Back in the late fifties, when new-music agendas were being drawn up and vigorously promoted, certain famous senior composers were regularly accused of impeding the progress of modernism, and one of the most pernicious villains was Jean Sibelius. According to my mentors in academia at the time, Sibelius, who died in 1957 at age 91, was a pathetic figure who never responded properly to the forward march of music history as led by Stravinsky and Schoenberg into the twentieth century. Beyond that, his childish obsession with Finnish folklore and nature mysticism made him out to be a hopelessly outdated proponent of musical nationalism or, worse, a cynical audience manipulator. From his bully pulpit at the New York Herald Tribune, Virgil Thomson branded Sibelius’s music vulgar, self-indulgent, and provincial beyond description, and Thomson’s successor, Paul Henry Lang, was just as damning. Both critics probably felt they had to use strong language since Sibelius was still dangerously popular – back in 1935, in fact, New York concertgoers had selected him as their favorite composer, nosing out even Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Mozart.
The invective has died down since then, and Sibelius never really did go away, although only two or three of his seven symphonies, along with the Violin Concerto, a few pop-concert items like Valse Triste and Finlandia, and a handful of songs, have remained central to the repertory. So the composer, still something of an enigma, is due for reassessment, and earlier this month Lincoln Center enterprisingly took the initiative by presenting a two-week investigation of his work. Colin Davis conducted five symphonies and other orchestral pieces with the London Symphony Orchestra; the Lark String Quartet investigated the chamber music; baritone Jorma Hynninen gave an all-Sibelius song recital; and the contemporary-music group Avanti! performed a program of works by later Finnish composers, all influenced in one way or another by their towering father figure. In between, Davis presided over a combination master class and open rehearsal on the Third Symphony at the Juilliard School, and a panel of today’s more Sibelius-friendly academics discussed many interesting issues about the man and his music during an all-day symposium.
It was a clever stroke to lead off this “Northern Lights” festival with the Fourth Symphony, the composer’s bleakest, most uncompromising statement. Even Sibelius haters didn’t quite know what to make of this gritty score when it first appeared in 1911. The music still sounds “modern” to our ears, especially when compared to the glittering late-romantic orchestral tone poems being written at the time by composers like Richard Strauss – while others served gaudy cocktails, Sibelius once scornfully remarked, he offered the world cold, clear water. Even the compositional procedures – the off-center, unresolved harmonic movement and concentrated working out of spare thematic materials – are radically forward-looking, never mind that few contemporary commentators or other composers picked up on them back then. Sibelius never wrote another score quite this challenging, but all his subsequent symphonies spin variations on the singular aspects of the Fourth’s self-generating forms and content. It was instructive to be reminded of the ways in which these masterly and original works are related and how they evolved during the first quarter of this century into organic statements that are, as critic Michael Steinberg has pointed out, constantly in conversation with one another.
The seven Sibelius symphonies have always engaged the attention of important conductors over the years, even when the composer was in eclipse. No interpreter of this music today is more persuasive than Colin Davis, and his reputation as an insightful Sibelian is upheld on two integral recordings: with the Boston Symphony for Philips and, most recently, with the London Symphony on RCA. Of course, there are many ways to present Sibelius, from Koussevitzky’s throbbingly passionate improvisations to Karajan’s icily majestic pronouncements, but few conductors in my experience have shown a more complete grasp of this elusive composer’s symphonic thinking than Davis. Not only does he realize the event-to-event progress of each score with startling clarity, but the instrumental colors positively shimmer with a prismatic beauty that draws a listener straight into the heart of Sibelius’s special world. New York has just concluded a busy musical year, but few events have been more memorable or thought-provoking than these eloquent London Symphony concerts.