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Composer Focus: Sakari Oramo on Jean Sibelius

Nothing Concrete text
17 Apr 2020
24 min listen

In the final episode in our Composer Focus series, Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra Sakari Oramo talks to Edward Seckerson about his countryman, Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.

Sibelius of course means everything to Finland in terms of musical existence.

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Composer Focus: Sakari Oramo on Jean Sibelius

In the final episode in our Composer Focus series, Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra Sakari Oramo talks to Edward Seckerson about his countryman, Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.


Barbican: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. In this episode, the last in our Composer Focus series from November 2018, Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra Sakari Oramo talks to Edward Seckerson about his countryman, Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.

ES: Sakari, one of the most enduring mysteries of music is how profoundly it connects with its nationalistic roots, the landscape and ethos of the country where it was created. As a fellow Finn, I just wondered what it was about Sibelius that speaks of your homeland. 

SO: Yeah that’s always a good question and also a kind of, it’s a question that has many sides to it. But I would compare Sibelius’s relationships to Finland and to Finnish culture about to Janáček’s relationship to his own Czech culture. So they both drew inspiration from the folk art of their respective nation. They both I think were influenced by the language, which means the music they wrote was influenced by the language. However, Sibelius was different to Janáček in one aspect – he never used a single folk tune in his music, never ever. There is a set of transcriptions for solo piano of folk songs but even those seem to be written by Sibelius himself, so those folk songs don’t have any corresponding pieces in sort of folk tradition. And in Sibelius’s case, he was of course the one who brought Finland onto the world map culturally, but he couldn’t do it if he hadn’t sort of immersed himself in the Germanic symphonic tradition by studying in Vienna and in Berlin, by coming quite early on under the influence of people like Brahms, Bruckner and of course his teachers whose names have been slightly more forgotten. Yes, Sibelius of course means everything to Finland in terms of musical existence. On the other hand he’s not solely and singularly a Finnish phenomenon – he didn’t speak Finnish as his native language. He was a Swedish speaker who learnt Finnish only when he got to know his future wife Aino, who was from a very Fennophile – talking about language Fennophile – the Järnefelt family. And of course Sibelius had sort of gotten this great revelation of what folk music can really bring by listening to the rune singer Larin Paraske, who was a very famous, already elderly lady, who sort of recited this hours and hours long old Karelian you would call them chants or runes, which apparently made a really huge impression on Sibelius when he was able to hear them live.

ES: Do you think, I mean he’s often credited as having helped Finland develop its national identity during the struggle of independence from Russia, do you think there’s much truth in that? I mean pieces like Finlandia and the Second Symphony often has that layer of meaning imposed upon it which perhaps isn’t there – I wonder what your view is on that? 

SO: Well my view is that early on in his career he was very much part of this movement to sort of reinforce this identity of Finland and to get rid of the Russian empire as its ruler and he was part of a group of artists, but none other were composers, there were writers and painters and such like, who all had the same kind of basic foundation to their art. I think early on Sibelius was very much a political composer, I mean he wrote pieces like the Karelia Suite, the music to the Karelia play, he wrote the Jäger March a little bit later, for which he was almost, they almost got rid of his life during the civil war in 1918. He wrote several pieces that directly took a stance on political things. On the other hand, he was always striving to become an absolute composer, a composer music without external meanings. And I think the Second Symphony is kind of, of course many etiquettes can be easily, many labels can be attached to it, but it is essentially, a piece which is striving for the independence of the musical material and not any extra musical effects.

ES: In that, his love of nature – and I talked about national identity – his love of nature was well known. And that is so clear in the landscape of the music, particularly a piece like Tapiola, which is just almost graphic in its depiction of that kind of wild, windswept landscape. In that I suppose he had something in common, perhaps the only thing in common, with Gustav Mahler who was a pantheist at heart as well, and a nature lover. But how important is that love of nature in the music? 

SO: It is very important, it’s all-encompassing, I think. And he had musical associations with phenomena of nature, like he wrote in his diary whilst working on the Fifth Symphony which was at that time a hybrid of the Fifth and Sixth, he wrote ‘swans migrating, black earth, lots of sordinos’ for instance. And that is audible I think in the final movement of the Fifth Symphony very much, which really digs deep, deep below the surface.

ES: Well there are all those wonderful bass pedals in his music, which are almost unfathomable, they’re sunk so deep. 

SO: Yes, they’re roots. Like trees have roots and the root systems can be hugely bigger than the tree itself. On the other hand, in the German cultural environment mostly, Sibelius is often described as a landscape painter and that’s I think what he wasn’t. His relation to nature in terms of music I think is more akin to Beethoven’s in the Pastoral symphony for instance than to say Mahler’s. Because Mahler’s pantheism was on such a level that he actually, I don’t know, it encompassed everything in his music. Whereas with Sibelius it’s more like a sort of external viewpoint, observing. There is often a subject observing things happening in nature and only in Tapiola and I think partly in the music to The Tempest, so his very last works, there is no person anymore, it’s only the nature. And I think that’s the way he was sort of heading throughout his music.

ES: You’ve talked about Finnish folklore and mythology and a great source of inspiration for him the Kalevala – a piece I adore is Luonnotar, for soprano and orchestra, a sensationally original piece.

SO: Yes, for its shortness – it only lasts ten or eleven minutes performed – it has the makings of a really big work and he called it a symphonic poem for soprano and orchestra. Luonnotar is of course inspired by one of the myths in Kalevala – the Creation myth which has a lot to do with the Biblical Creation myth, but it has some elements which are kind of wonderful and naïve and incredibly sort of descriptive at the same time. And Luonnotar in a way is a key piece in Sibelius’s production because he wrote it between the Third and Fourth symphonies when he was sort of getting away from this ‘Junge Klassizität’, this sort of young-classical style which he very much tried out in the Third Symphony – also in the Violin Concerto partly. And he was heading towards this more abstract, more mythical, mysterious, introvert style and Luonnotar is kind of the missing link in a way between these very different worlds.

ES: The core of his output though of course we’ve alluded, we’ve talked about them in passing, are the seven symphonies. And each says something different about him, the journey he’s taking. I mean, which are the most important from your point of view, which do you feel closest to in a way? I mean it’s an impossible question because they’re each individual and amazing in their different ways.

SO: Yeah, I think Sibelius invented a new technique of composition for each of his symphonies. And everything else he wrote, maybe except the String Quartet Vocos intimae and some of the tone poems, he himself considered as second-rate, or music he wrote for living, for getting the money instantly from the publishers and all that. And of course he was cut away by the First World War as well very much, because he lost contact with his German publisher, which was on the other side, so he suffered a lot. I can’t really single any of them out actually, they’re all kind of so different, and what I find so interesting is that there are seeds of the coming symphonies in each of them. Even in Kullervo, which is before the First Symphony, you can find seeds to the Fifth Symphony.

ES: Yes, he’s laying out his stall if you like.

SO: He is, yes. And then he’s gradually throughout the symphonies, reducing his equipment and stall and making more economical use of the elements that he finds most productive for his music at that moment. For instance, the Fourth Symphony which starts with this incredible tritone gesture, there’s a very strong tritone passage in the Third Symphony and so on, it kind of goes on all the time and you find elements that then come into full flourishment in the following symphony. 

ES: You mention the Fourth, it sits between – I love the Third Symphony, that kind of rhythmic impulsiveness – but it’s very tight as a piece and the Sixth is very refined as a piece. And then you’ve got this dark and extraordinary world between them with a slow movement – we’ve mentioned Mahler but if there is any comparison to be made, one hears some Mahler in that slow movement I don’t know, it’s just an illusion maybe.

SO: I don’t actually get that impression at all from my point of view, no. I think that ‘il tempo largo’ third movement of the Fourth Symphony, it has kind of, for me, it has all the elements that Mahler doesn’t and vice versa. It doesn’t use the elements that Mahler uses in his slow movements, some of which are really gorgeous like the one in the Fourth Symphony for instance, of Mahler. But Sibelius tries to do something completely different, he sort of forms these perfect little cells of music and then expands them into something massive. It can be compared only to how a tree grows out of a small seed or a little, a small thing, becomes, elaborates itself and grows into this really strong structure. But the innate fragility of the Fourth Symphony of Sibelius is always there. It feels as though the structure is so well-rooted and yet if you push it along just a little bit it feels like it’s almost falling apart. It’s very fragile and at the same time very, very strong.

ES: So you think there is much more of a connection between 3, 4 and 6.

SO: Even 5 actually for me, yes. There is a strong connection. When people first heard Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony when it was premiered in Helsinki, he reported that there were kind of strange looks, no-one dared say anything. There was a sort of consummate applause but not very enthusiastic. People didn’t really know what to make of it. And having that experience and then going on to write something that then became the Fifth Symphony is of course very understandable, because that gives sort of an occasion for a huge, rapturous response. But the Fourth really is an enigma.

ES: Oh, right from the first note, it plunges you into this… And there are always those moments in his music where it’s almost as though he’s suddenly lost in time and space and you don’t know where it’s going to go. There might be some very distilled moment with just a bassoon solo…

SO: …indeed: very bare, barren landscapes where nothing seems to be moving, there’s just a lonely crow somewhere maybe, making its way through the dead leaves – whatever. These associations can be endless. But as an interpreter I can’t stress enough how many problems the Fourth Symphony poses on the conductor, on the interpreter of the music. There are dozens of recordings which have very wilful solutions, but many of them don’t really capture anything of the essence of the piece. Sibelius wasn’t perhaps the most precise score-writer, I mean he did leave some freedom to interpret what he meant. But I think still the basic musical elements are very much there and for instance, the tradition of slowing down the tempo very much at the end of the finale of the Fourth Symphony I think takes away the whole point, which is kind of this running out of energy and just stopping without making a big point of it.

ES: Maybe it was Karajan’s fault that made me hear Mahler!

SO: Yeah I’m sure, yes, Karajan, Bernstein – the two buggers!

ES: The last symphony redefines the word organic, the Seventh Symphony, and of course it ends with this equivocal, the most equivocal C major in all music. It just, just kind of clings on by its fingernails. I mean, extraordinarily original, but as you say they all are in their different ways. Finally Sakari, two of his most popular works, the Violin Concerto and the Fifth Symphony, exist in two versions. Now this is fascinating when you hear the originals because in some ways they’re more radical and more fascinating, but they ain’t as good, if you like. What is your take on that? Does that make sense that kind of theory? Because sometimes composers’ first thoughts, they play with them and then somehow all that kind of edge and originality disappears and it becomes more perfect. What is your take on that?

SO: Yeah I agree on that. And it’s incredibly interesting to listen to the early versions. In terms of the Violin Concerto the early version is much more difficult to play, it’s much more virtuosic, although even the final version is difficult enough. But the first version is not unplayable, but it’s very, very, very demanding, and it’s about ten minutes longer than the final version. It has two extra cadenzas for instance, quite big cadenzas. And I think what Sibelius wanted to really do is to ensure its performability and to streamline the form of the piece, which he found maybe to be a little too sprawling. So he took out all these interesting cadenzas that sound almost like a Bach solo sonata gone mad, or Ysaye or some virtuosic music for violin. And he gained of course in the sort of perfectness of form. But it’s so fascinating to hear the early version. Whereas in the Fifth Symphony I think there is only a really big gain in having the final version, just because he invented this wonderful way of bridging the material of the first movement and the scherzo to become one movement, which I think is a key moment in the piece and maybe in all of Sibelius’s production: he finds a common denominator between musical materials that are almost opposite to each other.

ES: It’s still a wonderful insight into how the mind was working and such an unpredictable mind as well in many ways.

SO: It was. And the first version of the Fifth Symphony it seems that all the endings are very abrupt, and that’s where he kind of takes over from the ending of the Fourth Symphony and makes these kind of clear cut things that feel to us like they don’t really lead anywhere, they just finish. I guess it’s a very Finnish thing to do as well.

ES: Is it? Because I find that fascinating those moments, the end of the second movement is it of the Third Symphony, the middle movement, where it just sort of ‘I’ve finished, so I’m going to stop’.

SO: Yes that’s right, yes. It’s true, it’s almost like recitative at court, like after having this musical discourse you just put down the course and it’s finished, it’s finito. And in those terms, yes I think that there is a kinship there to the original version of the Fifth. But the eloquence and the sort of great vistas of the final version are still, I think, incomparable.

ES: I know you’re biased, but where does he stand in the great plan of music do you think, and why?

SO: Well if you look at it from the sort of Central European perspective – which Sibelius very much wanted to belong to – he is one of those very significant later Romantic era composers that had their roots in their native cultures, but took a lot of influence from the Central European symphonic idea. I could name people like Elgar certainly, Janáček certainly, Enescu in Romania, Szymanowski, Sibelius, for instance, where kind of these people who believed in symphony and in the symphony as a form and kind of wanted to elaborate its appearance, make it freer but at the same time keep the cohesion and very much cling on to their musical roots.

Barbican: Thanks to Sakari Oramo and Edward Seckerson, and to you for listening to this archive series of Composer Focus. This is the final episode in the series but stay subscribed to Nothing Concrete to hear more episodes from our archive and new podcasts from the Barbican. Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Spotify, Acast, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if possible, leave us a review, so we can more people can discover and explore the wonder that is the arts.

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