in From the Archives

Sibelius, Finland and the symphonic idea

by Mikko Heiniö

Composer, musicology Professor emeritus Mikko Heiniö's article on Jean Sibelius's historical significance was first published in FMQ in 1990.

Jean Sibelius’s historical significance is by no means limited simply to those stylistic features of his which were received and absorbed at various times by Finnish composers (Toivo Kuula and Leevi Madetoja among others), their Swedish counterparts (Stenhammar, Rangström, Wirén, or Larsson), or his fellow-composers from the Anglo-Saxon world (individuals like Vaughan Williams, Horatio Parker, or “the American Sibelius” Howard Hanson). Of far greater importance are the influences exerted on society and cultural history simply by his presence and the national and international weight of his output. As is well known, no other Finnish artist has risen to such a position of near hero-worship, reaching the point where it is no longer merely a measure or symbol of artistic success, but one of national success to boot.

The land of Sibelius is also the land of symphonic music. There are twelve active symphony orchestras in Finland [in 1990], though to be fair the majority of them are smallish affairs. Alongside those in Helsinki, Turku, Tampere, and Oulu, the post-war period brought orchestras to such medium-sized and small cities as Lahti, Joensuu, Pori, Kuopio, Kotka, Jyväskylä, and Vaasa. These examples date back rather further in fact, since they had all been active on an amateur basis long before the local municipalities took them under their wing.

In general, particular value in the Finnish classical music tradition has been placed on works for symphony orchestra, with symphonies being primus inter pares. On the other hand, during particular periods – for instance the 1930s and 40s – we have seen a singular lack of major new chamber or solo works emerging from Finnish composers. There has been a steady urge, however, to write music for the orchestra – even if it ultimately meant only composing for one’s own desk-drawer, as was the case during the 1920s. Before the opera boom took off in the 1970s, practically no other genre could compete in prestige with the symphony.

The shadow of Sibelius and constructional impulses

The sovereign sway held by Sibelius’s music in Finnish orchestras and radio programming has probably long since been so taken for granted in such institutions that no one has really felt the need to comment on it. Finnish composers, on the other hand, have often examined and assessed their relationship to the master. All the countless statements made about Sibelius suggest that his reception can be divided into three different areas, differing in part in time, but more particularly in their content: 1) Sibelius as an object of national respect and honour (particularly the earlier reception), 2) “The Shadow of Sibelius”, and 3) the innovations of Sibelius’s late works (the more recent reception).

“There have been other great men of music at whose feet I have worshipped”, confessed Aarre Merikanto (1893–1958) in 1945, “But I have not been as faithful in my worship of them as in my admiration for our own maestro.” And a year later the composer Sulo Ranta (1901–60) elevated Sibelius to an almost mythical plane in a fashion that well reflects the longing for national security after the war-years:

“A people that has given birth amongst its great men to such a mighty, all-powerful seer, conjurer and wizard, a spiritual giant such as Sibelius, capable by his person and art of bringing together all about him; such a people can feel proud, though they be small in number and apparently isolated. None can forget the land and people of Sibelius.”

As to what has been the stylistic impact of Sibelius, however, composers have been rather more conflicting in their answers. Ranta, who was a careful observer of his peers, commented in 1932 that it was “astonishing that no real Sibelius school emerged here”, but in the same breath he admitted that “almost every one of the middle-aged composers among us have drawn some influences from the master.” Another shrewd observer was Nils-Eric Ringbom; in 1952 he noted that ”Finland has had and will probably continue to have difficulties in prizing itself out from under the Sibelian shadow”. And in 1965 Joonas Kokkonen (1921–1996) confirmed that he belonged “to that generation, which in its youth was forced to fight itself free of the overly powerful magnetism of the master’s style”.

Possible musical influences are nevertheless only one side of the Sibelius “shadow” – the other comes closer to cultural policy lines. This was recognized in the 1960s, when the younger generation of avant-gardistes began to criticize the established musical institutions. According to composer Kaj Chydenius (b. 1939), “the social impact of the Sibelius shadow” showed up from the 1920s onwards as a sort of “‘Well, lads, we’ve got Sibelius – we don’t need anything else’ conservatism, the result of which was that international musical aspirations were not given a forum in Finland until well into the 1950s”.

By “international aspirations” Chydenius was referring to 12-note technique and serialism. The picture is a nicely symmetrical one, since it was Theodor W. Adorno – one of the ideological eminences grises for these aspirations – who did his utmost to undermine Sibelius’s position in Germany. His efforts were complemented by dodecaphonist René Leibowitz’s book “Jean Sibelius, The Worst Composer in the World” (1955). The modernists of central Europe found it impossible to see that behind the tonal – and therefore hopelessly old-fashioned – facade of Sibelius’s music there.

were regenerative forces, particularly in the area of thematic processes. Oddly enough, the first to notice this were a group of Danish composers who had specifically absorbed influences from serialism (Per Nørgard, lb Nørholm, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, and Erik Norby). Already in the 1950s they became interested in the constructional principles of Sibelius’s late works.

In 1965 Chydenius’s avant-garde colleague Erkki Salmenhaara (1941–2002) came around to the same point of view as the Danes. He found from Sibelius’s late works “an organic motif technique”, “an idiom developed to perfection, which anchored as it was in tonality appeared at first sight to be continuing the late romantic ideals, but which proved altogether ‘modern’ in its internal principles”. Joonas Kokkonen, too, advised a closer study of the Sixth Symphony and Tapiola – and Salmenhaara duly published a scientific dissertation on the latter in 1970. The Seventh Symphony for its part has offered orchestral and structural stimuli for such young composers as Esa-Pekka Salonen and Magnus Lindberg, neither of whom was even born in Sibelius’s lifetime. Of the composers of the present era [1990], however, it is really only Kokkonen, Salmenhaara, and Aulis Sallinen (b. 1935) whose styles have been seen as showing Sibelian touches.

The popularity of the symphony and “symphonic thinking”

Largely as a result of the reception accorded Beethoven, it was the symphony that was lifted up as the highest form of instrumental music in the 19th century, and this hegemony did not really begin to weaken until we were well into the 1900s. Symphonies in the 20th century have been created principally by the neoclassicists, by those composers who in one way or another have upheld the tonal tradition. By contrast, the new music line, following in the footsteps of the Second Viennese School, has taken an almost completely opposite path: titles like symphony or sonata, with their echoes of a genre tradition, have been consciously avoided. In Finland, though, the popularity of the symphony has remained remarkably strong and for an exceptional length of time: during the 20th century Finnish composers have written something like 360 symphonies. All this can scarcely be laid at Sibelius’s door, since of these roughly a quarter have originated from composers still active and writing today.

At least according to an interview in the Finnish-language journal Suomen Musiikkilehti, Sibelius declared in 1931: “Symphonic music will never die, or if it does, then all higher absolute music will perish along with it. Just as water when it freezes crystallizes into a myriad of different forms, there is still to be seen a certain regularity about the process. In just the same way in music there are certain predetermined basic laws and forms, whose preservation is an absolute prerequisite for the existence of all music. To you young composers I would say: he who does not steep himself in the symphonic form (that is to say sonata-form) while still young will never learn it properly, so complex and subtle is its structure.”

We are not particularly interested here in the authenticity of the statement, or even whether the reference to sonata-form was Sibelius’s own or a helpful addition from the interviewer. What is important, though, is that in a Finnish text published so early we see coming out all the concepts and beliefs that have subsequently been linked to the symphonic idea in this country: 1) that the symphonic form represents the acme of composition, 2) that it is closely allied to so-called absolute music, which is more worthy than so-called programme music, and 3) that it is based on a certain way of thinking that is immortal and somehow transcends history, albeit that 4) the realizations of this way of thinking may differ from person to person.

In the 1940s and 50s Finnish composers generally took the view that in our century any classical tradition worth following has continued specifically in its great symphonists. Shostakovich’s name was the first to come to mind, with the admiration shown for his work also being an indicator that symphonies were expected to have some external weight to them. But in spite of the apocalyptic impact of a symphony like the Leningrad, for the Finns the symphony was all the better for being independent from an outward programme. “Absolute music, without even a literal background, is of the highest level and interests me the most”, observed Einar Englund (1916–1999) in 1976.

During the 1940s the rudiments of tonal form, harmony, and polyphony did not simply represent an essential part of the would-be composer’s studies: they were also the starting-point for actual composition work and its appraisal. This surfaced in the first place in all the countless orthodox sonata- and rondo forms and fugato passages that can be found from the Finnish works of the time. Secondly, it showed up in the response of the music reviewers – particularly the composer-critics. These were quickly onto the offensive if a symphony did not display sufficient polyphony or thematic treatment.

Finally, in the 1960s it began to be accepted among Finnish symphonists that the symphony, while not actually mortal, was at least a form of composition undergoing great changes. At the same time, however, they stressed the durability of “symphonic thinking”. “The symphonic idea in itself in a broadly architectonic and as it were philosophic sense is immortal”, proclaimed Joonas Kokkonen in 1960. And Erkki Salmenhaara followed this four years later with the assertion that while thematic contrasts were being abandoned in new music, “symphonic thinking lives on in broad-spanned abstract orchestral works, even though their composers less and less often refer to them as symphonies”.

As to what exactly lies behind this symphonic thinking, composers have given hints rather than firm definitions. In actual fact, all the distinctive features that have later been pointed to were brought up back in 1940 in Eino Roiha’s article on “Sibelius’s Symphonic Style”. The principal characteristics in Roiha’s opinion were “stringency, pertinence, the discarding of all that is non-organic or of secondary import, the meticulous use of thematic material, the constant attention to the demands of the whole” and “concentration of form”, “organity”, and “the construction of a monumental work out of shortish themes”.

In particular this organic quality – the growth of form from a single seed, as Aarre Merikanto described it – became a favourite catchword of many composers. In practice, what Einar Englund, Joonas Kokkonen, Aulis Sallinen, Usko Meriläinen and others meant by this was a sort of deductive thematic technique: from as concise and crystallized a basic melodic-harmonic material as possible the entire work was developed “logically” – as the saying went – without straying outside of this material. This technique is naturally not limited only to symphonic music: for instance with Kokkonen it comes into his early chamber music and his opera The Last Temptations. Those features that were found from Sibelius’s late works must have played a part in motivating this thematic concentration.

Thus the symphonic idea in Finland is to all intents and purposes quite as old as the neoclassical style. Although for the younger generation of composers in the 1940s neoclassicism meant an alternative to the national romantic style – and therefore at least in one sense to the “Sibelian” approach, it never shook the position of the symphony itself.

This article was first published in FMQ 3–4/1990, a theme issue on Sibelius.