The Tone Poems of Jean Sibelius

Sibelius 11 Gallen-Kallela Sibelius Portrait (1894)

Portrait of Sibelius with Landscape (1895) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela

In an increasingly ugly world the sources of beauty constantly increase in value but at the same time they become increasingly difficult for ordinary people to discover and explore.  The garbage of pseudo-art so crowds the scene that the chance-encounter with beauty – by which in the past young people especially found themselves bowled over by aesthetic experience that altered their lives – occurs with ever greater infrequency.  The fewer the number of people who already know of something nourishingly beautiful, the fewer docents there are to discover those things to others.  Beauty often occasions an analog of conversion.  Beauty suggests transcendence.  The modern world, however, takes a stance of rigorous opposition to transcendence, which it categorizes among the falsehoods that have, in their pestiferous way, survived the cleansing power of rationality to confuse and delude those who might otherwise devote their services to the enlightened order.  The modern world hates the beautiful, which is why it has made a cult of ugliness.  Ugliness never gets in the way of utility, but beauty does.  Beauty distracts the attention from the petty concerns of a totally immanent world.  Beauty fosters non-conformity.  It nourishes the soul, which, like transcendence, is not supposed to exist.  The present essay addresses one particular, musical source of beauty knowledge of which the author wishes to disseminate among as many others as possible.  The present essay also explores the important philosophical question whether the non-verbal arts can carry a semantic content – that is whether plastic and music can generate meaning.  The artist under discussion in the following paragraphs is one dear to the author of those paragraphs.  His encounter many decades ago with that artist’s work constituted, and powerfully so, a conversion to beauty.  The author wishes to repay his debt. The first order of business is to answer a question.

I. What is a Tone Poem? The genre of the symphonic poem or tone poem traces its origin to the free-standing concert overtures of Ludwig van Beethoven, Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and Hector Berlioz, but also to the picturesque sequences in the actual symphonies of the same composers. Beethoven’s characteristic overtures, such as the three Leonore Overtures for the opera Fidelio (1805) and his Coriolan (1804) and Egmont (1810) Overtures, undertake to represent by purely musical means the essential personal qualities or virtues of a dramatic or literary character. Beethoven obviously assumes the possibility of such an endeavor although musicological spoilsports, especially in the Twentieth Century, have asserted the opposite.  They argue that music can express nothing but itself and that it can convey no semantic content in the way that verbal expression conveys such content.  According to this assertion, the auditor who buys into the assumption and believes that he has indeed apprehended the musical representation of a character, or anything else, has in fact deluded himself.  Igor Stravinsky argued as much in his stern-faced Poetics of Music (1942), originally delivered as a series of lectures at Harvard.  Roger Scruton upholds the thesis in his massive, intimidating Aesthetics of Music (1997), a type of musicological Critique of Pure Reason.  The program, both men argue, remains extrinsic to the work, and might even get in the way of the listener’s proper apprehension of the work.  One doubts, however, that Beethoven or Mendelssohn or Schumann or Berlioz suffered from delusion.  The confidence of their assumption that music might articulate something other than itself, along with itself invites respect.  One could counter Stravinsky and Scruton with the proposition that if hearing characters, stories, and landscapes in music were a delusion, the delusion would have long since so deeply ensconced itself in the composer’s intention and the audience’s expectation that it might as well be real.

Not only personality and character, but also landscape and event constitute the subject-matter, so to speak, of the Beethoven type of concert overture and of the Early-Romantic picturesque in music.  Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture (1832) offers a case in point, as does the slow movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (1830), the former with its conjuration of emotions associated with a vision of the Western Isles and the North Atlantic and the latter with its onomatopoeias of two distantly heard shepherd’s pipes answering one another and the approach and recession of a thunderstorm – all in the countryside.  The Swedish composer Franz Berwald offered his overtures Elfenspiel  (1841) and Erinnerungen an den Norwegischen Alpen (1842), the one purporting to give a glimpse into the mischief of the gnomes and leprechauns and the other to articulate the memory, no doubt tinged with the proper awe, of the Norwegian mountains.  Skeptics like Stravinsky and Scruton aside, the plausibility of a musical semantics has never lacked in philosophical advocacy.  Oswald Spengler, who regarded music as the highest expression of the Western spiritual and artistic impulse, broaches the topic in his Decline of the West, Volume I (1919).  In his chapter on “Music and Plastic – The Arts of Form,” Spengler writes that “the formative impulse that is at work in the wordless arts can never be understood until we come to regard the distinction between the optical and acoustic means as only a superficial one.”  According to Spengler, “A ‘singing’ picture of Claude Lorrain or of Watteau does not really address itself to the bodily eye any more than the space-straining music since Bach addresses itself to the bodily ear.”

Sibelius 14 Liszt by Carl Ehrenberg (1868)

Franz Liszt by Carl Ehrenberg (1868)

For Spengler, the issue of the meaning in as well as the meaning of music extends beyond the essential unity of the pictorial and the acoustic to include the literary.  “We read ‘Othello’ and ‘Faust’ and we study orchestral scores,” Spengler argues, “in order to let the undiluted spirit of these works take effect upon us.”  That is, “we change one sense agency for another,” but without changing the goal, which is “livingly [to] experience behind the sensuous impressions a whole world of others.”  A Shakespeare or a Beethoven first of all has an intense spiritual response to the world, which he experiences inwardly in the space of imagination, and which he then recreates as art so that the reader or theatergoer or listener might be granted entry into the same space of imagination where he might then make acquaintance with the response and share in it.  An anticipation of Spengler’s thinking must have occurred to Franz Liszt, the piano virtuoso turned composer, who coined the term symphonic poem and who innovated the genre.  Many of Liszt’s piano compositions began in his response to a literary, pictorial, architectural, or landscape-related phenomenon.  In every case, the experience is more than merely aesthetic – it is spiritual.  Consider the seventh and final item of the Second Year of Les années de pèlerinage, the “quasi-sonata” After a Reading of Dante; or the fourth item of the Third Year Fountains of Villa d’Este.  (A better translation of the title might be: The Play of the Waters at Villa D’Este.)  Liszt would recreate for his audience his sense in

In The Music of Franz Liszt (1954), Humphrey Searle writes how, “In the symphonic poems Liszt wished to expound philosophical and humanistic ideas which were of the greatest importance to him, and many of which were connected with his personal problems as an artist.”  Searle emphasizes that Liszt “was not interested in the minute pictorialism into which the symphonic poem later degenerated, nor, in the first place, in ‘telling a story’ in music; the story, if any, to him was merely the symbol of an idea.”  In all, Liszt composed thirteen symphonic poems, the first What One Hears on the Mountain after a poem by Victor Hugo in 1848 with revisions in 1854 and the last, From the Cradle to the Grave, in 1882.  In between Liszt took inspiration from Friedrich Schiller for his Ideals (No. 12, 1857), from Greek myth for his Prometheus (No. 5, 1850) and Orpheus (No. 4, 1854), and from the painter Wilhelm von Kaulbach for his Battle of the Huns  (No. 11, 1857).  Liszt goes well beyond Beethoven in that these compositions eschew the limitations of the sonata structure and employ what Liszt referred to as the metamorphosis of the theme, so that the form is in each case self-generating.  The duration in performance increases over that of the free-standing concert overture.  A Beethoven overture might require ten or twelve minutes for performance.  What One Hears on the Mountain and The Ideals require twenty-five or thirty minutes.  Liszt’s Dante and Faust Symphonies, which have many qualities in common with the symphonic poems, play for an hour or slightly longer in concert.

Sibelius 15 Strauss by Fritz Erler 1898)

Richard Strauss by Fritz Erler (1898)

Liszt’s symphonic poems kicked off something like a vogue for the genre – with other European composers, some of them Liszt’s contemporaries, others of the younger generation, taking up the form.  In France, Camille Saint-Saêns produced four symphonic poems, three of them based on Greek myth and the fourth based on the medieval Dance of Death.  These are: Omphale’s Spinning Wheel (1871), Phaeton (1873), Danse Macabre (1874), and The Youth of Hercules (1877).  The symphonic poems of Saint-Saêns lack the seriousness of import of those of Liszt – Danse Macabre in particular seems tongue-in-cheek.  They are, however, effective in performance.  César Franck and his protégé Vincent d’Indy wrote symphonic poems.  Franck’s Accursed Hunter (1882) pays tribute to Liszt, whom Franck admired, by taking its program from Gottfried Bürger’s German poetic ballad Der Wilde Jäger. D’Indy’s Enchanted Forest (1878) likewise roots itself in a German text – this one by Ludwig Uhland.  Czech composers began writing symphonic poems.  Those by Zdenek Fibich, Bedrich Smetana, and Antonin Dvorak follow the Lisztian model as do the early tone poems, as he called them, of Richard Strauss.  It was Strauss who enlarged the scale of the genre beyond even what Liszt had done.  With Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896), Ein Heldenleben (1898), Sinfonia Domestica (1903), and Eine Alpensinfonie (1916) Strauss brought the tone poem into equivalency with the symphony.  In the brilliance of their orchestration, their thematic distinctiveness, and their story-telling power, these works, which reflect the extrovert personality of their composer, have ensconced themselves in the repertory.  They are in their way the culmination of a tradition.

II. The Early Tone Poems of Sibelius. Personality-wise, the Finn Jean Sibelius (1865 – 1957) could not stand in greater contrast to his flamboyant Bavarian contemporary Richard Strauss. Strauss came from a musical family; his milieu was bourgeois, affluent, and cultured. Strauss’s stamping grounds were the vibrant cities of Munich and Vienna.  Sibelius’s father, a physician, contracted typhoid fever and died when his son was only two, leaving him and a brother and sister to be raised by their mother and grandmother into whose house they moved after being forced to settle debts by selling their own.  Munich and Vienna were cosmopolitan places, but Hämeenlinna in Southern Finland was provincial and yet it was surrounded by forests and lakes that the young Sibelius loved.  Despite straitened circumstances, Sibelius attended competent schools and, with encouragement from an uncle, began his training as a musician.  Eventually he would study composition not only in Helsinki but also in Berlin and Vienna with such teachers as Albert Becker, Robert Fuchs, and Karl Goldmark.  Whereas Strauss felt at home in an urban environment, Sibelius came to prefer the seashores, the lakes, and the forests of his native country to its cities.  Sibelius lived for more than fifty years in a house, Ainola, beside Lake Tuusula in Southern Finland that he had built for his wife and family.  In the only recorded interview with Sibelius, from 1948, the man so laconically reserves his answers that the Finnish Radio reporter runs out of questions and has lamely to improvise for the last ten minutes.   Music-wise Sibelius also stands in marked contrast to Strauss.  Extrovert and even brash, Ein Heldenleben and Ein Alpensinfonie anticipate cinema music; their sweeping fanfares herald the Nietzschean superman, with whom Strauss, a reader of Nietzsche, identified.  Sibelius could compose on a large scale like Strauss, and he knew how to conjure heroism.  Nevertheless the heroic element in a composition by Sibelius must always temper itself in the presence of nature’s mystery.  In a work of Sibelius’s early artistic maturity, the tone poem En Saga or An Ancient Tale (1892), the human struggle, one of the Nordic feuds no doubt, gradually dissolves into the atmosphere and the landscape.  The mystery remains where the contest of the parties has vanished.

As a writer of tone poems, Sibelius at the very least rises in rank as the equal of Strauss, but he might well excel Strauss.  Although Sibelius’s reputation rests on his sequence of seven symphonies, he first exercised his talent for large-scale orchestral composition in the tone-poem genre.  He would conclude his compositional career with a tone poem, his Tapiola (1926), more than thirty years later.  En Saga and Skogsrået or The Wood Nymph (1895) would indicate their composer’s Swedish roots, if only by their titles, and the influence on him of Swedish literary Romanticism.  Sibelius stemmed from the Finland Swedes and spoke Swedish as his first language.  He learned Finnish in his teens and used it in public, but Swedish remained the household tongue.  The majority of Sibelius’s songs employ Swedish rather than Finnish texts, many by the Finnish-Swedish poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg.  Skogsrået on the other hand takes its inspiration from a ballad of the same name by the Swedish poet Viktor Rydberg.  The ballad tells the story of Björn, a self-satisfied swain, who one autumn evening takes a forest path on his way to a feast.  In the moonlight things acquire a weird cast.  Björn falls into rapture.  The wood nymph appearing to him he suffers instantaneous beguilement and through her nature gains power over him.  As Rydberg puts it: “But he whose heart a wood nymph stole, / Can never hope to retrieve it: / Till dreams in moonlight take his soul, / He will never love a woman.”  Rydberg’s lines must have appealed to Sibelius as much for their nature-imagery as for the specific events that they narrate.  The music attempts to represent that nature-imagery.  The rather swaggering trombone fanfare heard at the outset suggests Björn’s misplaced self-confidence.  Sibelius gives to the wood nymph a theme appropriately sinuous and beckoning.  As in En Saga the natural presence prevails over human vanity.

Sibelius 08 Kullervo (1899) by Gallen-Kallela

Kullervo Rides to War (1901) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela

In the documentary film On the Path of Sibelius (2015), conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, a major proponent of the composer, says that the Sibelian oeuvre is first and foremost a powerful response to nature.  “It is not depiction,” in Ashkenazy’s words; “it is identification with nature – identification with what we are.”  Because of course the human being belongs in nature and possesses its own nature.  The immense five-movement work Kullervo (1892) belongs to the same early creativity as En Saga and Skogsrået.  Whereas those works give expression to their author’s Swedish side, Kullervo, based on episodes from the Kalevala, gives expression to his emergent Finnish nationalist convictions.  Sometimes referred to as a suite of symphonic movements, sometimes as a symphony, and sometimes as a tone poem – Kullervo qualifies as the most ambitious work by far that Sibelius undertook before he reached his thirties.  Kullervo offers itself to interpretation as a major instance of what Ashkenazy points to as Sibelius’s talent for self-transcending identification with earth, water, air, and fire – in all their manifestations.  The characteristic Sibelian identification with the majesty of the Finnish landscape animates the score, but an additional element adds itself to the musical synthesis.  In Kullervo Sibelius created a partly vocal-choral work: The long third movement has the aspect, practically, of an operatic scene with two soloists and a men’s chorus; the fifth and final movement brings back the men’s chorus to describe the death of the hero.  In Kullervo, Sibelius begins to identify himself with the myths and sagas of the Finns, an identification that immediately plunges into the depth and thereafter runs consistently deep.

The story of the tragic hero Kullervo belongs to the darkest strand of Kalevala.  An orphan, Kullervo’s clan has been killed off by its enemies, who make a slave of their kidnap victim.  Kullervo, smarting against his mistreatment, becomes a beast of vengeance, the desire for which obliterates all other aspects of his personality.  Fate serves Kullervo rudely.  Escaping from his captive servitude, he lures a girl into union only to discover that she is his sister whom he supposed dead.  Horrified, the girl kills herself.  Later Kullervo kills himself.  The paintings of Kullervo by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, a friend of Sibelius, show the hero in various postures of wrath, anguish, and despair.  The pathos of the Kullervo story inspired Sibelius to what might well be his grandest, most theatrical music for in it he saw the fortitude of the Finns.  The vision entails a paradox for while the story reads like a nightmare that ends in self-extinction, Sibelius extracts from it a type of triumph hence the grim certitude of the music.  In Kullervo Sibelius maintains a high melodic profile.  The themes and motives impress themselves on the memory from the first.  Andrew Barnett writes in Sibelius (2007) that “the way [the composer] relates themes and motifs within and between movements clearly points towards the tightly woven inner relationships and interdependencies of his mature style.”  Barnett also remarks the influence of Anton Bruckner on Sibelius’s use of the brass.  Sibelius never permitted the publication of Kullervo and more or less suppressed the work after 1900 or so.  Its revival came with its first recording in 1970 with the Bournemouth Symphony under the baton of Paavo Berglund.

In his booklet note to the BIS compact disc of Sibelius’s only completed opera, Jungfrun i Torn or The Maiden in the Tower (1896) Erik Twaststjerna quotes the composer at the time: “It is Liszt’s view of music that is closest to me.  That is, the symphonic poem.”  The second half of the 1890s saw several new items in the genre issue from Sibelius’s pen.  Vårsång or Spring Song first appeared in 1894 but Sibelius revised and issued it in 1895.  Vårsång invokes its season in simple songlike terms; it is perhaps more in the character of a mood-piece than a true symphonic poem – the closest to the impressionism of Frederick Delius that Sibelius ever approached.  Another ambitious work almost on the scale of Kullervo followed in 1895, the Four Legends from the Kalevala also known as The Lemminkäinen Suite: Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of Saari; The Swan of Tuonela; Lemminkäinen in Tuonela; and Lemminkäinen’s Return.   Unlike the vain and luckless Björn and the nemesis-driven Kullervo, Lemminkäinen corresponds to the mythic role of the trickster-adventurer, but he also incorporates traits of the archaic shaman.  Now a shaman is, as one might say, a specialist in identifying himself with and gaining the trust or assistance of the natural elements or of their representative spirits.  Such a figure will have appealed greatly to Sibelius, who like many artists had something of the shaman about him.  For example, birds in their flight and vocalizations fascinated Sibelius, who had with a totemic relation.

Sibelius 07 Lemminkainenin Tuonela by Gallen-Kallela

Lemminkainen in Tuonela (1897) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela

The Four Legends like Kullervo resemble a symphony.  The suite boasts some degree of thematic interconnection between the movements.  The whole makes a cumulative impression greater than the parts when taken individually although the parts may be played independently.  Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of Saari qualifies as the largest-scale self-generating movement that Sibelius had yet undertaken.  In it Sibelius significantly develops his variety of Nordic Impressionism.  A symphonic scherzo, Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of Saari exemplifies Sibelius’s ability to weave magical tapestries in sound by combining many motivic strands in rapidly moving polyphony.  The woodwind figures in the middle section brilliantly instantiate the technique.  In the episode of Kalevala  to which the first of the four tone poems responds, the young hero, learning that the men of Saari have gone off on a raid, travels there to make love to the flickas.  When the men return Lemminkäinen barely escapes, but he has enjoyed the fullness of his expedition.  Lemminkäinen in Tuonela, the third movement, finds its inspiration in the shamanistic death and resurrection of the hero, hacked to death by the demons of the underworld but magically restored to wholeness and life by his magician mother.  Sibelius applies the darkest colors of the musical palette.  The music begins with scurrying tremolando figures in the cellos and basses.  Passages for the brass in the middle section echo Richard Wagner’s funeral music from The Twilight of the Gods.  The remaining episodes – The Swan of Tuonela and Lemminkäinen’s Return – are simpler in form and on a smaller scale.

III. Later Tone Poems – From Finlandia to Tapiola. By the turn of the century Sibelius had commenced his sequence of symphonies, which would eventually number seven with the trunk of an eighth being consigned to the fire sometime in the 1940s.  The symphonic genre would dominate his creative output thereafter, but the composer still found inspiration and time to compose eight works in the tone-poem genre.  The generative influences from 1900 on originate in Finnish (Kalevala) and, perhaps surprisingly, Greek myth and legend.  The score by which the public knows Sibelius best, his Finlandia, belongs to the turn of the century.  Catalogs of Sibelius’s work usually classify Finlandia with the tone poems but it is more like an overture.  Many commentators nominate Pohjola’s Daughter (1906) as the finest of Sibelius’s tone poems.  Barnett opines: “The motivic material is quintessentially Sibelian throughout…  Pohjola’s Daughter, with its wide range of orchestral colour – from powerfully atmospheric writing for darker-hued instruments such as the cello and cor anglais to overwhelming yet perfectly judged brass climaxes – is rightly hailed as one of Sibelius’s finest middle-period works.”  The Kalevala episode of Väinämöinen and the Daughter of Pohjola, which inspires the tone poem, parallels the story of Rydberg’s Björn and the Wood Nymph.  The theme of beguilement by a bewitchingly beautiful girl appears in both.  Björn encounters this Wood Nymph on a forest path on his way to a festivity.  Väinämöinen encounters the beautiful but haughty Finnish Maiden while traveling by sled across the landscape.  The Wood Nymph scorns Björn and he comes away accursed.  The Maiden scorns Väinämöinen.  He wounds himself in trying to fulfill the tasks that she sets him to complete before she consents to become his mistress.  The two tales differ in that Björn, young, arrogant, and not very bright, steps into the curse; whereas Väinämöinen, wise and learned, craftily escapes from further entanglement when he knows himself bested.

Väinämöinen qualifies even more than Lemminkäinen for the shaman’s role; he resembles Odin in his capacity for magic, foresight, and insight.  Sibelius, probably under the influence of his wife, went through the motions of being a good Lutheran, but it is difficult not to think of him as a natural and intensely committed pagan, a trait bound up with his lifelong critical attitude respecting the modern world.  The mythic personae and landscapes of the Kalevala function for Sibelius as primeval totems.  It will give insight concerning Sibelius’s notion of the artist to juxtapose a passage from Spengler, whom an earlier paragraph has already quoted, with a passage from anthropologist Victor Turner’s discussion of ritual and art.  In The Decline, Volume II, Chapter V (“Peoples, Races, Tongues”), Spengler distinguishes between Being and Waking-Being.  With the former, Spengler links destiny, time, race, yearning, politics, and totem.  With the latter, he links causality, language, space, fear, tension, religion, and taboo.  “All that is of Totem,” Spengler writes, “has physiognomy,” whereas “all that is Taboo has system.” Spengler adds that, “In the Totemistic resides the common feeling of beings that belong to the same stream of existence.”  Totem, it seems, is participatory; taboo is explanatory.  In his study From Ritual to Theater (1982), Turner addresses the cultural phenomenon of shamanism, remarking that the shaman is a type of worker-performer specializing in “the work of the gods” and “sacred human work.”  The shaman facilitates “communal participation… the passage of the whole society through crises.”  He creates a demarcation between the sacred and the profane “without which profane human work would be… impossible to conceive.”

Sibelius 02 Vainamoinen by Ekman

Vainamoinen (1866) by Robert Ekman

Turner’s specialist in the sacred regularly brings his community back into contact with its Spenglerian “stream of existence.”  He reminds the community of its own, as Spengler would put it, physiognomy, so that it might recover its identity.  It is useful in this context to remember Ashkenazy’s remark about Sibelius’s capacity for identification.  Spengler’s Totem is participatory in just this way, but importantly it is also largely non-verbal or at least more ostensive than discursive.  Spengler’s terms race and politics invite skepticism but they apply to Sibelius’s artistic project, which deliberately entangled itself with the agenda of acquiring independence for the Finnish people.  By race Spengler means only – and yet precisely – the spiritual identity of a people; he never reduces a people to a material substrate.  Sibelius intended that his music should assist in awakening just such a spiritual identity after centuries of foreign domination.  Before a people can explain itself (Spengler’s “Waking-Being”), it must experience itself; that is to say, it must commune again with its ancestral totems.  The story behind Pohjola’s Daughter provocatively finds Väinämöinen on a journey or, to invoke Spengler’s vocabulary, in the stream of his existence, to the cumulative experience of which the Maiden will add a new and ultimately edifying detail.  For the audience, music itself constitutes a stream of existence, elevated in its intensity, and both outside of and ontologically prior to the routinized sequence of profane events.  As Turner suggests, the rationality of the routinized sequence founds itself in the pre-rational – the sacred; it is the pre-rational that justifies the rational.

To write of music entails a paradox.  It would be tempting, for example, or perhaps it is unavoidable, to refer to the next of Sibelius’s tone poems after Pohjola’s Daughter as visionary even though music makes its effect according to physics in the realm of acoustics alone and not in the realm of optics.  Night-Ride and Sunrise (1908) nevertheless, as its title suggests, records a largely visual experience.  In the Night-Ride part of it, Sibelius’s score puts its listeners once again into the stream of experience.  Barnett writes that whereas usually Sibelius “tended to present his musical argument in broad brushstrokes,” in Night-Ride and Sunrise “the manner… is demonstrably pictorial.”  According to Barnett, many years after composing the work Sibelius “told his secretary, Santeri Levas, that it was inspired by a sunrise he witnessed during a journey by sledge from Helsinki to Kerava around the turn of the century.”  Sibelius places the first section of the work, which Barnett describes as being dominated by a “trochaic rhythm” suggestive of motion, mainly with the strings and winds.  Grimness prevails as though the journey was an ordeal.  The trope from darkness to light appears frequently in serious composition.  Franck conceived of his Symphony in D-Minor in such terms; Alexander Glazunov, as Barnett remarks, composed a ten-minute tone poem called From Darkness to Light; and Ernest Bloch alleged that the fourth movement of his Suite for Viola and Orchestra represented a sunrise in the tropics.  Spengler writes that a painting might sing.  Perhaps synaesthesia pervades all the arts so that images solicit tones and tones images.  Music indeed seems to create dimensions of space in the mind of the listener in which light is a necessary attribute.  In Barnett’s assessment, Sibelius’s sunrise participates in “a calm grandeur that anticipates the Fifth and Seventh symphonies.”

Sibelius 01 Bard (1817) by John Martin

The Bard (1817) by John Martin

The Bard (1913) consists in a short self-portrait of the composer-shaman.  Sibelius uses the orchestra sparingly, giving to the harp an almost concertante role, and with the brass intruding hesitantly from time to time.  The music seems to rise out of the earth.  Luonnotar (1913), drawing on the Finnish creation myth, requires a soprano, who sings a text by the composer himself based on runos from the Kalevala. Sibelius’s words, no less than his tones, emphasize the cosmic loneliness of Luonnotar, also known as Ilmatar, a type of tutelary spirit of oceans and waters, who yearns in agony for a companionship that never appears.  The scurrying figures in the strings in the opening paragraph of the score and the long-held solitary notes in the woodwinds suggest the desolation in which Luonnotar dwells.  The soprano enters almost immediately, narrating the story.  The vocal style is quasi-recitativo. At one point a storm raises the waves.  A seagull appears, but can find to place to alight.  Luonnotar offers her upraised knee where the bird builds its nest and leaves an egg, the shell-fragments of which, when it hatches, become the moon and the stars.  Luonnotar herself vanishes as though she had sacrificed herself.  The atmosphere that Sibelius establishes combined solemnity and awe, as is proper in recounting the events of absolute origin.  In The Oceanides (1914) Sibelius once again explores the domain of the waters.  The contrast with Luonnotar could hardly be greater.  The work has a balletic quality.  Some passages anticipate the gestures of 1980s minimalism.  As in Luonnotar a storm passes, but it is not frightful – it is merely refreshing.  These are Aegean not Baltic waters.

In Tapiola (1926) Sibelius may be said to have summed himself up and then retired into silence.  In regard to Tapiola, which names itself after the old Finnish god of the forests, the commentary of Wilfrid Mellers in Singing in the Wilderness (2001) tops that of Barnett in his study of the composer.  Comparing Tapiola to Frederick Delius’s Song of the High Hills, Mellers writes: “Sibelius, as he communes with nature, goes further [than Delius] in self-obliteration, perhaps because his respect for civilization brought a measure of detachment, but perhaps merely because the Finnish solitudes were limitless and irremediable.”  As Mellers remarks, “The entire structure [of the tone poem] proliferates from a single seed.”  That is, the score appears to be monothematic or even uni-motivic – a gesture that extends the Lisztian metamorphosis of the theme to its farthest horizon.  It is as though the old shaman required of himself in Tapiola to undertake one final ordeal: To transcend himself absolutely by total communion with the pre-human environment – that which predated the advent of humanity but that stamped humanity with its presence.  In a lesser composer, the refusal to modulate from B-Minor until the two concluding chords, would have led to tedious sameness, but Sibelius gathers complexity from simplicity.  The listener finds himself caught up in the conjuration of the totemic realm.  It is Pure Being.

IV. Avatars and Controversy. Sibelius himself withdrew from the world, rather like Väinämöinen in the Kalevala after Christianity came to the North. Rumor had it that Väinämöinen, like King Arthur, would one day return, perhaps in the form of an avatar. Sibelius gave rise to numerous avatars and not only in Scandinavia.  One might begin with Scandinavia, however.  Sibelius’s fame loomed so colossally that it became the goal of younger composers to fly from his model.  This has proven itself difficult.  Take the case of Joonas Kokkonen (1921 – 1996) who went as far as to adopt a type of serialism and who wrote only abstract music with nary a tone poem in his catalogue.  Take Kokkonen’s Symphonic Sketches (1968).  Although in three fairly short movements rather than through-composed, Kokkonen’s score sounds remarkably like Night-Ride and Sunrise right down to the dawn-like brass peroration in the finale.  Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928 – 2016) began as a modernist but soon softened his approach.  Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus (1972) would have pleased Sibelius.  Rautavaara made tape recordings of Arctic birds and his three-movement suite integrates those recordings with the composer’s ultra-refined brand of Sibelius-like orchestral Impressionism.  Kalevi Aho (born 1949) belongs to a younger generation than Kokkonen among whom the strictures of serialism are no longer obligatory.  In a work like The Rejoicing of Deep Waters (1995) the listener detects many Sibelian traits – it is a type of homage, one guesses, in part to The Oceanides and in part to Luonnotar.  Aulis Sallinen (born 1935) produced as his First Symphony (1971) a one-movement work that employs a characteristically Sibelian device – the pedal-note held by a bass instrument that serves as the ground for musical events that unfold in the higher registers.  Sallinen’s score could pass for a latter-day Sibelius-inspired tone poem despite the fact that Sallinen wanted to escape Sibelius’s influence.

Sibelius 06 Building the Boat by Gallen-Kallela

Vainamoinen Builds his Boat (1903) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela

English and American composers drew on the Sibelian idiom.  Echoes of Sibelius make themselves heard in the Symphony in G-Minor (1937) by E. J. Moeran (1894 – 1950) and in the First Symphony (1935) by William Walton (1902 – 1983).  Sir Arnold Trevor Bax (1883 – 1953) knew Sibelius, who after Bax’s death accepted the presidency of the Arnold Bax Society.  Bax made no pretence of not having absorbed the influence of Sibelius.  That influence reached its height in the 1930s in such scores as: Northern Ballad No. 1 (1927), Winter Legends (1929), The Tale the Pine Trees Knew (1931), Northern Ballad No. 2 (1934), and Fifth and Sixth Symphonies (1932 and 1935).  In The Tale the Pine Trees Knew Bax makes direct reply to Tapiola although Bax’s score frowns less than that of Sibelius.  Like Sibelius, Bax suffered in the post-war anti-Romantic hostility of the modernist composers and their supporters, but the situation has by a sweet irony gradually reversed itself since the 1970s.  Perhaps the most deliberate avatar of Sibelius was the American born but self-consciously Swedish composer Howard Hanson (1896 – 1981).  Hanson’s first three symphonies enthusiastically imitate Sibelius’s symphonic procedures and cultivate traits of his orchestration.  Hanson produced three or four works in the tone-poem genre – the most “Sibelian” of them being the late Bold Island Suite (1961).  Bax could sometimes match Sibelius in a grim mood.  Hanson leaned more towards naïve optimism than either Bax or Sibelius, who could take a dim view of things.  Bold Island Suite sounds rather like a synthesis of sunny moments only, culled from Sibelius, but this is not to disparage its altogether pleasant and listenable quality.

Sibelius, as already mentioned, became a bane and a straw-figure for the musical avant-garde beginning in the middle of the Twentieth Century.  Sibelius indeed provides the target for one of the most bigoted and vitriolic musicological slanders ever perpetrated.  In the Zeitschrift fur Sozialforschung (Journal for Social Research) sometime in 1938 the musicologist, philosopher, and would-be composer  Theodor W. Adorno published his Gloss on Sibelius.  Adorno maintains a tone at once hysterical and apocalyptic: “If Sibelius is good, then the criteria of musical quality that have endured from Bach to Schoenberg – a wealth of relations, articulation, [and] unity in diversity – are done in once and for all.”  According to Adorno, Sibelius’s nature imagery is really “but a tattered photograph of the familiar apartment.”  Sibelius’s creativity consists, in Adorno’s ranting judgment, only in so much “degradation.”  Adorno psychoanalyzes Sibelius by ascribing to him an overwhelming inferiority complex that led him after his studies in Berlin and Vienna to return to his land of lakes so as to hide from the criticism of his erstwhile preceptors.  “Sibelius’s success,” Adorno asserts, “is a symptom of the disturbance of musical consciousness.”  What might motivate such a screed?  The general modern hatred for beauty, in which Adorno participated, would be one answer.  Resentment might be another.  Adorno had also studied composition and he composed, but his music, indistinguishable from the rest of atonal music, found no audience.  Sibelius, on the other hand, appealed to a large audience and benefited from a subscription fund to defray the cost of recording his music.

Inadvertently, Adorno might have gotten one thing right.  Sibelius’s music, Adorno declares, provides a refuge for people who “flee from the dissonances.”  And why not, as one might ask?  Those who “flee from the dissonances” flee also from a manifestation of the modernity that acts everywhere and all the time to destroy the inherited arrangements including the old sentimental education that trained people in the appreciation of beauty.  Let it be added that those who seek out Sibelius in preference to dissonance do not take refuge in anything easy.  They must come to terms with an original and in some ways cranky artist who shies not from making demands on his listeners.  Consider further some of the perverse implications of Adorno’s statement.  He evidently wants audiences to immerse themselves against their wont in the painfulness and dislocation of the Second Viennese School as a type of self-punishment for being bourgeois and unprogressive.  Adorno would have known of Sibelius’s political convictions — he had sided with the “Whites” in Finland’s Civil War of 1918 when a Communist insurrection threatened to take over the country on the eve of its independence — and because he was a political snob, the Finn’s dissentient convictions would have irritated him.  Sibelius, like any reactionary worth his name, embraced a form of Traditionalism.  It might seem strange to pair the name of Sibelius with that of T. S. Eliot, but consideration will show that they have not a little in common.  Readers know Eliot as the consummate modernist in verse, but that has to do with his form rather than his content.  As far as his content goes, Eliot is a consummate and keenly critical anti-modernist.  In The Waste Land, he invokes medieval Celtic myth and legend; he valorizes the mystic vision and he sees in Brahman ritual a symbol that opposes itself to modern materialism and atheism.  There are shamanistic traits in The Waste Land, to be sure.  Sibelius looked back to the Romantic idea of harmony, but his musical processes, unique to him, belong therefore to the modern period in which he lived; he could weave a tapestry of motifs as expertly as Eliot.  The content, however, Sibelius, like Eliot, draws from the mythic and legendary past.  Sibelius is accessible yet often at the same time strange or uncanny in a healing way.

13 thoughts on “The Tone Poems of Jean Sibelius

  1. Pingback: The Tone Poems of Jean Sibelius | @the_arv

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  3. You’ve helped me understand that the relation of modern art and modern music is opposition to what you call “musical semantics.” Opposition to program music is essentially the same as opposition to representational art. And there were, of course, some modernist writers who seemed to have rejected verbal semantics. Now that I think of it, that’s the theoretical heart of deconstruction theory: free-floating signifiers with no connection to any signified.

    This may have sounded bold and exciting a hundred years ago, but we now know that, like many things that sound bold and exciting, non-representational art goes rancid very quickly.

    I’m a duffer when it comes to music, so I try to be modest in my opinions. It seems to me that a theoretical argument that music cannot signify anything outside itself falls to pieces if experience shows that music does, in fact, signify something outside itself. Obviously, perceiving this signification will require education in certain conventions, so that a Bushman of the Kalahari will not think of spring meadows if he hears Beethoven’s Pastoral. But this is no different than words, and very few people are taken in by the grift that words have no significance.

    • Dear JM:

      I have naturally been reading a good deal about Sibelius and his music in recent days. I found Constant Lambert’s Music Ho! — from the late 1940s — at the Canadian Gutenberg website. Lambert, himself a composer picturesque in his leaning, keenly criticizes the abstraction and bloodlessness of the Schoenberg and Stravinsky schools (which after Schoenberg’s death, would merge), but lavishes praise on Sibelius. (The final third of the book is devoted to Sibelius.) Defending Sibelius against the the attitude that he was nothing but an aesthetic reactionary, Lambert indicts a sentence that struck me powerfully: “On the contrary, [Sibelius] is the only modern composer who has maintained a steady and logical progress, being forced neither into a mechanical repetition of his own mannerisms nor into an equally mechanical reaction against them.” Schoenberg’s serialism and Stravinsky’s pastiches of baroque forms are, indeed, mechanical, and as such are neither organic nor psychic. Therefore they cannot be meaning-bearing. In fact, they are anti-meaningful by a perverse calculation.

      In high school in Santa Monica in the late 1960s and early 1970s I always enrolled in the summer courses of an eccentric English teacher who cared nothing for the “established” curriculum, but, guessing that we would respond to serious things, opened the window for us onto serious things. Every week, he would set aside one class session for listening to real music. His enthusiasm was contagious, so when he listened raptly to Mahler’s First Symphony or Strauss’s Heldenleben or Sibelius’s symphonic poems, we listened raptly, too. People have a natural response to beauty, but that natural response requires training, just as you suggest. Alas! such training has all but disappeared.

      Thank you for commenting.


  4. To the critics who ‘…argue that music can express nothing but itself and that it can convey no semantic content in the way that verbal expression conveys such content’, I would point to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture which admirably depicts the timeless Orthodoxy of Russia with the ‘cloud no bigger than a man’s hand’ of the distant Marseillaise as the French cross the border. Further peaceful scenes of Russian life are repeatedly interrupted by the rapidly increasing strains of the anthem of the fast approaching Grande Armée, until the collision with the Russian troops comes at Borodino with a violence that leaves both armies exhausted for a while. Then the Russians recover and run Boney out of town – all the way back where he came from. The history of the campaign is all there.

    Then, of course, there is the staggering achievement of Wagner with Der Ring Des Nibelungen.
    I do not have time to explain all that goes on here in the music, but heartily recommend: ‘Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen – An Introduction by Deryck Cooke’ for those that wish to begin to explore what the music does here.

    • Tchaikovsky quotes melodies that have a known semantic implication. As JM Smith says, every word has a known semantic implication — to those who speak the language.

      I know Cooke well. Currently I am reading Roger Scruton’s Ring of Truth, which concedes that the musical side of Wagner’s tetralogy has a semantic content. He retreats, in other words, from his “purist” position in The Aesthetics of Music.

      • You don’t need to speak French or Russian, or know the history or tunes quoted in the 1812, to detect that the music depicts the intrusion of an ‘alien strain’ into a peaceful ‘base culture’, resulting in a collision followed by the driving out of the intruder by the newly roused base culture’s defences. That basic story is what the music unmistakably relates. Those unfamiliar with the history behind the work might just as easily see it as referring to a body’s immune system repelling a bacterial infection. Nevertheless, the basic story remains the same.

        As for ‘every word has a known semantic implication — to those who speak the language’, many words can have more than one semantic implication, depending on the context (eg: phrases and clauses) in which they occur. Context is all.

    • Thank you, Thomas, for the reference. I read the article with interest and pleasure.However, I am not sure the contraction and diminution of meaning that Barfield terms ‘internalisation’ (I prefer UK spellings) really equates to insanity – not, at least, for those who push for the reduction. It is a process driven by the will to power of those who would control the minds of other people, through controlling the words with which they express their thoughts. If the word ‘man’ is stripped of its connotations and ambiguities (which are the same ambiguities that ‘anthropos’ has in Greek – I cannot speak for the Hebrew) then Genesis 1:27 [So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.] can be presented as either meaningless drivel to be corrected, or a patriarchal political outrage to be suppressed. In either case, by reducing language to a technical one word to one meaning equivalence, either this-or-that-denotation but never both this-and-that-connotation, the would-be Philosopher Kings (PPE graduates – Philosophy, Politics and Economics – that infest the public spaces today) would destroy the power of poetry and religion to transcend the robotic, mechanistic world in which our ‘leaders’ would imprison us, without the vocabulary to imagine something better.
      Words, phrases and clauses are the vehicles of thought. By reducing their meanings, the thoughts which they can express are also reduced.
      Essentially, the whole process is Humpty-Dumpty’s grab for power.
      He (or, rather, zhe) is to be mistress…

  5. A high school student of mine (former, since she just graduated), a talented viola player, recently recommended Sibelius to me, which I enjoyed. It is encouraging that here and there there are young people of aesthetic refinement.

  6. Pingback: Under the Iron Dome: Thomas Bertonneau on Transcendence – The Orthosphere


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