Representations of “Nature” in Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony

[It’s been a while since we’ve posted a longer, essay-style piece so I thought I’d make another contribution to the genre to ring in the new year. Although Sibelius was folded into the last few pages of Vol. III, the first two decades of the 20th Century were his moment. I hope readers won’t mind this little backtrack.]

Sibelius’s music is all Nature.

– T. W. Adorno[1]

It is impossible to engage with the scholarly and critical literature on the music of Jean Sibelius without quickly running headlong into the idea of “Nature.” During the composer’s life (1865–1957) and all the way to the present, “Nature” has remained a pervasive category in the way people listen to and analyze his music, a fact based on a host of diverse and sometimes contradictory factors. Indeed, the terms “Nature” and “Natural” are often bandied about in Sibelius criticism and scholarship with such a degree of promiscuity as to render them facile and, in many contexts, meaningless, since nature in music is hardly a self-evident, stable category of phenomenological experience or theoretical analysis. For every writer, in other words, nature is something different. In his famously (and characteristically) dismissive remarks, Adorno employs “Nature” as simply a byword for the rustic simple-mindedness and Romantic naïveté he believed made the music of Sibelius so decidedly sub-par. For others, “Nature” refers to a form of musical iconicity of “nature-ness” and all that we associate with the concept (sublimity, profundity, fecundity, power, etc.). For others still, Sibelius is “natural” because he is an exotic cousin of the European family, an outsider from a peripheral, frigid nation that speaks a bizarre language. (Surely, someone who could rattle off a word like työllistymään is closer to nature than denizens of the modern, industrialized world.)

Continue reading “Representations of “Nature” in Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony”

French Modernist Listening List, Part I

A partial list of musical examples from Taruskin, Vol. IV, Ch. 2. This is part I, corresponding to pages 59-84: Erik Satie, and Claude Debussy. More to come later…

On a personal note: my 1 1/2-year-old son sat by my side as I compiled this playlist. He kept saying “No! No!” when he heard/saw the videos. But trust me, it’s not that he didn’t enjoy the music: “no” is just how he says “piano” right now.

Click through below for more videos. Enjoy!

Continue reading “French Modernist Listening List, Part I”

Mahler the Giant

… [A symphony] so great that the whole world is actually reflected therein – so that one is, so to speak, only an instrument upon which the universe plays.   — Mahler

Ambitious goal, that. To Mahler, the artistic aim to create a “universal symphony”  translated into expanding both the size and scope of the ensemble and the form. Where the average symphony up until then typically had first movements lasting roughly 10-15 minutes in duration, Mahler upped the ante to over 20 minutes in Sym.2 and over 30 in Sym.3; where the usual, humdrum orchestra had 4-6 horns, for instance, Mahler brought in a cavalry of 10 parts for Sym.2. In order to express the universal, it seems, everything needed to be larger.

RT calls this expansion of symphonic means and ambitions “maximalism,” a term that implies an uncompromising dedication to the extremes. It’s a fascinating fin de siecle paradigm that shows up in areas outside of music as well (one recalls a particular super-sized ocean liner..).

You have to wonder how much of this “maximalization” of the symphony had to do with expanding the expressive range of the orchestra to encapsulate the whole world (nay, the universe), and how much of it had to do the same sort of hubris that lay behind the construction of the aforementioned ocean liner. I’m an ardent admirer of Mahler, but there’s a lot of arrogance mixed in with the audacity here (first, to think that the “universal” is musically possible; second, to think that he would be the one who could do it). There’s an odd conflation of universality and philosophical serious-mindedness with massive orchestral forces, volume, and duration. Could not a Mozartean symphony also be “universal,” or are claims of universality proportionately related to size, making the “small” simultaneously the “non-universal”?

As a companion term to RT’s “maximalism,” I might suggest “gigantism” as another designation of the ballooning of orchestral forces, time scales, and philosophical ambitions during this period. The OED defines the word as “abnormal or monstrous size,” and in the context of the book so far (and music after the first decade or two of the 20th century), Mahlerian scale does indeed represent something abnormal. Both maximalism and gigantism work in tandem here: ambitions were extreme, but the equation of expressive range (“the whole world in a symphony”) with size expresses a “bigger is better” mentality as well.

A Funeral Rite for Vol. IV

And now to the music. (IV, 10)

To the music indeed. Over the last couple of weeks, Zach and I have been wrapping up our comments on Vol. III (19th century). We both realized that the “wrapping” could indeed go on and on, and that we must move forward.

So here we are at the dawn of Richard Taruskin’s next volume, Music in the Early Twentieth Century (his account of the century comprises two volumes). And the first musical example we are introduced to is the first movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor, first premiered in Berlin in late 1895. The movement is called Todtenfeier (“Funeral Rite”).

May I suggest sitting down, putting on the first movement of the symphony, and reading the first 20 pages of RT’s text? There’s no better way to get in the spirit—and trust me, you’ll finish the 20 pages before the orchestra finishes the first movement…

With a Little Help from My Friends

“Henceforth [i.e., from the 1870s], Grieg was the Norwegian composer in the eyes of Europe and America; and, as always, it was reception, not immanent content or character—consumption, not production—that proved decisive in making him so.” (III, 818, emphasis in original)

Consumption, not production. This is a radical up-ending of the 19th-century nationalist narrative (see my recent post on Elgar). It’s supposed to matter where you’re from (production), not how you’re marketed (consumption). But Taruskin is right on this one. Has any composer entered the canon without the benefit of a highly influential advocate, whether of their own time or later in history?