Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

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How Finnish is Sibelius’ music?

Wed May 29 2019

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Now time for some music by Felix Mendelssohn's good friend, Prince Albert (i.e. Queen Victoria's husband).… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…


Before our concert this week, we spoke to Margaret Faultless, one of our three leaders, about Sibelius’ ‘Finnish-ness’ in his writing. Here’s what she had to say:

When I was thinking about Sibelius, I was thinking about what makes it Sibelius as opposed to any other composer. As with any composer who comes from a less familiar country, in this case Finland, is there something intrinsically Finnish about the writing? You can of course look for that – you can see swirling perspective; you can hear in the colours of the string writing the idea of landscape and space and the fjords and the freezing cold. You read that into the sort of string textures, colours and chordal writing he produces.

But, I’m not actually sure it’s Finnish. I think it’s Sibelius’ own genius. When I started researching a little bit about the symphony, it was pretty well written in Italy where he had been sent to have a bit of a break from working in Finland after he was a bit overtired. And I also discovered he didn’t even speak Finnish as a child – he was brought up in a Swedish-speaking household. But, what probably makes him a little bit nationalistic, apart from anything else, was that he – and his parents – were deeply politicised. So, you might see the Second Symphony as a great reaction to Finnish nationalism triumphing over Tsarist Russia, for example. But, it turns it into a very different sort of nationalism because I think it’s a universal political statement rather than anything that’s particularly about the landscape itself. In a way, he took over the symphony from Beethoven; you can hear right at the beginning of the Second Symphony almost some Beethovenian pastoral-like elements. And when you reach the dénouement in the finale, you experience a sort of inner smile rather than an outward grin. It’s not hilarious, but it’s absolutely, extraordinary feeling.

I’d like to quote one thing that Sibelius said about his own compositions that I think indicates why it’s quite difficult to make sense of them formally in a first hearing. You can’t cut them up and apply normal structural techniques.

He said:

It is as if the almighty had thrown down the pieces of a mosaic for heaven’s floor and asked me to put them together.’


Hear Sibelius’ Second Symphony: States of Independence

7pm, Friday 31 May 2019, Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall

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