Jean Sibelius thought he could organize freedom, how Scandinavian of him

The 50th anniversary of the death of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius happened back in Sept. 2007. I’d heard of Sibelius for years — I even own the music notation software bearing his name — but I hadn’t really listened to his music. Tom Service finally got me curious when he wrote an article for the Guardian positing why the composer wrote no major works in the final 30 years of his life. Even Alex Ross devoted an entire chapter of The Rest Is Noise to Sibelius, which also appeared as a stand-alone column in the New Yorker.

So I downloaded performances of Sibelius’ last major works from eMusic: the Symphones Nos. 6 and 7 and the Tapiola Suite. I usually don’t consciously listen to classical works, just so I can get a sense of a structure if it comes through in the background. With Sibelius, that structure came through immediately.

Sibelius is a figure displaced in time. He was born when Richard Wagner and Franz Listz were the top composers of the day, and he died just as rock ‘n’ roll established its foothold in the public consciousness. (Here’s a handy chart.) He stuck with Romantic-era conventions when other composers were deconstructing the very elements of music, and at one point, he was called "the worst composer in the world". Modern-day critics, however, find an undercurrent of radicalism in his works.

I’d wager to say part of that radicalism is the clarity and effortlessness of Sibelius’ music. It doesn’t take very many repeated listenings to get a sense of Sibelius. Lush as his orchestrations may be, they’re not dense, and the themes aren’t obfuscated by a lot of excess material. When other composers were seeking larger ensembles and more complex forms, Sibelius sought economy. The one-movement Seventh Symphony clocks in at 20 minutes, a quarter of the length of Gustav Mahler’s Seventh Symphony.

Simply put, the music of Sibelius is essentially plain-spoken. It’s meticulously crafted to sound, as Service puts it, "comfortably familiar", but its immediacy is rare for forms so grandiose. It usually takes work to "get" a classical music piece, but with Sibelius, it doesn’t feel like work.

I’ve since listened to his Third, Fourth and Fifth Symphones, as well as the Violin Concerto, the Finlandia and Lemminkäinen suites and some string quartets. The Fourth Symphony is intense and can really put a listener in a dark frame of mind. The Third and Fifth Symphonies, in contrast, are much brighter. The Violin Concerto makes some impressive demands of the soloist, and even the string quartets, considered Sibelius’ early works, have a sturdiness about them.

Sibelius may have been criticized in his lifetime for embodying ideas of a past century, but his work has since entered the standard repertoire, and his influence may perhaps extend beyond the orchestral realm. The Japanese post-rock band mono named two tracks on its debut, Hey You EP, after Sibelius works ("Finlandia" and "Karelia".) A third track, "Black Woods", could perhaps be a reference to Tapiola.

I’m drawn to Sibelius’ work because of that clarity, which suits the limited attention span of my pop culture rearing. In other words, start with Sibelius if you’re a classical neophyte who wants to ease your way into the world of orchestral music.

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