Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Sibelius: Overwhelmed by surprise

Alex Ross has a fine article about Sibelius, a chapter from his long-awaited book on 20th century music. Among many other things, it's a reminder that for a good part of that century, Sibelius was both a preeminent and popular musical figure, and that the sophistication of his music was often came to be lost on musical professionals, composers, and academics, for whom the essential figures at mid-century, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, became the central actors in the established narrative, often overlooking* other important streams. We are just now beginning the process of resorting out our reception of 20th century music, with a process of recuperating and reassessing many legacies: Mahler and Ives have been now recovered, Strauss and Ravel have received a more differentiated appreciation, the cultural and intellectual complexity underlying works of Debussy, Puccini or Bartok has become more clear and we may yet hear the same for the Skryabinistes, or for figures with careers somewhat lost to complicated times, from Prokofiev to Resphighi.

My grandparents -- born and raised in or near Paso Robles, California in 1909 -- both shared the opinion that Sibelius was their favorite composer, the tone poems Valse Triste and Finlandia -- warhorses of the time -- in particular. Classical music was not unknown in Paso Robles -- Paderewski was a regular visitor to the hot water spa there, and my Grandmother heard him practice, and one time evn got to play the composer/pianist/politician's famous Minuet for him -- but music in Paso Robles was not orchestral, and for my grandparents, not yet recorded or broadcast. They heard Sibelius's orchestral music as piano music, in transcriptions for two- or four-hands, so they were hearing the music stripped of a dimension we now assume to be essential to Sibelius's musical identity. Ross writes well of Sibelius's thematic invention, but only touches on the complexity of Sibelius's harmonic language, and I can only describe it this way: at any given moment, the expectation of what should or will happen next is almost aways defeated and the listener is almost always overwhelmed by surprise.

* Why does "overhearing" not have a parallel meaning with "overlooking"? Our language sometimes has a real bias towards the visual.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As a comp student, I had the great fortune of being able to take a class in Sibelius' music. It was one of the most profound education experiences I had in my education - taken by the amount of structural craft of his technique. I always wondered if his brief stay in Vienna might have influenced that. E.g., did the early gestation of the 2nd Vienna school somehow influence his thinking and work?