Marti's Blog

Jean Sibelius

I used to hate the music of Jean Sibelius. This was based on two things- a very unfortunate arrangement of Finlandia we played in high school band, and an even more unfortunate performance of the Symphony no. 2 I heard when I was a student. I had no idea what the big deal was. The melodies were trite, the structure was muddled, nothing made sense to me.

When I was in college at the University of Colorado, I had gone to a piano faculty member's All Chopin recital to try to learn what it was I hated about Chopin (yes, I know, it seems crazy now that I would dislike those two composers so much!). In that process, thanks to the programming of the Op. 27 no. 1 c# minor Nocturne as the first piece on the program, I fell immediately in love with Chopin's music. The illumination of the music revealed by a great performance completely changed my mind, and I was now able to see and hear how imaginative and creative Chopin was.

I was a student at the Tanglewood Music Center for the first of two times in 1986. Being at Tanglewood changed my life in many ways (and more on that in a future post). One of those life-changing experiences was meeting Leonard Bernstein. When I found out that he would be conducting the Sibelius Symphony no. 2 with the TMC (Tanglewood Music Center) orchestra, I decided to attend as many rehearsals as possible in the hopes that I would have a similar experience like the Chopin revelation I had in college. If anyone could convince me of the worth of Sibelius' music, it was Bernstein.

I remember what happened as if it were yesterday. I remember where I was sitting in the old theater at Tanglewood, I remember what I was wearing. Bernstein was rehearsing the first movement and had gotten to the climax. The students weren't giving him exactly what he wanted- they weren't going SLOWLY enough. Finally, he got them to stretch the tempo so drastically that the shape of the climax suddenly became clear. And, I know this sounds silly, but I felt as if the roof had opened up, revealing the truth to me- the truth that Sibelius was not the worst composer ever, but possibly the greatest. That one little moment caused me to listen to his music with brand new ears; it was as if a switch came on, and I became the Sibelius fanatic most people know me to be.

Because of that experience, I came to realize that Sibelius' music has a certain endless expanse, a certain timelessness that I aspire to achieve in my own music. It is very much a product of his internal and external landscape. It is strange in all the great ways; it is a vast vista of ice and sun that is more beautiful every time I listen to it.

There was a concert in 1987 at Symphony Hall in Boston of Sibelius Symphonies 5, 6, and 7 performed by Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. The hall was only half full so the sound was even more lush and enveloping than usual. I will never forget that concert. I saw my former composition teacher, Charles Fussell, in the audience. He and I had not really gotten along well; I felt that he didn't understand my music, and he felt that I didn't listen to him. But when he saw me there- it was almost like a secret society of people who had just discovered each other- he said, "Oh, NOW I understand you."