Before the start of the BBC SSO’S Sibelius Revisited project, a survey of all seven of Sibelius’s symphonies, I suggested in The Herald that, way down the line, Finland’s iconic composer would come to be regarded as the greatest symphonist of the last century.
I repeated that prophecy in a pre-concert talk, then overheard two folk discussing my thesis. “A wacky proposal,” ventured one. “He’s bonkers,” said the other, as I snuck off, trying to look invisible.
I’ve had a big reaction to the proposal, mostly along the lines of the gentleman in the hall that night who asked: “But what about Mahler? And Shostakovich?
Good questions, but we’re talking about matters of deep personal taste and significance. Why do some people weep when they hear the greatest sacred music, while others admire its beauty but remain unmoved?
Let’s take Shostakovich first. I am an addict of his music. I love it (or much of it) to bits. But ultimately, for me, he can’t hold a candle to Sibelius. Shostakovich’s music is of a time, a place, and complex political circumstances. Does it transcend these, as the greatest music must? No, it does not.
That’s a crucial point. Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony is also a product of its time and conditions. But it is not bound by them. It is not limited by any of the circumstances that prevailed around the time of its revolutionary creation.
But what about Mahler? It took a while for it to happen, but Mahler is now among the most played, most recorded, and most revered symphonic composers of his era. The man is an icon for many, and for some, a god. For most, he is the greatest symphonic composer of the back end of the nineteenth century, through into the twentieth.
He wanted his symphonies to be a world, to embrace all the world, and every facet of it. That is why you will hear in them the highest aspirations of man expressed in music, along with the mundane, from street songs and the music of the barrel organ, to the clanking cow bells of country pastures or a heavy-footed folk dance. Mahler’s music is as earthbound as the march tempo of a village band while storming heaven with transcendent choirs and blazing trumpets.
Here’s the personal taste bit. Sibelius’s music is none of these things, yet as great as all of them.
What makes it, for me, a different (and greater) world than the music of the others is that while you can take snippets of Sibelian biography – from his nationalism to his drinking and womanising – to me, his music is fundamentally abstract. All human trials and emotions are in it, but they aren’t site-specific. Because they can’t be labelled, they are the more intense and pure. They are intellectual in their construction, sure, but they deal with the absolute stuff of what we feel, how we think, what makes us tick, what winds us up and releases us, what excites, thrills, and calms us.
There is no padding in Sibelius’s symphonies. It is music in the raw, without a single artificial note, without a gesture for its own sake.
Understanding it doesn’t get any easier, in my experience. It’s tough stuff that won’t fall into your lap. But if you get the point it will be with you the rest of your life. After some of the supreme performances we have just heard, particularly from conductors Leif Segerstam and Osmo Vanska, I am more convinced than ever that Sibelius’s symphonic canon is one of the greatest in the history of music.