‘The worst composer in the world’ (by Boulez’s teacher)

Our colleague Lotta Emanuelsson of YLE has come across this scarce 90th birthday biography of Jean Sibelius.

sibelius biog

It is the work of René Leibowitz (1913-1972), Warsaw born and student of Webern, who converted post-War Paris to the creed of serialism. His star pupil was Pierre Boulez.

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  • Accordind to a certain Mr. Lebrecht not so long time ago, “Sibelius is dead”. Isn’t that a bit of the same as being the worst composer in the world, i.e. not worthwhile?

    • There is no ‘problem’…. Everybody exploring postwar music history knows about this text. The problem lies with what it signifies: the utter lack of any basic musicality predominant in the era of the birth of postwar modernism. Like Adorno’s perverse writings (‘Philosophie der neuen Musik’), it offered a justification to young compoers at the time to ‘leave behind’ all norms of aesthetics and craft that had been developed over the ages. The result we can hear all around us where contemporary music is presented as an ‘established art form’.

  • I could never understand how Leibowitz, who gave us one of the best Beethoven cycles of all, could have been so dismissive of Sibelius. Nor how he could write some of the most fiercely unlistenable music imaginable.

  • Virgil Thomson was also very dismissive of Sibelius.
    But let’s not forget JS’ immortal line “Nobody ever put up a statue to a critic”

    • As far as I know, there is no English translation available online on Leibowitz, at least I didn’t find one when doing research for this column. As shown in the picture, one copy of the original pamphlet was found in the Turku University library, after some considerable effort.

      Leibowitz text is actually a little less than a translation n of Adorno’s article – he really doesn’t have a lot to come with, other than a few colorful expressions. I think it is that notorious title that has done most damage. Adorno at least is more analytical.

      Adorno’s article – a book review, to be exact – can be found at https://archive.org/stream/ZeitschriftFrSozialforschung7.Jg/ZeitschriftFrSozialforschung71938#page/n503/mode/2up. And yes, there will be a column about Adorno in my 150 times Sibelius –series, as soon as I tackle the longish German article…

      Have a great Sibelius Celebration Year everybody
      LE

  • Leibowitz’s essay is essentially a translation in French of Adorno’s arguments against Sibelius. And before teaching Boulez, Leibowitz was himself a pupil of Schoenberg. It is clear that Adorno, Schoenberg, Leibowitz and Boulez represent a completely different direction in the history of music in the 20th Century than Sibelius. And it’s great that we have both. What a stimulating century the previous one has been, in terms of musical innovations.

    • The innovations in ‘serious music’ in the last century happened on the material level: sound, structure, framework / context. They could only be pursued after the denial of the psychological and expressive level of music, which are immaterial, but therefore not less real. Therefore, composers who – like JS – remained loyal to music as an expressive art, had to be slandered, to not distract from the ‘noble’ explorations of the ‘avantgarde’ who indulged in totalitarian dogma, chasing nonsensical utopias.

      • One can write screeds fer n’ agin any composer one chooses, but in the end it’s the public who decides which composers have the right stuff to endure and survive and which are consigned to the ash heap of history. Critics and performers can advocate for a neglected composer or a particular work and garner him or it some attention. If his “time has come” (to quote Mahler) he will take hold.
        A composer like Sibelius or, eventually Mahler, who tenaciously holds his place in the repertoire despite changing fads and fashions, does so because of real depth and substance. It’s futile to pile on and denigrate his position as Adorno or Leibowitz did. The public is the final arbiter, the box office, as Verdi said, the ultimate measurement, and doubly so after nearly a century.
        Though it was the in thing and hip to pile on and denigrate Sibelius after WW2, I don’t think concertgoers ever wavered in their support of him.

  • Schoenberg and Berg, in the spirit of Yeats (“It is a way, but it is not my way”) and unlike their self-appointed acolytes, spoke of Sibelius with respect.

    • According to Jascha Horenstein, Berg admired Delius’s “Mass of Life”. Bet you didn’t see that one coming!

  • And, as history has recorded, after this devastating attack the music of Sibelius disappeared from programs while that of the serialists is now widely performed to large and appreciative audiences everywhere.

    • I suspect Greg’s comment was meant in an ironic way. Having said that, tastes tend to waver and there are portions of his output which are relatively neglected eg. songs.
      Also, I remember reading that when Karajan programmed Sibelius in the 1950s it was not attracting big audiences in Berlin.

      • Sibelius seems not to have gone down very well in Germany, but the reason is obvious: Sibelius’ ways of handling symphonic writing is totally different from the German symphonic tradition, up till and including R. Strauss. Sibelius’ Seventh Sympohony is, though, the climax of symphobic writing in the 20th century, unmatched by any other symphonic piece.

  • As far as I’m concerned, Sibelius was the greatest 20th Century composer, seeing as all his mature works were composed then. I admire his concision, lack of sentimentality, feeling for nature and moments of exaltation.

    • Steven…one of the greatest but not the greatest. For me another one is Richard Strauss, but we cannot avoid the influence of many and many others composers like Rachmaninov

  • Is the Adorno link correct? Can’t seem to find the right section.

    If I remember correctly, when Leibowitz later was confronted with his statement (the title), he somewhat embarassed claimed it wasn’t meant to be taken seriously.

  • If you’re a lover of the music of Jan Sibelius then it shouldn’t matter what Leibowitz or anyone else for that matter has to say on the subject. As far as I’m concerned it’s their loss if they cannot appreciate the unique genius of this man, fortunately I can, so for me that’s an end to the discussion!

  • The Adorno link is correct, Stefan. It just goes to the wrong page. The Adorno review is on page 492 of the PDF (the actual page number is 461). However, you would be better off not reading it, as it is utter drivel dressed up as intellectual philosophising.

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