Jean Sibelius. Life, Music, Silence by Daniel M. Grimley (Reaktion Books, 2021)
Review by Veijo Murtomäki
Daniel M. Grimley is a musicologist whose expertise and deep understanding especially of Scandinavian and British music has been widely acknowledged thanks to his admirable books on Grieg, Nielsen, and Delius as well as his work as an editor of anthologies and as a writer of many peer-reviewed articles. Given his attachment to the music of Jean Sibelius, it is with a sense of expectation that one approaches his new book on Sibelius.
Grimley’s book serves as an exemplary combination of the life-and-works-strategy. He presents Sibelius’s music in a European cultural and musical context, discussing also the literary, theatrical and art-historical dimensions of the late 19th and early 20th century Western world and its changing artistic climates. In this sense, descriptions of the background as well as of the musical and poetical content of Sibelius’s theatre music – for instance, in the cases of Kuolema (Death), Pelléas et Mélisande, Svanehvit (Swanwhite) and Jokamies (Everyman) – are illuminating.
In the same way, through discussion and analyse of Sibelius’s songs and melodramas, Grimley is capable of finding interesting and original musical solutions that are have not always been found by other scholars who have written on the composer. For instance, in the Five Songs, Op. 38, Sibelius’s apt reactions to the poems with the a wide varuety of content are analysed through a combination of close reading and sharp intellect. Grimley’s characterization of the songs Höstkväll (Autumn Evening) and På verandan vid havet (On a Balcony by the Sea) as an ‘outburst of existential angst’ detects an aspect of Sibelius’s song output that is often overlooked.
Sibelius’s major works, the symphonies, are given thoroughly insightful discussions, without forgetting the significance of the other orchestral works, like En saga, The Bard, Night Ride and Sunrise and Tapiola. In connection with these works, Sibelius’s diverse relationships with nature are pondered in an illuminating way and Grimley’s inclusion of two important elements for Sibelius, the landscape and environment, are dealt with through insightful discussions of the importance to the composer of birds, other animals and natural phenomena.
Despite the numerous merits of Grimley’s book, however, it is inevitable that even an eminent scholar who does not completely master the languages of the person under scrutiny – in Sibelius’s cases Swedish and Finnish – cannot have access to all the important sources, like the huge number of letters written and received by Sibelius. Having to trust in translations and information supplied by other people can cause minor problems, so it may be helpful to add some information to some of Grimley’s observations and point out occasional inaccuracies.
For instance, alongside the information that Martin Wegelius was the founder of the Helsinki Music Institute in 1882, we should note the equally important role of Richard Faltin, the German-born organist, composer, conductor, and university teacher. This has since been proved in a new thesis (2020) by Riikka Siltanen.
Is an understatement to mention Christian Sinding’s influence on Sibelius by focusing only on his piano piece Frühlingsrauschen. Sibelius also received impulses from Sinding’s Piano Quintet – which, to be fair, Grimley later states – but Sinding’s output is so huge and impressive (encompassing several dozen piano and violin pieces, songs, chamber music, three violin concertos and four symphonies) that his impact was likely to have been much greater than Grimley suggests. Adolf Paul, who remained Sibelius’s close friend until the former’s death in 1943, was perhaps not, as Grimley terms it, the ‘least talented’ of the artist’s group in Berlin around 1890, as he wrote a large number of several novels, plays and film script – and Sibelius wrote music for two of his play, King Christian II – as Grimley mentions – and Die Sprache der Vögel. The correspondence between Paul and Sibelius was published in 2016. Sibelius’s intention to study composition in Vienna either under Bruckner or under Brahms was unsuccessful, as neither of the two masters were able to meet him. The reception of Sibelius’s Lemminkäinen legends at its premiere in Helsinki in 1896 did not reflect a general negativity was but rather caused by the views of one critic, Karl Flodin, whose review was based on Eduard Hanslick’s rejection of ‘pathology in music’.
There are three further problematic issues in the book: 1) folk song and folk music; 2) programme or referential music; 3) Sibelius’s relation to politics and involvement with it.
It is true that Sibelius did not maintain a ‘scholarly ethnographic interest in the field’ of folk music. He collected runic melodies and heard plenty of kantele playing in his trip to Eastern Karelia in 1892, however, and published an appendix of folk tunes to the 1895 edition of the Kalevala. The academic lecture that Sibelius gave in 1896 was an important credo confirming his conception of what the modes found in folk music could mean to the modern composer. Influences from Karelian music and the modality embedded in it can be heard throughout his career from Kullervo to Tapiola. The Six Impromptus for piano, Op. 5 (1893), were an early response based on his experiences of hearing runic singers and kantele players during a folk music collecting trip. It is therefore a pity that Grimley does not discuss the Impromptus the context of the modal techniques used by Sibelius. Nor does he mention the name of the runic singer Pedri Shemeikka, who made a tremendous and lasting impression on Sibelius. Using the ancient modality of folk music decisively modified Sibelius’s concept of tonality and made him capable of surpassing traditional major-minor-tonality.
Several of Sibelius’s contemporaries testified that he was a man of Stimmungen (feelings) and had an innate inclination and gift to wander into the world of fantasies; it is thus no surprise that his music reflects his changing states of mind. This raises several questions: to what extent he was able to sublimate the impressions felt and adopted from nature or Finnish history in order to to make them a part of ‘pure’ music, and how much of the original impulses can still be traced in his music? Direct correlations between the inspiration and the music are not necessary; slight hints, based on autobiographical facts, letters and diary entries, suggest connections of a more general kind. In memoriam and the Fourth Symphony are in this sense good examples, as they stand in direct connection with certain events: the assassination of the Governor-General Nikolai Bobrikov in 1904 and climbing the Koli mountain in 1909, two important moments in Sibelius’s life. Of course, it is easy to end up in subjective exaggeration and arbitrariness, which Grimley studiously avoids, but more courageous speculation could easily be tolerated. A writer has the right to express his or her own interpretations.
Finnish history in general, including its political history, is a field of debate. Until relatively recently, Finland’s modern history was mostly written by the side that won the Finnish Civil War in 1918 – the Whites, who were supported by Germany – while the opposing Reds received support from Russia. That is why rewriting Finnish history or criticizing the ‘myths of Finnish history’ (Osmo Jussila) has been important in the early 21st century. Grimley could have benefited from knowing what this revisionist line of Finnish history has revealed concerning relations between Finland and Russia (and later the Soviet Union), as well as between Finland and Germany. Grimley’s frequent comments such as ‘the yoke of Russian imperial rule’ and ‘Russian government oppression’ reflect the dominant narrative of White historiography. Recent research suggests that Russian’s policy was mild towards the Finns – involving mostly administrative orders rather than violence. Some political figures were exiled to Siberia but, in comparison with the Russian government’s heavy-handed treatment of the Baltic countries, Poland and Bulgaria, the situation was not as oppressive as Grimley suggests.
Sibelius was from the beginning aligned with the Whites, and his March of the Jäger Battalion was unquestionably a political composition, one that almost proved fatal for Sibelius and his family. Its text was an early gesture in support of Finnish pre-independence striving to the East and an expression of the latent Grand Finland ideology in the wake of Karelianism. This tendency was continued in Sibelius’s later march Karjalan osa (Karelia’s Fate, 1930), composed for the ultra-right Lapua movement and, throughout his career, Sibelius remained on good terms with the Finnish Civil Guard movement, paying his yearly membership as late as the 1930s. His relationship with Germany was unquestionably a complex one and several assumptions and speculations have been given which are discussed by Grimley in some detail. Sibelius was chosen in 1934 as one of the three Vice-Presidents of the German association, the Ständiger Rat für die international Zusammenarbeit der Komponisten; he was awarded the Goethe medal by Hitler in 1935 and received an honorary doctorate from Heidelberg University on the occasion of its 550th anniversary celebrations. The German Sibelius Society was founded in 1942 by Joseph Goebbels and others, and Sibelius also received a large amount of money from the National Socialist state. Up until late 1943, Sibelius never criticized the Nazis, and he continued to accept their money until 1945 although he never visited Nazi Germany. Sibelius was consciously a political person – though not in the sense being a member of any political party – but ultimately his motivation would mainly have been patriotic.
There are some unfortunate mistakes in the book. The topographical description of the Fourth Symphony printed in the newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet – that irritated the composer to the extent that he felt obliged to give a public answer in the same newspaper, the only such case in his career – was not by Heikki Klemetti, but by Karl Fredrik ‘Bis’ Wasenius. Sibelius never received a honorary doctor’s degree at the Oxford University, although it was discussed several times. The meaning of Sibelius’s diary entry in Latin has been changed into its opposite: Difficile est satiram non scribere is rendered into English not as ‘It is difficult to write satire’, but ‘It is hard not to write a satire’. Sibelius’s Op. 111 contains two pieces for organ: in addition to the Surusoitto (Funeral Music, 1931) the opus also includes the earlier Intrada (1925), Sibelius’s most famous organ piece, a majestic sibling of the Seventh Symphony. Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s name was Axel Gallén until 1907. Vile Ritola should be Ville Ritola, and Borenius-Lähteenkorvas should be Borenius-Lähteenkorva.
Although Grimley discusses a respectable number of Sibelius’s works, some important ones have remained without any evaluation: the cantata Oma maa, Op. 92 (1918), an important contribution to the unification of a divided nation after the Civil War, the Masonic Ritual Music, Op. 113 (1926–27/36), which revealed some new features in Sibelius’s harmonic language, the magnificent Intrada for organ, Op. 111a (1925), and the Six Impromptus, Op. 5 (1893), which demonstrated Sibelius’s familiarity with Finnish-Karelian folk music. Grimley’s discussion of The Oceanides is somewhat confusing, as he mixes the final and the so-called Yale version in the text. The reader remains perplexed as to whether Grimley had compared the two versions or not, which would have been interesting, as the Yale version is more ‘modern’ and, in places, resembles the music of Debussy.
Some English parallels suggested by Grimley are valuable. Indeed, listening to the music of Delius, it is possible to observe that they were similar minds, since Delius wrote that ‘Sibelius interested me much more [than Elgar]’, and they shared a love of nature. It is also good to have some confirmation that Vaughan Williams, Holst and Bax had some affection towards Sibelius. It is a pity, though, that no source has been given for Per Nørgård’s comment on Sibelius’s compositional techniques. Sibelius’s final years, the ‘silence’ – although it was not total – and problems with the Eighth Symphony are covered with sufficient breath and reasonable considerations.
Despite some minor problems, Grimley’s book is a great achievement and can be recommended to any friend of Sibelius’s music, including connoisseurs. Grimley’s summary is indeed splendid in its incisive characterization: ‘a musical legacy of unparalleled richness, depth, range and diversity’. It is not difficult to join Grimley in his final evaluation – a characterization that also suits Grimley’s remarkable contribution to the Sibelius literature.
Professor emeritus of music history
Sibelius Academy of the University of Arts Helsinki