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The enforced prosperity inflicted upon Jean Sibelius by the government of Finland

I continue to be obsessed by the Seventh Symphony of Sibelius, after hearing it performed at a live concert. (In a comment on that posting, Nick M expressed admiration for how Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra performed this piece. I assume he meant this recording. Having listened to many recordings of Sibelius 7 recently, I find myself strongly agreeing with Nick M. (My surprise second favourite Sibelius 7 is, as of now, John Barbirolli and the Halle Orchestra. (But Karajan and the BPO are much better recorded.)))

While seeking to learn more about this amazing piece, I came across a delightful start to some writing about it by Paul Serotsky:

So often does adversity transmute talent into greatness that we seem to consider it a general rule. Sibelius would be an exception to prove that rule. While still only 32, the Finnish government awarded him a pension for life, a year before he even began work on his First Symphony. That he went on to produce some of the Twentieth Century’s finest and most original music says much for his strength of character in the face of enforced prosperity.

Much is made of the last few decades of Sibelius’s life and of how, during all that time, he composed nothing. But he was over ninety when he died, and sixty isn’t a ridiculous age at which to be retiring from the creative life. In general, his life is usually regarded as a case of a government arts subsidy scheme working out pretty well. As Serotsky says, Sibelius is exceptional in being so creative, after receiving a guaranteed minimum income. (Incidentally, I wonder if the government of Finland had its collective brain cells scrambled by what they surely saw as the success of their Sibelius experiment, and thus thought that a generalised version of the same scheme would be other than a dismal failure, that echoed the end of Sibelius’s life rather than his earlier creativity?)

Serotsky’s words remind me that I did a couple of other music-based postings here, quite a few years ago now, about how adversity can sometimes indeed transmute talent into greatness.

6 comments to The enforced prosperity inflicted upon Jean Sibelius by the government of Finland

  • Michael Taylor

    Sibelius had enough going against him to over-ride the enforced prosperity. Indeed, I wonder how much of that enforced prosperity went on booze.

    If so, thank god it did, because without it, we’d not have had the extraordinary shining darkness of his Fourth Symphony.

  • Mr Ed

    Sibelius helped to raise funds for Finland during the Winter War, when he was in his mid-70s, and he spoke of his admiration for his countrymen in that struggle.

    His Jaeger’s March was a White Anthem in the Finnish Civil War after independence, nice uncompromising lyrics.

    Here’s another Finnish marching song with some excellent lyrics, partially subtitled.

    “Rise, White Brothers, down with the Red Russians.

    Show no mercy to the enemy!”.

  • bobby b

    “Sibelius’ life’s goal achieved, I reckon. So, perhaps it’s as well he did give up on his Eighth?”

    Quite the “glass-half-empty” sort, isn’t he? Some might think “oh, if only he had continued to grow into his Eighth!”

    (Which I only mention because I thought his “enforced prosperity” remark was tongue-in-cheek until I read that final line.)

  • Give me a subsidy for life and I will produce music of unsurpassed genius. I mean it. Starting Monday please.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Now that Mr Ed has told me about Sibelius’ political positions, i am going to listen to more of his music.

    All his symphonies are in my CD collection, but somehow the first 3 most resonate with me. As for the Fourth: “extraordinary shining darkness” is a good way of describing it; it intrigues me, but i have not made up my mind how much i like it.

    I also like some of his shorter pieces. En Saga is a little masterpiece: it captures the Nordic spirit of grim determination in the face of adversity. Same as the symphonies that i like, but condensed.

    May i also recommend Villem Kapp’s Second Symphony.

  • Paul Marks

    The difference between being a composer and many ordinary jobs is that it is a matter of passion – a vocation.

    As Brian implies – just because a composer will continue to compose even if paid a “minimum income” by the government, does NOT mean that people in ordinary jobs would continue to work.

    I doubt I would continue to do my job.

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