Magazine article The Spectator

The Call of the Wild

Magazine article The Spectator

The Call of the Wild

Article excerpt

SIBELIUS by Andrew Barnett Yale, £25, pp. 445, ISBN 9780300111590 £20 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Sean Sibelius was an epic figure: an orignal who never strove for originality. Not for him the frippery of a Stravinsky ('with his stillborn affectations') or the artificial contrivances of Arnold Schönberg. Sibelius was his own man, and a deeply human one, moved and moulded by the harsh Finnish landscape. This gave his music a rugged and austere quality, prompting the composer to reflect, 'My orchestration is better than Beethoven's and I have better themes than his. But he was born in a wine country -- I in a land where surmjölk [curdled milk] is in charge.'

Sibelius was not an arrogant man. As Andrew Barnett reveals in this fine biography, he was full of contradictions and self-doubt. It was this that presumably fuelled his lifelong struggle with alcohol, described by the broadcaster and music critic Stephen Johnson as 'his emotional crutch'. Even a visit to his bank manager required a sharpener, not to mention the podium, where he felt 'like a God' conducting under the influence of champagne, but otherwise a nervous wreck.

Barnett is excellent in tracing the evolution of his seven symphonies (eight if he had not thrown the last in the fire -- a roster of fine conductors, including Karajan and Ormandy, already queuing up to perform it). The first two symphonies married nationalistic with Russian influences, notably that of Tchaikovsky. Barnett parallels the role of Sibelius in Finland's liberation from Russia with that of Verdi in the Risorgimento. His famous tone-poem 'Finlandia' was called 'Finland awakes' in its original form; and indeed it should snarl . . . .

In the Third Symphony he changed tack to a more classical approach: 'To my mind a Mozart Allegro is the perfect model for a symphonic movement.' But it is his Fourth that is his masterpiece.

Surprisingly, Barnett does not expand on the composer's trip to the Koli mountains in northern Finland in the autumn of 1909, which gave rise to this astonishing work:

My solitude begins . . . a symphony is an inner confession . . . I see the whole of my childhood before me . . . with its dreadful swellings of the sea . . . Bodies rise to the surface. This is hell. I suffer so much that my heart bursts . . . Where do they come from, these tensions of the spirit and the pain? …

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