Sibelius: A Composer's Life and the Awakening of Finland

A new biography explains to David Revill the mystery of Sibelius' loss of creativity in later life

January 7, 2010

Biographical writing can start from one of two perspectives: exploring the subject's story through its social and historical context, or by tracing the development of the inner life. In the case of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), a socio-historical treatment might seem the obvious way to explain the revered status accorded the composer in his native Finland. Glenda Dawn Goss, however, in her new biography, subtitled A Composer's Life and the Awakening of Finland, contends that it also is the key to understanding "the mystery of his lost creativity".

Sibelius experienced early success in scores with a nationalistic or folkloric flavour - the best-known works for anglophones probably being The Swan of Tuonela or Finlandia - and, a little later, his symphonies elevated his profile internationally. By his 50th birthday, the composer was feted as a national treasure. Yet in the following decade, the 1920s, his output dropped off in scale, quantity and quality. Then it dried up.

Goss does not believe this was the result of excessive self-criticism, nor Sibelius feeling, past a certain point in his life, too comfortable financially or socially. Nor, she submits, was it a consequence of his notorious alcoholism and compulsive spending. Rather, to understand his "inward turn" we must look to the awakening of the book's title, in which he played an important role.

"Sibelius and a handful of his predecessors and contemporaries", as she depicts it, "set out to compose, conduct ... paint ... and versify what it meant to be Finnish" after years of foreign domination. In general terms this mirrors what was happening in, for instance, Hungary and, later, the United States: the quest for a national music, a high-art identity that was the culture's own and not merely symptomatic of aspirations to be Austro-German.

The problem for Sibelius was not that he became the figurehead for a movement, but that the movement succeeded. After that - given that he did not, for whatever reason, take full advantage of his opportunities internationally - he was trapped in a kind of devolved superfluousness. Like Bob Dylan in relation to the protest song genre, Sibelius was ambivalent in his position as ambassador of Finland, at pains both to distance himself from it and to capitalise on it. Yet unlike the Dylans of this world, he was never brave (or ruthless) enough simply to leave it behind.

The book emerges from many years' commitment to Sibelius scholarship. It's a bravura performance, clearly the tip of the jaavuori in terms of the author's knowledge. The detail is sometimes quite astonishing; it can also, however, overwhelm (a discourse on swan populations in Finland, by way of putting Tuonela in context, for instance) and occasionally is of doubtful relevance. This creates a can't-see-the-wood-for-the-trees confusion that obscures the subtleties of Goss' argument, such as the paradox that despite the nationalist programme of artists such as Sibelius, "support for the arts in Finland had never been as great as during ... the 'first period of (Russian) oppression'".

The net effect of these peculiarities is that the book would be invaluable for a specialist (or an obsessive amateur) as a standard reference, but could never function as a standard biography. To an extent, information overload is a danger implicit in such an important but difficult undertaking: to construct a socially and historically grounded life for a readership outside the culture. Writing for people who are not Finnish and whose first language is not Finnish means that more must be explained if the interpretation is to make sense. Like her subject, Goss can be applauded for her willingness to make real the impossible.

Sibelius: A Composer's Life and the Awakening of Finland

By Glenda Dawn Goss

University of Chicago Press

496pp, £38.00

ISBN 9780226304779

Published 17 November 2009

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