Innisfree in June, with Sibelius and Contemporaneous

11 IMG_1286_edited-1The day these photographs were taken, the clouds at Innisfree Garden were particularly picturesque.

Harald Sohlberg, Flower Meadow in the North

Harald Sohlberg, Flower Meadow in the North

The daisies had come into full bloom below one of the fountains, which reminded me of the Norwegian painter Harald Sohlberg’s Flower Meadow in the North. I had reason to think about Sohlberg’s painting at a MATA Festival concert I attended in April, too, as I listened to Paula Matthusen’s The Days Are Nouns, her setting of a Norwegian Table Prayer. You can read what I wrote about the concert here and, as long as they’re available in the Q2 archives, you can listen to any of the pieces presented in the concert here.

Starting in the next few days and through the end of August, I’ll be offline more than on. I look forward to catching up with you in September, if not before.

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Listening List

Jean Sibelius, Fourth and Sixth Symphonies

Christopher Gibbs, in a fascinating examination of responses to Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony over time, concluded,

. . . musical works are always heard within history, a testimony not only to their time of creation, but also to their subsequent realizations and rehearings. The Seventh is always changing. [Gibbs 105]

While I provide no perceptive “connective tissue,” as Gibbs did, I thought the quotations included here on Sibelius’s Fourth and Sixth Symphonies suggested something similar about each of these works.

Symphony No. 4 in A Minor, Op. 63 (1911)

I. Tempo molto moderato, quasi adagio
II. Allegro molto vivace
III. Il tempo largo
IV. Allegro

Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, “Glocken.,” and strings [Michael Steinberg, The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide (1995) 590]

On Spotify (Neeme Järvi/Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra)

On YouTube (Salonen/Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra)

When the Fourth Symphony had its first performance, in April, 1911, Finnish audiences were taken aback. “People avoided our eyes, shook their heads,” Aino Sibelius recalled. “Their smiles were embarrassed, furtive, or ironic. Not many people came backstage to the artists’ room to pay their respects.” This was a Skandalkonzert in Scandinavian style, a riot of silence.

—Alex Ross [The Rest Is Noise (2007) 180]

It would be difficult, indeed, to imagine a more striking contrast than that which exists between the Third and Fourth Symphonies—so striking, that it is difficult to believe that the same composer could have written both; one only knows that no one else would have been capable of writing either of them. . . . There can be no question, however, as to which is the more important work of the two. The A minor Symphony represents, together with the Seventh perhaps, the highest point to which the art of Sibelius has yet attained. . . .

In contradistinction to the bright and cheerful mood of the Third, the prevailing mood of the Fourth is one of the deepest tragedy and gloom, while its formal structure is as elusive and baffling as that of the Third is simple and easily grasped. In style, too, the contrast is equally striking. In place of the definite, clear-cut, self-contained themes, the plain diatonic harmonies, and vigorous elementary rhythms of the earlier work, we get for the most part tiny, pregnant, thematic germs only, a harmonic idiom at times so strange and recondite that it cannot even be defined as atonal, and a prevalence of twisted, dislocated rhythms and syncopations. The scoring is austere and forbidding, and the thought is so highly concentrated that it demands an equal degree of concentration in the listener.

—Cecil Gray [Sibelius: The Symphonies (1935) 34-36]

. . . a range of commentators attempted to balance features which include what (with reference to the Third Symphony) Murtomäki terms ‘the deromanticisation of orchestral sound against the composer’s distinctly ‘unclassical’ observations about writing symphonic fantasies in which he could ‘move freely without feeling the weight of tradition’, while conceding that he did after all write symphonies: it was simply that ‘the concept must be expanded’.

Expanding the concept while constraining the timescale is a process carried forward to quite spectacular effect in the Fourth Symphony. . . . Even if the dark character of the music were more a response to domestic ‘misery’—sickness and poverty—than to the parlous state of contemporary music as it was thrown into upheaval in 1909 by Schoenbergian expressionism and atonality, no historian of early-twentieth-century musical developments can resist the kind of contextualisation that characterizes Sibelius as defiantly defensive in face of the imminent collapse of those musical and cultural values he held most dear. The implacable yet understated A minor cadence at the end of the Fourth Symphony’s finale therefore becomes a declaration of faith, a gesture of absolute commitment to a mode of expression and a means of construction which the earlier movements had shown to be under threat as never before.

—Arnold Whittall [The Cambridge Companion to Sibelius (2004) Loc 1344-1354]

To us, looking at 1911 from the secure distance of more than three-quarters of a century, it is Sibelius’s Symphony No. 4 that stands as one of the few visionary and fearless “modern”—and permanently “modern” and “difficult” masterpieces of that time.

—Steinberg [592]


Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op. 104 (1923)

I. Allegro molto moderato
II. Allegretto moderato
III. Poco vivace
IV. Allegro molto

Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, harp, and strings

On Spotify (Neeme Järvi/Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra)

On YouTube (Salonen/Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra)

Of his Sixth Symphony he once said: “You may analyze it and explain it theoretically. You may find that there are several interesting things going on. But most people forget that it is, after all, a poem.” [footnote by Steinberg: Yes, elsewhere Sibelius does maintain that his symphonies are symphonies, not symphonic poems, but artists do contradict themselves and we have to let them.]

—Steinberg [606]

A dictum of the composer which has been extensively quoted is particularly significant in connexion with the Sixth Symphony. On submitting certain works to the consideration of a German music publisher Sibelius observed that, where as most other modern composers were engaged in manufacturing cocktails of every hue and description, he offered the public pure cold water. And just as the music of Sibelius stands in relation to the music of most other modern composers, so does the Sixth Symphony stand in relation to his own other works. It is, indeed, the purest and coldest water that has yet flowed from the Sibelius fountain. As has already been suggested, the key-note of the work consists in a sense of serenity and poise, avoiding every kind of extreme, and this characteristic is found in every aspect of it. The composer does not make use of the lavish palette of the modern orchestra, but neither does he here restrict himself to the austere, classical orchestra of most of his symphonies, permitting himself the mild relaxation and luxury of a harp, which he had not employed since the First, and a bass clarinet, which he has not elsewhere employed in all his symphonies. The colouring, in consequence, is neither opulent nor ascetic, neither bright nor somber, but in intermediate tones, pearl greys and light browns, softly luminous. Similarly the tempos are neither conspicuously fast nor slow; pianissimos and fortissimos are rare; the full orchestra is hardly used at all in the whole work, but when it is, never for purposes of mere sonority.

—Gray [56]

. . . there is a clear dividing line between a response to the music which finds ‘profound tensions between . . . opposing tendencies’ to the circular and the processual, creating ‘the nearly insurmountable problem of trying to unite fundamentally opposed conceptions of the musical process’, and a response that believes that Sibelius relished the opportunity to explore ways in which these conflicting tendencies could converge. This latter response . . . I adopt here . . .

Just as the spirit of the Fifth Symphony can appear to progress quite explicitly from aspiration and striving to fulfillment and resolution, so that of the Sixth can be felt to generate a profound and satisfying repose from its diverse tendencies to contemplation and action. So even if . . . the finale of the Sixth Symphony is ‘a spiritualized representation of an elemental Finnish landscape ,. . . the ending is not so much a matter of ‘declining into extinction’ or ‘inevitable decay’: rather, it achieves a resolution, an equilibrium, even a degree of Apollonian serenity . . .

—Whittall [Loc 1501-1511]

This is as strange a symphony as I know, and there are few after Schubert I love so much. . . . In the Sibelius Sixth, breezy Beethoven Eighth physical energy keeps house with music that is mysteriously discarnate. There is no slow movement; indeed, there is virtually no slow music. The beautiful and distinctive orchestral sound is black and white, though without ever inviting such a word as “austere.” It is also singularly weightless, the bass instruments underemployed, as though gravity tended up toward the treble.

—Steinberg [602]

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Postscript: Congratulations to Contemporaneous for yet another milestone this fine ensemble has reached. Sunday, June 22, 2014, Contemporaneous made its debut at the Bang on a Can Marathon. Contemporaneous’s performances received high praise from Zachary Woolfe in his perceptive New York Times assessment of the 2014 Marathon. From the review:

Feverishly varied, [Andrew Norman's] “Try” was given a ferocious, focused performance by Contemporaneous and its conductor, David Bloom, that ended, after 10 minutes of fury, in a sinuous melody for piano, then barely audible breathing through the clarinet and flute.

The full review and accompanying photograph of Bloom conducting Contemporaneous in Try may be found here. In addition to the review, Cantaloupe Music described Bloom as “the most charismatic conductor of his generation,” an assessment to which I subscribe.

Below, with thanks for commemorating this event, is audience member Paul West’s video of Contemporaneous performing Andrew Norman’s Try.

Bravos and bravas to the members of Contemporaneous. I know there will be many more successes ahead. Each one of you, with your enormous talent, commitment, and passion, has more than earned the right.


Credits: The image of the Sohlberg painting may be found here. The quotations may be found at the sources linked in the text, with page or Kindle location numbers indicated in brackets. The photographs, as always unless otherwise indicated, are mine.


Short Takes: Wethersfield Garden in Early June, with Debussy

15 IMG_1230_edited-1In all the years we’ve lived in the Hudson Valley, we’ve never managed to visit the much-recommended Wethersfield Garden. Its season is short, as are its visitors’ hours, and we seem to think of visiting only at times when it’s closed. Finally, the idea to go and the visitors’ hours matched, so off we went. It’s an elegant formal garden with expansive views. Continue reading