in From the Archives

Sibelius Eight. What happened to it?

by Kari Kilpeläinen

During the last three decades of his life, Sibelius was locked in a desperate struggle with the forces of creation, the expectations of those around him and his own growing self-criticism. By the end, the vital question had been whittled down to: perfection or completion? Consciously or unconsciously, Sibelius plumped for perfect. Kari Kilpeläinen here traces the history of the elusive eighth symphony in the light of the documents that have been preserved. Anyone interested in reading more about the subject would do well to dig out Volume 1 of the Finnish Music Quarterly (1985), in which Erik Tawaststjerna takes a broad look at the background to ‘Sibelius 8′.
Sibelius completed his Seventh Symphony in the first half of 1924. From then onwards he composed, in addition to many smallscale works, some incidental music for Shakespeare’s play The Tempest (1925) and his symphonic poem Tapiola (1926). He later arranged the Tempest music to form two orchestral suites (1927). Having completed these, he became enveloped in a silence that was to persist for over 2.5 years, ending in his death.

It nevertheless appears from the final volume of Erik Tawaststjerna’s biography that Sibelius did not regard his seventh symphony as a deadlock in which he had taken symphonic form to its furthest conclusion and from which he could no longer continue. He therefore put the seventh symphony behind him and addressed himself to the eighth, and once that was finished, why not a ninth? This was, according to Tawaststjerna, what Sibelius probably had in mind.

Conflicting reports

Sibelius possibly began working on his eighth symphony in 1924 already, but in any case before the end of 1926. For in a letter dated December 20, 1926 he mentions a new orchestral work he has under way. The reports about the progress of the work are, however, extraordinary and to some extent conflicting. In autumn 19Z7 a great admirer of Sibelius, the American music critic Olin Downes, came to visit Sibelius and could not refrain from asking about the symphony. To which Sibelius irritably replied that two of the movements were already on paper and that he had the rest worked out in his head. More he refused to divulge.

With the orchestral Tempest suites ready in the bag, Sibelius travelled to Berlin at the beginning of 1928 to spend a few months composing there. In a letter to his wife, Aino, he reported that his work was going well and that his new symphony, the eighth, promised to he wonderful. In December of the same year his Danish publisher Wilhelm Hansen tentatively inquired how the work was progressing and was now told in reply that the whole symphony in fact existed only in his head.

The nightmare begins

In summer 1930 Sihelius did something rash: he promised the premiere rights for his as yet unborn symphony to the American conductor Serge Koussevitzky, the best Sibelius interpreter of the time. Koussevitzky had originally asked Sibelius himself to conduct his works in Boston. Sibelius declined, but Koussevitzky hoped at least to have the pleasure of a new orchestral work. This was due to be performed in Boston in the course of the 1930-31 season already. Sibelius now faced the most nerve-wracking stage of his entire life.

Things progressed at a lick, however. Spring 1931 found Sibelius once again on the way to Berlin, where he reported in a letter to Aino that the symphony was taking “great steps” forwards. Koussevitzky, impatiently waiting for the score, heard not a word from the composer, however. In August, when the season was already over, he finally wrote to Sibelius asking whether the new symphony was ready and whether it could be performed during the following season. Sibelius promised to deliver the goods in spring 1932. Koussevitzky expressed his thanks, but when he requested the orchestral parts for March, Sibelius began to have his doubts. In January he sent a telegram saying the work still would not be ready before the end of that season.

Koussevitzky was not the only person eager to know how the work was progressing, for so were Wilhelm Hansen and Basil Cameron, conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Society in Britain, to whom Sibelius had promised the first European performance. Both received the same answer as before: the symphony was all in his head, but he still had not got a note on paper. By June 1932 Olin Downes was requesting the printed score. In London the symphony was advertised as being down on the programme for spring 1933 and appearing shortly on disc. The entire music world was eagerly awaiting the Eighth Symphony.

Koussevitzky gives up

In summer 1932 Sibelius gave Koussevitzky new hope. He now promised the symphony for October of that year, but almost immediately went back on his word. Koussevitzky was planning to perform all the Sibelius symphonies during the 1932-33 season and wanted the Eighth by Christmas at the latest. Sibelius promised to try, but sent a telegram after the festive season was over with the same message as before: no go this season.

By now Koussevitzky was beginning to lose all hope. In summer 1933 he nevertheless inquired yet once again. Sibelius, who only a month before had noted in his diary that he was hammering away at the first movement of his symphony, could now promise no more than that he would return to the matter at a later date. But he never did.

The traces vanish

The traces end on September 4, 1933, the date on the bill for copying the first movement submitted by the German musician Paul Voigt who had made the fair copies of Sibelius’s works in the 1920s. The bill still exists.

Aino Sibelius recalled that she and her husband visited Voigt once again after that with a thick pile of manuscript. Sibelius had heen taciturn and gloomy. His daughter Margareta also visited Voigt on similar business. According to Tawaststjerna, it may thus be concluded that several movements had at least been finished, if not the entire work. The dates of these visits are not, however, known.


In 1943 Sibelius mentioned to his son-in-law Jussi Jalas that he still had hopes of completing a certain work before he died. In one of his letters he also wrote that he was tied up with a new work. Scholars assume that he was referring to the 8th symphony. But in the end he burnt the entire work, sketches and all, mentioning the fact to his secretary, Santeri Levas, in August 1945. A few days before he had written to Basil Cameron: “I have finished my eighth symphony several times, but I am still not satisfied with it. I will he delighted to hand it over to you when the time comes.” As late as summer 1953, i.e. about four years before his death and close on 30 years since he began work on his 8th symphony, Sibelius told Levas it was still maturing in his mind.

What really happened?

Was the symphony really ever finished, and if so, when? Why did Sibelius burn it? How could he still go on working on it once he had burnt it?

The conflicting reports of the progress of the work may be due to the fact that it really was finished several times, since Sibelius was in the habit of amending and revising his works. The Eighth Symphony or its movements probably existed both as drafts and as what were meant to be final scores, which the maestro subsequently rejected. On his two visits to Berlin, Sibelius put up at a hotel. Later he stayed at the Karelia Hotel in Helsinki on several occasions: first in September-October and December 1932 (the year in which he promised Koussevitzky the finished symphony by Christmas), and again in March-April and December 1933. The final periods at the Karelia came in February-March 1934 and one week in July 1935.

The final battle…

According to the receipts, Sibelius bought some music paper from Westerlund’s the music shop in January 1933 and spring 1935 and he is not known to have composed or arranged anything between 1931 and 1938 apart from the 8th symphony and a minor choral arrangement in autumn 1935. In an article on Sibelius written in 1934 Leevi Madetoja mentions that the Eighth Symphony was “just about complete”. The following year Karl Ekman, in his biography of Sibelius, quotes, “Composing has always been, and continues to be the red line running through my life. My work still has the same attraction for me as it did when I was young…” According to the Swedish journalist Kurt Nordfors, two movements of the symphony were already finished on paper in 1936 and the remainder, or part of it, sketched out.

…Ends in defeat

Nothing is known about 1937, but there is a receipt for 1938 indicating that a “Symphonie” was being bound at Weilin+Göös. The invoice is dated August 2 and reported as having been paid on August 23. Was this some old score that needed rebinding, or the mysterious Eighth Symphony? None of the symphony scores by Sibelius known to posterity bears the simple heading “Symphonic”. Could he have omitted the number to prevent news of the now completed Eighth from spreading? Or did he not give the work a number at all, because he was not satisfied with it? Between 30 and 38 Sibelius did not publish anything, and after 1938 he just revised older works. He seems to have had a mental block preventing him from composing anything more. Maybe the reason for this was his long struggle, ending in defeat, to complete his eighth symphony.


Although the above facts do not prove anything conclusive, it nevertheless seems clear that Sibelius continued working on his 8th symphony right up to 1938, and that he did actually finish it then. Therefore it is nor surprising to hear that conductor Jussi Jalas kept it to himself, as he told Mr. Seppo Kimanen. Sibelius nevertheless kept this a secret and led people to understand even as late as the 1950s that it was still maturing. If he was not content with his symphony, it would appear to have been constantly on his mind and bothering him. But it is unlikely that he seriously tried to carry on with a project he had not succeeded in exccuting to his liking in a struggle lasting close on 15 years. His repeated assurances that he was still working on the symphony were probably just a means of avoiding placing himself and others in an embarrassing situation.

What sort of symphony?

We can only guess at the nature of the Eighth Symphony. A few documents have been preserved, but they only serve to make the subject even more mysterious.

The first is Voigt’s bill for the clean copy of the first movement. It appears trom this and Sibelius’s rough copy of a reply written on the back that the first movement on paper represented only 1/8 of the total number of pages. The next movement was marked Largo, i.e. it was a slow one, and slow movements usually take up fewer pages in the score than quick ones. If the Largo was preceded by a fastish movement, which would seem natural, these two movements together accounted for a relatively small part of the whole work. This would in turn seem to suggest that the work was to have more than the three movements mentioned in various contexts. Or else the third movement was to have been disproportionately large, even it it was in a very quick tempo.

The second document is the bill for binding the symphony. According to it, Weilin+Göös had bound seven (!) volumes costing 50 marks each, making a total of 350 marks. Could they have been not the eighth symphony, but the other seven? Or did the 8th symphony exist in seven copies? Or did the 8th run to seven volumes?

The first hypothesis can be ruled out, because Sibelius no longer possessed the manuscripts of all his seven symphonies in the 1930s. Those he did possess had been bound at an earlier date, each in a different way. The second hypothesis would seem too far-fetched, which leaves the question of why one work would be divided into seven volumes. The thought of Sibelius writing a symphony in seven movements does not sound very plausible. But if one eighth of the manuscript consisted of the first movement, and each movement was bound separately, what were all thc other volumes?

The “great” symphony

Towards the end of the 1940s, possibly in 1947, Nils-Eric Fougstedt the conductor paid a visit to Sibelius at his home, Ainola. He later reported having seen on the shelf there the 8th Symphony “with separate choral parts”. If this is really true, it would explain the large number of volumes. Back in the 1920s Sibelius had already mentioned to the conductor Georg Schneevoigt that his eighth was to be a “great” symphony. Had he taken his example from Beethoven, then, and did he think the eighth would he his last?

All that remains of the 8th Symphony is one page from a draft score and one snatch of melody ringed for the 8th in among the sketches for the 7th Symphony, which proves that Sibelius was already planning a new symphony while still working on his seventh. Also in the Helsinki University Library are some unidentified sketches dating from the late 192Os and the 1930s. In particular some of the sketches akin to the ringed melody in G minor (or what appear, in the absence of a key signature, to be in a key based on G) and in 6/8 and 2/4 time could be for the 8th symphony. But because it is impossible to compare them with the final work, this is mere conjecture.

The final clues

It appears from certain late works that Sibelius stood on the brink of a new stylistic era after the 7th Symphony, Tapiola and the Tempest music. This is particularly marked in the opus 114 work for piano (1929), in which he seemed to be progressing towards a more abstract idiom: clear, ethereal images little touched by the human passions.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela, artist and friend of Sibelius, died in 1931. For his funeral Sibelius composed Funeral music (Surusoitto) for organ, later published as Op. 111b. If the Opus 114 piano pieces are abstractions of this world, the Funeral is by comparison like a study of the other world – strange, inexplicable, unconditional yet not frightening. It has been suggested that the Funeral is based on a theme from the 8th symphony, and Aino Sibelius admitted that this might be so. Did the new symphony thus also represent a modern sound unlike that of his previous style, with bleak, open tones and unresolved dissonances?

Eighth symphony still a mystery

Why was the Eight to come to nothing? With the whole world eagerly waiting, the pressure on Sibelius presumably grew unbearable. Added to which, his growing self-criticism made the threshold so high that he was no longer able to cross it. By completing it, he managed to extricate himself from a task that had proved impossible. But the only way to free himself of the mental nightmare that had heen haunting him ever since 1930 was to burn the entire manuscript. Having done so, he became, according to Aino, calmer and more optimistic. Only then did the long dark hours give way to light.

What did the Ainola stove devour?

What exactly did Sibelius burn? At least two final manuscripts existed of the Eighth Symphony: the original one and the copy made by Voigt.

Then there may also have been some drafts or early versions in addition to the fragments that were spared the flames. Did Sibelius burn them all? According to Erik Tawaststjerna, Sibelius burnt everything to do with the symphony, sketches and all, in the mid-1940s. Erkki Salmenhaara is more inclined to believe that he first, probably in 1945, burnt some earlier version and a few years later all the rest of the material. This latter hypothesis agrees with Vougstedt’s report. Just recently various documents have come to light which no one dreamt even existed. Maybe there are still some clues to the 8th Symphony hidden away and just waiting for some scholar to discover them one day. Until then, Sibelius’s last symphony will remain a mystery.


From Finnish Music Quarterly magazine 4/1995

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