Whatever became of Sibelius?

Whatever became of Sibelius?

Daily Comfort Zone

norman lebrecht

January 04, 2022

The Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskäa is ending 18 years as music director in Minnesota with a celebration of his national composer.

A Sibelius cycle used to be part of world civilisation. All major orchestras performed the symphonies regularly and the cycle once a decade. Karajan made it a fixture in Berlin, Bernstein in New York, Barbirolli in London. Lorin Maazel even recorded it in Vienna with ts ever-sceptical Philharmonic.

But Sibelius is in a bit of a slump these days. Despite the constant sprouting of Finnish conductors in Paris, San Francisco, Seoul and all parts west, there is a reticence about performing Sibelius as a pillar of central repertoire, where Mahler, Shostakovich and Prokofiev have displaced him.

Any idea why?


  • John Borstlap says:

    My impression is, that there are 2 reasons:

    1) the symphonies have often surprising, irregular ‘bumps’ in the form, S’s originality which strongly deviates from the symphonic tradition, even more unusual than Mahler

    2) in his music there are, in general, two psychological forces: the explicit, clear and expressive music, easy to follow, and sudden withdrawels into undefined long patterns, which seem uncanny and uneasy and aimless; with ‘disruptive & puzzling effects’ for players and audiences

    His extraordinary 7th symphony combines these contradictory forces in a very convincing way, but the curious thing of this piece is that the music does not modulate at all: everything is in C. There is no symphonic work that does not modulate. Or take the 6th: a work with great beauty but everything seems to ‘tell’ about withdrawel, puzzlement, undecidedness. The combination of well-worn ‘memes’ and puzzling disorientation prevents easy absorbing and getting entirely familiar with the music, while Mahler, Prokofiev etc. are so expressive of the emotional experience of modernity – the inner conflicts of man in an alien environment – that it is much easier to identify with. Sibelius seems to invite us out of human experience altogether into nature where the listener is without any grip.

    • Herr Doktor says:

      Brilliant words, John. Thank you for sharing this insightful analysis!

    • Concertgebouw79 says:

      I’am not conductor but it’s true that the Sibelius symphonies are very very hard for the conductors. especially the 4th. And we have to say that he had big difficulties to end many of his symphonies. The way the 4th and the 7th ended are big surprises especially if you hear that after the climax of the end of the 2th my favorit symphony of the repertoir.

  • pjl says:

    Not sure I totally agree: already this season in London I have attended 2 superb SIBELIUS 2nds: Gardner and, even more special, Richard FARNES, who spoke about how he found orchestras loved to play this music. And in Liverpool I heard Andrew Manze in what I thought was the most compelling live Sibelius 5th I have heard since Arvids Jansons in Manchester in 1975. But I take the point about a cycle (despite fairly recent ones from Oramo & Vanska): 2 and 5 are more box office pieces so 4 and 6 are not played enough.

    I was rather surprised, though, that when Jarvi plans Sibelius 7 for May, it will begin the concert! Surely it is one of those pieces that cannot be followed, especially by the charming but lighter weight Dvorak concerto? (see below) Vivid in memory (helped by 6 and 7 released on 2 LPO live cds) is Berglund (December 2003) doing 5/6/7: hard to follow 5 also, but the interval helps this triptych make a a powerful impact. (The 5 on the Lpo cd is from a different concert)

    Saturday 14 May 2022, 7.30pm
    Paavo Järvi – conductor
    Joshua Bell – violin

    SIBELIUS Symphony No. 7
    DVOŘÁK Violin Concerto
    BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 8

    • msc says:

      I agree — the Sibelius should be last, however much I love the Beethoven.

    • Matthew DeNero says:

      I heard the Vienna Philharmonic under Maazel in 2012 as follows:

      SIBELIUS Symphony 7
      SIBELIUS Symphony 5
      SIBELIUS Symphony 1

      I was not pleased with the order!

      • Douglas says:

        I heard Tadaaki Otaka and the Sapporo Symphony Orchestra do 5, 6 and 7 in that order in Tokyo (2015?) and that was a dream concert. Possibly 6, 7, 5. Either way that concert would work

  • Concertgebouw79 says:

    It’s true that there’s this impression sometimes that Sibelius is a thing only for nordic orchestras, especially the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra I’am fan of. With a spirite and a philosophy you have to feel from a yong age. We can read the same thing for the painter Gallen Kallela the other father of the finnish cultur. I don’t think that and i’am not finnish. I think it’s a shame that the big orchestras don’t play at all the Tone poems. the RCO played several symphonies fortunatly lately but never did a complete cycle in cd. It’s a real shame. En Saga is marvelous to play for exemple and for me there’s no better way to end a concert than the overture of Karelia.

    • Sibelius admirer says:

      Rotterdam Philarmonic had a sibelius symphony cycle and many other (chamber and choral) works combined in a festival with JP Saraste. Just some km’s south of Amsterdam interesting things seem to happen. Pretty sure sibelius lovers found their way.

  • Amos says:

    I would add the Colin Davis BSO 1970’s cycle to the list. Given that the tone poems and 2nd Symphony continue to be performed regularly is part of the answer as simple as too many brooding and stark landscapes for current tastes?

    • Concertgebouw79 says:

      He did a En Saga fantastic with the RCO. My reference is Jarvi father with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra.

  • phf655 says:

    I’ve been using the self-imposed disruption of my personal life because of Omicron to acquaint myself with the symphonies of Vaughan Williams. The same could be said about him, despite the fact that such wonderful music could hold my interest for a long time. There has been a prolonged lack of interest in the more conservative composers of the first half of the twentieth century. Although 2022 is the 150th anniversary of the birth of RVW, I can find no performances of his work in the USA beyond the Tallis Fantasia, and only a couple of those.

  • Andreas C. says:

    Sibelius’ music also has the issue that it doesn’t ”play itself”, as the saying goes. He was not a master orchestrator in the conventional sense, and notable Sibelians of the past added doublings and did other more or less subtle tweaks to his orchestration to fix balance issues. Likewise, his tempo markings can be misleading and occasionally contradictory. Past and present great interpreters of Sibelius have figured out how to deal with these weaknesses and even turn to them to strengths, but unless one is willing to do the same or study the performance tradition, his music may indeed appear disjointed and mushy.

    • John Borstlap says:

      I studied the score of the 7th and found no ‘weaknesses’ in the orchestration, in contrary, everything is calculated with the greatest insight in how the orchestra works. If there are problems of balance, that is probably due to the fact that orchestras in S’s days had brass and woodwinds of lesser volume. The loudness of brass since the development of the instruments since the twenties of the last century has created balance problems all over the earlier repertoire which are easily solved by understanding conductors. And then, dynamics in scores are metaphorical, not literal.

  • MacroV says:

    Really? I feel like I come across #2 all the time, #5 and #1 a decent amount. The other four have never been played with great frequency, fine as they are. And at least in the United States, the violin concerto is one of the most programmed of any work (any, not just violin concertos, not just Sibelius).

    True, I could do with hearing Kullervo more often, but that requires a male chorus singing in Finnish.

    • Concertgebouw79 says:

      There’s a big gap between the 1th, the 2th, the 5th and the other symphonies. Recently the RCO did with Rouvali (what a fantastic conductor!) the 6th and the 7th. But it’s very rare.

  • Gustavo says:

    The 150-years celebration in Lahti 2015 marked the end of the golden Karajan/Kamu era. That festival reassured that Sibelius compositions are not suitable to satisfy our pleasure-addicted society.

    His music is the spawn of an imperfect, culturally divided personality who fell silent for three decades after “Tapiola” had faded away into the haze.

    I mean, what do we expect?

    Sibelius 3, 6 and 7 are quite short and may be considered insignificant and/or bad value for money.

    Sibelius 4 is possibly still too avant-garde for today’s audiences.

    Sibelius 1 is just as good as Tchaikovsky, but sells less well to Russian oligarchs who prefer Nutcracker or Pathétique.

    Sibelius 2 and 5 are stand-alone standard repertoire but do not form a complete cycle.

    That’s it.

    • Matthew DeNero says:

      Too much is made of “The Silence of Järvenpaa”. It began at the age of 61, not exactly young. I can imagine Sibelius expected to be around for another 10-15 years and maybe wanted to take it easy. Then 30 years later…

      • Sidelius says:

        Completely true. Brahms finished his 4th Symphony at 54 and lived 12 more years, and no one criticizes him for that, and there are many other examples, so why single out Sibelius?

  • Steve says:

    Without a great deal of effort, I can find, over the next three months:

    7th Symphony 6/1/22 Barbican, London

    2nd Symphony, 12/1/22 Symphony Hall, Birmingham

    4th Symphony 28/1/22 Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff

    5th Symphony 9/2/22 Symphony Hall, Birmingham

    1st Symphony 12/2/22 Barbican, London

    Lemminkainen’s Return 20/2/22 Symphony Hall, Birmingham

    Violin Concerto, 23/2/22 Lighthouse, Poole

    Violin Concerto 24/2/22 University Great Hall, Exeter

    1st Symphony, 9/3/22 Symphony Hall, Birmingham

    7th Symphony 9/3/22 Barbican, London

    1st Symphony 10/3/22 City Halls, Glasgow

    4th Symphony 11/3/22 Aberdeen Music Hall

    1st Symphony 13/3/22 Usher Hall, Edinburgh

    2nd Symphony 16/3/22 Lighthouse, Poole

    2nd Symphony 18/3/22 Hall for Cornwall, Truro

    Violin Concerto 31/3/22 Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool

    This is just mainstream orchestral repertoire and excludes chamber/vocal performances.

    Reports of his disappearance appear to be greatly exaggerated.

  • Mock Mahler says:

    Both Santtu-Matias Rouvali and Klaus Make have Sibelius symphony cycles in progress.

    I remember back in the 1970s, one of the American record magazines had an article that began “It’s good to see Sibelius ‘in’ again.” I don’t think he’s ever been out.

    • Sidelius says:

      I recall discussions about the decline of Sibelius starting in the sixties. I would doubt that complete cycles were ever all that routine, certainly not at all in America. One of Sibelius’ greatest champions in America, Eugene Ormandy, never once performed the 3rd and 6th Symphonies because he said he “just didn’t understand them”. Apparently things are different in Europe for some reason. If you follow the full thread on this topic, it is actually encouraging. Clearly there is considerable attention there on Sibelius. It sounds like much more than 30-40 years ago. In LA, Salonen once did a complete cycle, but generally only did a token amount. Dudamel does almost none. Clearly the 1st, 2nd, and 5th are vastly more performed than the rest. Why? I would offer a different explanation. The other Symphonies are generally not theatrical, showy, or obvious. They are subtle, elusive, often understated, uncompromising, and ask the listener to dig deep into their musical soul to get into their spell. You must read between the lines, accept his sound world, not worry about “standard form”. The music wants to draw you in, not knock you out. No symphonies are more deeply felt. If they may sound sometimes depressive or “disorienting” that is because they are honest. These works could be seen as closer to chamber music, only using a full orchestra. We would not expect a Beethoven quartet concert or Debussy piano recital to draw the audience of a symphony concert. This in no way lessens the merit of the music, it just means it appeals to a narrower crowd. The problem is filling an orchestral concert with such people. The symphonic poem Tapiola should also be mentioned as it truly is a symphony in everything but name. I have long considered Sibelius the most underated major composer. Perhaps time will change that.

  • Jean says:

    The Sibelius complete edition by BIS was completed in the early 2010s. This had been a gigantic project that kept Sibelius on the headlines. Then there was an avalanche of new recordings and symphony cycles on the composer’s 150th anniversary in 2015 and continuing in 2016. Naturally, after that there was a bit of a feeling of silence, but now this space has given the opportunity for more new recordings to emerge once again.

    • Concertgebouw79 says:

      The real shame is that the orchestras in concerts don’t play outside of Nordic Europe En saga, Finlandia or Karelia. Last summer for the Winer Philarmoniker’s Schonbrunn concert they did the overture of Karelia, a little miracle…

  • Mark Lowther says:

    False premise I’m afraid. Firstly Karajan didn’t ever conduct a Sibelius cycle – he didn’t ‘do’ No.3 and the Berliner Philharmoniker played it for the first time under Rattle in 2010. (Amazing but true!) Rttle went on to conduct a complete cycle wth the BP which came out on disc in 2015. And currently Santtu-Matias Rouvali has a cycle underway in Gothenburg, Thomas Dausgaard is spreading a cycle over two seasons in Seattle, Klaus Mäkela is about to perform the whole cycle with his Oslo Philharmonic in Vienna and Hamburg and has recordings coming out on Decca this spring. The Elder / Hallé cycle was completed in 2020, Paavo Järvi’s cycle (the first whole recorded cycle by a French orchestra, came out in 2019 ….. Fortunately, for those of us who love the Sibelius symphonies, things currently don’t look too bad!

  • Mystic Chord says:

    The most excruciatingly painful concert experience of my life was sitting through two evenings of a Sibelius cycle with the Berlin Phil / Rattle some years ago at the Barbican. What should have been magical was akin to pulling teeth. Never perhaps was a conductor / orchestra less suited to bringing this challenging but glorious music alive.

    • pjl says:

      Yes…though the fault is more with the orchestra perhaps? Rattle talks of the red wine tone of Berlin and the white wine of Birmingham and his CBSO Sibelius is to my ears more idiomatic, tough I felt his earlier 5 with the Philharmonia was even better.

  • La plus belle voix says:

    Sibelius ostensibly uses classical first movement sonata form, but he manages to set free simultaneously the forces of the exposition, development, and recapitulation. Many audiences still find this disorientating.

  • Leslie A says:

    There are so many outstanding cycles it would be very difficult to offer a fresh option. Vanska’s second cycle is not necessarily better than his first with with Lahti. I think a pause is healthy.

  • Corno di Caccia says:

    Any symphonic composer is, in my humble opinion, part of a long procession of composers and it is foolish to ignore any of them. I regularly need my fix of Sibelius symphonies as much as I need those of Beethoven, Bruckner, Brahms, Mahler, Elgar, Vaughan Williams……. I could go on. Sibelius speaks with a particular voice and following a recording of any of his seven symphonies – if only he hadn’t burnt the eighth – with a score gives real insight into his compositional style. It is music of the landscape around him; the darkened woods, the bleakness, and the many national folk legends. As Simon Rattle says in an Interview – as part of the spectacular Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s BluRay/CD production – Sibelius is always… ‘Lost in the forest of fear.’ It is always interesting to see how composers go in and out of popularity and I think so much of today’s concert programming, despite the weird times we are currently living through, is crudely based on bums on seats. I suppose Sibelius 2 and 5 are the biggest attractions for audiences. Of course there are so many recordings of his symphonic oeuvre to choose from to become familiar with them and given that none of his symphonies are for oversized orchestras, I would have thought they were ideal works to programme whilst social distancing of orchestral players is still a necessity. As for recordings, I do play Lorin Maazel’s excellent set with the Vienna Phil. on Decca often, along with Paavo Berglund’s Bournemouth recordings, Colin Davis with both the Boston and his most recent London Symphony Orchestra’s recordings. Rattle’s Berlin recordings have the edge over his much earlier Birmingham attempts. Koussevitsky’s 1930s recordings of the second and fifth symphonies with the Boston Symphony Orchestra are very interesting as is his 1933 recording of the seventh with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. However, nobody does the ending of the fifth like Bernstein with the Vienna Phil.

  • Robert Roy says:

    Not in Scotland where Sibelius has always been a firm favourite. The RSNO continue to programme his symphonies and the performances are always well attended.

  • Paul Dawson says:

    I’m reminded of the disgraceful events of 1965. It marked the centenary of Scandinavia’s two greatest symphonists. Sibelius was ubiquitous. The other – I trust no reader of this column needs his name – was all but invisible.

    I’m unaware of what happened 50 years later. I was travelling extensively.

  • Monty Earleman says:

    In the US, after the required pieces by a woman, a POC, an indigenous composer, an LGBT composer, a premiere, and a concerto performed by one of 5 circulating “big names”, there’s not much time left on a program for any other music…..

  • Corno di Caccia says:

    Very true. Alexander Gibson received the Sibelius medal in 1978 and Osmo Vanska certainly conducted the symphonies when he was chief conductor of the BBCSSO. A glimpse into the RSNOs Spring/Summer concert schedule includes Sibelius 5 in May and the BBCSSO are performing the first symphony in March and the fourth in May and there’s a lot of Nielsen about as well – Covid permitting, of course.

  • Gaffney Feskoe says:

    It is interesting to note that in an audience survey of the New York Philharmonic during World War 2 as to who their favorite compose was Sibelius came out on top.

    A Sibelius cycle which deserves more mention is that of Blomstedt with the San Francisco Symphony. Very fine indeed.

    My favorite Sibelius Symphony is the Third.

  • Antsku says:

    In simple terms, the symphonies of Sibelius are so different in so many aspects ranging from duration, orchestration, style etc. It is challenging for most people to appreciate the full diversity of No.1 which stands high up with the best of Tchaikovsky to the depths of darkness of No.4.
    Symphonies 1, 2 and 5 are crowd pleasers and well deserved crowd pleasers indeed.
    I recall attending the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra performing the full cycle in Birmingham many years ago when I was in my 20’s. Wow! However, the significantly smaller Lahti Symphony Orchestra under Vanska was truly stunning. I recall when they came to Birmingham.
    It is true to day that his tone poems are under performed internationally. The Wood Nymph can be hypnotic.
    I’m blessed to live in Birmingham – a great city for fans of Sibelius.

  • Ian Lawrence says:

    It is sad to read that the music of Sibelius is going out of fashion these days. However, I do not think that this would have concerned the composer himself. All his life he followed his own artistic and stylistic path, mostly ignoring the musical trends and fashions of his time.
    His seven symphonies have been described as traditionalist and nationalist, but also as revolutionary and innovative. Such labels may be useful for musicologists or those who market music and I do not know if any, some, or all of them are correct. What I do know is that whenever I hear a Sibelius symphony I discover something new. These symphonies are self-contained musical worlds, logical, passionate and unique.
    My favourite Sibelius quote is “Once more I am a slave to my themes”. That is what he cared about; working through his musical material to say what he had to say.
    If Sibelius is being neglected perhaps it is us who are the losers. Maybe, in this age of all-enveloping mass media we need, more than ever, to listen to the music of a gifted individual who was not interested in following the crowd.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    It’s not surprising that most of the input here is regarding Sibelius’ symphonies. However, I think his tone poems and legends are just as good, if not often times better. Just an opinion. Almost the opposite is true of Nielsen.

  • Frank Flambeau says:

    Slump? Nope. His music is on classical radio all the time.

  • Paul Barte says:

    A superficial answer: history sorts out the wheat from the chaff. Sibelius was probably at one point more performed than Mahler. I think we’ve figured out that Mahler’s music has more staying power.

    • John Borstlap says:

      In the course of the last century, any such filter has eroded, under the pressures of modern life which does not endorse something like ‘quality filters’. We live in an increasingly egalitarian age where everything has the right to be considered ‘great’. So, any greatness which may be there, is disappearing.

  • Perhaps the *relative* loss of interest in Sibelius is related to the same reason that he composed almost nothing during the last 30 years of his life. Health might have been a factor, but his relatively romantic style became increasingly anachronistic. His sixth symphony was written a decade after The Rite of Spring. The romantic, bourgeois earnestness of his music made its anachronistic qualities even stronger, even if cultural nationalism and the hold of romanticism on the public allowed it to remain extremely popular.

    These days, people have less interest in earnest romanticism, and Sibelius lacks the complexity, irony, and wit that allows romantics like Strauss and Mahler to keep going. And he wasn’t able to find a form of cultural nationalism like Bartok or Shostakovich that might have led to further growth. Aesthetically speaking, Sibelius out lived his own time and now even the anachronistic world of mainstream classical music is losing interest to some degree.

    I think this is also related to the strong presence of Finnish conductors and composers on the international stage. The Nordic countries are the last great bastion of the conservative bourgeois values that sustain classical music—those little countries whiter than white and more Lutheran than Luther. What better place for our Germanically oriented classical music? Finland even has a flag day on Sibelius’ birthday.

    We see fragmented pockets of the same values in other countries, but they do not dominate the culture as in the Nordic lands. Even good old Austria is losing its grasp on its Mozart Balls classical music conservatism. The commentary on SD gives us a daily reminder of the remnants of that classical music world howling in anger as it slides into oblivion.

    • John Borstlap says:

      A good example of leftwing modernist thinking: classical music is conservative and a product of the boozjwazee: the enemy of any progress, freedom, modernity. What has the boozjwazee done for US, heroes of modernity? Apart from science, industry, museums, concert life, opera life, education, the development of academia, the creation of art institutions and conservatories and academies, and literature and poetry and much of the greatest and most original music ever written which still makes-up the repertoire of classical music? Nothing that has any meaning for us, at the cusp of a future utopia. There’s nothing the boozjwazee has created that we could take with us to our Mars settlements.

      Any artist who does not want to be subjected to the Zeitgeist, is anachronistic – it’s Hegelian totalitarianism, so popular with this type of leftwing thinkers who cannot wait to liberate the world from its suppression by the class who has tortured the masses with Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Mahler and all the rest.

      In the end this ‘reasoning’, product of the profoundest ignorance, is helping populism, the other fruit of ignorance, to kill-off any remnant of past achievement.

    • Sibfan says:

      “The romantic, bourgeois earnestness of his music made its anachronistic qualities even stronger”


  • Barry Guerrero says:

    I can’t see the concern that Sibelius will seldom get performed, when there have been a number high quality sacd/cd hybrid discs made of “Kullervo”, and released just over the last ten years. And I can’t remember who or where, but some label announced they’re going to do a full Sibelius project of symphonies, legends and tone poems. Right now, nobody is getting played much (except Florence Price).

  • Frank Flambeau says:

    Sorry, but this is a dud of an article. Based on false premises. It shows little understanding of classical music.

  • Frank Flambeau says:

    Really, really wrong based on inaccurate statements and false premises and zero research.

    A quick search by a reader on another post shows all the Sibelius scheduled in Europe. So too in the USA (partial listing):

    Jan 1: 3-week Sibelius Festival Minnesota Orchestra

    Jan 15, 16, Sibelius Violin Concerto, Reno Symphony

    Feb. 3-5 Sibelius Symphony 1, Dausgaard conducts Seattle Symphony. (Part of a 2-year Sibelius festival with performances of all 7 Sibelius symphonies)

    Feb 5, 6 Sibelius Violin Concerto, Princeton, N.J.

    Feb. 17, 18. 19, 20 Sibelius Symphony #7. Salonen conducts L.A. Philharmonic.

    March 3, 5 Sibelius Violin Concerto, Baltimore Symphony

    March 11, 13 Sibelius Symphony #5, Cleveland Orchestra

    April 1, 3 Sibelius Symphony #5. Saraste conducts Detroit Symphony

    April 7-9 Sibelius Symphony #2. Dausgaard conducts Seatlle Symphony Orchestra.
    (Part of a 2-year Sibelius festival with performances of all 7 Sibelius symphonies)

    April 21, 23 Sibelius Violin Concerto Cleveland Orchestra.

    June 23-5 Sibelius 5th symphony San Francisco Symphony

    And I looked at only a few websites. The writer must do a better job before posting.

    • John Borstlap says:

      A hopeful list….!

      And yet, there have always been strong voices – mostly from academia and critics – trying to paint SIbelius’ works as inferior, anachronistic, badly-shaped, wrongly scored, pretentious, oldfashioned, provincial – but audiences always liked it. When criticized in the twenties for his simple, stark sound, in contrast with the modern sparkling, brilliant sound of Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy, he said: ‘I’m offering chrystal-pure mineral water while other composers brew tasty coctails.’

  • Frank Flambeau says:

    Also of note: the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick is just competing a festival of all Sibelius symphonies.

  • Matthew DeNero says:

    I think in the end Sibelius is just too positive and honest for programmed, “modern” minds.

    Compared with the aforementioned 20th Century symphonists – Mahler, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev – which are rooted in certain socio-political contexts, most Sibelius (not all!) is timeless and removed from socio-political limitations. While the others portray the human experience as a struggle within the confines of imperfect, often brutal human institutions – historical, cultural, political – Sibelius, as he grew older, resigned himself to an epiphany that placed human experience solely within the awesome indifference of nature.

    It’s not surprising that Sibelius’s essential crowd-pleasing symphony, the 2nd, is rooted in a certain time and struggle.