week12: sibelius; bergman; charles courtney curran


So far as blood and race go, therefore, Sibelius is predominantly, even overwhelmingly, Swedish, not Finnish. He does not himself attach more importance to the fact, however, being of the opinion that environment and tradition are much more actively formative of national characteristics than are racial origins, which are seldom, if ever, pure. “” cecil gray, Sibelius

i am in this journal always involved with the question of pedigree—not as a biological fact but moreso the transgenerational cultivation and concentration of an aesthetic that is indigenous to a spiritual identity. more often than otherwise this identity evolves into a national one, but that one is defined by it is nothing more than the accident of birth at work. this identity is formed from the natural setting which our daily lives must respond to. it is the entire physical character of this response that i describe as an ‘aesthetic’.

i’ve always sensed something swedish in sibelius’ aesthetic, despite his much celebrated acclaim as the definitive finnish composer. there is an austerity in his music that is interchangeable with the incalculable abundance available only in nature. as a later example of that aesthetic, swedish filmmaker ingmar bergman’s filmography is a picturesque catalogue of the exploration of that interplay between austerity and superabundance: the prototypical bergman character always finds herself at some sort of equidistance from cool springs and plenitude and the flames of oblivion and dissolution. in sibelius’ music too there is that same tête-a-tête between the obstinate and the overwhelming, between the solo instrument and orchestra.

During the summer months, we are told by Herr Furuhjelm, he would often spend entire days and nights out in the woods or by the side of the neighbouring lake of Vanajavesi, one of the loveliest spots in Finland, improvising endlessly on his violin in an attempt to reproduce in music the emotions aroused in him by the beauties of nature. “” cecil gray, Sibelius

 environment and tradition: are always mere synonyms. and one always comes to understand the latter on account of sufficient exposure to the former. sibelius’ music seems to have been the product of an upright metabolism of his natural environment; the second symphony is decorated all over with intimations and cues of an enchanted pastoral landscape. the insertion of the oboe in the third movement for example, sticks out its neck in the same manner as the cor anglais in his tone poem The Swan of Tuonela. and in that same movement one can almost tread the vast tundra across which the entire horn section takes maddening flight.

whereas his violin concerto and first symphony; are enjoyed for the obstinacy of the solo instrument and their wiry cadenzas—this second symphony is closer to the opposite: it is instead the mass-motived swarm of an orchestra on the prowl.



...whereas in the symphonies of Sibelius’ predecessors the thematic material is generally introduced in an exposition, taken to pieces, dissected, and analysed in a development section, and put together again in a recapitulation, Sibelius in the first movement of the Second Symphony inverts the process, introducing thematic fragments in the exposition, building them up into an organic whole in the development section, then dispersing and dissolving the material back into its primary constituents in a brief recapitulation. “” cecil gray, Sibelius

RCA Records. Printed in U.S.A // Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) // Symphony No.2 in D, Op. 43 //

Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy

Symphony No. 2

  • Allegretto

  • Tempo andante, ma rubato

  • Vivacissimo

  • Allegro moderato

A short time after later, however, after vainly attempting to combine the study of the law with that of music, which he simultaneously pursued under Martin Wegelius at the Music Institute, Sibelius definitely abandoned the former and henceforth devoted himself entirely to his art.

“” cecil gray, Sibelius 

(on cadence)———

In these days of cynicism and disillusion it is of course the fashion to sneer at the convention of the ‘happy ending’, of which the orthodox symphonic finale is the musical equivalent, and it is certainly true that most modern attempts to conform to it ring hollow and insincere. We of the present generation simply do not feel like that. We find it difficult to be triumphant, and we have no doubt excellent reasons for it.  The fact remains that it is a weakness and a deficiency in us, and there is something of sour grapes in the contemporary attitude towards those artists of an earlier generation who have achieved the state of spiritual serenity, optimism, and repose which makes it possible for them to conclude a work convincingly in this manner. Sibelius is one of them; his triumphant final movements, so far from being due to a mere unthinking acceptance of a formal convention, correspond to a definite spiritual reality.   “” cecil gray, Sibelius

it is on a very different topic that egon kenton, lamenting franz schubert’s difficulties acquiring a benefactor, commented on the relationship between the aristocracy and what an artist is always in need of for their creative output:

 It is of course not the aristocracy, the nobility, or royalty that matters but their culture, their cultivated taste, education and knowledge, their experience and ability to discriminate, and last but not least their means — the means to reward an artist and make the execution or performance of their works possible. Up to the mid 19th century, roughly, all this was the privilege of aristocracy, both clerical and secular. “” egon f. kenton, recording notes for Turnabout Vox

to borrow from those words: it is of course not the classical repertoire that matters but its instinct for self-preservation, its accumulated seriousness in regards to musical education and its rigid and formulaic compositional structure——the structure to free an artist from reinventing the wheel and having to convince themselves that triumph and cadence is the conclusion of a composition. music doesn’t get to enjoy the cliff-hangers and question marks that cleverness has made a fortune of with other art-forms. where cadence is lacking in music, so too is music. and in those instances wherein music is lacking in music, whatever is left is performance, some kind of theatre—some other kind of extra-curricular crutch to carry the frail limbs of the musical experience.

i’ve said elsewhere that music is the abbreviation of the words that we would otherwise use to grasp at eternity. and the ‘definite spiritual reality’ which sibelius is praised for is, in secular terms, the achievement of an astounding proximity to what we would otherwise relegate to the realm of the ‘eternal’. to feel this proximity intimately is to want to realize it’s complete replica in our creative output. life is deep—and to feel this bottomlessness is to want to abbreviate it’s depth with cadence, with a triumphant finale. perhaps we find it difficult to be triumphant because we afford so easily to remain at the surface of so much of our emotional life. indeed so much of our internal comings-and-goings is merely the most superficial skim off the surface of that bottomlessness. the need for cadence, triumph, abbreviation might seem irrelevant to an artist unused to the need to recover from tremendous depths and heights…

there is a gesture of triumph in sibelius’ fourth movements that are long and prostrated, as if every note is an abbreviation of a brief epic stretching into eternity.

now for those to whom such depths are unavailable, that rigid and formulaic compositional structure is a boon. they need not reinvent their wheel, rather just be reminded that triumph is the presupposition of their craft.

(Golden Glow - charles courtney curran)———the long month closes, and all the leaves will soon be spent: october is the most beautiful month.

like an afternoon in october’ was how Nietzsche describes music that he wants to be cheerful and profound…and i’ve had my fill of that cheerfulness and profundity this month… gratitude pours forth….

the sun of an october afternoon is quite unlike the morning sun. it’s radiance is slurred, strained. it’s light feels more spent; it’s gold-ochreous mix is the colour of a cautious optimism, achieved only after a prolonged trial and even longer error. (to be cheerful, after having relegated cheerfulness to the past-tense, is how cheerfulness achieves profundity). it’s a blue-green freshness. sombre, and yet charged. like the sunflowers in charles curran’s painting ‘Golden Glow’. half of the subject’s face in the shade, so too is most of the gold in her flowers. the flowers too look spent, like a relic. and the light on her face is subdued, not loud and vivid but slow and blue.

 i think blue is the colour of the sound the oboes in this symphony makes, a slow and turning blue. turning towards?—perhaps winter, or some other kind of new birth.