Sunday, January 14, 2007

mysteries, grandeurs and lurking terrors

Sibelius is a composer so individual that attempting to give an adequate summary of his style and character is impossible. "Finnish nationalism, great symphonist, Finlandia, Valse Triste blah blah blah."
I think the best summary I've seen is this one by James Hepokoski from Grove:

(b Hämeenlinna, 8 Dec 1865; d Järvenpää, 20 Sept 1957). Finnish composer. He was the central figure in creating a Finnish voice in music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His most significant output was orchestral: seven symphonies, one violin concerto, several sets of incidental music and numerous tone poems, often based on incidents taken from the Kalevala, the Finnish-language folk epic. His work is distinguished by startlingly original adaptations of familiar elements: unorthodox treatments of triadic harmony, orchestral colour and musical process and structure. His music evokes a range of characteristic moods and topics, from celebratory nationalism and political struggle to cold despair and separatist isolation; from brooding contemplations of ‘neo-primitive’ musical ideas or slowly transforming sound textures to meditations on the mysteries, grandeurs and occasionally lurking terrors of archetypal folk myths or natural landscapes. A master of symphonic continuity and compressed, ‘logical’ musical structure, he grounded much of his music in his own conception of the Finnish national temperament. Throughout the 20th century Finland regarded him as a national hero and its most renowned artist. Outside Finland, Sibelius's reputation has been volatile, with passionate claims made both by advocates and detractors. The various reactions to his music have provided some of the most ideologically charged moments of 20th-century reception history.

Key points where my italics are added. Sibelius seems to me, like Joyce, a modern mythologist; The hard-drinking, cigar-smoking chanter of the kernel of primal humanity in each of us, in you and I, Boomer Esiason, catcher's mitt-faced B-movie actor Robert Z'Dar.
I think I first understood Sibelius in Northern California, when after a life of cars, skyscrapers and television, found myself in Muir Woods. For a few hours I was the most fervent Neolithic animist pagan. I was frightened by Redwoods and swore that drowsy Pines were whispering to me. I was ready to leave my parents and begin building my tomb of stone slabs and mounds of earth. This was impossible, as my parents wanted to see Napa Valley later the next day.
When I left the woods and was back at the hotel, the Continental Breakfast spoke to me as Tuoni and the overwhelming power of prehistoric Pan-ic that crept through the terseness of the modern utterances all around me was pure Sibelius.

Here's another illuminating paragraph from Hepokowski:

A broader consideration of these later works suggests that their predominant mode of organization is a more thoroughgoing version of the procedure anticipated in such works as Lemminkäinen's Return, the finale of the Third Symphony and the slow movement of the Fourth. Sibelius never gave the procedure a name but, again, it may be called rotational form: varied recyclings of the thematic pattern established in the piece's first rotation. Rotational form produces cumulative meditations – recurrent revisitings of past cycles, transforming and gathering new ideas as they proceed – which may or may not be set in tension with the expectations of sonata expositions, developments and/or recapitulations. Sibelius typically coupled rotational form with the principle of teleological genesis: the gradual awakening of a climactic goal-utterance (telos) – the more fully awakened ‘Being’ of nature – near the end of the piece.

This so called awakening of 'Being', or telos, is a feature that I most fully recognize in the opening movement of the Fifth. As always, Sibelius wastes no time in introducing his material, and the whole goddamn 15 minute thing is based on the first couple bars. What follows is nearly nine minutes of quiet, pulsating oscillations of material that are continually waiting release. As the tension builds unbearably it once reaches a quick false-climax in a series of loud, dissonant brass chords. It's an impasse, and the music returns to purgatory. But from here on out, Sibelius builds one of the greatest sustained arches of tension and release I have ever heard; his material begins to gel, and what seemed before to be aimlessly floating atoms of timpani rolls, furious string ostinatos and craggy wind vociferations are gathered under the together under a flowing and and entreating cello melody that gradually turns fervid and persuasive. A long crescendo calls up the aforementioned loud, dissonant brass chords that on their most crushing dissonance have become the gateway out of purgatory. Here he changes the tonality entirely to make the final chord of the brass the shift in color from dark to light. What was the most dissonant chord thought possible has now become the most euphonious one. Telos.
Sibelius' use of the rotational form and telos are fertile grounds for such drama to take place but musically and abstractly it is nothing but ruthless in its concision. Sibelius allows no unnecessary note, no budge from the architecture. To be able to make such seemingly free and interesting music, music that absolutely has no precursor in such a way is not only the work of a genius, it is the work of a rarefied one.* The forests are full of spirits and gods and mystery, but the forests are full of plants and trees and animals of enormously complex and cohesive structures, leaves, stems, rings, wood, bones, skin, blood, skeletons.

The best performance of it I have heard of this movement is still Colin Davis' with the Boston Symphony. It is difficult to communicate its effect. It's certainly powerful, but my purple prose over-romanticizes it. The famous Sibelius 'coldness' is everywhere and even the releases are a little icy and gnomic. It's like a long, Finnish orgasm.

*Sibelius is a composer who's individuality often makes me laugh for its sheer peculiarity. To end the Allegro moderato of the Fourth like he does is not just strange it is hubris. It's also awfully effective and haunting, as all his best music is.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great essay, Patrick. I keep thinking about the 4th (in which he goes the furthest harmonically), the 7th (the furthest formally), and Tapiola (a compelling, mysterious piece; Jeux without tennis), but can't seem to write anything cogent about them, so I am looking forward to you doing it instead.

(Speechlessness in the face of music is always a fine and fearsome thing.)

5:18 PM  

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