horizontal line

Mäkelä’s book, a translation of his 2007 German original (subtitled ‘Poetry in the Air’), is neither analytical study of works nor story- telling biography. Indeed, the author’s contention is that there is not a (as in just one) story to tell about Sibelius. The attempts of others to simplify the composer’s work – usually with the aim of attacking or rescuing it – often misrepresent it, he suggests, ignoring its heterogeneous character.

Sibelius certainly can appear ambiguous, self-contradictory even. Is he symphonist or tone poet? The book considers at some length Sibelius’ own tortuous reflections on titles and genres, and his attempts to reconcile his ardent belief in the ideal of the symphony with doubts about the adequacy of the term. Is he the composer of lakes and forests or of myth and literary symbolism? Is he Finn or European; indeed, since he was born under Russian rule but with Swedish his native language, what would it mean to be Finnish in any case? (Incidentally, Mäkelä has some strong ideas about the need for competence in languages to be an adequate Sibelius scholar.) Is he a man of the musical north or does he hanker after the Mediterranean south, in the manner of Nietzsche? Is he Rousseau’s ‘man of nature’ or his ‘man of civilisation’, to refer to one of Mäkelä’s subheadings? A Realpolitiker tolerant of National Socialism or an essentially apolitical figure who, for example, explained his 30-year compositional silence as a reaction in part to the horrors of war?

To address such issues, if not to resolve them one way or another (clearly not his aim), Mäkelä draws on an impressive collection of sources. These range from European aesthetic philosophy, critical studies of the composer, from painting and literature to Sibelius’s own letters and diaries. While these give an agreeable flavour of Sibelius’s energetic mind and charged sense of humour (‘Alban Berg is Schoenberg’s best work’), the text as a whole is somewhat less casual – not impenetrable, but heavy in ideas. Unavoidably so, given that Mäkelä is creating a notably elaborate artistic and intellectual context in which to assess Sibelius’s unique – ‘visionary, ecstatic, imagination based’ – creative urge.

TOBY DELLER Read the full review on Agora Classica

   Read full review   

To continue reading, please upgrade to a premium account. You will have immediate full access.

Read more classical music reviews online here:

Classical Music, 2012 - ©Rhinegold Publishing