Inside Story

Mr Sibelius’s feeling for snow

Does music really reflect its place of composition?

Andrew Ford Music 3 February 2023 1550 words

Fiddling with notes: Jean Sibelius, probably in the late 1880s, at Loviisa on the Finnish coast. Lebrecht Music & Arts/Alamy

A Dane, a Swede, a Norwegian and a Finn walk into a bar and order a bottle of aquavit. As they raise their first glass, the Dane calls out “Skål!” The second time it’s the Swede’s turn: “Skål!” On the third round the Norwegian goes to speak but the Finn interrupts: “Look, are we here to drink or talk?”

Two clichés in a single, admittedly quite funny, joke: the silent Finn and the hard-drinking Finn. And there’s also the shy Finn. How do you know when you’ve met a Finnish extrovert? He’s looking at your shoes, not his own.

When Andrew Mellor mentions that second joke early in his new book, The Northern Silence: Journeys in Nordic Music and Culture, he admits that the humour relies on nothing more than a stereotype. But does he avoid stereotypes himself?

Mellor’s book considers music from Scandinavia, Finland and Iceland, the author’s aim being to find connections between the works of Carl Nielsen, Edvard Grieg, Kurt Atterberg, Jean Sibelius and Jón Leifs, as well as their musical heirs; and he is determined to find them. If further connections can be drawn to the landscape, architecture and design, and Nordic noir miniseries, so much the better.

But how can he hear the music minus its cultural appurtenances? Nielsen’s Sinfonia espansiva, “the most overtly Danish” of his six symphonies, gives “musical expression to the blustery energies experienced in flat, coastal Denmark.” Really?

Mellor gets off to a promising start with Sibelius’s last completed orchestral work, Tapiola. Composed in 1926, this brooding quarter of an hour is a starkly beautiful thing, a piece that the late English composer Oliver Knussen once said “would be very hard to listen to and not think of snow.”

The title is a reference to Tapio, the forest spirit of Finland’s national epic, the Kalevala, and when he wrote the piece Sibelius already had a well-earned reputation as one of the great nationalist composers. But what does any of this mean? As Knussen pointed out, Sibelius “was in fact a great structural innovator. If you listen to the fifth symphony, I suppose certain landscapes might be evoked, but you also think, what an incredible way to combine a sonata and a scherzo!” And in Tapiola, snow aside, “one also thinks, what an incredible way of fiddling with four notes!”

After Tapiola, Sibelius lived for another three decades but completed no further music of any substance. He worked on an eighth symphony but it ended up in the big, green fireplace at his home in Järvenpää. Those thirty years are usually referred to as “the silence of Järvenpää,” and Mellor looks for and hears silence everywhere in Nordic music. It’s not as though he’s imagining it. There is, for example, plenty of silence in the music of the Dane Hans Abrahamsen — a composer who, like Sibelius, had an extended period in which he couldn’t compose at all (fortunately the music returned). There is also plenty of Nordic music that has nothing to do with silence.

The trouble with looking for regional traits in composers’ work is that the music itself is often overlooked in favour of what the writer feels, and it doesn’t take much effort on the writer’s part to work these feelings up into a theory.

Having correctly underlined the static nature of Tapiola’s harmony, for example, Mellor casts around and finds static harmony everywhere in Nordic music. It’s there in Grieg, and in the work of two more recent Swedish composers, Jan Sandström and Allan Pettersson, and the Finn Magnus Lindberg.

But static harmony is also meant to be a hallmark of Australian music. That’s what we’ve been told about the music of Peter Sculthorpe and any number of his former students. Those long flat melodies over pedal points, mirroring the landscape of the outback. Maybe it’s not so Nordic after all.

Many so-called nationalist composers of Sibelius’s generation — at work during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — drew on the traditional and popular music of their homelands. Sibelius himself did this in a limited way, as did the Norwegian Grieg and the Danish Nielsen. Mahler did it in Austria, Ives and later Copland did it in the United States. Bartók and Kodály did it; so did Stravinsky — though he liked to deny it. The Moravian Janáček did it, going further by working the choppy speech rhythms of his native language into his music. Vaughan Williams’s music, though seldom quoting folk song, seems imbued with its modality.

Whether motivated by nationalism or simply by a desire to refresh their melodic or harmonic palettes with bright new colours, these composers are readily identified with their countries. And the use of traditional music as the raw material for composition still goes on. The Chinese-American composer Tan Dun has, for instance, written pieces in which Western instruments are played with techniques generally used for Chinese instruments. The music of Swedish composer Karin Rehnqvist is striking in its use of kulning, full-throated mountain calls used to summon cattle. She has drawn on these “outside” voices, in one way or another, for forty years, though her music fails to rate a mention in Mellor’s book. Not enough silence, perhaps.

What of composers who spurned folkloric material and yet are thought of as belonging firmly in their national camp? Elgar considered a composer who used a folk tune to be merely lazy. So why does Elgar sound English?

Setting aside the begging of the question, it is hard to point to anything in particular in his scores that isn’t in some way reminiscent of Mendelssohn, Schumann, Wagner, Brahms or Strauss. Is he thought of as quintessentially English merely by association? He was a great composer at a time when England didn’t really have any others, therefore Elgar equals English music?

One could easily make the same claim of Grieg, Nielsen and Sibelius in their respective countries. Is that why people feel Sculthorpe’s music contains the essence of Australia? His was a distinctive and easily recognised musical voice in a country that didn’t really have anything similar.

Clichés abound in these discussions, and they’re hard to avoid. Take French composers and their reputed obsession with colour. When did this start? With Lully, Rameau and Couperin in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? Was Berlioz a nineteenth-century colourist? Really, when this cliché comes up, it is Debussy and Ravel we mean. But why single them out when one could point to scores by German composers, Mendelssohn, Wagner and Strauss, that are just as dazzlingly orchestrated?

Mellor steps right into this trap in writing about the contemporary Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. An early composition, Lichtbogen, was apparently inspired by “the Northern Lights in the Arctic sky,” but then, having established herself in Paris, “colour and translucency” became her overriding musical concerns. France, apparently, will do that to a composer.

But it was Saariaho herself who told us about the Northern Lights, and we must always remember that composers can be their own greatest mythmakers. It was Sibelius who called his piece Tapiola and put at the head of the score a verse about “the Northland’s dusky forests” (“dusky,” mark you, not “snowy”). In his fifth symphony, the big slow horn ostinato theme that emerges in the finale is supposed to have been inspired by the composer seeing — and hearing — sixteen migrating Whooper swans flying over his home: “One of my greatest experiences.” Well, maybe. Mellor certainly buys it.

And then there’s the final “silence of Järvenpää.” This was real enough. The music dried up and it seems uncharitable to wonder if Sibelius was colluding in this piece of mythology. Perhaps, after the concision of Tapiola, there was nothing more to say. There again, just because something is true doesn’t mean it can’t become a cliché.

I don’t mean to disparage Mellor’s book or even damn it with faint praise. It is a book by a journalist, no doubt, a book-length colour supplement piece, and none the worse for that. What’s more, it is likely to introduce its readers to a wide range of composers and performers whose music will be unfamiliar, and that is no bad thing.

The problem with Mellor’s attempt at an overarching theory of Nordic music — and the author is aware of it — goes back to that opening joke. Nordic people aren’t all the same and their art isn’t monolithic. The music of Grieg, Nielsen and Sibelius had many more points of difference than similarities. What the three had in common is that (like Elgar, like Sculthorpe) each was for a time — or seemed to be — his country’s only composer, so his music came to stand for the country itself. In each case, this created a somewhat dampening effect on the generations of composers who followed, and the result has been a further proliferation of style and approach.

To speak of Danish music or Finnish music as though they were narrow musical types is every bit as misleading as to speak of the Northern Silence. •