- The Washington Times - Monday, December 14, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

SIBELIUS: A COMPOSER’S LIFE AND THE AWAKENING OF FINLAND

By Glenda Dawn Goss

University of Chicago Press, $55, 514 pages, illus.

Reviewed by Priscilla S. Taylor

Visitors to Helsinki invariably are shown the Sibelius Monument in Sibelius Park, where a silvery abstract sculpture, perhaps suggesting organ pipes, emerges from amid the yellow birches, and a silvery head of the composer seems to float above a nearby wall. In a way, Glenda Dawn Goss’ insightful life of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) floats above the main story of this book, the emergence of modern Finland.

The fact is, the erudite Ms. Goss, who teaches at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, knows a great deal about Finland and its premier composer-native son and has tried to squeeze it all into this one volume. Whether the book - replete with pages of musical excerpts, Finnish poetry and an antique Swedish map - will reach the general audience it deserves remains a question, but anyone with an interest in the composer or Finland should find it worth the effort. She explains as well as anyone can the bilingual mysteries of Finland: “A Finnish national poet, Finnish national texts, Finland’s national composer, all writing in Swedish and speaking Swedish as a mother tongue?”

The man who became Jean Sibelius was born Johan Julius Christian “Janne” Sibelius to a staunchly Lutheran, Swedish-speaking family in Hameenlinna, a garrison town in the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland, where martial music made its imprint on him early. His father was a military physician, notorious for alcoholism, who died of typhus before Janne was 3. Janne’s family saw to it that he was steeped in Finnish literature, music and the Bible. He studied piano without enthusiasm, but once his uncle gave him a violin, he applied himself and rapidly progressed with the leading teachers of the day in Helsinki, Berlin and Vienna. He anticipated a career as a virtuoso violinist until problems with stage fright persuaded him that his talents lay in composing.

It was during his student days that he adopted the French form of his name, Jean. (After independence was declared in December 1917, when all Finns were encouraged to translate their names into Finnish, he refused to change his.) It also was while he was a student that he contracted syphilis, for which he was treated, apparently successfully, in Berlin. Problems with alcohol, however, haunted him all his life.

Ms. Goss details the composition of all of his works and their reception, usually enthusiastic, particularly among his countrymen. Sibelius had early success with a choral symphony, “Kullervo,” the “Karelia Suite,” and four tone poems based on characters from the Finnish national epic, “Kalevala.” He then produced the acclaimed “Finlandia” for orchestra and chorus and his first two symphonies, among other works. The story bogs down during the recitation of Finnish legends that were depicted in the “historical tableaux” associated with the national lottery, for which Sibelius composed music in the 1890s.

In 1904, the Sibelius family built a house outside Helsinki to escape urban life, and over the next two decades, it was there that Sibelius produced his remaining major works, including his violin concerto and five more symphonies. The author writes, “Sibelius may have withdrawn to the Finnish countryside, but in the artists’ colony of Tuusula and the extended artistic family of the Jarnefelts, he was fully in touch with the new currents of thought. … And those currents brought Sibelius out of the slough of his wastrel lifestyle.”

The conventional wisdom among some musicians is that the Finnish Senate’s award of a state stipend to Sibelius in 1897, when he was 32, to support his composing - a stipend that subsequently was made into a life pension - may have made him unwilling to take risks that might have invigorated his later career, which famously languished for the final three decades of his 91-year lifespan. Ms. Goss does not reject this conventional wisdom - for example, she thinks he made a mistake in 1920 in turning down the offer of a visiting professorship at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. - but she presents a more nuanced interpretation of the composer’s life decisions.

In particular, she thinks that Sibelius, a member of the cultural elite during the “golden age” under the Russian Empire, was silenced by his despair over the class-divided nature of the independent Finland that emerged from its bitter civil war in 1918: “Had he left Finland, he might have been able to salvage his creative life. But his self-image was too bound up with the nation’s, too well entrenched in his iconic status, too strongly reinforced within his family, for him to leave the kingdom whose crown he wore. Indeed, the very idea of Sibelius as the figure of the people’s spirit harked back to those golden-age endeavors he had so enthusiastically joined: the central figures of the Kalevala were believed to have their origins in the ‘collective spirit of the nation.’ Jean Sibelius was widely seen as embodying that spirit.”

The author fully covers Sibelius’ relationships with other leaders of the cultural golden age while mentioning the composer’s family only in passing. The book contains no pictures of his parents; only one photograph of his wife, Aino Jarnefelt before they were married and none after; their five children are not pictured at all.

During World War II, the author observes, “Sibelius’ role was to remain with his people and to endure the fears and deprivations suffered by all the Finns.” One day during “those terrible years,” she writes, Sibelius was seen to burn a basket of manuscripts in the fireplace of his dining room. “Most believe that the Eighth Symphony went up in smoke.” She concludes, “Jean Sibelius had been forced into a role that was not of his choosing and that was not true to himself. Whether he had made a Faustian bargain for a life of fame and security and simply lacked the courage to break free, or his choice to remain in Finland represented an act of supreme heroism, will forever be a question of interpretation. The price, however, is not: his creative life.”

Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean.

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