An Unsolved Mystery
For those who appreciate elegantly solved mysteries, the strange case of composer Jean Sibelius and his lapse into silence has never been satisfactorily explained. The outline of his story goes something like this:
In a remote corner of a faraway land, a strangely gifted youth imagined music of such beauty and power that within his lifetime those imaginings became staple works of orchestras the world over. His sparkling violin concerto was well on its way to setting a record as the one most often recorded during the entire twentieth century. His symphonies and symphonic poems resonated in concert halls throughout the Nordic lands, across
Then the music stopped.
His supporters (for this is a man with decided proponents and opponents) say that the composer's self-criticism grew to such proportions that it shut down his creative faculties completely (the self-criticism being somehow construed as bespeaking the great man's modesty). His detractors point to the composer's all-too-comfortable state pension and eventual prosperity or sagely nod their heads and murmur sanctimoniously about intemperance and the ill effects of unbridled consumption of alcohol.
Yet all these explanations leave a bad taste behind. On the one hand, the self-criticism argument forces one to ask how and why Sibelius differed from other creative artists who, throughout history, have exercised self-criticism of their own. On the other hand, the derogatory judgments fail to stand up to close scrutiny: Sibelius began receiving state support before a single one of his seven numbered symphonies was composed and without it might well have frittered all his time away in â€œsandwich piecesâ€� to feed his growing brood of daughters. And can alcohol really be the explanation? After all, the composer lived well into his ninety-second year, to all appearances in good spirits (the psychological kind) and robust health.
Whatever the solution to this enigma, it is potentially of real importance, and not just to mystery lovers. It matters to all who are dismayed by the awful specter that human creativity is something that can be irretrievably lost.
The Scene of the Crime
Like any good detectives, then, we must visit the scene of the crimeâ€•in this case, Finlandâ€•and unearth buried clues; ask hard questions of those now silent witnesses such as newspapers, diaries, memoirs, and music manuscripts; and, not least, establish a sense of what has been called the geography of biography. Indeed,
Yet the romanticized nature image conceals and distorts. In particular, it misrepresents geopolitical realities, since an essential part of that image is the notion of â€œlittle
The facts give a rather different picture. Territorially, present-day
The scene of the crime thus reveals anything but a simple solution to the mystery. Instead, it forces us to consider an array of complicating factors, not least the roles of the powerful realms of
Incited by the push-pull of the giants on either side of Finland, Sibelius and a handful of his predecessors and contemporaries set out to compose, conduct, draw, paint, poetize, sculpt, and versify what it meant to be Finnish, to inculcate a sense of pride in being Finnish, and through these activities to awaken their fellow Finns to their uniqueness, their separateness, and ultimately the possibilities of nationhood. They succeeded spectacularly, creating a world that so impressed its lustrous accomplishments upon those who encountered it that the epithet â€œgolden ageâ€� was bestowed on their era and its artistic expressions. It was fitting that such a gilded epoch should have been born in regal surroundingsâ€•Imperial
To the extent that this golden age existed, a narrowly Finnish outlook was, paradoxically, not part of its character. Rather, during this time what was Finnish and what was more broadly European were inextricably mixed. It was also during this time that forces unforeseen by the creators of
The hard truth about the Sibelius mystery, and one of the reasons for the difficulties in getting to the heart of it, is that this mystery compels us to confront things we would rather avoid for the sake of social or political correctness, such as class. The language of class difference permeates the correspondence of Sibelius and his contemporaries, colors their perceptions, and shapes their art. Such language raises hackles among many in â€œdemocraticâ€�
The difficulties are undeniable. Who would want to argue that in weighing the benefits of living in a militant democracy against those of living under increasingly autocratic emperors, the gain in human welfare of the one might come at the cost of the creative force engendered by the other? Yet the fact is that, with the series of events that culminated in the Bolshevik Revolution, Finlandâ€™s secession from Russia, and its launch into independence, Jean Sibeliusâ€™s creativityâ€•like that of so many of his generational compatriotsâ€•came to an end. To be sure, the end came gradually. But come it didâ€•within a mere ten years of the countryâ€™s declaration of nationhood.
However â€œself-criticalâ€� Sibelius may have been, to ignore the impact of the cultural and political climate on his and other creative minds is to leave out the most startling and important part of their story. As Sibelius once observed about himself, â€œIâ€™m not suited for â€˜writingâ€™ music. All [music] has to be experienced.â€� Composers, writers, and artists inevitably reflect experiences on their home turf and its tensions in relation to the outer world to which they also belong, and where they travel. To understand Sibelius, to try and fathom the mystery of his lost creativity, mortifyingly played out on an international stage, requires understanding more fully the world from which he came. It is to that end that this book is written.
Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 1â€“12 of Sibelius: A Composer's Life and the Awakening of Finland by Glenda Dawn Goss, published by the
Glenda Dawn Goss
Sibelius: A Composer's Life and the Awakening of Finland
Â©2009, 496 pages, 8 color plates, 36 halftones, 47 musical examples, 7Ã—10
Cloth $55.00 ISBN: 9780226304779
Also available as an e-book
For information on purchasing the bookâ€”from bookstores or here onlineâ€”please go to the webpage for Sibelius.