Sibelius II: Larry Wallach on the Bard Music Festival 2011 – Jean Sibelius and his World

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Eila Hiltunen's Sibelius Monument in Sibelius Park, Helsinki.

Bard Music Festival 2011: Jean Sibelius and his World
Leon Botstein, Christopher H. Gibbs, and Robert Martin, Artistic Directors
Daniel M. Grimley, Scholar in Residence
Irene Zedlacher, Executive Director
Raissa St. Pierre, Associate Director

with the American Symphony Orchestra and soloists

Originality is a hard concept to get a hold of — there is no yardstick for measuring it, by its very nature. This makes the evaluation of composers, the assessment of their influence and historical position, one of the most subjective areas of music history and criticism. Contemporary writers have become impatient with their predecessors’ habit of rating composers in terms of “importance” or “greatness” based, at least in part, on their originality. And then there is the issue of “unique voice” — is that the same as originality? Is their any good composer who lacks either one? Can “uniqueness” be evaluated?

A music festival such as Bard’s begins with a premise: composer X is significant enough to merit being the focal point for nine concerts and five panel discussions spread out over two weekends in August. If that composer’s fame is inextricably linked to the identity of an emerging, hitherto marginal nationality, the issue of the composer’s stature (one of the greats? eccentric individual? significant or insignificant historical byway?) becomes particularly problematic. Consider a composer who will probably never be the subject of a festival at Bard: Mussorgsky. He appeared to be a uniquely original and possibly amateurish eccentric, but his influence has proven to be crucial for subsequent Russian music; try imagining Prokofiev or Shostakovich without him. Sibelius is a larger figure relative to his national background: he is the Finnish composer in the international repertory. But what is his historical significance? As a contemporary of the generation of ground-breaking modernists (Mahler, Debussy, Schoenberg, Ives) can he be considered forward-looking? And has he provided a foundation for later generations, Finnish or otherwise?

In the course of two weekends of close examination, the application of the metrics of originality to Sibelius proved elusive. No one questioned that he is indeed one of the truly unique musical voices, but no one could assert that he was a true modernist. I think the point of view taken was that he would prove to be such in the long historical view (the one that has not yet fully emerged) once we get over our infatuation with atonality and other novelties of the early 20th century. But then, will he emerge as a modernist or as a post-modern avatar of neo-romanticism? It depends on which Sibelius you look at: the fiery post-Tchaikovsky romantic of the Kullervo and first two numbered symphonies? the Finnish nationalist drawing on or synthesizing a melodic style evocative of folk-culture? the neo-classicist condensing his forms and finding a unique harmonic language in the Third and Fourth Symphonies respectively? or the eccentric withdrawing into a private world of nature contemplation and idiosyncratic musical language as in the Seventh Symphony or the tone poem Tapiola, final masterpieces preceding thirty years of compositional silence?

Hearing the music of Sibelius’s predecessors, teachers, and contemporaries made one thing clear: none of them sounded like Sibelius at any stage. Neither did his Finnish contemporaries Aarre Merikanto and Erkki Melartin, although they wrote fine music well worth hearing. It is only when we get to the following generation, and expand the perspective geographically, that we detect his influence on composers like Leevi Madetoja, Väinö Raitio, Howard Hanson, Samuel Barber, and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Had the Festival chosen to go further beyond the time-span of Sibelius’ productive career (which ended in the late ‘20’s) we might have heard his influence on subsequent generations of Finnish and other Scandanavian and Baltic composers such as Uuno Klami, Vagn Holmboe, Kalevi Aho, Einojuhani Rautavaara, and even contemporaries like Kari Saariaho, Arvo Pärt, or Erkki-Sven Tüür.

Such a demonstration of Sibelius’s historical position would have supported one point being made in the Festival: that Sibelius deserves to be considered a powerful founding influence on later composers; but it would have undermined another: that Sibelius was not really a regional figure, but rather, was part of a wider geographical culture that included Russians (Rimsky-Korsakoff and Glazunov), Poles (Szymanowski), Italians (Ottorino Respighi), Germans, Austrians, and even Australians (Percy Grainger). Despite his almost immediate influence in the English-speaking countries, there seems little doubt that Sibelius’s voice continues to resonate particularly strongly in areas geographically contiguous to Finland. A similar controversy has existed around the music of a parallel figure nine years Sibelius’s junior, Charles Ives. When Ives first emerged into larger public awareness around 1960, he was mythologized as a founder of American music. This view was later attacked by scholars eager to place him in an international context (connecting him to Debussy and Mahler among others.) But subsequent generations of American composers from Copland to John Adams have laid claim to Ives as an American musical avatar.

As usual, the Festival provided enormous collateral benefits. One was exposure to Sibelius’s lesser-known works, often unjustly categorized as “ephemera.” The first revelation occurred in the opening concert with a performance of four of the six “Humoresques” for violin and orchestra from 1917. Although “lighter” in style than the symphonies or violin concerto, and gesturally related to a virtuoso salon style, these wonderful works were fully identifiable as being in Sibelius’s characteristic voice. The salon elements were assimilated so elegantly that one heard parody of an elegant and sophisticated sort not usually associated with Sibelius. The violin writing was a fascinating blend of the idiosyncratic style of the Violin Concerto of a decade earlier (rev. version 1905) with the floridity of more conventional showpieces; but there was no disguising their individuality. In the accomplished rendition of soloist Henning Kraggerud, one wondered why these works (and their two companions) are such concert rarities, when we have to hear endless repetitions of Bruch’s G minor Concerto or the bon-bons of Saint-Saens.

Another benefit was the chance to hear superb performances of songs and piano pieces by Grieg. Both the songs and the piano pieces made strong impressions: the song set Haugtussa (The Mountain Maid) of 1895 by virtue of its emotional variety, vivid and imaginative accompaniments, and powerful drama; and the selections from Slåtter Op. 72 for piano for their innovative harmonic language (instantly recognizable as this composer) and colorful pianism.  Grieg’s music, especially his prolific output of songs and piano pieces, is too little known (as are the parallel genres of Sibelius’s oeuvre) and the opportunity to hear them in strong serious performances was a valuable surprise.

Equally valuable was the chance to experience the vocal artistry of mezzo-soprano Melis Jaatinen who also performed sets of songs by Toivo Kuula, Tchaikovsky (in duet with Christine Libor), and Sibelius. Jaatinen combined an extremely personable stage presence with warm and directly communicative singing, an easy vocal technique, and mastery of sung Norwegian, Finnish, Swedish, and Russian. She was one of the treasures of the Festival.

Listening to the early works of Sibelius in the context of his contemporaries revealed a unique voice that was present from the start when issues of conciseness and formal organization had yet to be sorted out and refined. The G minor Piano Quintet (1890) and the “Kullervo” Symphony (actually an oratorio on a story from the Kalevala, 1891-2) reveal a boldness and weightiness of utterance, a tendency toward sustained power and vehement expression overriding finely articulated detail, which might be labeled a kind of primitivism when compared with the music of his teachers from Berlin and Vienna. The works of Robert Fuchs (String Trio, 1898), Albert Becker (Andante religioso, 1898), and Karl Goldmark (Cello Sonata in F, 1892) seemed relatively faceless and conventional in comparison, however fine they were as individual compositions. The Goldmark seemed to be an alternate version of Brahms’ cello sonata in the same key (published in 1887). It is good in itself to become acquainted with works by composers whom we read about and, in the case of Goldmark, occasionally hear. There are enough attractions in that work to merit repeated hearings as an alternative to the not very large established repertory for cello and piano. In the context of the festival, however, the primary impact is one of suffering by comparison with a powerful musical personality determined to have his own voice heard.  The performances of both the Goldmark and Sibelius chamber works, by the way, involved a last-minute change of personnel: instead of Jeremy Denk, the pianist was Daniel del Piro, who apparently (owing to conflicts in Denk’s schedule) had to step in on only two days notice. The quintet alone is about a 35 minute work with a massive piano part. That the performance was so authoritatively convincing says much about the abilities of the pianist, along with his better-prepared colleagues.

Turning to the orchestral music of the first weekend, further invidious comparisons left Sibelius’s colleague and friend Robert Kajanus in the obscure light where he has been languishing despite his pivotal role in encouraging his younger colleague. Kajanus’s symphonic poem Aino, also based on the Kalevala, demonstrated that the use of native folklore is no guarantee of original character, especially when heard next to Sibelius’s bewitching Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island (1895, rev. 1897, 1939). One wonders what the first version of this score might have sounded like; the orchestral writing of what we heard was masterly and refined, again breathing a uniquely Sibelian atmosphere apparently more advanced than that of his later First Symphony (1899).

The weekend concluded with a program of Sibelius and Russian music, demonstrating the utterly different worlds those contiguous countries’ musical cultures inhabited at the turn of the century. Sibelius’s virtuosic piano pieces Kyllikki (1904) were further evidence that the neglect of his non-symphonic output is unjustified. Particularly entertaining was Stravinsky’s 1963 arrangement of Sibelius’s Canzonetta (1911), originally for strings, but rescored for the Stravinskian combination of clarinet, bass clarinet, four horns, harp, and double-bass. The Russian professed little interest in the Finn for most of his life; here at the age of 81, he performs the trick of turning one of Sibelius’s popular string pieces inside-out, basically inhabiting it from within as he had done 41 years earlier with Pergolesi’s music in Pulcinella (1922). The string-saturated, intensely romantic melody is transformed into a fascinating study of incommensurate sonorities that magically cohere as a hard-edged musical object. One suddenly imagines a liturgical ritual with tolling bells. It is perhaps only by such alchemical metamorphosis that the Finnish romantic and Russian modern aesthetics could achieve a state of fusion.

Aside from the familiar (and delightfully performed) Rachmaninoff Suite no. 2 (1901), the Russian work of greatest interest was the String Quintet (with extra cello) in A major by Aleksandr Glazunov (1891-92), Sibelius’s exact contemporary. Though not a member of the “Mighty Handful,” this youthful work displays its composer as a kind of prodigy, having mastered and personalized the characteristic Russian idiom at the age of 26. This is a fully satisfying, large-scale chamber work of high technical polish, formal balance, marked by a flowing lyricism that may have been inspired by Borodin but that contains its own distinctive melos, one verging on but avoiding sentimentality.  The chamber writing inclined toward the orchestral side (the extra weight of the second cello) and the flow of events was continual and compelling. This idiom has a high entertainment value—it reaches out to the listener in a most generous way, offering a kaleidoscope of experiences:  folksiness, pizzicato playfulness, an elegant waltz, seemingly endless melodic invention, and harmonic freshness and expressivity (with occasional nods to Tristan).  The polished performance (by Harumi Rhodes, Sharon Roffman, Marka Gustavsson, Jonathan Spitz, and Robert Martin) kept things moving briskly along, but the players might have indulged at times in a bit more edge and roughness. The performance was as cultivated as Glazunov himself, even when the composer was trying to act like he wasn’t.


Jean Sibelius.

The second weekend moved things forward chronologically into more mature Sibelius and the beginnings of his international influence. Howard Hanson, an American of Swedish descent, presents us with a model of a Sibelian symphonic composer of the 20th century, conservative and modern at the same time. His Pastorale, op. 38 (1949) for oboe, originally accompanied by harp and strings, was presented in an eloquent, shapely performance by Alexandra Knoll supported by pianist Anna Polonsky. Its lyrically angular line, beautifully suited to the instrument, along with a dark, occasionally acerbic accompaniment, projected a dramatic monologue that balanced elements of Sibelian gloom with American narrative restlessness, a combination that would resurface with greater drama and complexity in Samuel Barber’s First Symphony, op. 9 (1936) heard in the final program. Both of these Americans, resisting the more radical stylistic trends of the day, found support for their tonal inclinations in the work of the Finnish master. The crucial factor is that all three still managed to find new things to say within their chosen idioms.

That same program (Friday night of August 19) contained a range of offerings from eye-opening to plain bad. Kurt Atterberg’s Piano Quintet in C major op. 31bis (1928) caught everyone’s attention. Atterberg was later excoriated for his collaboration and public white-washing of the Nazis; this is probably the reason he remains so little-known today. The music tells its own story: this is a deeply original voice, tonal yet very unconventional, full of surprises, shocks, humor, and unlike anyone else’s. Given the advance press, one wanted to hate it, but ended up understanding why, in its alternate form as the composer’s Sixth Symphony, it found itself being performed by Beecham and Toscanini in 1936 prior to the composer’s fall from grace. The other Nazi collaborator on the program, Yrjö Kilpinen, supplied the bad: two songs so steeped in nationalist ideology as to be devoid of artistic value. Here the composer’s error was not the self-centered careerism of Atterberg, but the stupid acceptance of an ideological nationalist agenda that stripped away all elements of artistry and inventiveness. Between those extremes, we had a set of piano pieces by Amy Beach channeling scenes from Eskimo life, and finding that Edward MacDowell had already been there. These works were without fault or distinction. They are not at the level of the composer’s best work, which really does deserve to be heard more frequently.

Also not heard at its best was the first movement of Bruckner’s Third Symphony in Mahler’s arrangement for piano four-hands. Included to mark the composer’s influence on Sibelius (which seems almost too obvious to require illustration), the performance by the estimable husband-and-wife team of Orion Weiss and Anna Polonsky failed to rise to symphonic grandeur: it was too pianistic and “nice.” The polish of the playing robbed the music of its formal cohesion (the great pitfall of this work) by arriving at the silent moments as if they were genuine pauses rather than high-voltage interruptions of a compelling onward flow of narrative. Four-hand piano transcriptions of symphonic works really belong in a more intimate space than the Sosnoff Theater (cap. 900+) where they can thunder impressively; they were intended for home delectation. (A graduate-school colleague and I used to play Bruckner on an upright piano in a practice room down the hall from the library when the rigors of research demanded a break; the miniscule space was easy to overwhelm with climactic thunder—still one of the more satisfying realizations of Bruckner in my experience.)

Saturday afternoon’s program “From the Nordic Folk” contained one of those delightful surprises that irregularly shows up in Bard Festivals: the presence of a performer from the margin of “classical” performance that borders on the folk world. In this case, it was violinist/fiddler Piia Kleemola, a performer/scholar of Scandinavian music. In conjunction with Orion Weiss’s dynamic performance of Sibelius’s Six Finnish Folk Songs (1902-03), Kleemola presented the original folk-tunes for three of the pieces: Minun kultani (My Beloved is Beautiful), Sydämestäni (I Love You Deeply), and Velisurmaaja (Fratricide). Her arresting performances made use of a non-tempered folk-scale with “neutral” third and seventh steps, a phenomenon that inspired Bartók (represented on this program by half of his Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs [1914-1918] to include quarter-tones in some of his violin music). The shock of this intonation was akin to having the walls of Olin Auditorium fall away to reveal some wild and unfamiliar landscape, an effect which one could also attribute as an intention of Sibelius’s “nature-oriented” aesthetic, but here accomplished by remarkably simple means. Bartók’s folk-studies began the year after that of Sibelius’s piano pieces and became more serious under the influence of Grieg in 1906 — we don’t often think of this great modernist as being inspired by that arch-romantic, but such categories always fail to account for realities on the ground.

Both the Bartók work and Percy Grainger’s La Scandinavie for cello and piano (1902, performed skillfully by Sophie Shao and Pei-Yao Wang) sought out the rustic, uncultivated atmosphere surrounding the supposedly authentic expressions of the people’s voices, whether in Hungary, Sweden, or Norway; both paradoxically surrounded the “borrowed” melodies (to use a term fashionable in the world of Ives studies) with artfully constructed harmonizations intended to slant the musical experience away from the genteel world of art-music. In Bartók’s case, the result was to introduce new harmonies and rough rhythms to render the melodies both “picturesque” and in some way mysterious; similar intentions could be felt in Grainger’s case, but his relatively conventional harmonic language imparted an element of nostalgia that worked against the de-familiarization of both Sibelius’s and Bartók’s aesthetic. It may be that Grainger’s strenuous advocacy for Grieg’s music in the English-speaking world gave the Norwegian composer’s music a reputation for sentimentality and miniaturization that it does not deserve, judging by what was heard at this festival. One wonders whether a similar bias toward conservatism in the same quarters injured Sibelius’s reputation as much as it helped it. A further surprise on this program came in the form of Szymanowski’s three Mazurkas (1924-26) based on the folk music of the Tatra Mountains that inspired much of that composer’s later music: this music fit the modernist paradigm even better than Bartók’s slightly earlier effort, capturing a sense of the mythic and archaic with a post-romantic idiom that was free of clichés and sentimentality.

The Saturday afternoon program, “Finnish Modern,” would merit an entire review of its own, but the fatigued reader will be happy to know that this will not be attempted here. Anchored by Sibelius’s great String Quartet, Voces intimae (1909-1910), a work that bears no immediate connection to contiguous compositions in the composer’s œuvre, the program offered works by Finns of the next generation, all well-chosen examples of heterogenous responses to “Finnishness” — the 1930 songs of Leevi Madetoja showing the most direct influence of Sibelius; late-romanticism — Erkki Melartin’s gem-like String Trio of 1926-27); and ‘20’s modernism — Aarre Merikanto’s Schott Concerto, 1924. This last, a “Brandenburg”-like chamber concerto for violin, clarinet, and horn accompanied by a string sextet, may have been the most striking discovery of the entire festival, a counterpart to the Ernst Toch Quartet no. 11 that we were delighted by a year earlier. This is a work from the modernist mainstream, akin to the Hindemith Kammermusik series, the large-scale chamber-works of Schoenberg and Berg, and at the same time, stylistically unique. The presence of jazz influence is felt periodically, along with elements of a modernist lyricism (cf. Hanson), comic hi-jinx (cf. Atterberg), a formal technique of continual motivic metamorphosis (cf. Berg’s Chamber Concerto), and even a slow movement of daring immobility (cf. Sibelius the modernist!). This is an important voice and a significant 20th-century career that is awaiting exposure and exploration. And who better qualified than Leon Botstein and his orchestra?

Saturday night and Sunday afternoon brought our attention fully back to Sibelius and his chronological development. The juxtaposition of his forbidding Fourth Symphony (1911) with Carl Nielsen’s ecstatic Third Symphony, Sinfonia espansiva (1910-11) could not have provided greater contrast, or stronger demonstration of the varieties of originality that were blossoming at this moment which was also witness to the births of Petroushka, Pierrot Lunaire, and Three Places in New England. The Sibelius is perhaps the ne plus ultra of this composer’s personal form of modernism, while the Nielsen joyfully merges classicism of form with romantic lyricism and an original approach to harmony that uses a gentle modality to loosen up the formal narrative. Sibelius’s crepuscular Nordic light became half of this program’s chiaroscuro, with Nielsen supplying noon-day Mediterranean sun as the complement. Both works were fully characterized in the committed renditions of Botstein and the ASO.

I will pass quickly over the Sunday chamber program, something made difficult by the presence of Richard Strauss’s late Sonatina for sixteen winds subtitled “Aus der Werkstatt eines Invaliden” (1943), also conducted by Botstein. This divertimento-like, three movement Mozartean exercise in self-soothing, composed during the darkest days of the life of the composer and of his “nation”, lingered like one unwilling to die, to the monstrous length of three-quarters of an hour! Such distended romantic rhetoric had not been heard at Bard since the 1999 performance of Florent Schmitt’s Piano Quintet during that year’s Debussy Festival. Enough said.

Compensation was at hand shortly afterward in the final program. The indefatigable musicians generously offered three major symphonies and a symphony-length symphonic poem.

Barber and Vaughan Williams displayed opposing directions in which Sibelius’s influence could operate on the next generation. (Both composers directly acknowledged their debt to him in testimonials.) Barber, like Hanson, developed a restless, dramatically charged narrative in his compact, one-movement work whose muscularly contrapuntal form of symphonism contrasted with Sibelius’s largely homophonic approach to texture. The powerful work holds together convincingly, despite moments of youthfully over-the-top writing. Vaughan Williams’ Symphony no. 5 (1938-1943, rev. 1951) offered a polar contrast. Dedicated to Sibelius “without permission,” Sibelius responded to it by writing in his diary that this work was “like a caress from a summer world.” As with Sibelius, the English composer eschews formal developmental strategies and contrapuntal dialectics, producing instead extended moments of timeless homophonic contemplation linked to a pastoral vision of nature. If Vaughan Williams’ Third Symphony had not already been so titled, this could well have been his Sinfonia pastorale. Tellingly, both of these serene works were written during the darkest days of the two world wars. Unlike the Strauss “sonatina,” they lie less open to the accusation of personal escapism, and more directed toward penetrating to the core of a redemptive humanity. That this symphony’s optimism seems somehow less ultimately convincing than Sibelius’s more complex response to his own experience of the world speaks very much to our contemporary condition.

Sibelius’s twin swan-songs Symphony no. 7 (1924) and Tapiola (1926) offered another form of chiaroscuro: the one-movement symphony this time radiated a distilled clarity of utterance, a beautiful balance of rationally discernible metamorphosis and mysterious wholeness, while the tone-poem brought to an epitome the dynamically static qualities of Sibelius’s life’s work colored by a new darkness (quite distinct from that of the Fourth Symphony) that located its drama fully outside the realm of the human and centered in a mythologically-charged nature. This is uniquely forbidding music: it is hard to imagine any compelling score, whether Le Sacre or Gruppen, that is less expressive of human experience, and therefore potentially more terrifying, than this one. Even its redemptive final major chord, which seems to linger forever, only serves as a reminder of how far we have journeyed in this music away from our own lives. All the speculations about why Sibelius stopped composing, aired in the panel discussion on the first day of the festival, could be silenced by this one work.

About the author

Larry Wallach

Larry Wallach is a pianist, musicologist, and composer who lives in Great Barrington, Massachusetts and heads the Music Program at Simon’s Rock College of Bard. He has also taught composition at Bard College. He studied piano privately with Henry Danielowitz and Kenneth Cooper, and was trained at Columbia University where he studied music history with Paul Henry Lang, performance practices with Denis Stevens, and composition with Otto Luening, Jack Beeson, and Charles Wuorinen. He earned a doctorate in musicology in 1973 with a dissertation about Charles Ives. In 1977, he was awarded a grant to become part of a year-long National Endowment for the Humanities seminar at the University of North Carolina directed by William S. Newman, focussing on performance practices in earlier piano music. He went on to participate in the Aston Magna Summer Academy in 1980, where he studied fortepiano with Malcolm Bilson, both privately and in master classes.

Larry Wallach has been an active performer of chamber music with harpsichord and piano, and of twentieth century music. He has collaborated with harpsichordist Kenneth Cooper, with recorder virtuoso Bernard Krainis, with violinist Nancy Bracken of the Boston Symphony, with violinist/violist Ronald Gorevic, with gambist Lucy Bardo, and with his wife, cellist Anne Legêne, performing on both modern and baroque instruments. He has appeared with the Avanti Quintet, the New York Consort of Viols, and is a regular performer on the “Octoberzest” series in Great Barrington. He has been on the staffs of summer early music workshops at World Fellowship and Pinewoods Camp.
In 1996, he presented a program at the Bard Music Festival devoted to Charles Ives designed around a performance the composer’s Second Violin Sonata along with all the source tunes that are quoted in it. Part of this program was repeated at Lincoln Center in NY. He has also appeared on programs in Washington DC, and at St. Croix VI. As a composer, his works have been heard in New York, Boston, Amherst, the Berkshires, and at Bard College.

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