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Guest Column: My Sibelius

by Susanna Mälkki

"Most of the time, I am far from Sibelius’s – and my own – homeland and on neutral territory, i.e. alone with my scores. But it is there, between the lines, that I am struck by something I cannot explain. I don’t, however, think it is just a national trait, because all over the world I meet people similarly affected by this remarkable music."
The billows of symphonic sound heave like the ocean waves, heeding laws known only to themselves, while the whole marine ecosystem exists within and around. Neither the direction nor the speed of the wind affects this system, which each time just acquires a new look and fragrance. The music of Sibelius rolls along in just the same way: in at least three dimensions. What is the interpreter’s job? I do my best to be analytical, but my heart dives straight into the dark waters.

Sibelius was a very strong presence in my childhood, and back then, this seemed only natural. I was stirred by the little songs and Christmas carols, though I scarcely stopped to think why they, in particular, moved me more than others. For me, “En etsi valtaa, loistoa” (I seek not might, not glory) has always been the world’s most beautiful Christmas carol, and it still is. Many of my early musical memories are of songs for male choir, and a number of orchestral works were familiar to me at a very early age.  I first visited Ainola on a junior-school outing; I well remember that clear autumn day, the atmosphere in the house, the beautiful garden and the silent grave of the man who rested there. Of course I could never have guessed that a few decades later I would have the honour of sitting for a moment in his favourite armchair.

As an adult, I added two new perspectives to my relationship with Sibelius’s music: the first was when, as a professional musician (a cellist), I become immersed in his orchestral music as part of its sound, polyphony and harmony; later, as a conductor, I further approached it from the angle of structure. This is a road I’m still travelling. His music exists in my hands and my mind at both micro- and macro-level, as both audible and tangible material to be moulded. A technical understanding of the works opens up new perspectives and, ideally, provides keys. Though I know the works, I am constantly discovering new details and levels, of course, but even more interesting: it is in the works of Sibelius that I observe new things in myself as well as I return to them again and again.

A national icon, Sibelius is still a man of exceptional standing in Finland. His music deserves this beyond all doubt, but everything else about him fascinates, too. A few years ago, just for fun, I went round the Helsinki second-hand bookshops collecting old books on Sibelius, and only then did I become fully aware of the true enormity of the Sibelius myth that prevailed in decades past. For although these books do mention his music, it is only more or less in passing, in a footnote. His physical presence, his imposing figure had made an indelible impression on many, and his status as a national hero was enhanced even further by all the idolising words. On the other hand, I am nevertheless touched by the immense respect for the artist and his art which all these texts communicate. Times have changed, but his music still arouses deep respect.

I have often wondered why the music of Sibelius has such an inexplicable hold on me. It must somehow derive from the magical atmosphere that has always surrounded his music in Finland. Just as if the music itself has an aura of its own that blankets out all but the essentials. The great respect and unadorned sincerity intuitively felt by each new generation are part of the performance tradition. Do we absorb it from the music itself, or from everything it represents? Did I become a musician because this wonderful quality has been part of my life since the day I was born – a quality that nothing but music can bring out and to which I try to give form through music?

People often ask how Finnish conducting came to be what it is today. I am totally convinced that the music of Sibelius has occupied a very important role. Conducting Sibelius, as we did a lot at the Sibelius Academy, calls for considerable skill at handling vast blocks of orchestral sound. The orchestra is large and operates at many musical levels; the transparency of the sound is as vital as its weight and inevitability. Dynamic and static interweave. The tempos are often slow, but even so, a lot is happening at micro-level. The music embodies extreme emotional states and huge dramaturgical arches, yet it also demands an ability to capture the significant moments. The music of Sibelius does not “play itself”. The architectonic form of the symphonies with their tempo changes is brilliant, and Sibelius’s art of building up climaxes and episodes is outstanding, because even in these, the only constant dimension is perpetual change.

True, the performance tradition is continually renewing, but some intrinsic core appears to remain. The mystery persists in the search for the very essence, and this essence emerges when the mystery is present. The music of Sibelius is, in all its richness and drama, like a rock, unshakeable and lasting, in some way immune to all the blowflies buzzing around it. The tone poem Luonnotar sounds as old as the hills.

“The Symposium” still always raises a smile among musicians, and all sorts of anecdotes abound. The Great Ainola Silence is the subject of speculation, and conjectures are voiced about the maestro’s true personality. The artist behind the myth always arouses interest, but can we ever really understand or know the person behind his or her art? Do we even need to? Myths are born of mythical creation. Part of the myth may, however, be a secret wish we had actually known the man himself, because his works speak to us so personally. The impression is very, very human.

I’m glad I know how to read a score, because it tells me everything I need to know. I then do my best to transform what I see into things I can hear. It’s a huge responsibility. I want to reproduce the notes on the page as closely as possible, but it’s impossible to leave it at that, for however explicit they are, the printed notes are just the beginning, a door that leads somewhere, or so at least I believe. Metaphors always spring to mind, but they are far too personal to share.  The interpreter has them as well, but it’s best not to broadcast them: let the music itself impart the message that speaks to the listener’s own soul.

The music of Sibelius penetrates the recesses of the mind, the less said about which the better. Slav melancholy is, I think, a slightly different matter, but it does embrace much the same sorrow, depth and darkness as the emotions so forcibly present in Sibelius. The longing, nostalgia, yearning and all-encompassing melancholy are so eloquent. When I am in a suitably sensitive frame of mind, the very thought of Sibelius’s setting of Aleksis Kivi’s words “Tuonen lehto, öinen lehto” (Song of my Heart, bewailing a lost child) are enough to bring tears to my eyes. (Could I ever sing it, I wonder?) But it’s important to remember that Sibelius is also full of an ecstatic thirst for life, unbridled passion, energy and joie de vivre. Could any work communicate all this more powerfully than Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of Saari? The sentiments are common to all, and surely we all store everything we have ever experienced in our innermost being? Its core becomes crystallised with time. Yet the sparser idiom of his later works is still warm and human.

Sibelius is an infinitely fascinating composer because his idiom was, right from the beginning, so personal and so original. He created a musical universe of his own that really did “contain the whole of the world”, even though some individual work might concentrate on just a few carefully weighed-up elements at a time. The crystallisation up to the idiom of his final works is cleansing, but the same striving to capture the essence is present right from the start; it just undergoes metamorphosis. Particularly impressive is the way even a miniature is able to open a window on eternity and infinity.

I love Sibelius’s orchestral music above all else, but I also have tremendous admiration for his masterly miniatures, his songs, and the brief cameos in which he succeeds in creating eternity, total presence from the very first notes. The notes lend the poetry wings, and the solo songs are true gems. Another thing that provides further insight into the various aspects of his musical persona is his unfailing feel for style in his light little pieces. His salon music is likewise always controlled; always elegant, but with a twinkle in its eye. The Humoresques for violin are a virtuosic combination of everything. Even the little vignettes in his incidental music for the stage tell whole stories. But for me, Sibelius is most enchanting when his music sets off along completely abstract paths of its own. The opening of the finale to the third symphony, for example, is dense and dazzlingly modern music even today. The fourth symphony is miraculous. The bare melodic lines of Luonnotar soar, as free as air, above the clouds. Tapiola is a state. The sixth symphony is like a prayer. What can I say? My Sibelius is the world.

What I say is very subjective. Of course I want to understand and feel the structure of the works, their themes, development, harmonic nuances, and the characters of the motifs, and of course I always study them carefully. I want to delve even deeper and much more thoroughly into the unknown nooks and crannies of his music. The work processes revealed by the scores are immense. I am enormously impressed by the vast development that took place in his output in the space of just a few decades. I am also impressed by the way he managed, even at an early age, to keep any outside artistic influences clearly separate, so that his music never lost its specifically “Sibelian” sound.

Most of the time, I am far from Sibelius’s – and my own – homeland and on neutral territory, i.e. alone with my scores. But it is there, between the lines, that I am struck by something I cannot explain. I don’t, however, think it is just a national trait, because all over the world I meet people similarly affected by this remarkable music. Nor is it just the high technical quality as such, even though the music does demonstrate its composer’s genius, for many a major composer writing in a very different style has, over the centuries, succeeded in captivating the listener just as completely. It must be the composer’s absolute integrity of expression, his vision, that has been ahead of its times and timeless. Something personal that becomes universal.


A much sought-after artist on the international conducting circuit, Susanna Mälkki’s versatility and broad repertoire have taken her to symphony and chamber orchestras, contemporary music ensembles and opera houses across the world. Mälkki has recently been appointed Chief Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, effective from the 2016/17 season.

This article has first been published in the My Sibelius (Karisto 2014) book celebrating the Sibelius 150 anniversary. It features 19 Finnish and international names in classical music talking about their relationship with the composer.

Translation: Susan Sinisalo

Photo: Simon Fowler