in From the Archives

Musicologist and humanist Erik Tawaststjerna, the interpreter of Sibelius's inner voices

by Eero Tarasti

“. . . seule la métaphore est exacte ... “ (Roland Barthes)
Eero Tarasti, successor to Erik Tawaststjerna as professor of music at the University of Helsinki, takes a look at the method applied by Tawaststjerna in his biography of Sibelius.

Some scholars make a career for themselves on the strength of the spoken word alone, others rely solely on the written word. And there are some, of course, who have a capacity for both. It is in precisely this last category that we find Erik Tawaststjerna. Anyone who has only read him, who has neither seen him nor heard him, knows only one facet of this scholar and artist.

During Erik Tawaststjerna’s term as professor (1960–1983), musicology at the University of Helsinki branched out in many directions. It saw the advent of musically-oriented sociology and anthropology, the development of formal analysis, the introduction of computers for the creation and study of music, and all in the space of two decades. Yet there is one genre of musical literature that has persistently stood its ground, and that is the biography. The biography is in fact a genre of its own in the written history of music. And if it also happens to be a work of art in itself, it can provide a better, more profound and more truthful account of the history of music than any mere academic study.

Mann, Proust, Tawaststjerna

Tawaststjerna once told me that the only thing about musicology that interests him is its artistic aspect or quality. No wonder, then, that his great biography of Sibelius was inspired by such illustrious writers as Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust. He even borrowed the ‘immersion technique’ from Thomas Mann and applied it to the figure of Jean Sibelius. The main character in a novel or a biography is described via his human and physical environment, he is examined in relation to the people around him, the entire cultural milieu of which his work is a product.

Tawaststjerna must be one of the few people in the world even conceivably capable of undertaking such a task. Being completely bilingual and having two cultural backgrounds to draw on (Finnish and Swedish), he has managed to project himself into the life and works of Sibelius with a directness and freshness that arouse universal admiration.

A year ago, at a congress in Helsinki, Carl Dahlhaus and Erik Tawaststjerna got into an interesting debate on the relationship between a composer and his works. Can a biography convey the nature of a composer’s music; and conversely, does his music indicate the sort of life he led? Dahlhaus claimed that although the themes in a Mahler symphony may be regarded as shadows of fictional characters, Mahler was not necessarily describing himself: the subject of narration is not the same as the subject of the narrative. According to Tawaststjerna it is possible to discover affinities between a composer’s musical ideas and the sort of life he led, especially if they are supported by the composer’s own notes and correspondence. To give an example: the process by which Sibelius’s Second Symphony and some of its main themes evolved can be traced with considerable accuracy from the composer’s diary.

To some extent Tawaststjerna's interpretations may be regarded as a form of musical hermeneutics in the German sense of the word. Drawing such a parallel is, admittedly, somewhat rash, for his explanations and his accounts of the music are light-years away from the naive hermeneutics of his predecessor, Professor Ilmari Krohn. ln some respects Tawaststjerna is indeed a sort of Finnish Arnold Schering. Take, for example, his fascinating descriptions of how the Fifth Sympbony gradually took shape, or the parallel he draws with Goethe's poem “Die Seele des Menschen, wie gleichst du dem Wasser: … “But on the other hand Tawaststjerna's hermeneutics spring from an infinitely meticulous and laborious study of his sources. What is more, he is entirely at home in his era, so that the music itself - in his analyses - tells how people lived, travelled, dressed, felt, talked ... as Pasternak would say.

Levels of narration

A biography is never a mere collection of empirical material; it is also a form of narrative. lts effect, furthermore, depends on the skills of the author as a writer. Just as operating on many different planes simultaneously and alternately is a feature of all intellectual discourse, so Tawaststjerna’s biography operates at different levels which, by interacting, hold the reader spellbound from beginning to end.

First of all, the work contains episodes drawing on the composer's unique diaries and letters describing his inner world. Since the publication of Tawaststjerna’s biography, many of Sibelius’s sayings have become widely adopted in contemporary Finnish culture. The writer’s own words merge so elegantly with the composer’s that the reader is imperceptibly drawn into the inner world of the maestro.

When the first volume (published by Faber & Faber) appeared in English, Gerald Abraham wrote a long interview in The Times literary Supplement. lt was, he said, new to have the weakness in the composer’s character revealed, to read of “the inventive poverty and technical ineptitude of the early works”, while “all these evidences of technical helplessness are equally characteristic of Sibelius’ early mature style and contribute materially to its novelty.” Tawaststjerna’s book thus contributed new aspects to the international appraisal of Sibelius’ music.

Analyses of works

Analyses of individual works always pose one of the biggest problems in any biography. Publishers, in particular, are by no means overjoyed to find in the middle of a biography long structural analyses which the average reader simply skips. How, then, can the author do justice to a composer in text that is factually reliable, gives a brief outline of a work the reader has possibly never even heard, yet is so interesting that the reader is tempted to savour it as he would the most daring revelations? What is more, analysis is always also a function of the position and meaning of a work in musical history. Obviously the reader’s expectations of any analysis of, say, the Fourth Symphony or the Swan of Tuonela will differ from those he has of the lesser-known piano pieces.

In making his analyses Tawaststjerna applies the same ‘immersion’ technique as in his biography, placing the work in its right stylistic context, not merely in the genetic sense but also more generally in the light of its position and status in the history of music. Naturally the analyses in biographies cannot be of the type Profound Logic of Beethoven’s and Sibelius’s Symphonies à la Kenneth L. Pike, and it is quite in order to describe the musical texture using poetic metaphors.

Tawaststjerna the man

How can anyone describe Erik Tawaststjerna, a man who has beyond all doubt become a fundamental part of Finland’s national heritage? Even the largest halls are packed for his public lectures, which also receive wide coverage in the media. Like all national heroes, there are countless anecdotes about him. It is impossible to imagine him without his thick black fur coat, which accompanies him everywhere, from draughty lecture halls to the tropics, Rio de Janeiro and the Orient (Tehran included). From time to time this fur-clad figure would also appear at faculty meetings to defend his department in the battle for staff and funds. Luckily the University of Helsinki realised that he was of greatest service to the University if allowed to lose himself in the maze­like world of his Sibelius biography. He was not past asking the Vice-Chancellor in all innocence, “Do you usually attend senate meetings?”

The ‘method’ adopted by Tawaststjema as a teacher and head of department is unconventional in the extreme. He often held his seminars at his apartment in one of the finest Art Nouveau quarters of Helsinki, where the very stairway, with its fine frescoes, transported the student to a world evocative more of Boris Godunov. When Tawaststjerna was appointed professor in 1960, musical scholarship was distinctly biased towards Finnish folk music. A student writing a thesis on J.S. Bach was advised to seek his doctorate at Åbo Akademi, the Swedish-speaking university in Turku, because his subject was not in line with the national trend.

Under Tawaststjerna the department began to proposer in the material sense. The library grew, and so did the number of students, and a number of doctorates were soon awarded. Almost all the holders of chairs in musicology in Finland at the moment were trained by Tawaststjerna.

The lectures he gives at the Sibelius Academy have also been popular. When he speaks of piano styles, for example, his wide experience as a concert pianist and the years spent in Paris and Moscow, studying and performing, are of inestimable value to his students. No wonder, therefore, that in comparing recordings of Chopin’s etudes, he will always claim that the best is the one by his teacher, Alfred Cortot.

A new challenge, Shostakovich

So what is Tawaststjerna doing these days? The saying ‘when you retire you disappear’ certainly does not apply in his case. He can be heard on the radio and seen on television, and his name is a byword in the centres of musical scholarship the world over. Whenever Finland acts as host to state visitors, it is Erik Tawaststjerna who introduces them to Finnish culture ...

At home in his study he plans to complete his monumental series on Sibelius by rewriting some of the early chapters in the light of recent research. In particular he has been looking into the relationship between Sibelius and the modal element in Finnish folk music. He is rewriting the chapter on the background to the Kullervo Symphony and is debating how far the Swedish authorities eradicated the modality of Kalevala folk songs during the witch-hunts of the 17th century.

Meanwhile he is also collecting material for his next major work, which is to be about Shostakovich. This is another world with which he has personal contact, for he worked at the Finnish Foreign Ministry in Moscow immediately after the war. He must be one of the few (possibly the only?) western scholars to have access to the Shostakovich Archives, his original correspondence and documents in Moscow.

Much of the credit for popularising musicology in Finland, both among musicians and scholars, goes to Tawaststjerna. An esoteric discipline that for many musicians still remains Worte ohne Lieder has suddenly gained prestige and become a popular item in Finland’s national musical culture. It must be remembered that, unlike most universities in the United States, Finland’s university music departments do not only train scholars; they also train a wide variety of people working with music — journalists, administrators, teachers, critics and so on. The years these people spent in Tawaststjerna’s department have never been wasted, and the humane and far-reaching view of music and musicology gained from his lectures has laid the foundations for their professional careers. 

Internationally Tawaststjerna’s biography will remain the definitive work on Sibelius and a constant point of reference, but it will almost certainly not be the last book about this composer. In fact Sibelius scholarship is only in its infancy, and new results can be expected as new methods are applied to the study of all his manuscripts and analysis penetrating to the roots of his music.

Translation: Susan Sinisalo
Featured photo: Erik Tawaststjerna in studio in 1962. Photo: Pertti Jenytin.

The 23rd Annual Symposium for Finnish Music Researchers takes place 27–29 March 2019 at the Sibelius Academy. The title for the symposium is: The historical change and present state of music: Value(s), ideals and the sounding reality.