Leger notes

The Herald - Arts - - Arts - Michael Tumelty

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.

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