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Book Review

Sibelius

Sibelius by Barnett
Andrew Barnett
New Haven & London: Yale University Press. 2007
ISBN-10: 0300111592
ISBN-13: 978-0300111590
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Among the stuff you probably already know, a few genuine revelations.

First, you must ask to whom Barnett has addressed this book. As a biography, it amounts to little more than a sketch. One encounters very little psychological insight into an incredibly complex character. As a study of Sibelius' music, it merely scratches the surface, and fairly lightly at that. For example, while Barnett tells you that Sibelius became famous and revered, he gives you very little idea why. A committed Sibelian doesn't need this book. On the other hand, it will bewilder somebody trying to connect to Sibelius for the first time.

The book's big problem lies in the fact that it has major ties to BIS's Complete Sibelius Edition recording project. Indeed, Robert von Bahr, founder of BIS, wrote the introduction for the accompanying brochure that lists the volumes in the series. Barnett's descriptions give very little idea of the music, perhaps because he assumes that you can listen to the appropriate volume as you read. For the popular works, this might pose little inconvenience, but Barnett exhibits encyclopedist tendencies. He mentions Sibelius' little-known early work, piano music, choral works, and songs, as well as first versions of masterpieces like the Violin Concerto, En Saga, and so on. Sibelius revised extensively, compulsively, and, as it turns out, ruthlessly. His wife, Aino, thought that he cut out a great deal of powerful, characteristic music, and Barnett agrees. Some of the early chamber music also sounds intriguing, and I'm sure you can scratch some of this itch with individual CDs in the collection. On the other hand, the discussions – if you can call them that – amount to little more than sketches, precisely because Barnett relies way too heavily on the reader's access to those CDs. However, if you want to know how any of Sibelius' works hang together, Barnett won't tell you.

However, Barnett also takes advantage of the latest Sibelius research. Apparently, he also knows Finnish (certainly more Finnish than Sibelius himself did). Consequently, you at least find out about scores that performers have neglected and which sound promising. Barnett's other major task dispels the "myth" of Sibelius' final creative silence, from roughly 1930 to his death. Sibelius had had long-lasting blocks before, and during the "silence of Ainola" he did continue to compose, despite a severe hand tremor. However, he finished only short pieces. The major work, the Eighth Symphony, lay unfinished. Indeed, Aino may have started the myth after Sibelius died because she didn't want people pestering her for manuscripts. In any case, during the Forties, Sibelius consigned a bunch of music, very likely including the Eighth, to the fire. It seemed to have a therapeutic effect. He became much happier.

Among the things that surprised me I count first and foremost how close to poverty Sibelius was for most of his life. He led a middle-class existence but remained in constant debt until he was in his seventies, despite several lucrative passings of the hat among the Finns. The famous stipend was smaller than I had thought, and he had to scratch for just about every coin. He worked incredibly hard. Granted, some of his trouble came from his alcoholism: money would disappear to support his drinking binges, but there never was a lot of money to begin with. Drinking strained his marriage, which in turn depressed him even more and sent him drinking again. Nevertheless, his money came mainly from conducting, rather than from composing, although after a certain time he gave up conducting altogether to devote himself to composition – and this for a composer considered a master in his own time. Respect and adulation don't necessarily put food on the table. His publishers made far more money from his music than he did. Mama, don't let your babies grow up to be composers.

For me, the best part of the book lies in the nuggets of information about Sibelius' family life. The original family name was Sibbe. The family "Swedenized" its name to Sibelius, and indeed Sibelius' first language was Swedish. The Finnish language confined itself to remote areas of the country, among hard-core peasantry. Modern Finnish is a product of late nineteenth-century nationalist movements in Finland. Sibelius may have allied himself with the "Finnish-speaker" faction, but he never became comfortable in the language. Throughout his life, he set many Swedish texts, perhaps more of them than Finnish. There's also some interesting bits about his siblings (his sister was committed to a mental hospital) and his in-laws, to whom in many ways he felt closer than to his own family.

Overall, however, I must consider this book a disappointment. The biography is a "and-then-this-happened" affair, and the analysis very low-level. Outside of mentioning the artistic currents that touched Sibelius (Symbolism, for example), we get no real discussion of either those currents or, beyond the fact that Sibelius set certain texts, how they influenced his aesthetic. Although we learn that Sibelius' music earned significant acclaim, Barnett gives us no clue as to why it caused such a stir or why the music seemed simultaneously so radical and a continuation of the grand tradition. Consequently, most of the book reads very slowly. I can't imagine this book contributing much to championing Sibelius' cause.

Copyright © 2008 by Steve Schwartz.

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