[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
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.)
“Nature” in music is a fiendishly difficult concept to pin down. Indeed, it is appropriate to begin this essay with an important caveat: “Nature” can mean just about anything. In his exhaustive Nature as Aesthetic Norm (1948), Arthur Lovejoy attempts to list all the ways this concept can appear in Western music, and in the end one has to wonder what “Nature” doesn’t apply to. Yet, as difficult as the concept is to theorize, to dismiss the role of nature (hereafter referred to without capitalization and scare quotes) in the music of Sibelius – the self-proclaimed “apparition from the woods” – would be a mistake: it has been an important theme for the composer himself, for critics and scholars, and for generations of listeners, most of whom have heard Sibelius through the conceptual framework (including nature) that they inherited. It is impossible to deeply address the music of Sibelius, therefore, without recognizing the power of this recurring motive, as amorphous as it may be.
But what makes Sibelius’s music so natural sounding? Moving beyond reception studies and Adorno’s cantankerous remark, how is nature represented through the music itself? As I shall attempt to demonstrate in this essay, the naturalness of Sibelius’s musical language is not merely the figment of the critical and scholarly imagination; aesthetic discourses of nature are encoded directly into his musical procedures. Focusing on Symphony No. 5 (1915, rev. 1916 and 1919), I argue that nature takes many shapes in Sibelius’s symphonic imagination, manifesting itself in a variety of different techniques, including depersonalization and anti-teleology. However, true to the non-binary character of the natural world itself, nature in Symphony No. 5 is metaphorically conjured through the exact opposite devices as well – personalization and teleology. In the process of addressing these two poles, I will incorporate analyses of organicism, temporality, and spatio-acoustics to demonstrate how these techniques reinforce competing musical constructions of the natural. I conclude by suggesting that it is precisely within this flickering dialectic between contradictory evocations of “Nature” that, in fact, real nature resides. (Download the score here. For complete recordings of the three movements of Sym. 5, go here (I), here (II), and here (III).)
Before beginning the analysis, it would be helpful to delineate in broad strokes the different levels of musical constructions of nature that are common throughout the world. The natural world can be represented musically in three primary ways. First, music can reflect nature through direct mimesis. In this aesthetic approach, music is made to mirror the actual sounds of nature; it is less a matter of iconicity, therefore, than musical onomatopoeia. The second approach involves conjuring natural attributes through connotative musical metaphor: the precise sound of the natural referent here is not as important as the semiotic vocabulary available to link sounds to nature through musical metonymy. Lastly, nature can be represented abstractly through structural elements like formal patterning, organic development, rhythmic periodicity, narrativity, and so on. It is primarily on this level that Sibelius operates, and the rest of the essay will consist of an enumeration of these elements in Symphony No. 5, along with an analysis of just how these musical devises work to represent nature.
The primeval forest plays a very important role in Finnish mythology and cultural history. However, it is hardly the bright, welcoming forest of the dewy-eyed Romantic poets and of Snow White, where one is free to wander and whistle among the chattering birds. Rather, the forest in Finnish thinking is often portrayed as something dark, mysterious, immensely powerful, and beyond all human scale. Nature is a source of awe and terror, the seat of the sublime; it has no room for puny human subjects. This aspect of nature – depersonalized and subjectless – is evident in many aspects of Sibelius’s symphonic language. One manifestation of this principle can be seen in the typically Sibelian propensity for the cyclical repetition of small motives. A representative example can be found in the 1st movement, “J – L” (mm. 68-87), wherein all motivic activity comes to a halt and fragments into tiny chromatic shards. For nineteen measures, we are left with an empty musical canvas: strings vacillate between chromatic pitches in a shimmering texture while the bassoon meanders through a directionless solo. There is no subject to be found in moments like this. It is as if the composer set a musical process into motion only to walk away and cede all control over to the repetitive process itself – there is nobody in the proverbial driver’s seat. The same thing occurs later in the movement at “K2” (m. 369); here, chromatic motion is tossed between the instruments, never cohering into any actual phrases. Music semiotician Eero Tarasti describes this sort of process as follows: “The music itself becomes a subjectless environment. This is a particularly Sibelian way of deactorializing the music, so as to make it an impersonal and vegetative natural process in which no thinking or feeling subject can be seen.” Indeed, sections like these deny the listener of any phenomenological ground for the representation of stable subjecthood. Additionally, the slow development of small musical kernels – another illustration of which can be found in the opening motive of the movement in m. 3 – relates to the question of musical organicism, a topic I will return to in greater detail later. If we assume that a musical phrase has an autonomous vital force (as many composers, performers, and music scholars did in Sibelius’s time and today), then the composer’s role as individual shaper of musical events is called into question in a gesture like this. As Ruth Solie puts it, “the organism grows and takes shape by itself: the artist need only give it birth.”
Another aspect of depersonalization in Symphony No. 5 can be seen in the orchestration. For the vast majority of the work, woodwinds carry the lion’s share of melodic material while the strings play the role of textural enhancement, providing the harmonic support for the winds’ flights. Moreover, when the strings are given prominent melodic material (for example, mvt. 1, “A2” [m. 127]; all of mvt. 2; opening of mvt. 3), it is usually marked by brisk melodic rhythms, tremolo, or pizzicato, the opposite of any sort of traditional string role as cantabile “voice” of the ensemble. Stravinsky once commented that “string instruments remind one too strongly of the human voice.” Indeed, this is a voice – the embodied sound of the human subject – that is for the most part absent in Symphony No. 5.
Moving now to another feature of Sibelius’s musical representation of nature, much of the symphony demonstrates an easily cognizable sense of thwarted teleology, of musical progression that is frustrated and frozen. In many accounts of musical nature, the rejection of teleology symbolizes the deep stillness of the natural world, its sense of Being rather than Becoming. To many observers, musical teleology – the logical thematic progression of material towards a telos, the climactic goal – is expressive of striving human passions and heroic narratives, not the vast timescale of nature. Nature has no anthropomorphized form to serve as subject of a bounded story, no tension and release, no ups and downs – it simply is. It is this quality of “is-ness” that Sibelius’s anti-teleological structures work to conjure.
The breakdown of all goal-oriented linear motion through time is primarily enacted through four techniques: cyclicity, repetition, harmonic stasis, and (to a more limited extent) palindrome. The cyclical nature of Sibelius’s music has often been noted; James Hepokoski, for instance, refers to it as “rotational form.” Returning once again to the first movement, the three-note motive in m. 3 is a perfect example of the thematic basis for rotational form: the pattern (Eb, F, C), a minute seed of a musical idea, is planted then repeated in a 2-bar cyclical structure. Indeed, this sort of “small-scale oscillation supporting ‘organic growth’” is quite common in Sibelius’s symphonic oeuvre. Additional examples can be seen in the “J – L” section discussed earlier, where quivering chromaticisms spin out of control and all forward-thrusting time comes to a precipitous stop. There is no subject here, but there is also no time or sense of movement towards an implied goal; it is a sort of musical limbo.
Cyclicity is closely related to repetition, another favorite in Sibelius’s panoply of anti-teleological techniques. The first pronounced moment of immobility due to the repetition of an ostinato pattern comes in m. 31 (4 measures after “D”), when low strings begin circling through the pattern D-C-D-E again and again. Like the above, forward progression appears thwarted in this section until Sibelius ratchets up the rhythmic level at m. 36, then again at the end of m. 39. Another highly static moment of gently swaying alternations between two harmonies comes at m. 295. Patterns like these border on what we would today call “minimalism”: nothing is “happening” in the teleological sense. Repetitions are compounded by the use of constantly reoccurring rhythmic mottos within the movements. In fact, the first two movements both have their own repetitive rhythmic signatures that run throughout (see below: mvt. 1 begins in m. 20; mvt. 2 begins in m. 5).
Rhythmic mottos: Mvt. 1 & 2
Harmonic stasis, which is often coupled with the two principles just discussed, is also a common feature in Symphony No. 5 and Sibelius’s symphonic output as a whole. As Hepokoski points out, Sym. 5 is essentially one prolonged Eb-major “sound-sheet”; although there is significant tonal fluctuation on what Schenker would call the “surface,” Sibelius does not take us on a tonal journey a la Beethoven. The first movement, for instance, ends with a full 90 measures of Eb major; the whole interior to mvt. 2 is a static G major block; and the finale is largely set in static Eb major. Through the use of repetition, ostinato, and pedal points, Sibelius is able to sustain one central tonal ground for vast stretches of musical space. Harmony does not move in sections like these; it freezes.
Less common than the previous three examples, in Sym. 5 Sibelius employs a musical palindrome at a very prominent moment, easily the major arrival of the piece, in fact. The “Swan Hymn” – so called because the composer based this swinging melody on a revelatory brush with the natural world (migrating swans) – occurs in the finale beginning at “D.” As the structural and phenomenological centerpiece of the symphony, the hymn is unusual in its near total stasis; indeed, as Alex Ross points out, the horns start on the melody in medias res, as if they have always been playing it. It sounds as if they could always keep playing it as well, provided Sibelius did not slam on the brakes 8 measures before “G,” affectively pushing us back into the frantic activity that comes before this immobile thematic block. Part of the feeling of immobility here comes from the fact that the hymn is palindromic; it does not move forward linearly but rather doubles back on itself (see below: read figure in retrograde beginning at bracketed C) in a profoundly anti-teleological move. We have stumbled into a process that seems to exist independent of the bounded, finite musical work in which it finds itself. It is also worth noting at this point that Sibelius plays with parallel time streams in the introduction to the Swan Hymn (before the modulation to C), juxtaposing the full-time theme in horns and violins with the same theme running at 1/3-time in the basses (beginning 13 measures after “D”). Imbricating temporal patterns, like the non-retrogradability of the theme, portray a sense of timelessness, alinearity, and complete stasis.
While devices like depersonalization and anti-teleology play an important role in Sibelius’s musical representation of nature, they could – just like a palindrome – be reversed to create the same symbolic order. Indeed, the opposite could just as well be true: personalization and teleology abound in Sym. 5 as well and, as I shall argue, they too are expressive of nature. In fact, the consolidation of contradictory musical impulses makes up perhaps Sibelius’s most powerful and moving portrait of nature.
As we have noted, Sym. 5 features many passages that seem to suggest a level of depersonalization, of the distancing of the subject. However, at numerous moments in the piece, Sibelius retakes authorial control for the expression of personal, “human” utterances; the dark woods open up and we are given a glimpse of nature with people. This is perhaps most clearly evident in the symphony’s many pastoral inflections, a device that has been linked not just to the country but to country folk for centuries. For example, in the first movement, m. 111 (Allegro moderato), we break into a simple, guileless waltz that seems to connote the freshness and gaiety of country life. The second movement has many strong pastoral elements, including the almost childlike melody (m. 5), vaguely folkish fiddling (“B”), and Lydian modal inflections (the augmented fourth that hangs over the unfolding texture for most of the movement, beginning before “B”). Tinges of Lydian-dominant modality also color the opening theme of the finale.
Beyond the metaphor of the pastoral, however, some of the most arresting moments in the symphony come when Sibelius seizes a rare, fleeting moment of warm, personal – dare I say “Romantic” – expressivity out of his tempered, depersonalized sound matrix. One of the most striking instances in this regard (and the most commented upon) comes in the finale at “N” (Un pochettino largamente). In the parallel minor, the long-suppressed strings rise to the top with a rich, lyrical melody. As Tarasti put it, here “the subject steps into the foreground as a complete person…” But touches of deeply personal music abound in the whole movement. Sibelius writes that the Swan Hymn, as well as the movement organized around it, expresses “nature mysticism and life’s Angst!” To be sure, the major events in the finale do not portray a cold, impersonal nature, but rather one that is buzzing with sentient life and throbbing with “Angst.” Whittall explains: “Notions of the grand and the mystical are human, not ‘natural,’ and the character of the Fifth Symphony, far from a passive charting of natural marvels, suggests an epic human struggle to respond adequately to what nature has to offer.” In short, gestures like this reveal a human-eye perspective of nature, not an “objective” account.
The importance of human perspective is evident in other parts of the symphony as well. As Sarah Menin suggests, spatio-acoustic considerations play an important role in Sibelius’s structures and scoring. Like the forest, one must go into the music; the symphony is sonically immersive. This is clear from the first measure, with a far-away horn line that is reminiscent of crossing a threshold into sacred space. Once we enter, we are drawn into the sound environment, and Sibelius effectively employs a form of “space dramaturgy” to manipulate the acoustic environment around us, offering both stunning vistas of expansiveness (the Swan Hymn) and fenced in, confined spaces (some of the repetitive passages). Of course, spatio-acoustic effects are highly dependent upon the listening subject: a person has to be walking through the woods to experience them. In moments such as the spine-tinglingly beautiful modulation to C in the Swan Hymn (finale, 24 before “F”), one perceives a vast space opening up before us. Similarly, this moment materializes as a point of phenomenological arrival. But in the supposedly anti-teleological world of Sibelius’s “nature” music, how can this be?
We can see that, in fact, teleology works right alongside anti-teleology in the musical expression of the natural. While it is true that Sibelius often freezes goal-oriented momentum, repetition in his music is never simply a matter of running the same exact figure again and again; micro-changes are constantly occurring, and at the end of the process we find ourselves in a new place. The gradual metamorphosis of tiny motives was closely associated in Sibelius’s mind with “severity of form” and “profound logic,” the building blocks toward the singular achievement of musical revelation, or telos, within a piece. Breakdowns of linear time often serve a decidedly linear function, then; they provide an amorphous baseline from which rise concrete forms and arrival. The great epiphany of the symphony is, of course, the Swan Hymn, but “mini-arrivals” dot the musical landscape (for example, a telos is reached in mvt. 1, m. 103 [4 before “N”] when the germinal seed of the introduction blooms into a vibrant flower). Climaxes like these are the natural consequence of “organic” musical growth.
A brief word on musical organicism is in order here, as this notion is significantly implicated in many conceptions of musical teleology and nature. As Ruth Solie indicates, the biological metaphor of the organic has, since it gained currency in the early 19th century, come to imply that musical growth strives ab ovo, like life processes, to full form (the telos). The “Chord of Nature,” then, is encapsulated by a modified biological aphorism: musical ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. In Sibelius’s music, this “organic” process often takes the form mentioned above: the continuous thematic metamorphosis of small fragments, or seeds. While this process is not “organic” in the same way as Beethovenian development, it still serves a similar function of “profound logic”; in short, it is telos-generating.
Yet goals in Sym. 5, particularly the revelatory Swan Hymn, are hardly experienced phenomenologically in the same way as a tonal goal in Brahms or Schubert. Rather, this is a form of non-teleological teleology: we do not feel as if we are building towards a goal until we get there – broadsided by the telos, the effect is dazzling and epiphanic, “elemental and mythic.” The process of development only comes into focus retrospectively. In Ross’s words, this is where the thematic search for meaning suddenly finds the object of its yearning: it becomes a “microcosm of spiritual life.” In the finale, however, our “search” ends early; the Swan Hymn appears only about 1/3 of the way into the movement. When it resurfaces toward the end (around “P”), it morphs into something sharp and grotesque, with a terrifying dissonance that threatens the stability of the beatific vision. In a moment unique in both its violence and its life-affirming sense of victory, the original identity of the telos finally congeals into the much longed-for Eb-major (Un pochettino stretto). But just as soon as we think we have reached the triumphant, hard-won end, Sibelius presents us with a drawn-out, extremely disjunct dominant preparation with long pauses between each chord. Even the ultimate telos, it turns out, is approached anti-teleologically, denying the listener any sense of absolute closure when the last chord sounds.
Musical representations of nature in Sibelius’s symphonies are seldom monolithic and totalizing. Rather, they involve a complex dialectic between competing symbolic systems; the “depersonalized” is juxtaposed with the “personal,” the “anti-teleological” put alongside the “teleological.” Significantly, this quality of overlapping musical metaphor does not cancel out the process of nature representation; instead, it allows listeners to phenomenologically engage the music by employing their own definitions of “nature.” In other words, it capaciously opens itself up to be experienced according to a wide range of (sometimes contradictory) “nature” signifiers. Sibelius’s musical representation of nature, like nature itself, is non-dualistic – it is both depersonalized and personal, anti-teleological and teleological. (Sibelius shows this collapsing of binarisms in other areas of his deeply ambiguous music as well, beginning with his “modern classicism,” or “anti-modern modernism.”) It is the generosity of Sibelius’s music, his embrace of a “both/and” aesthetic instead of an “either/or” approach that, to me, resonates the most profoundly with my own conception of nature. For nature itself, like Sibelius’s music, is the ultimate ambiguity.
 Quoted in Eero Tarasti, “Metaphors of nature and organicism in the epistemology of music: A biosemiotic introduction to the analysis of Jean Sibelius’s symphonic thought,” in Sibelius Forum II [Proceedings from the Third International Jean Sibelius Conference, Helsinki, December 2000] (Helsinki: Sibelius Academy Press, 2003), 172.
 “… human nature, the cosmic order, imitation of nature, truthfulness, objective beauty, simplicity, symmetry, balance, the primacy of emotion, spontaneity, naïveté, primitivism, irregularity, avoidance of symmetry, the expression of artist’s voice, the fullness of human life, the savage, the fecundity, evolution…” and so on and so forth. For more, see ibid., 172.
 My analysis will not conform to the linear temporal unfolding of the symphony. Rather, I structure my analysis around the thematic representations of nature and, as such, will be jumping around the three movements of the symphony to illustrate the various techniques.
 Offhand examples include the following: The Japanese shakuhachi honkyoku tradition holds that the best players should sound exactly like the wind blowing through bamboo (Kikkawa, Takemitsu). The music of the Kaluli people of New Guinea directly mimics the birds, insects, and sonic density of the forest (Feld). Bird imitations of all sorts – from the Medieval caccia to Messiaen’s elaborate ornithological compositions of the 1950s – conjure birdsong through mimesis.
 Examples include the following: Debussy’s La Mer, which conjures “ocean-ness” through up-and-down undulations of sound that serve as a metaphor for the up-and-down motion of waves. A far cruder example of metaphoricity in music can be found in the donkey evocations in Grofé’s The Grand Canyon Suite. For perhaps the best source I have thus far encountered on the topic of musical metaphor, see Lawrence Zbikowski, Conceptualizing Music: Cognitive Structures, Theory, and Analysis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). A helpful summary of issues of musical representation can also be found in John Shepherd and Peter Wicke, Music and Cultural Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997).
 For more, see Sarah Menin, “Spatial soundings: Aalto and Sibelius,” in Musical Semiotics in Growth, eds. Richard Littlefield et al. (Helsinki: International Semiotics Institute Imatra, 1996), 360.
 Tarasti, 177.
 Ruth Solie, “The Living Work: Organicism and Music Analysis,” 19th-Century Music 4/2 (Autumn 1980), 155. See also James Hepokoski, Sibelius Symphony No. 5 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993), 3 & 63; and Tarasti, 185.
 Hepokowski offers his own list of non-teleological elements in Sibelius’s music on page 20. See also 23.
 Ibid., 67. For another superlative example, see the opening pendulum-swing ostinato in Symphony No. 4. For more, see Timothy Howell, “’Sibelius the Progressive,’” in Sibelius Studies, eds. Timothy Jackson and Veijo Murtomäki (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001), 43.
 Hepokoski calls this effect “harmonic near-immobility and the slowly transforming sound-sheet.” See Hepokoski, 20.
 Alex Ross, “Apparition from the Woods: The Loneliness of Jean Sibelius,” in The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007), 167.
 For more on timelessness in Sibelius’s music, see Menin, 385.
 Tarasti, 190.
 Quoted in Arnold Whittall, “The Later Symphonies,” in The Cambridge Companion to Sibelius, ed. Daniel Grimley (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004), 55.
 Ibid., 55-56.
 Menin, 364.
 Hepokoski notes that this affective horn gesture, a sign of entry into a magical forest, is part of a long lineage including music by Schubert, Wagner, Brahms, and Mahler. For more, see Hepokoski, 62.
 Lorenz Luykens’s term. See Tarasti, 177.
 Hepokoski describes this process by way of a felicitous metaphor: Sibelius’s method of motivic development through repetition is like altering one letter of a word at a time to arrive at a new word. See Hepokoski, 59.
 Quoted in Ross, 164. For more on the composer’s preoccupation with internal logic, see Hepokoski, 3. In Kantian aesthetics, telos is a requirement for organicism (als zweckmässig); a work, therefore, can either end in victory or in destruction, but there has to be a climax one way or the other. Erkki Salmenhaara, however, argues against Kant, believing that the telos is the process of development. In Sibelius, both of these are true. See Tarasti, 175 & 184.
 Solie, 153. The same idea is approached differently today in the field of biosemiotics. For more, see Tarasti, 187.
 Solie, 154.
 Sibelius denied the “fragment’s” importance in his work, arguing that these germinal ideas were better described as simply the organic musical connection of nature and art. See Elliott Antokoletz, “The Musical Language of the Fourth Symphony,” in Sibelius Studies, eds. Timothy Jackson and Veijo Murtomäki (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001), 301. For his part, Sibelius saw the most “organic” element of his composition style as his lush, smooth scoring, a point that, regrettably, I do not have the space to properly address here.
 Hepokoski, 26.
 Ross, 166.
 Ross’s comments about Sibelius’s music in general are perfectly on point here: “Many times in Sibelius’s music the exaltation of natural sublimity gives way to inchoate fear, which has less to do with the outer landscape than with the inner one, the forest of the mind.” See Ross, 159.
 The first term is Hepokoski’s, the second Milan Kundera’s (applied to Sibelius’s music by Ross).