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Sibelius' brilliant yet interrupted career

The Finnish composer's life was marked by immense popularity and deep estrangement -- both on his own terms.

September 30, 2007|Richard S. Ginell | Special to The Times

It's a bit startling to realize that Jean Sibelius has been dead for only 50 years, for he is a figure who seems like part of a deeper past. To put it in stark perspective, he was born in the year (1865) the Civil War ended and "Tristan and Isolde" was first heard, and he survived well into the second year (1957) of Elvis Presley's heyday and just two weeks short of the launch of Sputnik.

Indeed, of all of the great composers born in the middle third of the 19th century (among them Mahler, Richard Strauss and Puccini), Sibelius is both the closest to us chronologically and perhaps the most difficult to place in time.

He was the quintessential outsider -- from a country, Finland, that was not only not a country yet but that had never placed a composer on the world stage. He was not quite a Romantic in a Romantic age, a modernist who was not considered a modernist, a contemporary composer who received extravagant acclaim in his maturity only to watch it wither away in his extreme old age.

Starting with his second and biggest orchestral work, the "Kullervo" Symphony -- actually a massive five-movement tone poem -- Sibelius practically invented a Finnish national idiom grounded in ancient runic songs and in German and Russian music. Then, from the Third Symphony onward, he broke with nationalism altogether. But unlike other ex-nationalist composers who gravitated toward the international mainstream, Sibelius continued to go his own way, paring down and concentrating his rhetoric, bending symphonic form into new shapes while still unmistakably conveying the atmosphere of the North.

His is a lonely music at its core -- brooding, propulsive, obsessively repeating and evolving, abruptly cutting off, at times terrifying in its elemental power. Even when his later music rises in exultation, it is the triumph of a lone individual, beholden to no one, spawning few followers.

Los Angeles will have a rare chance to experience the sweep of Sibelius in October when his countryman Esa-Pekka Salonen will lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Salonen's first complete cycle of the seven numbered symphonies at Walt Disney Concert Hall. In November, they will take the whole package to London's Barbican Centre. And today and Saturday, the orchestra's new assistant conductor, Lionel Bringuier, will be on the podium at Disney Hall for a program of Sibelius selections.

Alas, we won't be hearing the symphonic cycle in order, so we could follow Sibelius' extraordinary evolution from the Tchaikovsky-tinged sprawl of the First Symphony to the compact Seventh, in which all four movements flow in one miraculously fused continuum. But you can get to know the symphonies chronologically at home; this is music that is often best to commune with alone. (For a splendidly penetrating, well-recorded cycle at a low price, get Colin Davis and the Boston Symphony on a pair of Philips double-disc sets).

Sibelius mania

Sibelius was once one of the most lauded composers on Earth. According to a poll of New York Philharmonic concertgoers in 1935, at the height of the Sibelius boom, he was the most popular composer of all time. His tone poem "Finlandia" was the international rallying cry for Finland; early in the 20th century, it was considered so politically incendiary that it could not be played under its rightful name in some countries so as not to offend Russia (which controlled Finland). Instead, it was disguised under inoffensive titles such as "La Patrie."

The young record critic David Hall thought the Seventh Symphony was the greatest contribution to the symphonic literature since Beethoven's "Eroica," and his powerful older colleague at the New York Times, Olin Downes, called the composer "the last of the heroes." Many leading podium personalities -- Leopold Stokowski, Thomas Beecham, Serge Koussevitzky -- fought for Sibelius' approval and the first performance rights to his magnum-opus-in-progress, the Eighth Symphony.

Unfortunately, all this praise may have been one reason that Sibelius withdrew into his shell for the last 30 years of his life, releasing nothing new. His pathologically self-critical nature rivaled that of Brahms. Masterworks such as "En Saga," the Violin Concerto and the Symphony No. 5 were withdrawn after their first performances and reworked and reworked until he was satisfied, barely (the originals, which surfaced in the 1990s, make clear that his revisions were always improvements). The older he grew, the more self-critical he became, and the more hosannas he received, the greater were the expectations he placed upon himself. So the Eighth Symphony, completed or not, wound up in the fireplace unheard.

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