New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 2007.
Summary for the Busy Executive: Among the stuff you probably already
know, a few genuine revelations.
First, you must ask to whom Barnett has addressed this book. As a
biography, it amounts to little more than a sketch. One encounters very
little psychological insight into an incredibly complex character. As
a study of Sibelius's music, it merely scratches the surface, and fairly
lightly at that. For example, while Barnett tells you that Sibelius
became famous and revered, he gives you very little idea why. A committed
Sibelian doesn't need this book. On the other hand, it will bewilder
somebody trying to connect to Sibelius for the first time.
The book's big problem lies in the fact that it has major ties to BIS's
Complete Sibelius Edition recording project. Indeed, Robert von Bahr,
founder of BIS, wrote the introduction for the accompanying brochure
that lists the volumes in the series. Barnett's descriptions give very
little idea of the music, perhaps because he assumes that you can listen
to the appropriate volume as you read. For the popular works, this might
pose little inconvenience, but Barnett exhibits encyclopedist tendencies.
He mentions Sibelius's little-known early work, piano music, choral
works, and songs, as well as first versions of masterpieces like the
Violin Concerto, En Saga, and so on. Sibelius revised extensively,
compulsively, and, as it turns out, ruthlessly. His wife, Aino, thought
that he cut out a great deal of powerful, characteristic music, and
Barnett agrees. Some of the early chamber music also sounds intriguing,
and I'm sure you can scratch some of this itch with individual CDs in
the collection. On the other hand, the discussions - if you can call
them that - amount to little more than sketches, precisely because Barnett
relies way too heavily on the reader's access to those CDs. However,
if you want to know how any of Sibelius's works hang together, Barnett
won't tell you.
However, Barnett also takes advantage of the latest Sibelius research.
Apparently, he also knows Finnish (certainly more Finnish than Sibelius
himself did). Consequently, you at least find out about scores that
performers have neglected and which sound promising. Barnett's other
major task dispels the "myth" of Sibelius's final creative silence, from
roughly 1930 to his death. Sibelius had had long-lasting blocks before,
and during the "silence of Ainola" he did continue to compose, despite
a severe hand tremor. However, he finished only short pieces. The major
work, the Eighth Symphony, lay unfinished. Indeed, Aino may have started
the myth after Sibelius died because she didn't want people pestering
her for manuscripts. In any case, during the Forties, Sibelius consigned
a bunch of music, very likely including the Eighth, to the fire. It
seemed to have a therapeutic effect. He became much happier.
Among the things that surprised me I count first and foremost how close
to poverty Sibelius was for most of his life. He led a middle-class
existence but remained in constant debt until he was in his seventies,
despite several lucrative passings of the hat among the Finns. The
famous stipend was smaller than I had thought, and he had to scratch for
just about every coin. He worked incredibly hard. Granted, some of his
trouble came from his alcoholism: money would disappear to support his
drinking binges, but there never was a lot of money to begin with.
Drinking strained his marriage, which in turn depressed him even more
and sent him drinking again. Nevertheless, his money came mainly from
conducting, rather than from composing, although after a certain time
he gave up conducting altogether to devote himself to composition - and
this for a composer considered a master in his own time. Respect and
adulation don't necessarily put food on the table. His publishers made
far more money from his music than he did. Mama, don't let your babies
grow up to be composers.
For me, the best part of the book lies in the nuggets of information
about Sibelius's family life. The original family name was Sibbe. The
family "Swedenized" its name to Sibelius, and indeed Sibelius's first
language was Swedish. The Finnish language confined itself to remote
areas of the country, among hard-core peasantry. Modern Finnish is a
product of late nineteenth-century nationalist movements in Finland.
Sibelius may have allied himself with the "Finnish-speaker" faction, but
he never became comfortable in the language. Throughout his life, he
set many Swedish texts, perhaps more of them than Finnish. There's also
some interesting bits about his siblings (his sister was committed to a
mental hospital) and his in-laws, to whom in many ways he felt closer
than to his own family.
Overall, however, I must consider this book a disappointment. The
biography is a "and-then-this-happened" affair, and the analysis very
low-level. Outside of mentioning the artistic currents that touched
Sibelius (Symbolism, for example), we get no real discussion of either
those currents or, beyond the fact that Sibelius set certain texts, how
they influenced his aesthetic. Although we learn that Sibelius's music
earned significant acclaim, Barnett gives us no clue as to why it caused
such a stir or why the music seemed simultaneously so radical and a
continuation of the grand tradition. Consequently, most of the book
reads very slowly. I can't imagine this book contributing much to
championing Sibelius's cause.
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