There's more to the new Sibelius than meets the ear and eye

There's more to the new Sibelius than meets the ear and eye


norman lebrecht

November 16, 2011

When musicians in the Helsinki Philharmonic played through the newly discovered sketches of what may be a draft of Sibelius’s destroyed eighth symphony, one or two of them can be seen suppressing a yawn. it was not until they had played the music that all of the musicians were told what it was – and then everyone got their handkerchieves out and shared a historic snuffle.

Is this the sound of Sibelius's lost Eighth Symphony?

I mention this only because the authenticity of these sketches as part of the eighth symphony is not instantly apparent and cannot yet be determined with certainty. Listening for the fifth time to the run-through, I hear nothing that suggests Sibelius is heading anywhere untrodden in this work. It sounds familiar, it sounds like Sibelius. There is even a woody phrase that calls mid-period Mahler to mind.

A cache of letters, disclosed today by Vesa Siren in the Helsingin Sanomat, suggests that Sibelius may have been contemplating a choral part for his symphony – and that would have been a first. But all is haze and smoke at present. The discovery is momentous. Let us see where else is leads.



  • Guy Rickards says:

    Listening a couple of times through, it strikes me as similar to hearing, say, the first movement of the Sixth Symphony with half the orchestral lines missing. However, the first fragment points tantalisingly towards mature Kokkonen, reminding me that it was he who first identified the Funeral Music for Gallen-Kallela as an offcut from No 8 (if I recall correctly), while the tiny second – all 8 seconds of it – could be a snippet from one of the theatre scores, anything from King Christian to The Tempest. the final one is the most intriguing, and to the most unworked through; a bit like the opening of the original version of No 5 without the horn-call that seems so integral to the sound yet was evidently an after-thought. What would old Sibbe have thought after here, I wonder?
    One point on aa Sibelius choral symphony: one does exist, of course, ‘Kullervo’, which he always privately considered a symphony but was never realy happy to publicly (and which might have ended up in the 1945 bonfire had he not have loaned the score permanently to Helsinki University).

  • Daniel Rye says:

    I find these fragments strangely moving – like seeing fragments of a broken vase. This is surely the way such sketches should be performed, if at all. Message to keepers of the Sibelius estate: please don’t let a musicologist or second-rate composer get their hands on them and stitch them together in some “performing edition”. Even a first-rate composer will have no idea how a genius of musical form like Sibelius would work these sketches into a whole composition.

    I think these fragments do suggest a harmonic development from earlier works. Sibelius was never a revolutionary. Each symphony explores the landscape from new angles, but it is the same landscape.

    One interesting detail: in the sketch shown above, I can’t make out the “8” that is supposed to be there, but I can clearly see that Sibelius has written “Bcl” for bass clarinet. Although it doesn’t appear in the performed fragments, this either suggests a new departure, or that this is not music from the symphony. Like Dvorak and Tchaikovsky before him, Sibelius never used a bass clarinet in his symphonies, reserving it for the occasional symphonic poem (as did Dvorak, and Tchaikovsky only used it in the Manfred symphony – a programmatic work –
    and his stage music). A nerdy observation from a bass clarinettist, but perhaps significant!

  • ariel says:

    Here we go !! A feast of contemplation from the uninformed … much like an art auction where names
    mean everything and quality is measured by the attached name . One wonders if the name Sibelius was
    found to have been a mistake and the sketches were by an unknown how this would have been reported ,
    if reported at all -or if reported the comment would have been it was written by some 2nd. rate hack .
    While the discovery is of interest it cannot be anything but that , as no one knows if Sibelius would have
    kept what he had sketched out or if he would have thrown it all away as not worth his time . The conductor
    of course wants to attach himself to a great name and has succeeded in that cheap endeavour – This all of course gives every second rate music critic and musicologist a field day of musical “ifs” and endless columns of
    insights into the life and music if Sibelius. If indeed it was destroyed then leave it be and respect the course
    taken by Sibelius – put the fragments under glass in the Sibelius Museum under label of what could have been ..Fat chance !