The Sound of Silence

Jean Sibelius and the symphony that never was

Jean and Aino Sibelius with Margaret, Catherine, and Heidi at Ainola in the fall of 1915. (Public Domain via the Finnish Club of Helsinki)
Jean and Aino Sibelius with Margaret, Catherine, and Heidi at Ainola in the fall of 1915. (Public Domain via the Finnish Club of Helsinki)


From 1904 until his death in 1957, the composer Jean Sibelius lived some 20 miles north of Helsinki, in a rural villa built of timber and stone on the shores of Lake Tuusula. He called the house Ainola, after his wife, Aino. Surrounded by fields and birch forests, it befitted the isolation of Sibelius’s later years, when Finland’s most revered musician became a withdrawn, reclusive figure. From about 1933 onward, he published no music of any significance, nothing but a few trifles and arrangements. Yet he continued to wage a turbulent artistic struggle with himself as he attempted, over the course of several years, to write his Eighth Symphony.

Sometime in the 1940s, the struggle was seemingly lost. One day, Sibelius carried a laundry basket filled with his manuscripts into the dining room at Ainola and began feeding the pages into the raging fire in the stove. Aino, who would recall the event after her husband’s death, could confirm the identity of only one of the pieces her husband burned—the early Karelia Suite—but it is now considered a certainty that the Eighth Symphony was destroyed as well. Afterward, a strange calm descended upon the composer. His mood lightened. He appeared strangely optimistic, no longer depressed, as if the fire had brought on some magnificent catharsis.

The gestation of the symphony may have been long and troubled, but Sibelius had, at various times, referred to his manuscript as “brilliant,” “a great work in the making,” a piece that would have been “the reckoning of [his] whole existence.” For so long, he had had but one desire: to finish the piece before drifting off “to the final silence.” Why, then, did Sibelius destroy such a highly anticipated and promising work? This remains one of the most perplexing questions in all of music history.

Any assessment of Finnish music is impossible without Sibelius, for Finnish music essentially began with him. He had dreamed of becoming a violinist, but he suffered from crippling stage fright and was not, in any case, good enough to embark on a solo career. So he committed his energies to composition, achieving his first major success with Kullervo, an epic symphonic poem, based on Karelian folklore and myths, that premiered in 1892. His reputation in Finland only grew with the pieces that followed, En saga and the tone poems of the Lemminkäinen Suite, also based on mythological themes. That Sibelius relied so heavily on folklore meant that his music would become synonymous with an emerging Finnish artistic culture. His heroic tone poem Finlandia, an unofficial anthem that would be invoked often during any number of national crises, remains his most popular work, the apotheosis of his nationalist period.

Sibelius would go on to compose beautiful, haunting, picturesque tone poems, such as Pohjola’s Daughter, The Oceanides, and Tapiola, as well as one of the greatest violin concertos in the literature. But Sibelius’s legacy will forever rest upon his symphonies. Of the seven works he completed in the genre, several are masterpieces, each strikingly different from the rest. His First and Second symphonies, the latter a concert-hall staple, rely on a lush, Romantic idiom, but beginning with the Third Symphony, he began sounding a more austere note, as he experimented with both structure and tonality. He was, above all, a poet of nature, bringing a distinct Nordic sensibility to bear upon his vivid sound pictures, in which he could conjure up a burst of sunlight, the surge of an ocean wave, a landscape sheathed in snow or ice, a melancholy and misty forest. From his study at Ainola, he would gaze out the window and watch the cranes and swans soaring over the expanse of frozen lake, a spectacle he famously captured in the last movement of his Fifth Symphony, with the majestic figure in the French horns suggesting a group of swans in flight.

Sibelius was not, however, universally acclaimed. No less a leading light than Gustav Mahler called him a purveyor of Scandinavian kitsch, a charge taken up by numerous critics, especially in the German-speaking world—this, even as his music was being celebrated at home, in the United Kingdom, and in the United States. During the early 20th century, music was undergoing a profound and volatile transformation, with Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, and Alban Berg plunging headlong into atonality and, later, 12-tone composition. At about the same time, Igor Stravinsky was charting a different, though no less daring, course. By comparison, Sibelius, working in the relative isolation of Scandinavia, where his art could develop independent of the prevailing currents of modernity, preferred a more conventional language that was seen by many critics as old-fashioned. (An unfair accusation when one considers a work such as the Fourth Symphony, in which the sophisticated harmonic language pushes and strains at the bounds of tonality.)

This, then, is the Sibelius paradox: that a national hero, much feted and revered—the gala celebration of the composer’s 70th birthday was attended by several Finnish presidents and the prime ministers of Sweden, Denmark, and Norway—could so often feel neglected and misunderstood. Even at home, the public clamored mainly for his early works while never quite warming to his mature, more adventurous pieces. In 1925, Sibelius confided in his diary: “How little the public and the critics realize what I have given them. … My time will come.” Yet with just one bad review (and for a composer of such renown, his music was frequently panned), such confidence could dissipate in a single breath. Perusal of his diaries from the last decades of his life reveals a gloomy, depressed, misanthropic man who was increasingly afraid of being forgotten.

In February 1928, Sibelius traveled to Berlin alone, holing himself up in a hotel to work on the Eighth Symphony. Erik Tawaststjerna, the author of a three-volume biography of the composer, writes that the symphony must have been in an advanced stage at this point, since Sibelius was able to work without a piano: the period of improvising, of testing out phrases on the keyboard was evidently long past. Around this time, two people from America entered his life, each of whom sought to coax the finished symphony out of him: Olin Downes, the music critic of The New York Times, and Serge Koussevitzky, the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Downes was a populist crusader who railed against the modernism of Schoenberg and Stravinsky. For him, Sibelius’s music represented the best of contemporary music, and he made repeated trips to Finland to ingratiate himself with the composer. When he first asked Sibelius about the existence of an eighth symphony, the composer admitted that he had written down two movements and that the remaining pages were in his head. The important thing, Sibelius said, was to get things precisely right—not until then could anyone see even a single page. Koussevitzky, meanwhile, entered into a lengthy correspondence with Sibelius. He wanted to perform all of the composer’s symphonies during one season of the Boston Symphony and was delighted when Sibelius promised him the premiere of the Eighth.

For several years, Downes and Koussevitzky applied pressure, and expectations steadily grew. In August 1930, Sibelius implied that a completed symphony was forthcoming, but then, many months passed with no word at all. Sibelius was presumably making progress, for in the spring of 1931, he wrote to Aino from Berlin, where he had returned in order to work: “The symphony is making great strides and I must get it finished while I am still in full spiritual vigor. It’s strange, this work’s conception.”  Koussevitzky, however, heard nothing, and in response to his nervous inquiry, Sibelius tried to be reassuring: “In the event of your wishing to perform my new symphony … this will, I hope, be possible.”

What followed was a strange back-and-forth between composer and conductor that amounted, in the end, to one big tease:

January 15, 1932, Sibelius to Koussevitzky via telegram: “no symphony this season.

June 6, 1932, Sibelius to Koussevitzky:  “It would be good if you could perform my symphony at the end of October. … I will probably send you a handwritten score.”

July 2, 1932: Koussevitzky to Sibelius: “I look forward with the greatest of pleasure to performing your new symphony in Boston in October. In November I will also play it in New York.”

July 14, 1932, Sibelius to Koussevitzky: “Unfortunately I have mentioned October as the month for the première of my symphony. But this is not certain, as I have had all sorts of interruptions. Please do not advertise any performance.”

October 5, 1932, Koussevitzky to Sibelius: “I urgently beg you to let me know whether I could have your Eighth Symphony within one-and-a-half to two months.”

October 26, 1932, Sibelius to Koussevitzky: “I just do not know if I can send the work by December. I shall try. … And so: either I will send you the handwritten score in December or the printed material a couple of months later.”

January 1, 1933, Koussevitzky to Sibelius via telegram: “am worried. has the score to the 8th symphony been sent?

January 17, 1933, Sibelius to Koussevitzky via telegram: “regret impossible this season.

February 1, 1933, Koussevitzky to Sibelius: “Your telegram greatly discouraged me but I perfectly understand that you cannot release a composition until you feel satisfied with every single note you are giving to the world. … I still hope in my heart of hearts that the 8th Symphony will come.”

July 3, 1933, Sibelius to Koussevitzky: “I beg you not to advertise the new symphony. I shall write about it later.”

Sibelius’s copyist, Paul Voigt, said that he had seen a completed first movement and the beginning of a second in 1933, and that Sibelius told him that the work was only an eighth done. Supposedly, it would feature a chorus in some way—a massive work, then, in the manner of Mahler’s Second or Beethoven’s Ninth. But in 1933, Sibelius seemed to have given up. Any hopes of completing the symphony were gone.

Was Sibelius’s Eighth simply not good enough? After seven symphonies, numerous tone poems, and well over a hundred songs and chamber works, did he have nothing left to say? It is true that his later opus numbers contain quite a few banalities, but then, Sibelius always wrote his share of trite music. Persistent financial difficulties forced him to accept commissions for a slew of minor pieces that he hastily and poorly composed. Guy Rickards, in his book Jean Sibelius, writes that the composer’s output had “an almost schizophrenic quality, as if two composers—one an intellectual abstract thinker in pure sound, composing from inner compulsion, the other a notesmith with few pretensions of gravity—were inhabiting the same creative persona.” At one point, Sibelius’s annual income consisted of a state pension of 5,000 Finnish marks, whereas his debts amounted to 10 times that much. If he could earn a quick 1,000 marks for some miniature for violin and piano, how could he say no? He knew the cost of devoting so much time and energy to ephemera. Worse, Aino knew it, too, and she resented him deeply for it.

At any rate, Sibelius’s final major works suggest that he had hardly exhausted his creative riches. The Sixth Symphony, with its placid opening unfolding like a slow, radiant sunrise, or like the emergence of spring after a winter thaw, is a luminous work, filled with more moments of pure, unadulterated joy, I think, than anything else Sibelius wrote. To me, the Seventh is even more astonishing, its long achingly beautiful lines giving way to a ravishing
C major theme played by the trombones. The work makes a perfect complement to the tone poem Tapiola, dark and mysterious, full of melancholy and foreboding. In these mature works, a world away in temperament and style from the early nationalistic music, Sibelius achieved a mastery of form, harmony, and feeling that promised great things from the Eighth.

A likelier explanation exists for why Sibelius burned the Eighth. During his student days in Vienna, he took to heart the dictum of his teacher Karl Goldmark that the most important quality any composer could have was to be a sharp and merciless critic of himself. It is one thing to be critical, however, another to be plagued by severe self-doubt, as Sibelius was for most of his life. Long before the Eighth, Sibelius had suppressed several works, including Kullervo, and he had withdrawn and substantially revised many others, most notably the Violin Concerto and the Fifth Symphony. With each symphony, the doubts increased, and composition became more difficult—the act of rewriting the Fifth had been both exacting and grueling. By the time he got to the Eighth, the process had become exceedingly difficult. (It didn’t help that a lifetime of hard drinking had led to a tremor in his hands that made it all but impossible for him to write.) “The fate of an aging composer is endlessly tragic,” Sibelius wrote in March 1924. “The work doesn’t go ahead at the pace it once did, and my self-criticism is growing to absurd proportions.” The expectations of the musical public only added to the strain. As Sibelius’s daughter Katarina would later say:

One very important factor was the premature fuss that was made about the eighth symphony. Father was unhappy. It was indescribably difficult. He could not evaluate his own strength and estimate when it would be ready. It was really pretty awful, the way people were waiting for it and asking about it. He thought that he himself should mature with age. He wanted it to be better than the other symphonies. Finally it became a burden, even though so much of it had already been written down. In the end I don’t know whether he would have accepted what he had written.

In a diary entry dated November 5, 1911, Sibelius wrote: “A symphony is not just a composition in the ordinary sense of the word; it is more of an inner confession at a given stage of one’s life.” What, then, had Sibelius confessed in the Eighth, and what was he suppressing by burning the manuscript? How bold and daring must his score have been for him to be so convinced that the public would not accept it?

While he was wrestling with the piece, an old friend of his, the artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela, died, and he agreed to write music for the funeral. That Sibelius was able to compose a piece so quickly, given how slowly he was working in those days, suggests that he must have borrowed material from another work in progress, very likely the Eighth Symphony, as Aino later contended. So what does this piece, the Surusoitto for organ, sound like? Solemn, melancholy, and haunting—a work, then, befitting its funerary context—but also chromatic, dissonant, very modern, a departure from the works that preceded it. Maybe Sibelius, extremely sensitive, with an increasingly nervous disposition, felt that the world was not ready for a magnum opus that took up so strikingly new an idiom, that he would not be able to accept a final rejection from a musical public that had blown hot and cold all his life. So intense was his anxiety, perhaps, that only after the work’s destruction could he experience some sense of lasting calm. He may have been forced to choose between preserving himself or preserving the symphony. In the end, he chose himself. Although he would continue to speak of an Eighth Symphony long after the burning, telling friends that the piece continued to take shape in his head, the torment was evidently over. During a radio interview in 1948, he pronounced: “Here in Ainola, the silence speaks.”


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Sudip Bose is the editor of the Scholar. He wrote the weekly classical music column “Measure by Measure” on this website for three years.


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