From the Podium: Sibelius – Elemental Luminosity

by John Zoltek, Glacier Symphony Artistic Director and Conductor


John Zoltek
Glacier Symphony Artistic Director and Conductor

Our upcoming concerts on February 22/23 will feature the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Russian composer Tchaikovsky and Symphony No. 2 in D Major by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius composed in 1901. As I began preparing the score for rehearsals of this great Sibelius symphony I was brought back to my earliest memories of his music and thoughts of what the composer’s symphonies mean to me. Sibelius is one of a handful or so of my all-time favorite composers. His music speaks to me like no other. He does not compare with a florid God-like virtuosity of Mozart or the playfulness and clarity of Haydn. Nor does Sibelius continually astound me like the emotional revolutions of the Romantic-Age defining Ludwig van Beethoven. Nor does his music pull me into the intense philosophical depths and questioning of Gustav Mahler. For me Sibelius’s music resonates with something much harder to define. Something perhaps more profoundly naturalistic and universal.
I remember the first time I witnessed the music of Sibelius in performance. It happened while I was a student of composition at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. This was during the late 1970’s when the great Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa was the Music Director of the Boston Symphony. Boston has a cluster of music conservatories located very close to Symphony Hall, one of the finest concert halls in the country. Music students from Berklee College, Boston Conservatory, Harvard, MIT, New England Conservatory and others used to queue up on the sidewalk for “Rush Seats” prior to concerts. I believe these tickets cost ten dollars. If you were early and lucky, you might end up with a magnificent seat in the gilded hall, usually a last-minute cancellation or donation from one of the many season ticket holders.
I witnessed many thrilling and inspiring performances often led by then legendary conductors because of this program. I have been very grateful to the fellow student or professor who told me about these affordable tickets! For, as a young jazz guitarist and budding composer/conductor, I had still not yet been introduced to many important symphonic composers – at least not in live performance. Attending these concerts by this great orchestra under great conductors was for me a deeply illuminating and motivational experience. Sometimes I was even quite jealous of the invited conductor if, in my young bravado, I didn’t feel they were up to the task! One performance, led by renowned British conductor Sir Colin Davis (1927-2013), served as my guide into the luminous symphonic world of Sibelius. Sir Colin was in fact a notable Sibelius interpreter. I cannot remember the entire concert program, but I do remember the wonderous impression that the Sibelius’s 7th Symphony left on me.

Sibelius in 1891

The 7th Symphony was Sibelius’s final work in the genre. Over the course of seven symphonies he had created and distilled an original and formally distinct symphonic language that culminated in this profound and enigmatic musical masterpiece.
Historically, Sibelius is recognized as a singularly important composer and is known for many things. But perhaps most unusual was his strange decision to unexpectedly and mysteriously abandon composing in 1924 at the age of 59 during the height of his fame, despite his significant celebrity and financial independence. He lived another 33 years without writing another symphony. Cultish rumors circulated of a possible 8th Symphony, but if composed, it was said to have been destroyed by the composer in his fireplace. His final total would stand at seven symphonies.
I would describe Sibelius’s set of symphonies as one of the more thoroughly evolved, influential and completely original artistic statements in the genre from that era. The composer’s series of symphonies from 1899 to 1924 bridged Late-Romanticism ethos with his own 20th Century divergent and personal style. In those 25 years, in addition to composing other significant orchestra music, Sibelius left to the world’s musical culture his conceptualization of the symphonic language and design which sprang from the 19th century, and projected well into the future with a taut syntactically-based, elementally-modern and abstract musical expression. Sibelius’s music to my mind stands as one of the more universally integral expressions of symphonic design.
Throughout his career Sibelius continually composed orchestral music, drawing heavily on Finnish culture and literature. But these direct references themselves do not comprise the elemental qualities of his symphonies per se that have enthralled musicians and world audiences alike for over a century. To me, his symphonic compositional invention is more about the composer’s genius use of elemental, deceptively simple musical motives; his inventive and original abstract, formal symphonic architecture (sometimes referred to by scholars as “deformation”); his imaginative and dynamic orchestral coloring (not always appreciated by theorists and orchestra historians); and finally, the masterful control of his material. But even more important is the almost mystical quality and over-arching ethos of humanity as an integral part of the living, dynamic earth and the relation to the cosmic and divine mysteries that is suggested by the tonal world of his music.

So, what exactly did I experience in the concert hall from this master composer Sibelius as a young student thirsty for inspirational musical encounters? As I recollect Sibelius’s musical essence struck me then, like now, as possessing an unmistakable and deep trichotomy. His musical expression (7th Symphony) conveys to me the abstract luminosity and sinuous invisibility of human, earthly and celestial connections and energies. One may experience his music from several dynamic perspectives.
The fragmentary way in which the composer moves his material in and out of contextual binding relationships – at times following independent, seemingly random paths, and at others building towards a powerful musical pathos that evolves into new dimensions of expressive potential. Sibelius’s music almost fills me with a sense of inner spiritual buoyancy that fuses the mysterious unstoppable force of Nature with a sense of our place in the Universe. To me, Sibelius’s music is a conduit, a powerful musical energy that knocks on the mystical doors of our perception of life. This pure abstract symphonic music goes beyond the sentimental references of ordinary earthly life. The music itself has the innate power to convey the hidden and deep aspirations of humanity’s place in the Universe.
Sibelius may, or indeed may not, have had these intentions. But I would argue that this doesn’t matter to the phenomena of the mysteries of musical experience. A symphonic composer is that very lonely human artist that shapes material into a learned, beautiful and moving constructed sonic design. In performance that same music can amass new and uncalculated dimensions and depth and communication, effecting and transporting the eager listener into a vastly subjective and perhaps potentially lifetransforming experience. For me, Sibelius’s symphonies, in an abstract way draw reference from, and attempt to illuminate, the elemental force that is foundational to the physical and dynamic manifestations of humanity, earth and the cosmos.

As I recall my first experience with the music of Sibelius was nothing short of a revelation to my young and somewhat naïve musical mind. “So, this is what is meant by great music,” I may have thought. Sitting there in rapture during that very concert I remember a certain bow-tied, well-dressed elderly gentleman sitting next to me in that legendary Boston hall. He gingerly leaned over to me during a luminous cadential moment – the transition to the finale concluding statement of the piece, with stately solo tenor trombone, floating cathedral-like brass and orchestra strings providing shimmering veiled colors, one of the more beautiful moments in all of Sibelius – and said in a whisper, “Well… that was quite clever…” I listened politely, smiling inside. I had just experienced one of those transformational moments in a young artist’s life, a moment that I remember still many decades later as being so wonderful and beyond words. Yes, quite clever indeed.

The Symphony No. 2 in D major by Sibelius, which we will be performing in February, is his most popular and oft-performed symphony. Sibelius began composing the work in Italy following the successful premiere of Finlandia. Together with his 1st Symphony, these two symphonies represent an initial immersion and pulling away from the Late-Romantic tradition. One could argue that Sibelius’s independent voice rings through even in these earliest works. The 2nd Symphony shows obvious influences from Austrian-German tradition to Tchaikovsky. But Sibelius’s fresh distinct voice is obviously palpable within these stylistic traditions. The 2nd Symphony is an extraordinary work of vast dimensions. Beginning with an elegant dancing string motive, the first movement is built on the consolidation of lightly-dancing theme fragments that by the middle of the movement are transformed into a powerful and pressing passionate theme. The somber and tragic second movement, inspired it is said by the dark side of the Don Giovanni or Don Juan story, is a slowly-unfolding adagio full of intense upheaval and abstractly-narrative suggestion. The ghost-like transparent 3rd movement scherzo is twice interrupted by a slow lamenting oboe song in 12/4 meter. This 3rd movement builds and slowly transforms into the full-flying positive triumph of the 4th and final movement. Surging D major and Bb major themes alternate as the music progresses towards the grand finale with surging repeated ostinato figures in the slower strings supporting a simple, slow, rather common march-like chorale theme above. This music repeats and builds to a monumental climax before the final triumphant coda is reached, returning to the first theme that is transformed into a brilliant brass fanfare supported by tremolo strings and deep percussive basslines that bring the movement and the entire symphony to an emphatic and decisive conclusion. In essence, the symphony moves from naïve beginnings through tragedy and from darkness to final triumph. This symphony marks the end of Sibelius’s Late-Romantic symphonic language. What follows in his 3rd (performed during Festival Amadeus last August) is a complete departure into a cooler, dispassionate, neo-classical musical design that marks an initial turn towards a new “modern” personal style.

By Maestro John Zoltek


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