Northern Light

By Collins, Chris | Musical Times, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Northern Light


Collins, Chris, Musical Times


Northern light The Cambridge companion to Sibelius Edited by Daniel M. Grimley Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 2004); xvii, 273pp; £50, $75 / £18.99, $28 PBK. ISBN 0 521 81552 5 / 0 521 89460 3.

THE CAMBRIDGE COMPANION series seems to me quite exceptional in these days of market research and focus groups. In a word, it's fickle. Nobody seems to have identified its target audience. I'm not alone in thinking this: Peter Williams made a similar point in his review of The Cambridge companion to the orchestra in the Winter 2004 MT. In the case of the Sibelius volume, the problem manifests itself most obviously in a mismatch between the title and the contents. The title implies that the book is aimed at what we tend to call 'the general reader' (what we really mean, of course, is the good music student or graduate): an impression given credence by the inclusion of a chronological summary of the composer's life and works, by the sensible cover price (no complaints there), and, more crucially, by the blurb, which describes this volume as 'providing a comprehensive introduction to Sibelius's major musical achievements'. Yet much of this book would be incomprehensible to anyone who doesn't already possess a good knowledge of those achievements and a reasonable acquaintance with the traditions of Sibelius scholarship, both of which Daniel M. Grimley and his colleagues spend much of their time redefining.

In fact, the articles within The Cambridge companion to Sibelius are just as sharply focused on specific issues as those in the two other multi-authored volumes on the Finnish master to have appeared in English over the last few years: the similarly ill-titled Sibelius companion (Greenwood Press, 1996), and Sibelius studies (CUP, 2001). The Cambridge companions principal distinction lies, appropriately, in its comprehensiveness, clearly revealed in the contents page: there are chapters on every genre in which Sibelius composed, in addition to chapters on influences (both on him, and his on others), reception and interpretation. But the topics are investigated from such individual standpoints that the sense of comprehensiveness seems to arise as a kind of happy accident: a testament, incidentally, to the subtlety of Grimley's editorship.

It seems appropriate for a book on so thematically economical a composer as Sibelius to have a recurring idea. The 'cyclical' notion here is that of Sibelius as innovator and modernist: a view central to much recent Sibelius scholarship, but rarely expressed with such cogency as here. In the first chapter, for instance, Matti Huttunen demonstrates that musical nationalism in 18905 Finland was perceived as new and daring - not at all reactionary, as it may have appeared to 20th-century critics. He also shows that the Finnishness of Sibelius's earliest works was a construct entirely of his own fabrication. What could be more innovative than that? The next article, by Glenda Dawn Goss, acts in many ways as a foil to Huttunen's, arguing that those early works were in part a product of Sibelius's cosmopolitan cultural experiences in Vienna. Nonetheless, in Goss's analysis it is the progressiveness of those experiences and the modernity of the composer's response to them which stands out.

Central to the commentary of both authors is Kullervo. The coverage of that work in this book may seem excessive in comparison to that of the numbered symphonies (two articles on Kullervo, the same number on all the others put together), and although the seven symphonies have hardly escaped scholarly discussion over the past 80 years (a whole third of Sibelius studies is devoted to their analysis) the concision of their treatment here once again brings into question the aptness of the book's title. Nevertheless, Arnold Whittall's examination of the last five symphonies is more in keeping with the overall style (such as exists) of the Cambridge Companion series than any other chapter in the book. …

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