Aug 16, 2016

“These vast spaces without gravity”

What do the musicians need to learn?

There is this distinction between extrovert and introvert, however, Sibelius is “in-between”, so he demands an intensity “from within” that has to be maintained. It is a paradox: Sibelius has these climaxes without previous external aggravation. And there is – for example in the cello melody in the slow movement of the Fourth – the incomplete climax, the phrase is a little too short. You have to be able to feel this precisely.

After the war, Sibelius was not at all popular amongst German intellectuals. Has this changed in the context of his 150th birthday anniversary on 8 December?

It is coming, slowly. The climate is certainly different compared to the 50s. But there is still a huge difference between works that are very popular here – such as “Finlandia” or the violin concerto – or a work such as the Fourth Symphony, which I actually consider as Sibelius’ most “German” symphony with regard to the harmonics.

The German post-war contempt of Sibelius can be essentially attributed to Adorno, who accused the composer of artistic inaptitude and ideological backwardness.

These accusations show first and foremost that someone did not understand, let alone accept a musical development beyond the Brahms –Schönberg line. It is indeed correct: Sibelius does not follow any mid-European “rule” – no matter what you pick: the four bar period, the bass line, the handling of dissonance or the development of themes, as with Beethoven. He drew upon himself for his music, not upon paragons. This is actually true for all of the seven symphonies: He started all over again each time, renewing the art form as such with each new work.

Adorno also had political reservations.

Yes, for him Sibelius, who indisputably formulated Finnish patriotism in his music, was a romantic nationalist. And his popularity during the Third Reich did the rest.

You are conducting a compatriot. What crosses your mind spontaneously when you hear the name Sibelius?

He was an interesting figure in and for Finland at the beginning of the 20th century. He unites so many different characters, was anything but a small-minded nationalist, but rather a cosmopolite. He was originally called Johan, but Frenchified his first name into Jean. Sibelius was not an exclusive Finn, but had the deep urge to talk and communicate with Europe. He had actually wanted to study with Bruckner – which then was no longer possible.

What do you admire most about Sibelius?

The way of his creative process. Sibelius was able to build massively complex movements out of minimal motives and fragments. And he had this somnambulistic awareness which motives would be suitable for this. He actually partly used the same motives, as indicated in the various versions of the fifth Symphony, for large, diametrically opposed concepts.

The Fourth very nicely displays the significance of the tritone as nucleus. In the course of the first movement it morphs into the famous four-sound motive from Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. A conscious citation?

I don’t believe so (laughs). It is simply a more friendly, more homely version of the tritone motive.

The end of the symphony equals a depressing collapse, but the very last tone is supposed to be played mezzoforte, “dolce”. What does this tell us?

I cannot answer this, this passage is a complete mystery.

The design of the Fourth in particular is remarkable. There are three-part song and rondo forms, but no single sonata form.

Yes, yes, I am also always looking for the sonata form in a symphony. There is indeed none here. One might possibly describe the middle part of the first movement as development. But this is the originality of Sibelius: He does not cater to expectations.

Was Sibelius a composer of the Finnish landscape with its lakes and forests?

I think the solitude of the country found its way into the music – albeit in a very abstract way. There are these vast spaces without gravity, these distances. But nothing gets described or depicted.

Do you envision images?

No. Feelings get transmitted, but, as mentioned, in a very abstract way.

So one does not have to be Finnish in order to conduct Sibelius adequately?

Nah! I grew up with Karajan’s recording of the Fourth which was fabulous – and Sibelius was very satisfied as well.
21 April 2015
Markus Schwering, Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger

Translated by Eva Oswalt