of uncertainty whether that malignant tumor would return.
In the year 1908 Sibelius passes his Great Divide. Threatened with the total extinction of his powers, then reprieved, a man of genius says to himself: ‘If I have anything unique to say, I would better be about it.’ A first effect of such a shock is to set one reviewing his whole past life. He returns to simplicity. ‘Except ye repent and become as little children . . .’ In December 1908, at the age of forty-three, Sibelius goes back to a musical form which he had quitted at twenty-four, the string quartet. He speaks in a letter of that period of living over his childhood and trying to understand the forces which had shaped his being. Again, as so often, ‘unmusical Goethe’ fortifies him to pursue his solitary path in music. The title which he gave his quartet is Voces Intimœ. It is easy to see now what he could scarcely have been aware of then, that he was first wording his Innermost Voices in the simpler form of a quartet before invoking them for the massive and complex scale of his Fourth Symphony.
The Fourth Symphony can be heard coming in the Third. But it was apparently touched off by one of those hours of supreme exhilaration which kindle an artist to the glow of creating. In October 1909, he made an excursion with his brother-in-law, Eero Järnefelt, to the Koli Hills in Karelia. They had only twenty-four hours on the peninsula and no more than two on the summit, but the day was magnificent: roaring wind, dashing waves, flying clouds, bitter cold, sudden hailstorms, again bleak and brilliant sunlight. The landscape is majestic: cold white cliffs, illimitable oceans of forest rolling away to those purple horizons which one seems to see in the later symphonies of Sibelius dissolving into eternity. Since the composer so emphatically disclaims explicit landscape painting in his symphonies, to suggest the contrary would be impertinence, but the dedication of this score to Eero Järnefelt seems at least a souvenir of that day at Koli. He began the symphony in the spring of 1910, worked all summer, carried it with him on tour that winter, and by December at Jarvenpää begins to have hopes that it may come to something: ‘The symphony is breaking forth in sunshine and strength.’ It went with him on tour again in the winter of 1911, was finished in Finland and first performed at Helsinki in April.
And now begins in earnest the repeated experience of Sibelius with belated comprehension of each new work. Genius is nothing if not naive. It dares, struggles, puts forth superhuman effort, renounces, suffers, prevails, converts these ordeals into a work of art, offers it to a public most of whom, so far from having undergone such discipline, hardly know that such problems exist; then genius is astonished, puzzled, and hurt that the work is not understood. Eleven years earlier, Karl Flodin had said, ‘He composes for at least a generation ahead.’ He could now see that fact for himself. As time went on he grew resigned to it and ceased to expect a new composition to be generally understood in much short of twenty years. Even the violin concerto, comparatively early work, was not taken into the repertory of virtuosi until the late 1920’s. When first heard in America, it sounded brusque and brooding, a moorland meditation beside gray sea under a gray sky. Today it, too, has become one of the Innermost Voices.
In his Fourth Symphony, having emerged from the first of his two ordeals by peril of his life, Sibelius in his fortysixth year stands at full stature. He was to surpass it, and more than once, but in the Fourth he is Sibelius well beyond the Great Divide.
This done, he devoured music like one starved. That autumn in Berlin and Paris he listened to more music, new and old, than he had ever heard before or was like to hear again. Partly it was replenishment, but he also thinks that he was ‘trying to gain a momentary release’ from his own creative daimon before it set him another task. Furthermore, in listening to the new music, he was making up his mind on contentious points: ‘I have always been interested in contemporary and younger composers . . . in order to gain a clearer view about myself. In listening to the quantity of modern music with which I then became acquainted, I came to the conclusion that many present-day composers, in their endeavors to preserve their place in the public eye, through constantly having to produce something novel and sensational had lost the power of composing anything living based on the old ecclesiastical scales; this, I thought, was reserved for me and others who could live in greater peace.’
To the peace of Järvenpää, accordingly, he returned, and one summer noon not long afterward Mr. Y. A. Paloheimo, later Commissioner General of Finland to the New York World’s Fair, but then a boy in his teens, coming over to Villa Ainola on an errand stopped spellbound by some music which he heard sounding from the grand pianoforte. It was the Oceanides. Sibelius was composing it for the Norfolk Festival in Connecticut of 1914. His American visit was an idyll between two ordeals: the one which had forged his Fourth Symphony and that which was to temper the metal of his Fifth. Yale University awarded him a doctorate which is the only style he permits himself to adopt. He was charmed with everything, and in turn he himself charmed everybody. Two sights in America he had set his heart on seeing, a genuine Red Indian and the Falls of ‘Neeagara.’ His luck was perfect. From the front steps of the Hotel Wendell in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, he saw the circus parade of ‘Ranch 101 ‘ led in war bonnet and full regalia by no less a brave than the Indian whose profile is on our copper pennies, and he saw Niagara by moonlight. By day the tourists and newlyweds rather put him off, so he went to bed in his hotel, got up in the middle of the night (inveterate nightwatcher that he is), and had the Falls to himself. His ear for euphony was vexed by our pronunciation of ‘Niagara,’ and he is at pains to explain that ‘the Indians, like us Europeans, say “Neeagara.” All musicians adopt the latter pronunciation.’
On the Atlantic, homeward bound, came news of the assassination at Sarajevo. No one aboard thought it serious. One month later, World War. His publishers, being German, could not remit his royalties; performances of his works in concert halls throughout the western world earned him not a penny, because Finland had not been signatory to the Berne convention; his concert tours must now be restricted to Finland and Scandinavia. By autumn, 1916, the deprivation had grown so severe that he writes in chagrin, ‘I often ask myself: Is my life to pass in complete isolation from the great civilized countries? Am I no more to experience the delight that a first-class orchestra gives me when I conduct my works?’ It looked as though he had won a world only to lose it. Income was an acute anxiety. Between August and November 1914, he felt compelled to write sixteen potboilers.
Yet a Fifth Symphony was stirring in his bones. It had even been a question whether to write a Fifth. Tone poems were the rage. The symphony was supposed to have been squeezed dry by Brahms, if not by Beethoven. ‘I have had to suffer a good deal,’ he confessed long afterward, ’for having persevered in composing symphonies at a time when practically all composers turned to other forms of expression. My stubbornness was annoying to many critics and conductors, and it is really only in recent years that opinion has begun to change. Perhaps the name injured my symphonies, but since they represent what I understand under the name of symphony, I could not very well provide them with labels that would give a wrong impression of what I aimed at.’ In the event, a consequence of his having stuck to his guns is that his seven symphonies form a corpus, a main massif of his lifework, round which his choral works, chamber music, and symphonic poems are spurs and foothills. They form the next big mountain system beyond the symphonies of Brahms.
The Fifth Symphony was to be a Mount Stormbound. It was first performed on December 8, 1915, the composer’s fiftieth birthday, which was observed as a national event. But as far back as the 1890’s the iron law of his artistic conscience had decreed that, even after its first performance, he keep a major work in hand for revision from two to seven years. So after the festival he laid away the score of the Fifth until October 1916, then returned to his precising of its form and content. In December of his fifty-first year it was again performed in what the composer, in his innocence, supposed to be its final version. But no. Again his creative daimon bestrode him and again he resumed his rescripts.
World War now in its third winter: March 1917 — Czardom collapses. From the deep-sea hurricane of Russian revolution, swells begin rolling even up into the quiet cove of Järvenpää. That once-tranquil haven resounds at intervals daily with the crackle of firearms. Soldiers shoot their officers. As anodyne to the ferocity of man, Sibelius turns to nature. April 18, 1917: ‘There are twelve swans on the lake. I saw them through my field glasses. I also saw six wild geese and an eagle. Strangely poetical.’ And in a later entry: ‘A wonderful day, spring and life. The earth odors, mutes and fortissimo.’ Menacing as the situation is, behagged by war and beleaguered by revolution, nevertheless, as the summer of 1917 wears on, he can summon his forces to begin a Sixth Symphony — whilst continuing to revise the Fifth.
The squall strikes Villa Ainola on January 28, 1918. Midway in the composition of the third movement to his Sixth, he is forbidden by the Communist revolutionaries to leave his own grounds. Is the intent to annoy, or to protect him? He does not know. Above the billowy groves of the Järvenpää countryside rise the villa roofs of authors, scholars, artists, and professional men. To the revolutionary soldiers, strangers in that region, Dr. Sibelius is merely one more of the bourgeoisie and, as such, fair game. To divert his thoughts from this ugly predicament he goes on working at his Sixth Symphony. Will he live to finish it? Murder is now almost a daily occurrence, and soldiers shoot old acquaintances of the Sibelius family.
On February 11 come Red Guards and search his house for hidden stores of food and arms. ‘I did have a revolver hidden in a room on the ground floor of the villa. My house porter, who was present during the search, knew of this, and if he had betrayed me my life would not have been worth much.’ As the rummage went on, seating himself at the pianoforte, he played to calm his frightened children. A soldier said to the kitchenmaid: ‘Lucky you, to work in a house where you can hear such music.’ Two days later back they came and this time ransacked the house savagely. Added to the bitterness of having the ‘ treasures ‘ of his house pawed over was the spectacle of how poor those treasures were. Unarmed, he had to stand by and watch armed men expose his poverty. After they had left, not knowing whether he and his family would be alive on the morrow, he went on working at his symphony.
When this state of things had gone on about long enough, his friends in Helsinki held a consultation. Robert Kajanus contrived to get up to Järvenpää, obtained permission from the Red Guards, and prevailed upon Sibelius to bring his family to the capital.
Their lodging was a lunatic asylum. Its senior physician was Dr. Christian Sibelius, brother of the composer. The class-conscious proletariat, then in control of Helsinki, demanded custody of the asylum. ‘It is already full of lunatics,’ replied the senior physician, adding more explicitly, ‘And besides, the whole lot of you are mad.’ They commandeered it all the same, and so apportioned the rationing of food that in a few weeks the composer ‘reduced’ forty pounds. In April came the German troops. If they took the city it was feared that the revolutionists, before evacuating, would massacre their adversaries. The diary of Dr. Sibelius on April 11, 1918, asks whether they will be alive on the morrow, the while he admires the orchestration of artillery: ‘Crescendo, as the thunder of guns came nearer, a crescendo that lasted close on thirty hours and ended in a fortissimo I never could have dreamed of. . . .’
In a lunatic asylum of a besieged city, on starvation diet, under a revolutionary terror, this indomitable spirit was composing a big work for chorus and orchestra, ‘a hymn of praise to the scenery and night lights of Finland.’
Helsinki was relieved on April 12, 1918. Twice in two decades Sibelius had been delivered from mortal peril. Once more it was spring, and he and his were to be permitted to live. His intense relief became a passionate creative exhilaration. Ideas crowded upon him until there was hardly standing room. While he reworked his Fifth Symphony, and continued composition of the Sixth, a Seventh started sparking. That sensation, so familiar to artists, of the complete unreality of their outer lives when they are in full flood of creative composition, is mirrored in a letter of May 20, 1918: ‘as if I were preparing to quit this life and in descending into my grave shot an eagle on the wing — sighted well and skillfully without a thought of what was in store.’ A sentence in this same letter reveals his scheme for ‘the VII Symphony. Joy of life and vitality, with appassionato passages. In 3 movements — the last an “Hellenic rondo.”’ ‘Hellenic’ is the word. Flexible and concise as Greek itself, midway in the Seventh Symphony sounds the surging exhilaration of that rondo.
World War ended, revolution ended, Finland an independent nation: Sibelius finished his stormbound Fifth Symphony in 1919, his Sixth in 1923, and his Seventh in 1924. Tapiola and The Tempest music followed in 1925 and ‘26. Is there to be an Eighth Symphony? Expecting it, the world of music has been sitting on the edge of its chair for the past dozen years. An eighth is reputed to exist in sketches, but Sibelius is no one to talk about his work beforehand: ‘ Bilde, Künstler, rede nicht.’ His reticence about his creative process arises not so much from secretiveness as from distaste of self-analysis and a feeling that it is beside the point. Does the spring flow? Then why dynamite its sources? Vocal in Finnish, Swedish, German, and French, conversant with English, Latin, and Greek, he has known how to hold his tongue in seven languages the better to speak his eighth, music. It is the one tongue in which he speaks his whole mind, and this music of his speaks with peculiar force to us peoples of the northern latitudes. It is as though for the first time our own Innermost Voices had been uttered in the orchestral symphony.
Not until the late 1920’s did his preeminence come to be generally acknowledged in the musical capitals of the world, for, with that stern integrity of intellect which shows alike in his face and in his scores, he disdained selfadvertisement and, like Father Wotan with his heroes, left his music to stand by its own strength. The events of his life, likewise, can be allowed to speak for themselves. Sincere and concise like the man himself, where is there another modern orchestration closer to Whitehead’s austere definition of style? ‘Style is the ultimate morality of mind.’ And if anyone has pressed forward beyond Mounts Beethoven, Wagner, and Brahms to farther heights, who is it if not Sibelius? The pass he discovered is the one described by Michelet: ‘La poésie s’en va cherchant aux terres lointaines. Que cherche-l’-elle? L’infini.’ Disclaim landscape painting in his symphonic scores though Sibelius may, all the same its imaginative spell continues to haunt them; but when you reach his Fourth, these symphonic landscapes of the North turn from moorland, sea, forest, and lake to the infinitudes within the human spirit. The scene is introspective.
To a good many Americans, the voice of Sibelius is one which seems to understand us better than as yet we understand ourselves. Musical composition is the latest-flowering art of the western world, and we are one of the youngest peoples to take it up. What is awkward for us is that we take it up w hen that art is full-grown, even perhaps when it has lived full cycle. Normally the process of growth in art, as in life, is from simplicity through complexity, to a more highly evolved simplicity; but we in America come to the composition of music at a period when it has attained forms excessively complex.
In literatures of the spoken and written word, poetry flowers before prose; prose — in the forms of oral saga, then of written history, and finally of fiction — flowers before criticism. Self-consciousness comes late. Thus grammar and syntax were unformulated in the Great Age of Greek literature: not until two centuries later at Alexandria were their rules laid down, after that literature had grown self-conscious. It is of course easier, as it is more natural, to move from the simple to the complex, as music in Europe did, than to move from the complex to the simple, as music in America may need to do — which may be what embarrasses so many of our composers, who either affect more extravagant complexities or assume a forced simplicity, which is worse than none.
Self-consciousness is the bane of modern music. ‘As there is no more sure sign of a fine nature than the absence of self-consciousness, so there is no more sure sign of greatness than simplicity.’ English poetry was in a similar predicament at the close of the eighteenth century. Complex and formalized, it revolted a young poet by its lifelessness. He revolutionized its forms and renovated its spirit for a century to come. An American composer with the hardihood to begin back at a genuine simplicity might be laughed at? So was William Wordsworth.
It is only fair to add that the situation is further complicated by the virtuoso orchestra. Aladdin is in peril of being enslaved to his slaves of the lamp. The great creative epoch of music (circa 1720 to 1920) was one in which form was elaborated while performances often remained crude. That epoch has now been succeeded by one in which performance is elaborated. Imagine Shakespeare watching a modern performance of Hamlet. Bach never heard his B-Minor Mass, nor Wagner as good a performance of Tristan as we of today hear several times a season. The great composers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would be thunderstruck could they hear the splendor of their works as performed today; but our transcription of their organ and chamber music into coloristic orchestration is slightly chilling. It suggests a petition in creative bankruptcy.
There seems to be a law that the highest works of art can only be achieved when the forces which produced them are already doomed and in the act of disappearance. That the art of Sibelius had its foundations laid in the nineteenth century, two decades before our social earthquakes began to be felt, may explain why its superstructure remains so solid. His less fortunate successors register those shocks in the very foundations of their art, and it thus remains a question whether they have yet raised anything which will endure as superstructure.
Yet a clean breach with tradition in the arts may, after all, be necessary. In contemporary history an abrupt break occurs at about the year 1900. It can be observed in the very implements we use. Our first stoves (Ben Franklin’s) looked like fireplaces, our first railway carriages looked like stagecoaches, our first steamships looked like sailing vessels, our first motorcars looked like buggies, — man clings to the old with his left hand until his right is confident of its grasp on the new, — but the airplane looks like nothing else that man has hitherto made. For the first time he has wings. And since it is true that most of our other basic concepts, in science, politics, economics, theology, and ethics, have suffered a similar break with tradition since the turn of the century, it is hardly surprising that a similar rupture can be heard in modern music. But the airplane, for all its complexity, is simplicity itself. And if man’s new flight is like a bird’s, why not also his new song?
Sibelius, meanwhile, after a lifetime of rather more than his portion of ordeals, had to share last winter the ordeal of Finland’s invasion by Russia. Again he refused to leave Järvenpää, and the story comes that he rushed out of doors in subzero weather with an old rifle and took pot shots at the Russian planes as they flew overhead. Little else has been learned, for when he retired from public life he really did retire. His grown children in Helsinki know as little now as ever what is taking shape between his brain and his writing table. Have events stirred him to fresh composition? Despite a recent illness (the informant is Madame Sibelius) he works daily. And will his Eighth Symphony ever be finished? His method is to sketch and resketch so long and in such detail that when the sketches are done the work stands virtually finished. The writing out in full score may take only two or three weeks. It is also reported that he has an aversion to finishing the Eighth lest it give him the sensation that his life — his real life of artistic creation — is ended. Perhaps, like the Second Part of Goethe’s Faust, it is to be published posthumously as a last will and testament. Yet, if it never appears at all, we shall have no legitimate grievance, for what artist in our time has wrought longer or better? '. . . As if I were preparing to quit this life and in descending into my grave shot an eagle on the wing — sighted well and skillfully without a thought of what is in store.’