by Andrew Barnett
Yale University Press
461 pages, photos & musical examples; $28.00 US (pb)
YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS HAS just released some of its most interesting recent titles in low-priced paperbacks – among them The Oboe by Geoffrey Burgess and Canadian musicologist Bruce Haynes; John Worthen’s Robert Schumann; and this biography of Jean Sibelius by Andrew Barnett. After the revelatory performances of Sibelius’s magnificent symphonies by the Toronto Symphony under Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard in April, and their broadcast on CBC, this excellent study of his life and works is especially welcome.
Sibelius was a melodist in an age when composers like Arnold Schoenberg, who was born just nine years later, were seeking out new languages, sounds and techniques. Throughout his long life, Sibelius steadfastly resisted the influence of serialism and the avant-garde, so that by the time he died in 1957 he was decidedly out of fashion. But today composers enthusiastically celebrate his influence.
Barnett, chairman of the UK Sibelius Society, takes a detailed and critical look at the music, showing how Sibelius’s emotional life and personal experiences shaped his rugged lyricism. Barnett points out his “trademark” motifs like the descending fifth (right in the opening of the Violin Concerto), and the ‘S-motif’, like an elongated turn (heard throughout Finlandia). He offers insights into the myths and landscapes of Sibelius’s homeland, Finland, where the composer spent his whole life.
Though Barnett doesn’t offer much psychological insight into Sibelius’s debilitating insecurities, he documents Sibelius’s self-destructiveness. As Sibelius wrote in his diary, he needed to drink “in order to be able to live at all,” adding at a later date that “alcohol is the only friend that never lets one down.” Describing how Sibelius made a bonfire of his late work, including the eagerly-awaited eighth symphony, Barnett writes, “What he had in mind was a scorched earth policy with regard to many of his scores.” Barnett then quotes Sibelius’s long-suffering wife Aino, who commented, “Afterwards, my husband’s manner was calmer and his spirits were brighter. It was a happy time.”
The select bibliography and discography have not been updated since the original publication in 2007, and Winter Fire by William Trotter is still absent from the list of relevant fictional works. But Barnett paints a lively portrait of this complicated man, and provides the historical context for his work, which opened the way for Finland to become the musical powerhouse it is today.