Is this the sound of Sibelius's lost Eighth Symphony?
Readers of Helsingin Sanomat get a chance to hear the Helsinki Philharmonic performing a fragment of draft material that sounds tantalisingly like it might be from Sibelius's famously burned late work
By Vesa Sirén
My hands are trembling just a little bit as I run the magnifying glass over the 80-year-old score in the National Library.
That boom from the timpani, those dissonances, and the symphonic progression of those fragments…
Yes, the handwriting, both literally and figuratively, is familiar: late period Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), but what we have here does not belong to any known orchestral work by the master.
Could it be? Could this be the Holy Grail of Finnish classical music - a sketch of Sibelius’s lost Eighth Symphony? “Yes, this could very well be a fragment of the Eighth Symphony or from the beginning of one of its movements”, replies Timo Virtanen, editor-in-chief of the critical edition of the collected works of Jean Sibelius, his voice suitably hushed.
This was not supposed to be possible. Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony was completed in 1924.
He worked on an Eighth, for quite some time in fact, without anything material appearing (in spite of considerable public expectation, on both sides of the Atlantic), and then in the 1940s, something happened that should have put a full stop to the matter.
The composer’s grandson Erkki Virkkunen drove to Sibelius’s home of Ainola and heard of “a great bonfire” that had just taken place in the grate of the living-room fireplace.
“Grandmother was almost in tears; she was totally shocked. I don’t know what scores it was that went up in smoke that day. I presume the self-criticism had reached such a point that… well, you know. Grandpa just mentioned, almost in passing, that we’d had a big bonfire. He didn’t make a big thing of it; it seemed more a subject for humour than anything”, recalled Virkkunen in an interview in the 1990s.
But did something, anything, escape the flames?
Sibelius reportedly stated as late as in the 1950s that “sketches” of the symphony were complete.
It has been possible to explore the subject with a little more accuracy since the 1990s, when Sibelius scholar Kari Kilpeläinen completed the cataloguing of the vast body of manuscript material that the Sibelius family handed over to the University of Helsinki and the National Library in 1982.
Among this body of material are a good many unidentified drafts dating from the time Sibelius was supposed to be working on the Eighth Symphony, but there has been no prima facie evidence to link them to the work itself.
One page does admittedly bear the words “Sinfonia VIII commincio”, suggesting the beginning of the work, but the reverse of the sheet of music paper contains nothing more than a sketch for a few bars of orchestral music.
Another page contains drafts for the Seventh Symphony and the cryptic “VIII” attached to a particular fragment of melody.
Basically, that was all that was assumed to exist.
The discussion took a startling new direction when Sibelius researcher Nors S. Josephson (an external editor of the critical edition) became excited at the sheer volume of unidentified sketches.
There are indeed a lot of them, at a rough glance something like 800 pages of music - and a sizeable proportion of this material dates from the period when Sibelius might have been at work on the missing Eighth Symphony.
In 2004, Josephson published an article entitled “On Some Apparent Sketches for Sibelius’s Eighth Symphony”, in which he made a determined case for suggesting that the entire symphony could be reconstructed!
Timo Virtanen does not share this view, having himself written an article on the fragments for a Finnish music magazine. Virtanen also presented the subject at a recent seminar.
“It is not possible to patch together Sibelius’s entire symphony from these sketches”, he argues.
In Virtanen’s view, Josephson drew some interesting, bold, and ultimately probably also false conclusions from what were basically only a few isolated instrumental lines for a couple of bars of music.
At the same time, Josephson did not take any account of sketches found in another file of archived documents that hinted at orchestration.
Virtanen is actually the first researcher who has sifted out from the enormous body of material the most orchestrated sketches from the late period for "unknown works". Obviously these are likely to be the strongest candidates when we look for sketches of the lost symphony.
“These [other] sketches could well point us towards the Eighth Symphony, and they indicate that Sibelius had taken off in a quite startling direction”, says Virtanen.
It certainly looks that way. The dissonances are similar to those found in Surusoitto (Funeral Music), Op.111b for organ, composed somewhat hurriedly for the funeral in 1931 of the painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela.
How does it sound?
Virtanen has selected from the later sketches and drafts a fragment that Sibelius has worked up for orchestration and a couple of other drafts with hints at an orchestral treatment, and he has written them out as a clean copy on the PC.
I ask him for the parts for the orchestra musicians.
He writes these up, too, as clean versions on the computer, as Sibelius's handwriting is quite tricky.
Nothing is added at this copying process: it is all Sibelius.
We head off to the new Music Centre in Helsinki to have a word or two with Sakari Oramo, Chief Conductor with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and with John Storgårds, his opposite number at the Helsinki Philharmonic.
"Phew. This is pretty heady stuff" , says a dazed Oramo. "It stops right there just as Aino [Sibelius] has called from the kitchen to tell Janne to come and eat", he jokes.
But then he tries out the harmonies on the piano and his mood grows altogether more serious.
"There is a sense of searching and exhaustion in here. The material has an archaic dissonance to it."
One draft is a complete page of scoring for an orchestral work, marked as page 9.
"This is more finished and at the same time more familiar music. Sibelius is banging out dissonant seconds, but in an open fashion."
While Oramo packs up his things to go off and conduct in London, Storgårds agrees to subject the drafts to a little laboratory testing with the musicians of the Helsinki Philharmonic.
What we get is the first performance, for the readers of the online pages of Helsingin Sanomat.
Sibelius himself would not be best pleased from beyond the grave.
He abandoned the work of all these years and would not have relished hearing them played.
But when even his exercises from the years when he was a callow music student have already wound up on record, it seems only fair that we might hear a quick snatch or two of what sort of music the maestro wrote for orchestra during the gestation period of his fabled Eighth Symphony.
The timpani rings out in the rehearsal hall of the Music Centre.
The possible initial draft of the Eighth Symphony gets its first airing (see also video linked below).
Goosebumps. It's almost scary.
Sitting next to me, the Helsinki Philharmonic's Information Officer Marianna Kankare-Loikkanen bursts into tears.
We've been waiting decades on end for even a snippet of information on what was going through Sibelius's musical mind in his last years, and now these thoughts are filling the room!
"Incredible. Even the dissonant intervals in the horns have a sensual clarity to them", says a stunned Timo Virtanen.
The music is strange, powerful, and with daring, spicy harmonies - a step into the new even after Tapiola and the music for The Tempest. The opening segment, just over a minute in duration, sounds really good!
A second fragment offers a complete page of more conventional music, and is over in eight seconds.
A third fragment is more sketchy, and at the end of a minute's worth of orchestral music Sibelius has shaped out the parts only for the oboe.
"Whoo. Chills going up and down the spine there", confesses John Storgårds after it is all over.
"You can recognise the composer's late style from the fragments. But particularly in that opening passage the harmonies are so wild and the music so exciting that I'd really love to know how he went on with this."
According to the sketch, he went on by pondering how the opening would sound if the flutes and violins were to play in a higher register.
More than that we do not know, but there are still months and years of scholarly work to be done on the undocumented and unreferenced drafts.
One of the HPO musicians regarded the longer opening fragment as so good it would be worthy of inclusion as an encore number on tour.
We shall see. Pertti Virkkunen, the Chairman of the Sibelius Rights' Holders, granted Helsingin Sanomat permission for this particular ad hoc video recording. The rights' holders collegium will consider any other use of the material at a later date.
And the wait goes on. Will it be possible somehow, some day, to find more fragments of music from the years of the lost Eighth Symphony?
Might it even be possible that a copy of the work escaped the flames in Ainola - even the material copied out in 1933 by Sibelius's long-serving copyist Paul Voigt?
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 30.10.2011
The story does continue. In response to this original article from late October, half a dozen personal letters from Sibelius to his copyist Paul Voigt have surfaced for the first time, although not the "box full of notes" mentioned in Voigt's estate. The details are to be found in the accompanying articles.
More on this subject:
Jean Sibelius's own comments on his Eighth Symphony
Sibelius letters unearthed from document case
BACKGROUND: The loneliness of the long-serving copyist
Video - contains the Helsinki Philharmonic playing the fragments referred to in the text (click on small image for video, music from 2:10) Timo Virtanen is interviewed in Finnish by Vesa Sirén
Background: Finnish Music Quarterly 4/1995: an article on Sibelius´s Eighth and what happened to it, by Kari Kilpeläinen
Sibelius Portal: Writing the Eighth Symphony, 1928-1933
Sibelius - Symphony No. 8 (Wikipedia)
VESA SIRÉN / Helsingin Sanomat