in From the Archives

Jean Sibelius conducts

by Vesa Sirén

Jean Sibelius conducted his own compositions with orchestras the world over for the space of nearly three decades. Vesa Sirén, author of “Aina poltti sikaria – Jean Sibelius aikalaisten silmin” (Always Smoking a Cigar – Jean Sibelius as seen by his Contemporaries), here views the composer as conductor in the light of contemporary evidence and the maestro’s only known recording.

“Sibelius wields the baton with regal dignity. His beat is clear and easy to follow, his gestures precise right down to the finest detail, so we had not the slightest difficulty understanding him. Seldom have I personally seen such infinite shade of nuance as when Jean Sibelius was conducting. He could achieve the most fantastic pianissimos – so soft that people in the audience hardly realised the orchestra were playing – to be followed a moment later by a fortissimo that made the ancient temple to our art almost creak at the joints.”

In such ecstatic terms Gustaf Gille, a violinist in the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, described the conducting of Jean Sibelius. This article takes a look at the composer in the role of conductor by examining the accounts of his contemporaries: critics, musicians, and members of the audience.

Sibelius embarked on his conducting career on 24 November 1891 at a popular concert by the Helsinki orchestra founded by his friend Robert Kajanus. He was widely familiar with the workings of an orchestra, having played the violin and acted as leader of various student and amateur orchestras. “I loved conducting. I was not in the least bit nervous. I simply felt a whole head taller,” he wrote to his friend Adolf Paul. “If only the works weren’t such crap,” he added in self-critical tone. According to Oskar Merikanto, critic on the daily Päivälehti, the composer-conductor nevertheless gave the impression of being nervous. “We wondered how on earth this young man modestly standing there on the podium and somewhat nervously waving his baton could have created all this,” he wrote.

The next challenge was even greater: in spring 1892 Sibelius put the finishing touches to his mighty Kullervo symphony for baritone, mezzo-soprano and orchestra taking over an hour to perform. The young composer wanted to conduct it himself, but this was not to prove so easy.

“I’ll never forget the first orchestral rehearsal, when the members of the orchestra laughed so much they were doubled up on hearing my first recitative,” recalls Emmy Achté, the mezzo soloist. Sibelius nevertheless managed to win over the Finnish chorus early on in the rehearsals. “His eyes were afire,” says Jukka Rautio, who sang in the choir. “This was no doubt the fire of which poets speak. As the rehearsals proceeded, he completely won our confidence. Any doubts we may have had were soon dispelled.”

That Sibelius was nervous is also revealed by accounts of the first performance. “He looked pale. And as it rose, the tip of the baton made superfluous movements, so I suppose his heart was beating at a rapid prestissimo tempo. It was frightening to think what might happen. But we needn’t have worried. And any worries soon vanished, from conductor and singers alike,” Rautio reminisces.

In 1892 Sibelius was still very much a novice as a conductor. The critics, among them Oskar Merikanto, mentioned that the choir seemed uncertain and that the orchestra were not absolutely sure what they were supposed to be doing. “It was like a volcano erupting,” said Axel Törnudd, a music student sitting in the audience. “Most people felt it was complete chaos. And many of the cognoscenti were really annoyed.”

Sibelius’s wrangles with Kajanus’s orchestra continued almost throughout the 1890s. In February 1893 he conducted a new work he had written for orchestra, En Saga. Some of the players considered it was as incomprehensible as Kullervo and suggested the whole thing be abandoned. Kajanus refused, however, and it was performed on 16 February. According to Merikanto, the enthusiastic applause “clearly showed that people had enjoyed the work and that they were gradually beginning to understand Sibelius’s music.”

The optimism was possibly somewhat premature. Shortly after, in March 1893, Sibelius conducted Kullervo again – three times, in fact. The result was catastrophic. The daily paper Uusi Suometar reported that the orchestra was listless and failed to grasp the essence of the work. Another paper, Aftonbladet, said the symphony was “long, monotonous and boring”. Merikanto likewise observed minor mistakes in the orchestra and uncertainty in the choir. “The composer conducted his work with care, though somewhat restlessly.” From then onwards Sibelius neither conducted nor permitted others to conduct Kullervo in its entirety throughout the rest of his life.

In the years that followed Sibelius’s nerviness was obvious for all to see. “In those days Sibelius shook like an aspen leaf when conducting his compositions, not, I suspect, out of fear, but out of passion and tension, which was understandable,” Ernst Lampén, a choir leader, recalled the premiere of the Karelia music. The orchestra did not appreciate a conductor who shook. In April 1896, at the first performance of the Lemminkäinen Suite, Sibelius and the orchestra were still at loggerheads.

“At the time the orchestra, too, were so terribly opposed that the rehearsals were almost a write-off,” the composer’s wife, Aino, recalled. “I didn’t dare go and listen in; I just stood outside in the corridor in tears. Finally out rushed my husband, his face green with rage and emotion.”

Sibelius suffered a couple of setbacks in his career as a conductor in the course of 1896. The premiere of the Cantata for the Coronation of Nicholas II on 2 November was a complete flop. “It was a very sorry story,” Sibelius later recalled. “The tuba player arrived quite drunk… He began inserting bits of his own in one of the fugue passages and completely ruined the overall effect.” According to Oskar Merikanto, the premiere of the short opera The Maid in the Tower was likewise a real mix-up. The few performances in November 1896 were in fact to be Sibelius’s only attempts at opera conducting. These calamities were used as evidence against him when he stood to take the university post of music teacher from under the nose of his friend Robert Kajanus. Kajanus submitted a complaint pointing out the disastrous performance of the Coronation Cantata and Sibelius’s shortcomings as a conductor. Part of the job was to rehearse the Academic Orchestra, and as a result of his complaint, Kajanus got the job. Relations between the two friends were never quite the same after that.

But who was in fact the better conductor, Sibelius or Kajanus? To begin with, at least, Kajanus was able to achieve better results.

“The orchestra did not always grasp what Sibelius was driving at when he was conducting. This was partly because he was always a little tense. Kajanus was able to communicate the composer’s thoughts to the musicians better, and his ability to make the music sound in the hall as Sibelius had presumably heard it in his mind was at times truly phenomenal. As an interpreter of Sibelius’s symphonies Kajanus is to my mind in a class all of his own,” said Georg von Wendt, who studied composition with Sibelius but later turned to medicine and became a Member of Parliament.

National symbol

In February 1899 Russia issued a manifesto aiming at appreciably curtailing the autonomy of the Finnish Grand Duchy. Incensed by this, Sibelius became a protest composer. There is an element of protest in the Song of the Athenians, The Breaking of the Ice on the Oulu River and the Music for the Press Celebration Days completed not long afterwards. The music of Sibelius thus became a symbol of the nation’s longing for freedom. The language squabbles (Finnish vs. Swedish) and the disparaging tones of the critics were soon forgotten. Sibelius enjoyed the full support of orchestras and audiences alike.

The turn in the situation was already reflected in the premiere of the first symphony on 26 April 1899. The critics were full of praise for the first symphony of any significance to be composed in Finland, but the people went into ecstasy over the Song of the Athenians, the words of which epitomise the nation’s longing for freedom. “What an impact the song had even at the very first hearing… News of the song spread like wildfire throughout the town,” reported choir leader Ernst Lampén.

The protest composer had been asked to compose some music for the Press Celebrations Days opposing the censorship of the press. In November 1899 he was once again convincing. “I heard a lot I have not come across since,” the choir leader and critic Heikki Klemetti later recollected. “They nowadays make the poem so mechanical, the tempos are not what they used to be in the Scènes historiques, they tend to let things loaded with meaning pass without using their imagination, especially abroad.” Sibelius later included revised parts of his Press Celebrations music in the Scènes historiques. The closing number was published under the title Finlandia and put the seal on his popularity in Finland.

With the turn of the century ended Sibelius’s apprenticeship as a conductor. He was now ready to mount the podium abroad.

International breakthrough as conductor-composer

Jean Sibelius could have made his international breakthrough as a conductor in summer 1900. For in that year Kajanus took his orchestra, with top German reinforcements, on an extensive tour of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and France, where it performed at the World Expo. Sibelius went along as “stand-by conductor”, but Kajanus did all the actual conducting. The first symphony nevertheless stood to make the name of Sibelius known among the critics of Stockholm, Berlin and elsewhere. In summer 1901 he was personally invited to the Heidelberg Music Festival in Germany to conduct his own works and, despite the odds, made an excellent job of it. “Because I was young and unknown, the viola players took it out on me and used clumsy fingerings. I asked one of them to lend me his instrument and showed them myself how the passage should be played. The attitude of the orchestra changed completely and the rehearsal went extremely well,” Sibelius later chuckled.

“Sibelius’s vigour and skill were quite astounding,” enthused his friend Adolf Paul after the composer had conducted The Swan of Tuonela and Lemminkäinen’s Return. “The orchestra heeded his slightest gesture and produced a sound that did full justice to these two delightful tone poems. There were one or two unavoidable blemishes, but they were not disturbing and nor were they even noticed.” The success was well timed, because Karl Fredrik Wasenius had had The Swan of Tuonela printed in April and Lemminkäinen’s Return in May. During the following concert season Felix Weingartner performed both works in Berlin and Henry Wood conducted the King Christian II music in London. Other conductors, too, added Sibelius to their repertoire.

His success abroad raised Sibelius’s standing at home in Finland, too. When he conducted his second symphony in Helsinki on 8 March 1902, he was hailed a national hero. This was followed shortly after by the premiere of The Origin of Fire. Members of the choir later had some amusing stories to tell about Sibelius in rehearsal.

“Sibelius’s baton came down and the rehearsal began,” says Sulo Wuolijoki. “After a couple of minutes, he waved his baton and said in a highly reproachful tone, ‘Cis [C sharp], Cis, Cis’, at the same time pointing with his baton at one section of the orchestra, raised his baton again and said ‘Bis’ [Repeat]. The rehearsal then proceeded for a moment until the maestro’s baton (which could more aptly be called a marshal’s staff) went through the same antics again, this time to the opposite side of the orchestra, which immediately fell silent, as did all the rest of us. Whereupon there issued from the maestro’s mouth an impatient ‘Fis [F sharp}, Fis, Fis’. You can imagine we did our best.”

Wäinö Sola, who sang tenor in the same choir, had a completely different story to tell. “In rehearsal he indicated his wishes in a vague way that immediately had us all tensed up. He did not, like a schoolmaster, expound his ideas; he just set us all an artistic assignment and it was up to us to make sure we could perform it,” Sola claimed. So maybe Sibelius did not confine his rehearsal comments to things like Cis and Bis.

This excellent year ended in November in Berlin, where he conducted the revised version of En saga at the invitation of his friend Ferruccio Busoni. The Berlin concert went splendidly and most of the critics were full of praise for the work. “The main thing is that I know how to conduct a world-class orchestra. And well! They all say so!” he wrote to his wife on 16 November.

Encouraged by his victory in Berlin, Sibelius was emboldened to take on more conducting engagements: in Tampere and Tallinn (spring 1903), Turku, Vaasa and Tallinn (spring 1904) and Pori and Oulu (autumn 1904). January 1905 saw him back in Berlin, once again at the invitation of Busoni, this time to conduct his second symphony. Possibly still the most popular of the Sibelius symphonies, it was certainly a hit with the critics: “One of the great creative spirits of today,” enthused Die Musik.

In December 1905 the way to Britain lay open, Granville Bantock having invited him to come over and conduct his works. Sibelius appeared in Liverpool only, in the first symphony and Finlandia. “Great success. A real hit,” he told his wife excitedly. Next, in 1906, came St. Petersburg, where, at the invitation of Alexander Siloti, he conducted the premiere of Pohjola’s Daughter at the Mariinsky Theatre. Once again the reception was glowing. “An extremely talented, imaginative composer,” exclaimed Rusj.

On 25 September 1907 Sibelius conducted the first performance of his third symphony, in Helsinki. The reception was good, though some of the critics were not so sure about the new, more neoclassical style. The reception in St. Petersburg in November was, by contrast, abysmal, for the press had not a good word to say for him and his new symphony. “I find conducting easy, but rehearsing is terribly difficult to learn,” said the tormented Sibelius. He did, however, succeed in making contact with the orchestra in Moscow and the symphony got a better reception.

By the time Sibelius next went to London, he had established something of a routine. In conducting his third symphony at the Queen’s Hall, he was, in the opinion of the Daily News critic, incredibly calm. The same critic went on to praise the performance of the complex and exceedingly difficult finale in particular. The calm may well have been induced by the considerable quantities of alcohol consumed by Sibelius at around that time. “When I stand before a large orchestra with half a bottle of champagne inside me, I conduct like a young god. Otherwise I am tense and unsure and everything goes accordingly,” he wrote to his doctor brother Christian.

This dangerous tranquilliser nevertheless had to be abandoned in 1908. That summer he had a growth removed from his throat in Berlin and, for fear that he might die, kept off alcohol for many years to come. This also marked his rise to the height of his conducting career.

1909—1914: conducting heyday

It may have come as something of a surprise to Sibelius to discover they he could in fact conduct just as brilliantly without half a bottle of champagne inside him. There was proof of this in February 1909, when he once again found himself conducting En saga and Finlandia at Queen’s Hall in London. “Orchestra absolutely ideal,” he enthused to Aino. The Standard was equally taken: his conducting brought out the characteristic traits of both tone poems and the performance of Finlandia was of a quality seldom heard. The Times likewise reported that the performance of En Saga with the composer conducting was extremely good, and the woodwinds and brass deserved particular praise. The two diminduendo and pianissimo passages, one of them right at the end of the finale, were unusually impressive, difficult though they are to perform. The composer’s conducting is, wrote the Times, as heartfelt as his music.

The reception in Norway in 1910 was slightly less glowing, though Sibelius had, in his correspondence, already proved himself to be an exacting conductor. “Strings – few but good rather than many but uneven. Would you kindly man the percussion well. Four men are essential,” he wrote to the organisers. It should be pointed out here that the main item on the programme was the third symphony, scored for a smallish string section. Not until 1911 did Sibelius venture to conduct in Sweden, eliciting rave reviews in Gothenburg. His triumph continued in Latvia, in Riga and Mitau (Jelgava).

The most significant concert that year was the April premiere in Helsinki of the fourth symphony, considered to be the most difficult. During one of the rehearsals Sibelius asked Hugo Aure, a member of the orchestra, “Do you understand this symphony?” “Not really,” came Aure’s reply. “Then how can the audience be expected to understand it?” wondered the composer. According to Carl Lindelöf, now leader of the orchestra, the work was so modern that the players had difficulty relating to it. At the actual concert Sibelius made no concessions to the tempo at the end of the finale. He wanted the tone to be “narrative”. Later, Kajanus was to start a tradition of conducting the last pages of the score slightly more slowly. Sibelius acknowledged this as well. The finale left the audience bewildered, but there were one or two cries of “Bravo” here and there.

“I remember that rather peculiar premiere quite distinctly: people shaking their heads, worried expressions, harsh or cynical comments on the performance, which was not in every respect first-class (the symphony is not one of the easiest) and which could not, of course, raise the general reception to the roof,” Erik Furuhjelm later wrote. “The people of Helsinki were, however, very cautious in voicing their doubts,” he nevertheless added.

Sibelius got his revenge in Helsinki the very next year on conducting his fourth symphony and the more readily accessible Scènes historiques. The concert was a resounding success in every respect. Decades later the leader of the orchestra, Carl Lindelöf, paid tribute to his rubatos, which seemed so utterly natural, in the Scènes historiques. In other respect, too, he provided a detailed description of Sibelius’s style at the peak of his conducting career. According to him, Sibelius always gave his players precise instructions. He would demand the brass to play with “lustre” and the strings with “fühlung” or feeling. His beat was extremely precise. He kept an ear on the orchestral balance and made pertinent comments on how to improve it. He also had a sharper ear for mistakes than many other composers. The players did not find him a tiring conductor, even though he might spend ages polishing some detail. He usually held three long rehearsals or, if he felt it wiser, more but shorter ones. At the first performance he would then aim at a lofty solemnity, with the result that, according to Lindelöf, he would forget to listen to his own compositions – and to conduct the orchestra.

No wonder that with such an atmosphere prevailing the visit to the Birmingham Music Festival in 1912 was a success. Having by this time acquired a smattering of English, he made a note beforehand of such suitable instructions as “gå onn” (go on) and “onns more” (once more). Many considered him a better conductor than another contemporary composer-conductor, Sir Edward Elgar.

“I got the feeling Sir Edward was suffering from stage fright, or at least he was a little inexperienced at conducting a larger orchestra. Several times he fumbled with the baton. Sibelius formed a direct contrast to him in conducting his new symphony. There was something splendid about his performance, and when he put his baton down, he was greeted by a burst of applause. Again and again he was called back to take his bow – he must have been called back at least seven or eight times,” claimed the Helsingin Sanomat correspondent.

According to Rosa Newmarch, the fourth symphony did not, however, get a very enthusiastic reception at its first performance. The reviews likewise held a note of bewilderment. The Birmingham Post, for example, while mentioning the favourable reception, reported that most of the listeners were somewhat taken aback.

Returning to Helsinki, Sibelius was hailed a hero on conducting his second symphony. Helsingin Sanomat got carried away: “Our distinguished music veteran Faltin (Richard Faltin, under whom Sibelius had played in the ranks of the Academic Orchestra while still a student) could not prevent himself from exclaiming: ‘God, it’s beautiful!’. And I doubt there was anyone who would refrain from seconding the words of this grand old man.” The Swedish-speaking Hufvudstadsbladet critic, writing under the pen name of Bis, was nevertheless put out by Sibelius’s choice of orchestra, since the Swedish speakers were more in favour of the other orchestra conducted by Georg Schnéevoigt. Sibelius did not, in Bis’s opinion, show the players their entries sufficiently clearly, and the woodwinds did not give of their best.

It would appear that the uncertainty of the 1890s now surfaced once again, possibly due to the conflicting reviews. In Copenhagen, in November 1912, Sibelius was described by one critic as “a restless, harassed-looking apparition whose baton shook in his right hand like an aspen leaf in the wind, while the fingers of his left hand clawed fearfully and trembling at the air; maybe a self-tormenting, hyper-tense person anxious to turn away from the world and for whom appearing in public caused physical pain.”

The impression gained by the critic Charles Kjerulf was quite different. “Sibelius confined himself mainly to large beats with arms outstretched – he somehow reminds one of a bird in flight – the music seems to want to sail away on these wings,” he wrote. “If you take a closer look at him, you may observe that he is so nervous he is almost shaking – the inner notes beat by his own heart make him judder as an engine makes a whole ship judder. Plastically Sibelius is not a particularly elegant conductor in the manner of Johan Svendsen, and even less a desk virtuoso. But he is one with his music and orchestra – he leads it by the hand like a father his child, sinks into its embrace like a lover into the arms of a beloved.” Kjerulf’s review must have impressed itself on Sibelius’s subconscious, for time and again he referred to himself as “the orchestra’s lover” and spoke of his conducting experiences as his “orchestral immersion”.

Triumph across the Atlantic

Possibly the finest moment in Sibelius’s career as a conductor came in summer 1914, when he made his only visit to the United States at the invitation of the millionaire Carl Stoeckel to conduct his new work The Oceanides at the Norfolk Music Festival. Stoeckel’s festival orchestra was made up of some of the finest players in the land, and the composer was allowed no fewer than five long rehearsals – two at Carnegie Hall, New York and three in Norfolk.

Stoeckel left an extremely detailed account of Sibelius in rehearsal. Sibelius, he claimed, had an infallible knack of picking out the best players and was in complete command of the orchestra. The New York Times editor who attended the rehearsals was just as impressed.

Stoeckel noted that Sibelius’s arms and hands were full of nervous strength, and that each movement he made had a special purpose. The following day Stoeckel noticed that Sibelius was rehearsing the sections separately and taking little breaks. This way, he explained, he got more out of his players. He also began the third rehearsal in Norfolk with sectionals, and particularly wanted the brass sound to be round and mighty without any explosive effects. As a conductor, Sibelius was, claimed Stoeckel both charming and determined. He did not appear to be bothered about beating time, and instead his movements suggested the reading of a mighty poem. Many were uplifted by the music, others wept. But all who were fortunate enough to attend the concert agreed unanimously that it had been the greatest musical event of their lives.

The concert was a real experience for Sibelius. “I have never since (…) conducted an orchestra composed of such eminent forces as the orchestra a hundred strong ordered by Mr Stoeckel from Boston and the Metropolitan Opera, New York… The magic of the woodwinds in particular was unique. In The Oceanides, for example, I was able to achieve a crescendo of such proportions that even I was surprised.”

The critics were beside themselves. The influential Henry Krehbiel wrote that on only three occasions in the past fifteen years had he felt himself to be in the presence of a genius: at two concerts by Richard Strauss, at the performance of Tristan and Isolde conducted by Arturo Toscanini, and when Sibelius conducted at Norfolk. The New York Tribune, New York Times and The American were full of praise.

Sibelius was invited to return to the United States the following year, but war broke out in July and he was confined to his homeland for years to come. In 1915 his seven years of abstinence from alcohol likewise ended. His growing consumption would in time destroy his career as a conductor.

Prisoner of war

The highlights of the 1915 season were a concert in Gothenburg in March and the completion of the fifth symphony in time for Sibelius’s 50th birthday in December. The reception was excellent, but some members of the orchestra would nevertheless have preferred a professional conductor.

 “You could tell that conducting was alien to Sibelius, because he was often terribly tense and prattled on far more than was necessary at rehearsals,” mused oboist Kalle Kihl decades later.

In 1916 Sibelius revealed the secrets of conducting an orchestra to the young Bengt von Törne, who for a brief time studied composition with his idol. “So long as the conductor can keep sight of the overall structure of the work he is performing, he will never lose his sense of proportion or assign too much importance to some detail, however beautiful it may be,” said von Törne. According to him, Sibelius hated overstatement in his interpretations.

Before long, Sibelius was back conducting in Helsinki. Erik Furuhjelm, critic and Sibelius’s first biographer, was overjoyed. “Jean Sibelius is a quite outstanding conductor: he performs with enthusiasm and skill on the concert platform and is instructive in rehearsal. It is a great joy to see him practising his works. He is in the habit of making pertinent, instructive comments, and he has an excellent gift for invoking culture and noblesse in performance.”

In late 1915 or early 1916 Sibelius’s hectic conducting pace was gradually relaxed. With the world at war, he had to be content with the occasional engagement at home in Finland. The situation did not improve until spring 1918, by which time Finland had wrested its independence from Russia and lived through a bloody civil war lasting for several months.

On the brink of the Civil War Sibelius composed his March of the Finnish Jaeger Battalion and performed it on 20 April at a concert held by the (winning) ‘White’ Army in honour of its German allies. This put the seal on the composer’s fate as a patriotic symbol of non-Socialist Finland. At home in Finland he rose above all criticism: anyone who scoffed at him was now also scoffing at the young republic. Sibelius refreshed his memory as a conductor with a performance of The Oceanides and his second symphony in Helsinki in 1918, but something had changed. The maestro had recourse to the bottle before and after the concert.

Prisoner of the bottle

The war over, Sibelius was once again invited abroad. In summer 1919 he conducted his second symphony in Copenhagen at the Nordic Music Days. It was a success. At the end of November he at last produced the third and final version of the fifth symphony, in Helsinki. Even he grudgingly admitted that the applause was unequalled. A masterpiece he had struggled for years to complete was at last ready. Yet only a month later, his drinking almost brought about a disaster. He was attending the official opening of the Stenman arts palace and did not take his minor conducting engagement very seriously.

“The orchestra and choir performed a festive cantata [Scène pastorale, later revised and renamed Autrefois] with the maestro himself conducting,” wrote Eino Krohn. “This important item on the programme was, however, in danger of losing its greatest attribute, the personal presence of Sibelius as conductor of the orchestra and choir. For news was brought an hour before the event was due to begin that the maestro was nowhere to be found. Luckily he was finally tracked down after a great deal of searching at the Catani or the Angleterre [restaurants in Helsinki], but he was so exhausted that it seemed he could not possibly appear. Gösta Stenman nevertheless managed to get hold of a half of champagne. Having emptied the bottle, Sibelius was in excellent form and conducted a spirited rendering of his cantata and another item later played by the orchestra.”

On good days, Sibelius conducted better than his friend Robert Kajanus, or so the keen choral singer Armi Klemetti recalled. “From the choir’s point of view, a good conductor was primarily one who beat time clearly so that you knew which was one and which was three, and who could be guaranteed to give you your cues. Everything else was an extra: artistry, spirit and the like, but that was none of our business. Kajanus wasn’t always easy to follow. He was used to an orchestra of practised professionals, but we were all amateurs. Kajanus had elegant movements, but they weren’t precise; rather, they tended to ‘wallow’. I will say that Schnéevoigt was much easier to follow, likewise Sibelius, who was extremely precise in bringing you in and was in other respects calm.”

Aino Sibelius also approved of her husband’s conducting style. “Kajus is excellent at detail, quite superb at fine pianissimos, but you make everything far more ‘grandiose’,” wrote Aino to her husband in the 1920s.

In 1921 Sibelius visited Britain for the last time. In February-March he fitted in a number of conducting engagements, beginning with a triumph at the Queen’s Hall in London. “I was, to my mind, a splendid success. V {the fifth symphony] is a masterpiece. The orchestra applauded, the audience called me back five times,” he wrote to his wife. The tour continued via Bournemouth and some lesser London venues to Birmingham, where the young Arthur C. Rankin closely observed the conductor-composer and recorded his impressions for Simon Rattle decades later.

As En saga drew to an end, something surprising happened. Appleby Matthews rushed up to Sibelius and asked him why he had not slowed down at the end as other conductors usually did. He had heard this had become the general practice. Sibelius conducted the slow movement of the third symphony at approximately the same tempo as Rattle, so Rankin recalled. Despite the storm of applause for the Valse triste, Sibelius refused to given an encore of this and instead conducted the Valse lyrique, no doubt in the hopes that this, too, would become popular and make up for some of the income on the Valse triste he had never received from Breitkopf & Härtel.

On 26 February Sibelius was back in London, this time conducting his fourth symphony. Ferruccio Busoni, who was among the audience, was quite excited, and so was Rosa Newmarch. According to The Times, there were a few claps here and there that just about satisfied the demands of propriety, but nothing more after the finale to the fourth symphony. The critic nevertheless felt that here was a great work, the beauty of which lay in its austerity.

Sibelius then continued to Bergen in Norway, where the main item on the programme was the second symphony. “There were no grand gestures. No, he conducted lightly and daintily. With elegant beats and a determined left hand, he brought out what he wanted,” wrote the enraptured Morgenavisen critic. “The orchestra responded to his slightest gesture. The nuances were marked by precision and finesse.”

Before his concerts in Kristiania Sibelius went on an almighty binge. According to Sverre Jordan the composer, “he went from one party to the next (…) he simply ordered a strong cigar and was all right and ready for the next binge again.” This took its toll. Sibelius conducted three concerts to a full house in what is nowadays Oslo, but Hjalmar Borgström of the Aftonposten mentioned that Halvorsen and Schnéevoigt had given a better performance of the first symphony.

In spring 1921 Sibelius once again conducted at the Nordic Music Days, this time in Helsinki. Once more, the carousing took its toll. Lemminkäinen’s Return was one of the items at the over-long opening concert and the critics were not inspired. At the closing concert they nevertheless felt he had conducted with determination and expressiveness. The Norwegian Sverre Jordan nevertheless felt the performance was once again doomed. It would appear that Sibelius was growing increasingly disenchanted with his role as conductor. In November 1921 he conducted Night Ride and Sunrise and imagined Kajanus’s orchestra had turned against him. “There are two factions in the orchestra, one of which is on my side and the other against me. Those in the latter group were downright impolite, especially [the solo cellist Ossian] Fohström,” he grumbled in his diary.

Meanwhile, Sibelius’s reputation was on a rising streak elsewhere in the world, and his works were being performed by not only such pioneers as Busoni and Henry Wood but also Toscanini, Munck, Stokowski, Monteux and Hermann Scherchen. Unfortunately, he was forced to take on stressful conducting engagements in the hope of paying some of his bills.

Sibelius’s next appearance of any great significance as a conductor was without doubt the premiere of the sixth symphony in Helsinki on 19 February 1923. The programme was grotesque, the first half being devoted to such new, light little pieces as the Suite caractéristique, the jazzy flavour of which was reputed by Evert Katila the critic to have been underlined by Sibelius by relaxed and jaunty wiggling of the hips. The second half of the concert was then devoted to the sixth symphony, a masterpiece of the utmost profundity and gravity. Could the wiggles have been induced by alcohol? If they were, then the composer did a wise thing in taking his wife with him on what was to be his last extensive tour of Europe. Aino Sibelius was able to curb her husband’s drinking and the concerts in Stockholm passed without a hitch. This was – incredibly – the first time Sibelius had conducted in the Swedish capital. “He does not wield the baton like any normal mortal, his conducting style is not founded on lofty gestures and slick movements; with short, clear beats he expresses what is in his heart, sets his players on fire and inspires them to great deeds. Almost never before has the Concert Society orchestra played with such intensity,” wrote William Seymer of the Svenska Dagbladet.

Mrs Sibelius was beside herself. The second symphony, in particular, had been a success and the musicians accompanied Jean to his car with shouts of “Maestro, maestro”.

“Janne’s conducting has been superb, the music resounds with clarity and has met with great understanding both in the audience and in the orchestra,” she wrote. In Rome Sibelius nevertheless seemed touchy even in rehearsal, and the concert was not a great success. Il Mondo criticised the choice of repertoire and said the listeners had been bored.

In Gothenburg Sibelius completely captured the hearts of the musicians but dealt the deathblow to his ambitions as a conductor. The first evening was devoted to the fifth and sixth symphonies and Pohjola’s Daughter. The concert could not have gone better, but the composer was drawn to the bottle despite the presence of his wife.

“Pappa has rehearsed very well, is very calm and has lost all his Helsinki tenseness. (…) The concert yesterday was superb. Everything went splendidly and the evening continued in grand style until late at night. The next rehearsal was at 9 in the morning. Concert this evening. Pappa is brilliant,” wrote Aino Sibelius.

The following day Sibelius headed straight for the town immediately after the rehearsal, to try to ease his hangover. He was not discovered until after eight in the evening, sitting in a restaurant knocking back oysters and champagne. He was dragged in a state of considerable inebriation to the concert hall and did indeed make it to the podium in time – but stopped the performance after a few bars, presumably under the illusion that he was still in rehearsal. Aino felt so ashamed. “To me, it all sounded like one big chaos, I could have died,” she later recalled.

Sibelius immediately realised his faux pas and started the second symphony again – a work he knew how to conduct even when slightly under the influence. He was greeted with a storm of applause, and the orchestra were left with good memories of him. “Of all the contemporary composers who know how to conduct an orchestra, Jean Sibelius beyond all doubt deserves a place of honour,” said Gustaf Gille in retrospect. “Admittedly he only conducted his own works, but even so, you have to have the gift of conducting an orchestra to do this. (…) The Gothenburg orchestra has performed works by Sibelius before and since his visit. The fact remains that although the orchestra has always been in the hands of capable conductors, it has never succeeded in interpreting the compositions by Sibelius as it did with Sibelius conducting. When others are conducting, many little details get completely lost to the ear, as we realised when he was conducting.”

“Sibelius – now there’s a great musician,” extolled Emil Marek. “He also knew how to conduct, impeccably. The players were immediately aware at rehearsals that they were dealing with an accomplished chamber musician who understood the problems of playing in consort. Added to which he had a sense of humour and was such a lovable person.”

The Gothenburg fiasco remained a bone of contention between husband and wife. Sibelius began to suffer from a chronic shaking of the hands, and only with a moderate intake of alcohol was he able to keep his hands steady enough to write music. Aino was horrified. In desperation she slipped her husband a note saying she could no longer accompany him on his conducting tours because she could not bear it when he appeared in public drunk.

“Even if it seems to you that your conducting is then all the more brilliant, this is not in fact so. The astute listener observes the difference, and it is as if you are violating your own precious compositions. I cannot come to Sweden with you, because I cannot stand any more of that,” she wrote.

Indeed, Aino did not accompany her husband to Sweden for his second tour to Stockholm in March 1924. With him he took the Fantasia sinfonica, the future seventh symphony. That the concert was not sold out came as something of a surprise. Sibelius guessed the reason. “I was a tremendous success in Stockholm [1923], but I made the stupid mistake of returning the very next year. Audiences cannot work up enthusiasm again after such a short interval. Due to (…) the thick ice, I had to conduct the accompaniment [to the violin concerto] without any rehearsal (the soloist was [Julius] Rutström) from the new, printed score, which I had not seen before, and I found myself in trouble. I still have nightmares about it sometimes.”

At its premiere the seventh symphony, then still titled a Fantasia sinfonica or Fantasia sinfonica I, got favourable reviews even from the dreaded Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, “though the orchestra did not have much to commend it as regards precision and clarity”. Moses Pergament of the Svenska Dagbladet even turned up his nose at the work itself. Thereafter, Sibelius never went back to Stockholm to conduct.

His career as a conductor was drawing to a close as a result of the Gothenburg disaster. Since Aino no longer agreed to accompany him to concerts, Sibelius could not conduct regularly in Helsinki. Sooner or later his wife’s absence would have attracted embarrassing attention. He could still travel abroad without his wife, and indeed conducted in Copenhagen, Malmö and Copenhagen again in late 1924. “I will have to give up conducting, because in order to calm my nerves, I nowadays have to overdo it, as my doctor was well aware,” Sibelius confessed in a letter to his wife after the concerts in October.

From then onwards Sibelius made conducting appearances only on rare, exceptional occasions. In October 1926 he went back to Copenhagen one more time to conduct his fifth symphony. The tepid reception made him so incensed that the organisers had their work cut out to persuade him to conduct the second half of the concert. He ended his conducting career proper with two of his greatest hits: the Valse triste and Finlandia. The standing ovation was balm to his soul.

There were many good reasons for ending his career as a conductor. The gifts he received on his 60th birthday in 1925 more or less paid off his debts, and 1927 saw him financially in the dry. It is ironic that he posted off the last of his great orchestral works, the orchestral suites from the incidental music to The Tempest, in August 1927, the very month in which Parliament passed an Act on copyright to intellectual products. His royalties soon made him a wealthy man. Would financial necessity have forced him to go on both composing and conducting? Naturally he did not know his voice as a composer was to fall silent – he went on to write a number of little pieces and spent decades working on an eighth symphony that was finally committed to the Ainola stove sometime in the 1940s.

He nevertheless looked upon his visit to Berlin in 1928 as the end of his conducting career. “My concerto conducted by [Wilhelm] Furtwängler means more to me than 10 of my own [concerts of my works]. He is a magnificent orchestral conductor,” Sibelius wrote to his wife. In giving up conducting he nevertheless became estranged from the practical side of orchestral life. One reason for the “Ainola silence” was undoubtedly the end of his conducting career..The one-and-only recording by Sibelius himself

Only one single recording has survived as a testimony of Sibelius’s art as a conductor. In January 1939, to the astonishment of all, he appeared in front of an orchestra again after an absence of over a decade to conduct the short Andante festivo, which is technically not very difficult. This was for a radio broadcast in honour of the World Expo in New York. Sibelius agreed to make an exception at the pressing request of his friend Olin Downes, critic on the New York Times.

“Toivo Haapanen the conductor handed him the baton, and he ran through the work once. Then it was taped,” recalled Sulo Aro, leader of the orchestra. “He gave a nod to indicate the start and conducted with his hand either in his jacket or his trouser pocket. With his other hand he traced grand gestures so the shaking would not matter.”

The distinguished horn player Holger Fransman was present on the occasion.

“It’s scored for string orchestra, so the wind and brass sections had nothing to do. We nevertheless hung around since Sibelius himself was conducting. His hands were shaking, but it didn’t really matter. He grasped the baton like this with both hands, raised it above his head and only then let one hand go. So this was a fine start. The maestro wasn’t really a conductor, but all the beats were exactly according to the rules.”

Martti Pajanne (viola player in the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra 1946—74), who interviewed the musicians, reported that the orchestra played in rehearsal “with a thicker, more singing sound than usual”. The composer’s daughter, Katarina Ilves, was likewise impressed.

“After the first bars at the rehearsal Father broke off and said: ‘Much more poetic, much more poetic.’ It was as if he had cast a stone in a pool and the ripples were spreading. The orchestra sounded quite different. It was very impressive. It just showed the personal magnetism he must have had because he managed to make even the ‘blind’ see when he was abroad. Maybe it’s not just a conductor’s art, but suggestion.”

Some of the suggestion is captured even in the scratchy recording. The strings sing, though the sound is slightly raw. The performance really does sound as if it has been taped after only one rehearsal. Sibelius keeps the basic tempo as a true professional should, both at the rehearsal and the performance, and makes natural rubatos. And being the composer, he is allowed to deviate considerably from the score markings every now and then. The tempo is notably slow: nearly six minutes, whereas he himself marked five minutes in the score. Jorma Panula has done it in 3:38, Mariss Jansons in 4:22, Jussi Jalas in 4:56 and Nils-Eric Fougstedt in 5:00.

A more polished sound in a rendering even slower than Sibelius’s (7:00) was later recorded by the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) and accidentally called “the version conducted by Sibelius”, though the conductor must have been someone else. It is worth checking your record library: if the recording conducted by “Sibelius” was released before 1995, then it is not authentic. The real performance conducted by Sibelius was not released until that year, on the disc accompanying issue 2/1995 of the Finnish music magazine Classica. The question remains: who was in fact the eminent conductor on the YLE recording? The answer has still not been found. Some suspect Toivo Haapanen, because the interpretation does have points in common with the version conducted by Sibelius.

(For “The True and False Andante festivo” see also FMQ 4/1995.). nk of the Civil War Sibelius composed his March of the Finnish Jaeger Battalion and performed it on 20 April at a concert held by the (winning) ‘White’ Army in honour of its German allies. This put the seal on the composer’s fate as a patriotic symbol of non-Socialist Finland. At home in Finland he rose above all criticism: anyone who scoffed at him was now also scoffing at the young republic. Sibelius refreshed his memory as a conductor with a performance of The Oceanides and his second symphony in Helsinki in 1918, but something had changed. The maestro had recourse to the bottle before and after the concert.

Esa-Pekka Salonen:

People now expect different things of a conductor

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, is Artistic Director of the International Sibelius Conductors’ Competition. What is his impression of Sibelius the conductor from the present-day perspective? How would Sibelius have fared in the competition named after him?

“People now expect different things of a conductor,” Salonen admits. “Precision and superficial professionalism are more important than originality and creativity. Efficient supermen are what business wants, too.”

Would his shaking hands have prevented Sibelius from making a go of it as a conductor?

“If your hands shake because you’re nervous, you weren’t born to be a conductor. If appearing before people is a torture, there’s no point in doing it.”

What about conductors who seek courage in the bottle? The young Sibelius felt he conducted “like a young god” with half a bottle of champagne inside him.

“It takes all sorts. Personally I wouldn’t dare risk even half a bottle of beer before a concert. On the other hand, John Barbirolli did fine even though he couldn’t conduct without half a bottle of whisky.”

On being shown the excellent reviews Sibelius received in the foreign press, Salonen reckons his growing reputation as a composer helped.

“Once Sibelius had become a world-famous composer, orchestras obviously did their utmost to make up for any technical shortcomings.”

How should a conductor speak to an orchestra? According to Salonen’s teacher Jorma Panula, the conductor should not waste words. But oboist Kalle Kihl said Sibelius “prattled on” far too much.

“If, say, Sibelius asked them to play in a noble rather than a military way, then that was a good comment. Poetic images can be used to create an atmosphere if the technicalities have already been cleared up.”

Sibelius did not, according to the American Carl Stoeckel, do much in the way of beating time. Rather, his conducting suggested the reading of a mighty poem. Armi Klemetti felt Sibelius’s beat was clear, but that Robert Kajanus’s movements tended to “wallow”.

“Conducting is about moulding phrases and communicating ideas to the orchestra. Beating time is just one tool among many. The good conductor helps when help is needed and lets the orchestra play when it’s not.”

Sibelius conducted his own compositions. What difference did this make?

“It’s great if a composer can conduct his own compositions, regardless of whether or not he is a good conductor. This establishes a tradition for others to go by. Take Igor Stravinsky: he couldn’t conduct The Rite of Spring to save his life, but he did, and he managed to convey something essential.”

And one final ‘if': If the mature Sibelius were to land at Finlandia Hall in a time machine and conduct one of his symphonies, how might it sound today?

“You need a strong view of a work to conduct it. A conviction that there is no other way of doing it. This makes the interpretation real; not choice, but necessity,” says Salonen.

“Sibelius would undoubtedly have been very convincing. He had heard the works in his mind, and he wanted to make them sound just the same. That’s the point.”

This article was published in a larger version in the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat earlier this year.

From Finnish Music Quarterly magazine 2/2001

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