Why didn't Sibelius write more music?

Music - A myth is peeled off: Sibelius in the backlight

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Jean Sibelius is considered a Finnish national composer. But it is also controversial because it accepted the homage of the so-called Third Reich. Time for a reply in the year of his 150th birthday.

Jean Sibelius has been a source of controversy to the present day. The Finnish musicologist Tomi Mäkelä comes up with a new portrayal of the composer. His aim is to demystify the image of Sibelius. Beyond the musical analysis, Sibelius' role in National Socialism will be examined. Now there is opposition in the Sibelius congregation in Finland.

Mäkelä betrays the composer and with him the meritorious researcher Erik Tawaststjerna. In the USA, however, attempts are being made to portray the composer, who is described as nationally conservative, as a Nazi.

Flirt with conservative ideas

What is there? Jean Sibelius ’mother tongue was Swedish. He learned Finnish, at that time the language of the farmers and servants, in addition to German, French and elementary Russian at school.

To this day it is controversial whether Sibelius was really bilingual, although he married into a conservative Finnish aristocratic family and toying with the national conservative ideas of his circle of friends.

Homage to the Third Reich

In 1917, when Lenin recognized Finland's independence at the end of the year, he thought "elitist royalist" and not liberal-democratic. In 1932 he composed a “boring” march for the right-wing Lapua movement, explains Tomi Mäkelä.

"Sibelius was certainly not a Nazi," says Erkki Kohonen, director of the Sibelius Hometown Foundation.

A dismembered magician ...

The composer was awarded the silver Goethe Medal for Art and Science in 1935 and the first German Sibelius Society was established in 1942. That hit the Nazi-critical circles. In 1937 the philosopher and music theorist Theodor W. Adorno spoke up for the first time with the momentous “footnote” and tore apart the economized enthusiasm for the “magician” from Finland.

Sibelius was silent. "That was a big mistake," says Mäkelä, "it was important to him to please everyone." By contrast, the composer, who was also courted by the USA and England, had not composed any music to please. A war symphony like the one his friend and soldier Einar Englund wrote in 1946 did not materialize. There is speculation about his silence as a composer.

... but appreciated

In retrospect, he named a journalist psychological reasons caused by “destruction and mass murder”. In more than 20 years, said Sibelius, he has created nothing "that I could have given the public with a calm heart."

Sibelius ’music, especially his seven symphonies, is valued above and beyond Finland, especially in Anglo-Saxon countries. People hold back in this country. The reasons are of a hegemonic nature: supporters of different schools argue about the definition of modern music.

Groundbreaking for a wide range of innovations

The supporters of the composer Arnold Schönberg declared Sibelius' method to be out of fashion. His adherence to tonal references and the large-scale form of the symphony made him suspicious. It was forgotten that his methods were groundbreaking for a third kind of modernity.

The synthesis of statics and dynamics, the handling of time and its cancellation as well as the repetitive processes developed from germ cells are groundbreaking for the variety of innovations in the music of the 20th century.

The American minimal music of Steve Reich, but also the chiseled polyphony of György Ligeti are laid out in Sibelius ’progressive works. The fact that he also wrote trivialized music for everyday use damaged his reputation. It is high time, says Tomi Mäkelä, to face the composer's light and dark sides with an undisguised look.

Jean Sibelius

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Jean Sibelius was born on December 8, 1865 in Finland to a Swedish-speaking family. He studied in Helsinki, Berlin and Vienna.
Sibelius is one of the few Finnish composers who is internationally known. He died in 1957.

Book references

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Tomi Mäkelä: "Jean Sibelius and his time." Laaber, 2013.

Tomi Mäkelä: «Poetry in the air. Jean Sibelius. Studies on life and work. " Breitkopf and Härtel, 2007.

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  • Commentary by Lukas Fierz, Bern
    Sibelius is a national hero because of his role in the liberation of Finland. When it became clear that things were going wrong in Germany, Sibelius was seventy years old, hardly productive as a composer and damaged by alcohol abuse. It is fair for those born later to reproach him for not distancing himself more clearly. As a brain specialist, I have the impression that he was already a little demented at this point. That doesn't detract from his importance as a composer.
    Agree Agree to the comment Select answers to reply to the comment
  • Commentary by Juha Stump, Zurich
    Part 2: - 4. Who was not honored in the period from 1933 to 1945? Sibelius could not help found the Sibelius Society in 1942. Like so many other people in the art scene - including the Norwegian singer Kirsten Flagstad - he preferred to stay in the country itself during the country's most difficult times. -. 5. Like Mannerheim, Sibelius was conservative - but was that a crime? - 6. It's easy to piss off 70 to 80 years later.
    Agree Agree to the comment Select answers to reply to the comment
  • Commentary by Juha Stump, Zurich
    It is astonishing that Tomi Mäkelä, who describes himself as a musicologist, does not know various facts. - 1. Like Marshal Mannerheim, Sibelius was really bilingual, although Finnish was the second language for both of them. - 2. The communists' seizure of power in the south in 1917/18, which led to a six-month civil war, was a shock for many artists too. - 3. Sibelius' "silence" can also be explained by a creative break and reorientation in old age.
    Agree Agree to the comment Select answers to reply to the comment
    1. answer from SRF Culture (SRF)
      As you can read in the article, certain aspects of Sibelius ‘Biography are indeed controversial. But we can assure you that Tomi Mäkelä is a proven Sibelius researcher.
      Agree agree to the comment
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