Exclusive: Prog rock icon reveals his Sibelius roots

Exclusive: Prog rock icon reveals his Sibelius roots


norman lebrecht

September 07, 2015

Vesa Siren reports from Helsinki:


jon anderson

photo (c) Helsingin Sanomat

Jon Anderson, a founding member of Yes, one of the most central bands in progressive rock, was seen at the Sibelius Festival in Lahti, Finland, this year, night after night. He told me: ‘My beautiful wife had asked what I would like to have for my 70th birthday and I said: tickets to all of concerts of the Lahti Sibelius Festival, please.’

Jon had heard many Sibelius concerts from London to Paris and Los Angeles, but this was the first time he listened to Sibelius in Finland. ‘I had never witnessed such emotion from the stage and from the audience as here in Lahti,’ he told meThere were tears in his eyes when he listened to the first concert with the Helsinki Philharmonic and Leif Segerstam. ‘This Santa Claus -like conductor must be very famous here… Those hands, that emotion! I listened to that concert again from my iPad.’

After that he heard Sinfonia Lahti with Osmo Vänskä, BBC Symphony with Sakari Oramo and Okko Kamu, and Sinfonia Lahti with Jukka-Pekka Saraste and Okko Kamu. ‘Every night was the best’, he told me (40 % of the festival audience was from abroad, many from Britain, so the hotels, restaurants and Lahti’s few taxis will not complain).

With Jon it all started when Yes recorded their hit album ”Fragile” in 1971 and opened their concerts with Firebird’ by Stravinsky (But even before, Sibelius was part of The Beatles White Album in 1968; just listen to Revolution 9 at around 2.20. and for example at 5.50. and find that loop, from symphony no 7 just before it ends; Yoko Ono explained this to me in this interview). And The Nice with Keith Emerson recorded part of Karelia Suite in 1969.

But after ”Fragile” Jon watched BBC Wales and saw a film about a man ‘searching for white stallion across the mountans’ (I guess it must have been the BBC production ”The Stallion”, directed by John King), and when the man finally rides the white stallion, Jon heard some extraordinary music. ‘I phoned BBC Wales and they told me it was Sibelius, third movement of Symphony no 5.’

Jon immediately bought all of the Sibelius recordings he could find. Though their manager and record company told Yes to continue what Fragile had started, he got interested in the way Sibelius ‘shows his main themes gradually, making these beautiful journeys’. He got interested in ‘long form structures’ and that is why the next album by Yes (Close to the Edge, very central album in progressive rock) had a long form piece. ‘And the audience followed us’, he says. ‘Through Sibelius I realized there is so much more in music than pop songs.’

Jon also told me he made lyrics to one melody by Sibelius to one of his solo albums and used violin concerto as influence when he made the ”Violin Stories. ‘He is my favourite composer in all music”, he tells Helsingin Sanomat.



  • Ellingtonia says:

    “Close to the Edge” is one of the 20th centuries iconic pieces of music, irrespective of genre…………and yes, my Dutch friend it is high art.

  • M_von_Kolinahr says:

    Fascinating, a real eye-opener, thank you for posting this article – as a teenager in mid-1970s New Zealand, I became totally drawn into Yes and their music, whose complexity, scope, imagination and sheer assuredness and articulateness were immensely satisfying to someone growing up in a musical family and learning classical piano. As their main composer, Anderson’s vision, musical ideas and distinctive vocal style all made a crucial contribution to the group’s musical character. I later lived in Germany for many years, not necessarily thinking that I might ever get around to seeing such “heroes of my youth” in the flesh, but wherever I was Yes just kept coming back to tour in different permutations and combinations, and so ultimately I heard them five times over the period 1980-2003, all very memorable performances. I was sad to learn of the death of their bass player Chris Squire earlier this year, one of the most accomplished and most distinctive bassists in all rock music.

    For me and a number of my friends, “progressive rock” was a very special musical treat indeed in the early to mid-1970s, and we were lucky to be around at the right time to be able to awaken our sensitivities to this genre, with its debt to many other musical forms, especially including (but by no means limited to) Western Art Music. Growing out of the “no limits” approach to musical experimentation and expansion of form, structure and instrumentation that began in the late 1960s psychedelic era (e.g. including “Baroque pop”), it was a time more than any other in rock when artists were playing whose impact was primarily musical, with technical virtuosity, complexity and a pronounced sense musicality per se forcing the cult of personality and many of the more mundane concerns of much pop and rock into second place. It didn’t appeal to all listeners, and ultimately there was a backlash against what were perceived in some circles as artistic excess (as if rock didn’t suffer from endless excesses of other kinds in any case!) and pretension, but not before it left behind a substantial and unique body of work, spearheaded by Yes along with other key artists such as Emerson, Lake and Palmer, King Crimson, Jethro Tull and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, to name just a few (… and, for some of us, the most extraordinary of all, Peter Hammill and Van der Graaf Generator). Yes’ longevity right up until recent years was especially notable, and I enjoyed a number of their later albums, but for me their key works will always be the classic core 1970s canon of albums starting with “The Yes Album” (1970), followed by “Fragile” (1971), “Close to the Edge” (1972), “Tales from Topographic Oceans” (1973), “Relayer” (1974) and “Going for the One” (1977) – for anyone looking to investigate Yes music further, these are the ones to start with, preferably in that order to see how the music grew and changed during what was really a formative period.

    For more on this topic, using the twenty-minute “Close to the Edge” piece as an example, in what is probably a very rare case of a serious musicological analysis of an extended piece of complex rock music, see also this very interesting article: http://www.lipscomb.umn.edu/rock/docs/Covach1997_Yes.pdf. As a long-time devotee of Sibelius myself, I’m glad Mr Anderson evidently so enjoyed the Sibelius festival in Finland. All power to you, Jon.