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Barnett: Sibelius -- First impressions?
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PostPosted: Fri Sep 21, 2007 2:14 am    Post subject: Barnett: Sibelius -- First impressions? Reply with quote

As Andrew B's new book begins to circulate among Sibelius Forum members, I wonder what people's first impressions are?

Mine are, first of all, the absolutely gorgeous typesetting and overall physical quality of the book itself. It feels so nice to touch the cover, turn the pages, smell it (no joke, I love smelling books), and just look at it.

Secondly, the appendicies are very well though out, informative and interesting. I especially like the complete list of works, both as a reference and as interesting reading in and of itself.

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As far as the text is concerned, I have read the first chapter about the early years, and am looking forward to the next chapter this weekend!

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 01, 2007 8:15 am    Post subject: New Sibelius biography Reply with quote

As this is my first posting on this forum I want to say a 'hello' to everyone.

I want to congratulate Andrew on the publication of the biography which is a milestone for Sibelius studies in English. I hope it will win many new friends for his wonderful music.

This thread invites initial impressions. I add these from the perspective of someone who has written a biography (on the Victorian poet A.C.Swinburne). I'm up to about page 90. I have some reservations about the balance between describing the music and the life. I'm not sure I'm getting enough of a sense of Sibelius as a person and what he was doing, and those around him. Now there may be a good reason for this - which is a lack of any or enough detailed information about his early life and how people saw him.

I am curious about the two novels which are said to be based on Sibelius's life - I suppose there aren't English versions - and what they add to the biographical picture, insofar as they can be trusted.

I have checked the ending of the book. It would be interesting to know what Aino's life was like from 1957 until her death (1969?) and how things were at Ainola.

First impressions and first thoughts ...
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PostPosted: Tue Oct 02, 2007 5:18 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Hi Rikky and may I add my welcome to the Forum!

Thanks for your comments and kind words. In particular Aino's last years yould prove a fascinating topic that, as far as I know, hasn't been thoroughly discussed elsewhere. In the context of my book I quite simply had to sacrifice such a description (inter alia) in order to keep the length reasonable… from a projected length of 140,000 words it grew to 160,000, then 170,000… I'm sure you know the problem!

I think the overall balance is about 50% life, 50% music; at least, that was the original plan. Having promised to mention every work and performable fragment, I found myself with almost 900 pieces to discuss. Even at a nominal average of 100 words per piece (OK for eight bars of piano music but no good for the Fourth Symphony!), this did stake a claim on rather a large proportion of the available space.

I hope you'll get more of a sense of Sibelius the person later on. From the early years we have his letters and some impressions from friends and acquaintances, but some of the material is quite subjective and I didn't want to rely too heavily on other people's opinions if they could not be verified independently.

I don't know of any English translations of the 'old' fictional works, I'm afraid.

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PostPosted: Tue Oct 02, 2007 6:27 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Andrew, thanks for your reply.

I certainly sympathize about word-length (I had the same issue with my ACS biography, except they would only allow me about 85,000 words). Perhaps you could write a brief essay about Aino's last years for the Society journal, sharing some of what you know at this point. I find your last page very touching; that was a good decision.

Ainola is a very inspiring place. I visited it in Sept 2005. Earlier that year I wrote a 20 minute orchestral piece called 'A House in White Woods' for its 100th anniversary.

Your attempt to say something about all of Sibelius' music I think ambitious, conscientious and perhaps at this stage helpful to the audience not so familiar with the range of Sibelius' music, though as you say it put the narrative under pressure. In times past people sometimes used to do Life as vol 1 and Works vol.2. But that admittedly was a European academic-type convention.

With regard to your caveat about using sources that might be subjective - a biographer can always include such comments and attach a caution. Again, if you have any in mind it would be good to read the material in the journal.

I ought in my first post to have acknowledged the particular challenges of writing a biography about a subject where many sources will not be in English.

Best wishes, Rikky
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PostPosted: Thu Jan 31, 2008 12:04 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I have very much enjoyed reading Andrew's 'Sibelius' Biography.
Anyone who thought that Sibelius only wrote one string quartet will be in for a surprise! The book contains a wealth of information and covers just about every bit of music that Sibelius is known to have written. Drawing on the composers diary's, correspondence, family and friends, the book opens up the remarkable life and times of Jean Sibelius. Andrew B is scrupulous in his attention to detail, and this book fills many gaps in our picture of the Finnish master.
Do I have any gripes--well without being hyper-critical, in a work of this scope I have questioned the odd sentence here and there.
Just to take one small example, Andrew states that according to the composers secretary Santeri Levas, Sibelius was certainly no fan of Brahms. I dont myself think that this is entirely true. Sibelius once remarked that Brahms [who was Aino's favourite composer] had become clearer in old age. I cannot recall Sibelius ever saying a derogatory word about Brahms. The singer Ida Ekman had sung a Sibelius song to Brahms in Vienna during 1895. Brahms who was also a great admirer of Runeberg played the piano part and warmly praised Sibelius's song. Sibelius never forgot this, he was deeply moved by Brahms praise. As a measure of Sibelius's respect for the German master, look no further than this quote 'Since Beethoven's time all so called symphonies with the exception of Brahms have been symphonic poems'. So it is clear that Sibelius held Brahms in high regard.
In the final section of the book 'conclusions' Andrew is positive regarding Sibelius's reputation today--to audiences who love to hear it, performers who love to play it and also composers who nowadays increasingly acknowledge the seminal inportance of his work. In 1965 Robert Layton [Master Musicians] told us that 'of the half- dozen or so great composers of the present century he will not be found to be the least'. Guy Richards [Jean Sibelius] 1997, concluded that 'His music survived the vicissitudes of fashion across a century and has still been found to contain within it seeds for the future. These would seem the classic hallmarks of a great composer'.
What I do miss in Andrews fine book is a passionate ascessment of Sibelius's position in music as a great symphonist, as we move through the first decade of the 21st century. This apart, the biography is a remarkable achievement.--kullervopete.

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PostPosted: Thu Jan 31, 2008 4:30 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

kullervopete wrote:
Andrew states that according to the composers secretary Santeri Levas, Sibelius was certainly no fan of Brahms ... As a measure of Sibelius's respect for the German master, look no further than this quote 'Since Beethoven's time all so called symphonies with the exception of Brahms have been symphonic poems'. So it is clear that Sibelius held Brahms in high regard.

I speak for myself now, not for Andrew B or Sibelius. It is one thing to respect and acknowledge another artist's work, but it is another to be "fond" of that artist. I for one respect what Brahms did for the Symphony after Beethoven and when studying these pieces I find them incredibly well composed. But I am not fond of Brahms' symphonies, I do not ever seek out performances of them. Perhaps, at the very least according to Sibelius' secretary, Sibelius felt the same way.

kullervopete wrote:
In 1965 Robert Layton [Master Musicians] told us that 'of the half- dozen or so great composers of the present century he will not be found to be the least'.

A bit of an understatement, we here of course think Sibelius is the greatest composer ever, never mind in the 20th Century. But another interesting facet of that remark: can anyone even think of half-a-dozen "Great" composers from the 20th Century? I say that tongue-in-cheek, but on the other hand, in my opinion, after Sibelius, Stravinsky and perhaps Bartok, the list gets a little thin when you compare it to the "greats" of the 19th Century.

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 01, 2008 12:06 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Levas is quite clear in his facinating book 'Sibelius a personal portrait'with regard to the great romantics.
'Richard Wagner--who was so warmly admired by Bruckner-was the one among the great German composers who had least appeal for Sibelius. Strangely Sibelius never spoke a word about the second significant Romantic Franz Liszt, strange in that Sibelius himself had written a series of Symphonis poems. Chopin did not mean a lot to him, Sibelius was no pianist and Levas thinks that perhaps the Slavonic- French character of Chopin was somewhat alien to him. The great German Romantics, Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn, meant much more to him. According to Sibelius Mozart and Mendelssohn were the two greatest masters of orchestration. One day Sibelius showed Levas an English article that he had received. He was irritated by it, saying : 'The author attacks me because of my opinion that even today Mozart and Mendelssohn are unrivalled in respect of orchestration. He mentions Stravinsky, Shostakovitch, and other modern composers. How little understanding is there, thinking in terms of history. Mozart and Mendelssohn did not use the instruments of today. What would they not have achieved if they had lived now!'
Levas confirms that of the later Romantics Sibelius certainly liked Edvard Grieg the best. Sibelius also admired Dvorak and Johann Strauss. Regarding Richard Strauss, Sibelius spoke little about the music, but he talked to Levas a lot about Strauss the man. The Heidelberg performance of Four Legends had been of the greatest importance to him and Strauss had championed his works on later occasions. Levas states that 'all in all it was easy to see that in the final reckoning he very much admired Brahms.
As regards Robert Laytons 'understatement' remember that in 1965 Sibelius's reputation had reached its nadir. Tastes in musical circles in the 1960's were dominated by post-Webernian concepts. If you wanted to be in fashion you spoke of Stockhausen's or Boulez's latest works. The line of stylistic descent at this time was Wagner, Mahler, Schoenberg, Webern, Debussy and Messiaen. To speak of Sibelius at this time as one of the great composers of the century took some courage.
Half dozen greatest composers of the 20th century? the British composer Sir William Walton once listed his five greatest as : Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Debussy, Sibelius and Mahler, with Hindemith and Britten added if seven names were required.--kullervopete.

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PostPosted: Sat Feb 02, 2008 3:05 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

kullervopete wrote:
Sibelius also admired Dvorak and Johann Strauss.

We often forget about that important point, that basically all composers had a great admiration for Johann Strauss, as there's nothing quite as difficult to compose as a good waltz.

William Walton wrote:
Half dozen greatest composers of the 20th century? Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Debussy, Sibelius and Mahler.

I though about Debussy and Mahler when making my statement in the previous post, and I just cannot force myself to consider Debussy and Mahler as "20th Century Composers". I see Mahler as a post-romantic composer with everything either firmly imbedded in-, or at least looking back at- the 19th Century.

With Debussy, his most important works are written between 1894 (Prelude a l'apre-midi) and 1912 (The ballet Jeux) and although certainly not a "Romantic", I will go out on a limb and say that again, I don't feel that the label "20th Century" nor the label "Great" should be applied to him.

Shoenberg... Important yes, Influential by all means. It ends there for me.

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PostPosted: Sat Feb 02, 2008 9:44 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Kurkikohtaus wrote:

can anyone even think of half-a-dozen "Great" composers from the 20th Century? I say that tongue-in-cheek, but on the other hand, in my opinion, after Sibelius, Stravinsky and perhaps Bartok, the list gets a little thin when you compare it to the "greats" of the 19th Century.


100 years from now things are going to look quite a bit different than they do now, as far as a consensus on who the great composers of the 20th century are. As is, we can confidently add the names of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Berg to the list of pre-war greats mentioned so far (and I have no trouble counting Debussy among the Greats). And there are a numerous others whose works frequently touch greatness.

As for who truly counts as a 20th century composer, I would have to say anyone whose major compositional activities take place in the last century, no matter what the style, need to be counted. I would not count Debussy out of it. His compositional activity takes place in pretty much the same span of time as Sibelius', and his style had a much greater impact on his immediate contemporaries, including in at least one instance Sibelius (the whole tone section in Tapiola). The charge of being a 19th century holdover in the 20th century is more frequently levelled at Sibelius than Debussy.

(we of course know better, but there you have it).

To my ears the early 20th century is a particularly rich period for great music.

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PostPosted: Sat Feb 02, 2008 11:24 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

First of all thanks Mark for an interesting response.
I think that if we are talking about the half-dozen or so 'Greatest' composers of the 20th century, I would not include Berg, Prokofiev or Shostakovitch. Certainly these three masters wrote some great music. D. S. is now perhaps the most frequently played Symphonist of the last century, having now knocked Sibelius off his pedestal.
But their can be no serious contention that Shostakovitch is of comparable stature to the Finnish master. The Russian followed the Mahlerian line in expressing all area's of feeling or as I might put it 'Kitchen sink' symphonies. Sibelius's roots go back to the great classical masters--that is why for me, Sibelius is the Beethoven of the 20th century.
I agree with Mark when he says that in 100 years from now things will look quite a bit different than they do today. For many years Mahler was the dominant influence on the development of music in the 20th century and particuarly the second Viennese school and Boulez and his disciples. But now Sibelius has overtaken Mahler has the more influential figure on contemporary composers.
I agree with Mark that Debussy was an influenial figure on Sibelius, apart from Tapiola I would mention 'The Oceanides'. Their is no doubt that Sibelius admired Debussy's music.

My own list of the 'Greatest composers of the 20th century would be : Sibelius, Debussy, Bartok, Stravinsky and Mahler.
I include Mahler in this list as he has been an enormous influence on musical development in the last century.

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PostPosted: Wed Feb 06, 2008 8:15 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Kurkikohtaus wrote:
can anyone even think of half-a-dozen "Great" composers from the 20th Century? I say that tongue-in-cheek, but on the other hand, in my opinion, after Sibelius, Stravinsky and perhaps Bartok, the list gets a little thin when you compare it to the "greats" of the 19th Century.


Bartók, Sibelius, Stravinsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Richard Strauss, Britten, Poulenc, Ligeti, Debussy, Barber & Holst, are still great in comparison to the 19th century greats, especially the underlined ones

And although I haven't heard any of his music myself, Stockhausen seems to have had a 'great master'-like reputation and influence.
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PostPosted: Sat Mar 01, 2008 5:16 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

It's quite good so far! I rather like the approach of presenting the man and his music in equal parts, as well as discussing every piece; it makes me wait with bated breath for the whole BIS set to finish coming out in 2010. There are some very interesting things that I've never heard before (my favorite, of course, being that he rewrote a theme from the finale of the g minor quintet into the viola rondo Very Happy ), and it is packed with information of the good kind... not boring.
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 03, 2008 6:25 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Interesting that Saturnus mentions Stockhausen in his list of 'Greats'. Have you seen my post 'Sibelius and Stockhausen', this can be found in the 'Elements of Style' section. Surprisingly there has been no response yet!--kullervopete.

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for that Stockhausen thread.

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PostPosted: Tue Jan 26, 2010 9:35 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I'd have to add Ralph Vaughan Williams to the list of C20th greats. Like Sibelius, a great symphonist who revivified the form with an individual style that varies from one to another.

More generally it seems to me that the scope and breadth of C20th tonal music is massively underestimated and compares very favourably with the C19th.
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PostPosted: Tue Jan 26, 2010 11:08 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Rikky wrote:
I'd have to add Ralph Vaughan Williams to the list of C20th greats. Like Sibelius, a great symphonist who revivified the form with an individual style that varies from one to another.

More generally it seems to me that the scope and breadth of C20th tonal music is massively underestimated and compares very favourably with the C19th.


RVW is certainly a towering Symphonist. Thankfully the long held notion that musical 'progress' through the 20th Century was confined to Stockhausen, Boulez and the atonalists school as collapsed. Much of this dogmatic avant-garde philosophy as turned out to be something of a cul-de-sac. Tonal music as re-emerged and as we move towards the second decade of the 21st Century, it is composers such as Sibelius that point the way forward.-kp

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PostPosted: Wed Jan 27, 2010 4:42 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I agree, Kullervopete. History of C20th music needs to be re-written so that the avante-garde line which started with figures such as Schoenberg and reached ext,remes of absurdity in figures like Milton Babbitt who apparently declared he was unconcerned whether people heard his music or not, is no seen as the dominant 'correct' line but rather a colourful subsidiary.

I see the varieties of extended tonality developed by composers in the C20th as having been in no way fully explored - either by composers or audiences. We have a lot of catching up to do. Thankfully more of this repertoire is reaching CD so at least we can hear it (hats off to labels like Naxos).

I'm sure there was plenty more in Sibelius's own musical language for him to explore and develop had he had the energy, time, health, self-belief, etc. What he gave us is of course of inestimable value.

As a composer it is my firm belief that tonality is inexhaustible. It is only the mistaken search for novelty rather than originality that makes it seem as though this isn't the case.
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PostPosted: Wed Jan 27, 2010 11:25 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I can agree with all of that Rikky. Sibelius had the ability to make a simple chord sound all his own. Quite frankly, I think that a large chunk of the music written in the last 100 years or so is at best decorative and at worst cadaverous. Sibelius himself nailed the situation in the following quote: 'And yet truly there are few real composers. It is difficult to let go of a first-class technique especially when the inner content is weak. The artist easily identifies himself with his technical skills. How endless a lot of well-composed music is-but nothing else than note-scribbling. The inner life is absent. They've built a huge shipyard--but where is the ship?'.--kp

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PostPosted: Wed Jan 27, 2010 3:39 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Rikky wrote:


As a composer it is my firm belief that tonality is inexhaustible. It is only the mistaken search for novelty rather than originality that makes it seem as though this isn't the case.


May I nominate this as a Quote of the Moment? BRILLIANT!!!!

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PostPosted: Thu Jan 28, 2010 7:50 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

kullervopete wrote:
'And yet truly there are few real composers. It is difficult to let go of a first-class technique especially when the inner content is weak. The artist easily identifies himself with his technical skills. How endless a lot of well-composed music is-but nothing else than note-scribbling. The inner life is absent. They've built a huge shipyard--but where is the ship?'.--kp


I love the ship image. It is a pity Sibelius left little commentary on music or his music - he had a gift for the telling image and aphoristic sentence.

I think the issue is in part that we have a tendency to think that great art of any category is plentiful. The media plays a role in this - always hailing the greatness of the next art event / person. Great art is actually rare. There is plenty of good art - and that can be enjoyed in its own achievement. But great art, great music ... only small amounts at any time.

In classical music this distinction of great / good is blurred because without a certain level of technical competency and knowledge, and a certain facility, it is impossible to manage the sophistication of the forms of this music. Therefore it has always been easier to disguise a lack of deep inspiration in this genre. Hence the cliche 'note-spinning'. I think this is where the symphony has defeated many composers - I know there is a tradition of writing about the symphony which states that what counts is the fullest development of a few key notes, a chord, a phrase (the Austro-German tradition). I think this is a half-truth. Development alone cannot make a symphony live; only inspired ideas plus development can. A symphony can deviate from C19th norms and live if it taps a deep enough well. If it has this, it will live, and we can aesthetically excuse any unsymphonic elements. My examples would include Stravinsky 'Symphony in Three Movements' and Bax 3, perhaps one or two by Malipiero.

I feel Sibelius's symphonies express this truth very well. There is a deep wisdom in Sibelius's grasp of what the symphony is and why it is imperishable.
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PostPosted: Thu Jan 28, 2010 7:58 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Tapkaara wrote:
Rikky wrote:


As a composer it is my firm belief that tonality is inexhaustible. It is only the mistaken search for novelty rather than originality that makes it seem as though this isn't the case.


May I nominate this as a Quote of the Moment? BRILLIANT!!!!


Tapkaara, thank you. It is a thought I read somewhere.

Another metaphor which I think is useful is this: it is given to a tiny number of artists to re-invent the forms and tools of their art. We are talking about music here so I will just talk about that. These are the innovators. In C20th clearly this points to Debussy, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, among others. They are like the discoverers of a continent. But a continent is meant to occupied, harvested, lived on, explored. Life exists not just on a frontier, on a beach staring at the Pacific. Music springs within the thousand miles of territory behind the frontier and it takes many generations to explore. And, to extend my metaphor, I believe the relationship between the human spirit and tonal music is a dynamic one and therefore can be constantly renewed.

If I were to sit down and write a one-movement tonal symphony, I do so under the influence of all the music - classical and popular - I have heard that has been made since Sibelius died. Therefore it will be different; I do not have to strain for some perversity or novelty to make it different.

Then there is the question of whether I can find an audience who are willing or able to look beyond the need or expectation of the instant gratification of a novelty, to see whether I have used familiar musical materials to say something of depth or meaning.

Much tonal music post 1945 was dismissed by critics as mere pastiche. I think that can be a way of avoiding the work of looking deeper for whether there is meaning there or not.

I hope these comments are interesting.
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