Musical Times

Northen lights

Northen lights

Whittall, Arnold

Northern lights ARNOLD WHITTALL Sibelius studies Edited by Timothy L. Jackson & Veijo Murtomaki Cambridge UP (Cambridge, 2000); xx, 397pp; L50. ISBN 0 521 62416 9.

In 1999, the Cambridge volume of Janacek studies raised a few critical eyebrows by devoting 98 of its 292 pages to one essay by its editor, Paul Wingfield.

Sibelius studies allocates 98 of its 397 pages to one essay by its co-editor, Timothy L. Jackson; but there is a much stronger sense than in the Janacek volume of the editor’s work functioning as the centre around which all the other, satellite contributions revolve with varying degrees of conformity.

The contributors to Sibelius studies are five Finns, three Brits and three Americans, and the range of topics included is wide enough to take in styles of performance – Robert Layton’s concise and supremely well-informed survey of recordings – as well as sketch studies, an increasing area of activity since the long-delayed deposit of important materials in Helsinki University library in 1982. The overwhelming emphasis is nevertheless on ‘thick’ analysis, and four contributors -Jackson, Edward Laufer, Veijo Murtomaki and Timo Virtanen make extensive use of prolongational reductions, which I refrain from labelling ‘Schenkerian’ in view of the necessary differences between the concepts of tonality and structural (contrapuntal) procedure relevant to Sibelius – freely acknowledged by these authors – and the concepts which mattered most to Schenker.

The analytical enclave of Sibelius studies also includes essays, by Elliott Antokoletz, Peter Franklin, James Hepokoski and Tim Howell, which do not involve extensive graphic material of the prolongational type. Yet there is a fair degree of consensus between the prolongationists and the pragmatists that current musicological orthodoxies with respect to the interaction of formalism and hermeneutics are to be encouraged. Even Laufer, who counts as relatively conservative in his recourse to generalised principles of voice-leading analysis, has claimed that a view of the first movement of Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony

as symbolizing a struggle to victory, from darkness to light, from nothingness to life, or from turmoil to serenity (somehow all the same poetic idea) […I is not really an extra-musical symbol: it is intrinsically part of the compositional idea, an idea which is technically set forth by the vast auxiliary cadence spanning the entire movement.

Laufer’s words, from his contribution to Schenker studies 2 (Cambridge, 1999), are cited by Antokoletz here (p.304), and apart from their ideological significance their presence indicates the high degree of intertextuality to which Sibelius studies, like so much present-day musicology, aspires. The book provides ample food for thought in its own right, but you are likely to get much more out it if you also have access to other writings on the composer by Laufer, Murtomaki, Howell and Hepokoski, as well as to Jackson’s contribution to Bruckner studies (Cambridge, 1997), and his handbook on Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony (Cambridge, 1999). Jackson is especially prodigal in his cross-references, and he often corrects, sometimes in quite fundamental ways, the interpretations offered in his own earlier work. But it is his use of the kind of `poetic idea’ promulgated in my quotation from Laufer 1999 which does most to define the character of his 98-page contribution here.

The governing poetic idea – or organic process – laid down for Sibelius by Jackson is that of `crystallization and entropy’, a trope which Jackson sees as embodying `the devolution of order into chaos’ (p. 175). Unlike, for example, Schumann and Brahms – `men of the optimistic nineteenth century’ (whose symphonies in C Jackson also considers in some detail) Sibelius `doubts the possibility of resurrection’, and is therefore more of a ‘modernist’ (p.178). In the Fourth Symphony’s finale, `entropy triumphs and the hero’s life inexorably ebbs and dissipates back into chaos and nothingness’ (p.269): and even the Seventh Symphony – often seen, spiritually, as the polar opposite of the Fourth – links closure with catastrophe and disaster. Quite how Jackson squares this reading with the Seventh’s `definitive tonal arrival’, and the corresponding sense of decisive resolution and fulfilment, which surely counter any tendencies to entropic dissolution, is far from clear. But in any case he moves well beyond the poetic parameters of crystallisation and entropy in order to highlight the `theologized domestic drama’ (p. 179) of the Seventh’s representation, in the celebrated trombone theme, of Sibelius’s wife Aino. This ‘domestic’ aspect, which would remain hidden were it not for annotations in the sketches, is elaborated by Jackson into a narrative embracing the `wife-mother’ identity, and the kind of associations with home and mother– earth which, he believes, justify the sweeping claim that `matrimonial and nationalist issues intertwine in Sibelius’s music from Kullervo to the Seventh Symphony and Tapiola’ (p.179).

Jackson’s use of the biographical card does not extend to involving what is probably the most poignant of the Sibelius diary entries from the time of the sixth and seventh symphonies, cited in another article: `Alcohol, which I gave up, is now my most faithful companion. And the most understanding! (11 November 1923)’ (p.137). Indeed, there is a fundamental paradox in Jackson’s work, in that the more widely he casts his interpretative net, the more reductive (and non-dialectical) his readings become. There is for example no hint of how the ‘public’ symphonic rhetoric of Sibelius’s Seventh interacts with the hidden domestic, personal, autobiographical element, which – even if we accept the logic of translating the trombone theme’s heroic, expansive, positive tone into a portrait of a loved domestic companion – we can only ‘hear’ after we’ve been persuaded (by the physical evidence of what is found on paper) that the composer put it there.

It seems no less plausible to argue that those assertions of personal identity which centre on Aino represent a compositorial need for self-expression which is fundamentally – subversively at odds with the process of communication from composer to listeners and interpreters (performers and musicologists alike). This tension is relevant to ideas about Sibelius’s ‘progressiveness’, adumbrated here by Tim Howell, and linked to his important earlier insight (in the published version of his doctoral dissertation, New York 1989) about the subversive way in which certain pitch constructs serve to `dilute, if not destroy, any sense of middleground diatonic or tonal progression’ (cited by Antokoletz, p.307).

No less relevant to the idea of subversiveness is Antokoletz’s own concept of a ‘hybrid’ musical language, involving ‘semi-functional diatonic folk modes and their cyclic-interval I…I transformations’ as well as functional tonality (pp.297-98) – since whether the result is as `highly integrated’ as Antokoletz claims is open to question. (Antokoletz himself (p.303) refers to the `conflicting, yet pivotal interaction between modal tonality and the more ambiguous whole-tone sphere’ as an early twentieth-century resource: emphasis added.) Most pertinent of all, however, is the concept of Sibelius’s ‘modern classicism’, introduced by Hepokoski in his revelatory handbook on the Fifth Symphony (Cambridge, 1993), and not explicitly built on in his Sibelius studies analysis of the Sixth Symphony Nevertheless, Hepokoski’s talk of a Sibelian ‘dialogue’ between ‘modern’ and `pre-modern’, and of the composer’s attempts to `sidestep predetermined formal conventions’ (p.323), as well as the sense in which `the old formal categories are still “there”, still conceptually present through their conspicious acoustic absence’ (p.324) seem sensitive to what I am calling ‘subversion’. In particular, Hepokoski’s notion of a rotational form which is also teleological is flexible enough to embrace the more episodic, yet far from fragmented, kind of organisational principles which I see as more relevant to the later Sibelius than Jackson- or Laufer-style organicism.

In this context, one of the most interesting points in the volume is Veijo Murtomaki’s identification of a formal ‘problem’ in the early symphonic ballad Skogsraet (1894-95), where `Sibelius simply juxtaposes different formal sections without connective elements smoothing over the junctures’ (p. 123). Was Sibelius ever more of a modernist than here? But where does this early radicalism leave Murtomaki’s overarching ‘Ursatz’ for Skogsraet, which begins in C major and ends in C sharp minor (p. 110)? Also revealing, given the composer’s denials that the basic ideas from which his works tended to evolve were in any sense ‘fragments’, is Timo Virtanen’s sketch-supported contention that Pohjola’s daughter was `assembled […] using fragments conceived over a period of several years’ (p.144). This is obviously not to suggest that the finished work itself conveys a sense of fragmentation, but it does hint at a possible tension between the function of transitions and the overall ‘unity’ of Pohjola’s daughter and the Seventh Symphony

Underlying my own interpretation of the Seventh is the belief that modern classicism (as distinct from classicism proper, rooted in diatonic tonality, as also from a more genuinely modernistic neo-classicism) involves the tendency to subvert structural fundamentals (both formal and harmonic) as well as the effort to affirm them. The nearest Jackson seems to get to this feature in his analysis of the Seventh is his view of `apparently “strong” tonics’ being ‘devalued’ (p.261), but in the end he is so committed to the principle of `an over-arching V-I auxiliary cadence’ controlling `the entire structure’ (p.260) that the possibility of more flexible, less rigorously integrated or consistently hierarchical processes gaining the upper hand is never seriously considered. Even if it were claimed that Jackson himself positively subverts Schenkerian theory by attaching to the Seventh Symphony as a whole the kind of incomplete structural progression Schenker saw as valid

only on the tiny time-scale of Chopin’s A minor Prelude (op.24), his characteristically comprehensive tracing of comparable elements across the classical and romantic tonal tradition risks forcing the composers involved into the confining straitjacket of psychological, cultural forces which they are helpless to resist, or subvert, still less to criticise.

No less risky, I feel, is Laufer’s more ‘orthodox’ prolongational reduction of the Seventh Symphony, engineered to support the claim that `the effect of the formal design, with its synthesis of contrasts, is to create a single entity, one vast sweep, of culmination, of renewal and completion’ (p.355). Laufer’s meticulously crafted graphs are finely reproduced here, making detailed scrutiny a positive pleasure, and his virtual exclusion of hermeneutic flights of fancy makes a salutary contrast to Jackson’s rhapsody. Yet, just as nature, in the poetic epigraph to Tapiola, embodies `savage dreams’ and `magic secrets’ which make it partially if not essentially inscrutable to humanity, so it is difficult to justify the assumption that Sibelius’s music can be constrained quite as decisively as Laufer and Jackson imply In a very different kind of discourse, Peter Franklin claims that it is the `post-modern’ concern with `details

of sexuality, gender representation, and narrative techniques’ which is `subversive of Kullervo’s more traditional or conventional interpretation as an exercise in “nationalism” ‘ (p.74). I would suggest that reading subversiveness into Sibelius’s mature work is an even more useful defence against the interpretative underlining of those aspects of tradition and convention which, if left unchallenged, can easily seem superficial.

All in all, however, it is pleasing to find that, despite their sincere commitment to over-arching organicism, the editors of Sibelius studies have not sought to bring all the contributions under the constraints of a party line. For example, Eija Kurki is allowed the artless question – `If his symphonic music was inspired by an extra-musical source (such as the text of a play), did Sibelius perceive his symphonies as embodying something extra-musical?’ (p.92) – without the call-to-order of an editorial footnote recommending close study of other, longer essays in the volume. The diversity of voice and range of reference (Elliott Antokoletz is particularly creative in his relevant recourse to writers one might have thought long forgotten, including Burnett James), is exemplary, and methodology is broad enough to embrace Murtomaki’s oldstyle (and pretty unpersuasive) table of motivic ‘connections’ between Die Walkure, Madama Butterfly, La bohime and Sibelius’s `Lemminkainen and the maidens of the island’ (p.133). It remains only to note that production values are excellent, and that the (high?) price is not unreasonable, given the number of pages and the generous provision of sketch facsimiles and music type (score extracts and graphs). Even if, like me, you find plenty to disagree with, this is a volume to make you think, perhaps as never before, about a composer whose importance seems certain to grow as – if – the new music of the new century goes in for `modern classicism’ in a big way.

Arnold Whittall’s most recent book is Musical composition in the twentieth century (OUP, 2000).

Copyright Musical Times Publications, Ltd. Spring 2001

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