Sibelius’s Fifth: Romantic musical language condensed into new forms

Here is a fine performance of the finale of Sibelius’s 5th. Esa-Pekka Salomen conducts the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra:

Interesting how in this performance a large painting is unveiled (Turner?) at the point where the calm background theme that begins in the horns reaches a climax at around 2:10.

Also interesting is how the beginning of this movement is reminiscent of certain contrapuntal sequences in the Prelude to Die Meistersinger-a whirlwind of strings that fades to reveal a “nostalgic”, calm theme on horns. This horn theme doesn’t function as a contrasting second subject as in the Classical and Romantic symphonies. It is more like discovering the source of the entire symphony or at least the basis for what the strings were doing at the start.

I believe that Sibelius used the most expressive elements of his favorite Romantic Composers to create new forms that reflected the soul of a human being in the midst of the impending European doom. Like Schoenberg, Sibelius’s music is a logical development from Romanticism which involved taking the most extreme expressive “cells” of Romanticism and fusing these extremes into new concentrated forms. What was once a climax of a musical phrase or section in the older works, is now a building block or basic unit in the 20th century and leads to more extreme climatic cells.

Unlike the later works of Schoenberg, Sibelius was able to achieve this concentration of forces without abandoning tonality; however, Sibelius’s tonality serves to make his cells more immediately recognizable to the ear. His break-through, characteristic tonality doesn’t serve to create linear dramatic forms like the almost rhetorical argument ofBeethoven, rather Sibelius “traditional” harmony serves to link his evolving cells together in a way that is more audible than Schoenberg’s tone-row which is very difficult to follow. 12 tone music both reduces the “expressive cell” to its smallest size (one note or one chord) and isolates that cell so it’s existence has no relation to any other sound in the sound space except by the ghostly, shadowy “row” which is extremely difficult to perceive.

So Sibelius gains comprehensibility but still allows the listener the small luxury of using intellect based on musical memory to understand his works while Schoenberg removes all the helpful remnants of the past and leaves the listener totally self reliant in the present. So Schoenberg is the composer of interior, existensial darkness while Sibelius technique could look outward and see the world’s darkness. In Tapiola, the dark, cancerous Schoenbergian self is reflected into nature. Tapiola proves that Sibelius’s music can explore the absolute extremes of 20th century angst. The miracle is that this music achieves a higher level of self knowledge and may be the basis for human regeneration as the ego begins to recognize that its perceptions and conceptions of nature are actually part of nature itself. It is this uniting of the self with nature that contains the seeds of true planetary healing. Tapiola heralds a new way of human thinking that incorporates and transcends the dessicated rationalism of abstract science.

Thanks to “Counter Critic” for the heads-up on a long article on Sibelius by Alex Ross published in the New Yorker.

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8 Responses to “Sibelius’s Fifth: Romantic musical language condensed into new forms”

  1. Bonnie Gibbons Says:

    John Gibbons has also blogged about the Ross article and some Sibelius recordings at http://holdekunst.com. I am attempting to trackback you back there, let’s see if it works!

  2. john gibbons Says:

    Interesting comparison between Sibelius and Schoenberg, two of my favorite composers. I don’t think either knew a thing about each other’s music. I agree that Tapiola is the darkest of the dark, but I don’t think humans are admitted there at all. I think it is exclusively a (terrifying) description of trees and earth and sky.

  3. Ken D Says:

    Thank you for your comment. Some thoughts:

    Wasn’t the human spirit of Sibelius admitted there? This depiction of nature is totally mediated by the human spirit of Sibelius and our listening experience is totally the outcome of our human thinking, feeling, and willing. Isn’t “terrifying” a human concept for a human feeling?

  4. David Ellis Says:

    The Turner painting unveiled is “Yacht Approaching the Coast” from 1840-1845. Sir Kenneth Clark believed it the most beautiful painting of all time (I agree). It can be seen at the Tate Gallery in London in the wing devoted to Turner.

  5. john gibbons Says:

    Beautiful painting, but Sibelius doesn’t need the help. A technical note: the horn theme is an obbligato, a reiterating phrase that supports the long note-short cadence theme in octaves in the winds. Indeed, one can’t speak of a second subject here. If anything it’s the first subject, since the horn obbligato is implicit in the opening string figuration. It is a sonata form, the exposition, development and recap mediated by tonality rather than by thematic contrast. The themes are constantly evolving. What’s with the timpani? I need to look at the score and see if those incredible thumps are admissable. Now David, you have to admit, If I were to say something is the most beautiful painting ever made (maybe something by Klimt) you would immediately disparage my choice!

  6. Ruaidhri Says:

    “Unlike the later works of Schoenberg, Sibelius was able to achieve this concentration of forces without abandoning tonality; however, Sibelius’s tonality serves to make his cells more immediately recognizable to the ear.”

    -The root of this statement approximates to “Schoenberg was unable to achieve the concentration of forces without abandoning tonality”. And as an afterthought we can safely you assume you disapprove of his methods.

    “So Sibelius gains comprehensibility but still allows the listener the small luxury of using intellect based on musical memory to understand his works while Schoenberg removes all the helpful remnants of the past and leaves the listener totally self reliant in the present.”

    You know, some of us find it equally insulting towards Sibelius that somebody could make such pithy, sweeping statements in an attempt to debunk the work of an artist without ever truly attempting to scratch the surface of his or her music. This is a truly appaling article, making slanderous remarks at the expense of a completely different artist in an attempt to satisfy his unsubstantiated claims.

    But I suppose it was never here to inform so much as to impress…who I wonder?

  7. ken d Says:

    w/r to Ruaidrhri

    My post does not slander either Schoenberg or Sibelius. It simply notes their different approaches to music and human experiences. The suggestion that Schoenberg is the more difficult composer is not slander but a statement of opinion that I suspect others share. I’m thrilled by the music of both of these men and love the fact they followed divergent paths.
    Check the post at the top of the page “Gould, Menuhin, and Schoenberg” so you can hear the discussion between Gould and Menuhin concerning Schoenberg. It’s very interesting and the piece for violin and piano is fantastic.

  8. Nancy Says:

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    Help me by reviewing this music software course, so that I can make a decision to join it.

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