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"In vino veritas"

Guy Rickards: Jean Sibelius. Phaidon 1997. Review by Edward Clark

If Mahler is psychotic then Sibelius is depressive.vino.jpg (9591 bytes)

This personal differentiation is one of the clearest explanations of how the world of musical appreciation seems to polarise around these two highly influential composers.

How else can we explain why certain conductors adore Sibelius and others are repelled by him, and vice versa with Mahler.

Sir Colin Davis, a great Sibelian, illustrates this point. Similarly, with composers such as Pierre Boulez, who venerates Mahler but ignores Sibelius.

Any new book on Sibelius must surely address this and perhaps other points if it is to add to our knowledge over and above the biographical details that we have thus far digested over many decades.

The latest English language biography by Guy Rickards, touches on the relationship between the two composers but does not probe why, even today, much of the musical world aligns behind one or the other.

This handsome book, full of interesting and stimulating photographs, fills the huge gap left by the current unavailability of Volumes I and II of the Erik W. Tawaststjerna biography, although Volume III is published later this year.

Therefore for the first time in over a decade the reader has access to most of the vast range of material on the life of Sibelius – his personality is fully explored often to his detriment; spice is added by Rickards’ claim of Sibelius’ two medical conditions (though real medical evidence is not forthcoming). Sibelius was a vain, jealous man who drank too much for his own good. He did nonetheless, produce marvellous music. This biography does not really spend enough time on the music. It is for the lay music lover, with no musical illustrations but the Epilogue (summary of musical achievement) is disappointingly short. We should also be disappointed to read (again) condemnation of most of the piano music and much of the later, light works for small orchestra. This merely continues a view that has held sway for far too long.

One conclusion that could have been made, which brings many elements of Sibelius’ life together, is the fact that perhaps he needed to drink as much as he did to be stimulated to write such gloriously individual music. Furthermore, touching on the subject of the eighth symphony, it is possible that, in old age, when he stopped drinking (to excess anyway) he could not compose (or release) the eighth symphony. Vino Veritas. (Through wine – the truth).

Edward Clark is President of the UK Sibelius Society.



(Views of three contemporary composers)

His music is Shakespearean in the range of its characters, and similarly earth-shaking when he confronts the most profound aspects of the human conditions. – John McCabe, London, U.K.

Among many compositions of 1911 that have proven to have great resonance for the future, among them Petrushka and Pierrot Lunaire, none has been more important to the redevelopment of large musical structure in the late 20th century than Sibelius’ Fourth. – John Harbison, Cambridge, MA., U.K.

By the always deeper studies of your symphonies I was stunned over the novelty of your formal thinking – a genuine "contemporaneity" making me see Stravinsky or Bartok as kind of "historical", where you are contemporary reality. -- Per Nørgård, Copenhagen. Extract from a letter to Sibelius written in 1954.

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