Sibelius: Tapiola

At the beginning of 1927 Sibelius seemed tobe at the height of his creative powers. He had in the previous two years completed four of his greatest works: the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, his incidental music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and the extraordinary tone-poem Tapiola. An Eighth Symphony was underway and eagerly awaited by his devotees. For a composer who had
recently celebrated his 60th birthday, it might seem a point at which his reputation would
be settled, his enemies’ attacks would settle down to grudging declarations of respect, and he could enter a serene old age as one of the grand old men of European music.

In fact, serenity and confidence were far from his mind. Sibelius was a nervous wreck and an alcoholic. His wife Aino was accustomed most mornings to find him asleep at his desk
after sitting up all night writing and drinking. She would remove the bottle from his hand
and say nothing. The couple were barely on speaking terms after an embarrassing incident in 1923. In Sweden to conduct a concert of his music, Sibelius had gone missing. He was discovered in a restaurant eating oysters and drinking champagne, oblivious to the time. He was dragged to the concert hall, where the first piece on the programme fell apart and had to be started again. Aino was furious at the disgrace her husband brought on himself. Never keen on leaving the family home anyway, she refused to accompany him abroad again.

In December 1925 Sibelius was attempting to get his drinking under control and hoped to
persuade Aino to come with him to Italy. She would not. Her continued refusal may have been
exacerbated by the fact that an old school friend of Sibelius’s, Walter von Konow, was keen to
gate-crash the trip. Aino seems not to have like Konow. Even Sibelius himself confessed, “in
some ways he wears me out”. Konow had a propensity to seek out the less salubrious parts of
town, and had embarrassed Sibelius many years before on a holiday to the leading Italian art
centres with his chasing after the local peasant boys.

In January 1926 a telegram arrived from the conductor Walter Damrosch of the New York
Philharmonic. He asked Sibelius to write a piece for the orchestra, specifying only that it should
be between fifteen and twenty minutes long. In Italy, alone, Sibelius began work on what would
become Tapiola. Work proceeded well at first, although he was distracted and annoyed when
Konow managed to catch up with him in Rome. However, doubts soon crept into the self-critical
composer’s mind. In August his publisher Breitkopf and Härtel forced the issue and demanded that he deliver the score for typesetting and printing ready for the planned première. He did so
a few weeks later, but as soon as he sent it off he began to worry, and to drink, again. Breitkopf
were not amused when he asked to have the score back so he could make cuts and amendments.
In the event Sibelius made only a few minor adjustments, including the addition of the lines that
stand at the head of the score:

Wide-spread they stand, the Northland’s dusky forests,
Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams;
Within them dwells the Forest’s mighty God,
And wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.

The première went ahead on time in January 1927, but the work’s reception was lukewarm.
It would not begin to catch on until some six years later, when Serge Koussevitsky began to
conduct it. Koussevitsky developed something of an obsession with Sibelius’s music, and
frequently pestered the composer in the hope of becoming the dedicatee and first performer of
the Eighth Symphony that he was rumoured to be writing. He was not alone in this campaign.
Olin Downes, the music critic of the New York Times, took it upon himself to become Sibelius’s
champion. His relentless campaign on behalf of the Finn in the 1930s unleashed an enormous
and bitter ideological war between supporters of conservative and avant-garde trends in music.
The result was that rather than becoming accepted as part of the musical landscape as he entered old age, Sibelius in fact became a controversial and divisive cause. This, crippling self-doubt, depression and alcoholism left him unable to commit to the repeated requests for the new symphony, which was advertised as imminent several times but remained elusive. When Downes visited Sibelius and pressed him on the subject, the composer (who spoke little English and communicated with him in a hotchpotch of French and German) prevaricated and eventually exclaimed, “Ich kann nicht!”

Tapiola is such a terrifying and bleak work that it is difficult to know how it could be followed.
Evidently Sibelius felt the same way: it proved to be his last major composition. A few miniature
pieces and arrangements followed in its wake, but even these dried up and the last 30 years of
his life form a vast creative silence. This seems eerily appropriate after Tapiola. It is in a profound sense a piece in which nothing happens. A wind may disturb the trees and a storm is hinted at, but it is at heart an evocation of something eternal and beyond any human sense of time or event.

Although the Eighth Symphony would never appear, Sibelius apparently worked on it for most of the 1930s. On one of the many occasions he was asked when it would be complete he confessed that it had been “complete” many times. Some time in the 1940s, Aino recalled, Sibelius constructed a huge bonfire and committed much music, probably including the symphony, to the flames. Afterwards, she said, the darkness began to lift and he seemed more at peace with himself.

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