Thursday, December 23, 2004

Sibelius and Beethoven

I've been writing some programme notes for a concert including the Sibelius Symphony No.1. I adore Sibelius - the better you know this guy, the more amazing he seems, which is always a wonderful state of affairs. However, I've never delved into his inner workings the way I have with Faure and friends, so it has come as something of a surprise to find that the First Symphony is full of...Beethoven. I've beavered through a few books with sections on this piece, plus liner notes in the CDs that I have, and nowhere do I find Beethoven mentioned (have I missed some somewhere?). But here's my argument:

It seems incontrovertible to me that Sibelius must have been thinking of good old Ludwig if he could write the words 'Quasi una fantasia' at the head of a movement. Moonlight Sonata ahoy.

You know the clarinet tune that opens the symphony and returns at the start of the finale? Heard that rising and falling semitone somewhere before? Oh yes. In the Moonlight Sonata.

You know the dramatic exposition that has everyone in mayhem before the big tune in the last movement? There's a violin figuration in there that comes straight out of Beethoven's Piano Sonata Op.31 No.2 in D minor. That sonata is often called 'The Tempest'. (And which Shakespeare play did Sibelius write incidental music for in 1926? No prizes...) Just because Sibelius was a violinist of sorts, it didn't mean he didn't know his piano sonatas.

First subject, first movement. Scotch snaps over tremolando. Familiar? Yup. Beethoven 9.

As for motivic strength, rhythmic power, the conflict of whole worlds within a movement - it goes without saying that this has to follow the example set by the ultimate symphonist...

After talking about national legends, Finnish identity and dark pine forests, most commentators talk about Tchaikovsky. OK, there's an evident impact - gloomy clarinets, gorgeous tunes, super orchestration and lots of harps (the latter found, please note, more in Tchaikovsky's ballet music than his symphonies). But if Sibelius is willing to go so far as to use a title straight out of Beethoven for his finale, how come Ludwig doesn't normally get a credit?

A great deal remains to be written about Sibelius. It may be another 50 years before anyone can do it, of course, but the truth about his 30-year silence must some day be explored. Meanwhile, I wonder whether it's time someone wrote a new book about Beethoven? So much about him is simply taken for granted. 'A level' notes are regurgitated everywhere, but the most astonishing elements in his music often go unremarked. It's too easy to forget what extraordinary pieces works like the 'Moonlight' and 'Tempest' sonatas really are; no wonder they set such an example for later composers in the freeing-up of musical form. Here's a challenge for a braver musicologist than me: write a book about Beethoven without referring to any others. Take original documents, the music itself and nothing else. Don't look at anyone else's analyses: just use your own ears and your own brain. Then see if the measure of his genius has ever been captured anywhere in words. I think you'll find it hasn't.