Sunday, 8 January 2012

A Glimpse of the Holy Grail?

If push comes to shove - and I'm going to shove and push myself here - and if I had to name my favourite composer, I'd say "Jean Sibelius". Sibelius wrote seven of the most inexhaustibly wonderful symphonies of all time. Famously, he wrote an eighth and then destroyed it, leaving not a rack behind. Sibelius's many admirers, including yours truly, have felt a sense of loss every since. (I've had counselling for it.)

Out of the blue though, late last year, came news (h/t Alex Ross) from Finland that two minutes worth of sketches for an orchestral work had emerged, dating from the time of the Eighth Symphony. Could they possibly be sketches for the Eighth Symphony itself? Could we finally get a glimpse of something we had thought irretrievably and comprehensively lost? The jury remains out on that question, despite the number VIII appearing on the sketches in the composer's own hand. 

You can hear all three sketches performed at this link (the music begins at 2.10). Even if they aren't tantalising fragments from the legendary Eighth, they are fragments from a lost Sibelius score that could clearly have been one of the greatest treasures of orchestral music. Alex Ross calls them "astonishing" and "thrilling", and indeed they are. The first fragment (lasting just over a minute), which sounds as if it could have opened the piece (or at least one of the movements of the piece), begins with harmonies that are truly remarkable and enthralling and is pure gold. The second fragment is a tiny snatch (11 seconds) of a scherzando section. The third fragment (also lasting just over a minute) is a window onto a slow section of grave beauty. All the fragments are very much in the symphonic manner of late Sibelius (the last two symphonies and Tapiola), yet suggest new paths to be explored too. 

I'm not quite sure how to feel about this. In one sense I'm happy to be captivated by a couple more minutes of great Sibelius. On the other hand, it's seems even more dispiriting that ever. If these are sketches for the Eighth and appeared in the completed (but burned) score, then if they are typical we are probably missing something greater than we could have even dared hoped for. The tragedy (for us) deepens. It would, I think it's very safe to say, be nigh impossible to write a reconstruction elaborated from such small and variegated details. So no rescue mission from Anthony Payne or Deryck Cooke here, sadly. 

Still, let's be positive and relish these recovered slivers of lost genius. They should be getting a lot more exposure soon. Spread the good news!

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