Out of the Fire

Was Jean Sibelius's newly discovered Eighth Symphony destroyed in one of the composer's notorious drunken rages?

Norman Lebrecht

No lost work in the world excites such national fervour as the Eighth Symphony that Jean Sibelius threw on a bonfire at his home in Ainola some time in the early 1940s. No Shakespeare draft, no missing part of Goethe’s Faust, no canto of Dante’s would cause scholars to weep in England, Germany and Italy as they did in Helsinki when the editor of the composer’s complete works, Timo Virtanen, announced in November that he had found what appeared to be a sketch from the lost symphony.

 Copies of the manuscript were rushed down to the new concert hall, where the Helsinki Philharmonic gave a quick read through — only for players to reach for their hankies on being told that they had just given the first sound of the missing link in the national story.

 Sibelius, who defined the nation in Finlandia, was called upon to rescue it in his Eighth Symphony. After seizing independence from Russia in 1918, the Finns were riven by civil war, poverty and isolation and almost rolled over by Soviet invasion in 1939. 

 Sibelius had fallen silent after finishing his Seventh Symphony in 1924. He took a commission for the next symphony from Serge Koussevitzky in Boston, but never came up with the goods. Thomas Beecham came to see how he was getting on. Sibelius, bluff and bibulous, showed him nothing. Modernists from the Schoenberg camp scoffed that the old symphonist was a busted flush. Admirers said he was wrestling with demons.

 In 1939, Sibelius appealed to the world on radio to save his ravaged land. The Soviet attack was beaten back. Some time later, Sibelius burned the symphony. Why would he do that? The composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, who met Sibelius in his youth, thought that the old man feared that anything less than his best work would weaken international support and cause Finnish morale to collapse. That theory seems to me more credible than the common notion that the heavy-drinking composer annulled the work in a drunken rage. 

 The new sketches are no more than a teaser to his intentions. The musical language is definedly Sibelian, a wash of strings with a woodwind wail and a melody that hovers just beyond reach. Unlike Mahler, who danced with atonality in his final score, Sibelius stays within his safety zone. He knows his audience and will not test its tolerance.

 If this is the beginning of the symphony, it is excessively cautious. More likely, it opens one of the middle movements. In a letter discovered in a railwayman’s attic after the music was nationally aired, Sibelius mentions “a cardboard box filled with music sheets” and talks of a chorus in the symphony. There may be more surprises ahead in this icebound saga.

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