Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Introduction to Sibelius

For a small country, Finland is a musical super-power with composers like Jean SibeliusEinojuhani Rautavaara and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Sometimes you look around and it seems as if every other orchestra has a Finn as conductor. I suspect this musical surge may have begun with Sibelius (1865 - 1957). Sibelius is in the air right now, it seems. Tom Service's symphony series at the Guardian features his Symphony No. 7 this week. There is something very atmospheric and compelling about Sibelius' writing for orchestra.

In an interesting coincidence (or was it?), he stopped composing in the mid-1920s, after his Symphony No. 7, right about the same time that Schoenberg developed his atonal method of composition. I suspect that, for composers like Sibelius, the methods and principles of modernism were a harsh challenge to everything he was doing in music. Judging by his music, Sibelius seems to have had finely-tuned aesthetic sensibilities. Wikipedia says that:
According to Sibelius's biographer Erik Tawaststjerna, he was an enthusiastic Wagnerian at the beginning of the 1890s but then began to feel disgust for his music, calling it pompous and vulgar.
 No argument from me on that. Sibelius and other composers like Vaughan Williams and William Walton were on the opposite side, aesthetically, from the progressive modernists like Schoenberg. Part of the project of modernism involved discrediting the more conservative musical procedures of these composers. Again, quoting from Wikipedia:
In 1938 Theodor Adorno wrote a critical essay about the composer, notoriously charging that "If Sibelius is good, this invalidates the standards of musical quality that have persisted from Bach to Schoenberg: the richness of inter-connectedness, articulation, unity in diversity, the 'multi-faceted' in 'the one'."[25] Adorno sent his essay to Virgil Thomson, then music critic of the New York Herald Tribune, who was also critical of Sibelius; Thomson, while agreeing with the essay's sentiment, declared to Adorno that "the tone of it [was] more apt to create antagonism toward [Adorno] than toward Sibelius".[14] Later, the composer, theorist and conductor René Leibowitz went so far as to describe Sibelius as "the worst composer in the world" in the title of a 1955 pamphlet.
Theodor Adorno, philosopher and composition student of Alban Berg, was the foremost theorist of the modernist school. His point is absurd to read because Sibelius is particularly renowned for the organic, motivic unity of his compositions! But this is more about a strategic polemic than truth, I'm afraid. René Leibowitz, of course, is the author of that other well-known polemic Schoenberg and His School. Something that is not pointed out enough is the political nature of the aesthetic conflicts in and around the modernist movement in the mid-20th century. Vicious attacks such as those above may have been the reason that Sibelius released virtually no music after the 1920s. In the 1940s he burned a lot of manuscripts. Perhaps he had started to believe the nonsense put out by Adorno and Leibowitz!

In any case, I would like to devote a few posts to Sibelius for no other reason than I think he is a very fine composer. I want to look at some of the symphonies and, as I said the other day, the Violin Concerto. I won't start today because I am still getting over my cold and I want to have sufficient time and energy to give Sibelius the attention he deserves.

Let's listen to his Symphony No. 7, just to whet the appetite:


Bridge said...

Fascinating music! I wonder why I have never felt motivated to listen to much Sibelius before. I've only heard his violin concerto and the Valse Triste before this - both are certainly good but this is the first time I have been truly impressed by his music. I have a sudden urge to get his complete symphonies and listen to them all, if they are all as good as this one I am in for many hours of enjoyment. Thanks for the recommendation.

Bridge said...

Just read your blog post. It's unfortunate that he stopped composing music simply because of criticism laid out against them, if that is indeed the case. I feel the need here to defend Schoenberg even though I know you are not attacking him personally. He is in many ways directly attributable to the 20th century crisis - at the very least is a convenient face for the entire movement - but he would have never said such things. For starters, he adored Richard Strauss and said he was the only revolutionary of his time, at least in a quote attributed to him, under what circumstances I do not know but it is hardly surprising as he made countless arrangements and orchestrations of tonal works he admired so he clearly did not hate it as some of his followers did. (Having your teachings corrupted by misguided individuals/extremists is unfortunately about as common as teachings themselves. Nietzsche and Karl Marx spring immediately to mind. Anyway, I certainly find Leibowitz's words to be absurd, though I am curious what he meant. I don't know Sibelius enough to say whether he is a great composer necessarily but from what I've heard so far he is no amateur.

Nathan Shirley said...

Adorno also talked a lot of trash about Stravinsky. He seems to have been a very vile, sad man... like many in the extremist academic composition world.

This thinking really became a disease which slowly spread through much of the classical music world. It manifested itself in musicians and conservatories as the "emperor's new clothes syndrome," as I like to call it. Individuals infected with ENCS became delusional, believing that only the most musically sophisticated had the ability to "get" this highly intellectual ("modernist" or what I more broadly call "academic") music. All others were delusionally seen as simple minded peasants.

It is not uncommon for musicians to have inflated yet fragile egos and so they were especially susceptible to ENCS. Thus the sickness spread. The few uninfected who pointed out that the emperor was wearing no clothes, were harshly attacked by those suffering from ENCS.

Things have certainly improved since Adorno's day, but surprisingly the disease is far from having been eradicated.

Bridge said...

Let's not confuse the issue here - the disease is academia, not modernism. Academia is a system which allows harmful principles to be directly injected into music and all it takes is one person with extreme views to get it going. I don't have personal experience with all of these schools and conservatories, but I have heard some horror stories and it is clearly easy to cultivate an environment of unquestioning acceptance in such a place. I don't have anything against academia in principle, not at all, but let's not forget that these same schools have been teaching students such riveting insights as "parallel fifths are bad because they are evil" for longer than serialism has been around. Also, to suggest that only modernism has bad composers and individuals with agendas is to be selectively blind to everything but the masterworks. You may dislike serialism if you wish, I don't consider you a peasant for doing so, but the attempts to discredit it based solely on the words and actions of people who have subscribed to it are in my opinion unjust. After all, who is the emperor in this example? Serialism? It is just a system - the ethos surrounding it is purely imaginary. Also, I have heard tonal music composed in the same way horrible 12-tone pieces are, in a completely arbitrary and unmusical way, and it is not even remotely better, in fact I find it worse.

Bryan Townsend said...

You both make good points that do not, I think invalidate one another. Bridge, I am glad you are discovering Sibelius. He really is a terrific composer which makes the bizarre criticisms of him from Adorno and Leibowitz seem even more suspect. Nathan, you know that I am in basic agreement with you on this. But I want to point out to both of you that the problem is really an ideological one. Adorno and Leibowitz are above all partisan ideologues. Their actions are basically political not musical. Sibelius must be smeared because he is not of our tribe. Schoenberg was no ideologue, but a pragmatic composer. He sincerely followed the path he thought was the best. If we disagree with him, it is really only because that path seems to have led to some real problems for music.

Most musicians, even academic musicologists, are afraid to criticize Adorno because of his credentials in the tribe (student of Alban Berg), but mostly because he writes complex, philosophical prose and few musicologists have any background in philosophy.

And Bridge, academia can be good or bad. After all, it is traditional musicologists who produced all those collected editions of Bach, Mozart and, yes, Schoenberg, that we rely on. The line between good and bad is everywhere and cuts through both academia and modernism. And yes, you are absolutely correct, there is good and bad tonal music as well. I think I wrote some just the other day ;-)

Bridge said...

Naturally. As I sad, I don't bear academia any ill will by default, in fact I am enrolling in the national arts academy next academic year. But it's important to be realistic about things - not all teachers are good and if you do not approach new information with prudence you will invariably find yourself in trouble. The harm teachers can inflict can be quite significant - of course it can also be highly positive. Anyway, I first became acquainted with Adorno's writings by watching Leonard Bernstein's excellent lecture series The Unanswered Question where he goes quite in depth on both the neoromanticism/neoclassicism of Stravinsky and co. and the serialism of Schoenberg and co. in a remarkably unbiased way (made possible by the fact that he loved both.) I don't remember his exact words regarding Adorno, if I recall correctly he showed him some respect but he was overall critical of his words - so that's one example. I've never taken him much seriously, or introduced myself to any of his other writings.

Nathan Shirley said...

Modernism can cover a lot of territory, both bad and good, which is why I substituted it with "extremist academic composition." So I agree with you here Bridge.

Notice that I never mentioned the 12-tone method or Schoenberg (even though I'm no fan). Bryan pointed out the ideology of Berg's and Webern's students, this is the sort of sickness I am referring to.

I never gave a specific example of the emperor's clothes. There are plenty, some you would definitely agree with, some you might not. But the specifics are not important (at least to me because I need to go to bed!).