The Patchwork Symphony

By Benjamin Pomerance

The symphony began with a letter from Mr. X. Jean Sibelius had received these notes before, laced with strong-minded instructions about what the Finnish composer should do next in his life and career. Often, he would listen to the mercurial sender. And the results were usually good. In one earlier dispatch, for instance, Mr. X advised Sibelius to create a piece for the World’s Fair in Paris. He told Sibelius that the work should be an overture or a symphonic poem. He stated that it should contain images and emotions embodying the Finnish national spirit.

And then, Mr. X provided the clincher: “The name of your overture should be Finlandia — shouldn’t it?” Sibelius followed the enigmatic sender’s instructions, even adopting the title. Today, the work stands as the selection with which Sibelius is most commonly associated, rapidly evolving into one of the most universally recognized pieces of classical music in the history of the world.

Yet this latest correspondence with Mr. X was slightly different. “You have been sitting at home for quite a while, Mr. Sibelius,” the writer insisted. “It is high time for you to travel. You will spend the late autumn and the winter in Italy, a country where one learns cantabile, balance and harmony; plasticity and symmetry of lines; a country where everything is beautiful — even the ugly. You remember what Italy meant for Tchaikovsky’s development and for Richard Strauss.” As usual, it was signed only with an “X.”   

There was only one problem about this idea. Although these notes seemed mysterious in origin, Sibelius knew Mr. X’s identity. The sender was Baron Axel Carpelan, an eccentric Finnish nobleman and amateur violinist with an unyielding devotion to Sibelius. For a couple of decades, Carpelan sent Sibelius lengthy letters about virtually every piece that the composer wrote. Often, he would suggest revisions — ideas that Sibelius intermittently adopted. When Sibelius was too busy to respond right away, Carpelan would send notes to Sibelius’s wife.    

Originally, Carpelan signed his letters to Sibelius only under the pseudonym of “Music Lover.” Later, he changed his nom de plume to the even more mystical-sounding “Mr. X.” Yet regardless of what name he was using at the time, one fact remained consistent about the unmarried and jobless music-obsessed baron. Despite his noble title, Baron Carpelan almost always was penniless.

Yet Carpelan was also well-connected. And when the matter at stake involved Sibelius, the baron was relentless. Somehow, by haranguing a number of affluent friends, he secured 5,000 marks to pay for Sibelius, and for Sibelius’s wife and two children, to travel in style to Italy. The seemingly grateful family left Finland at the end of October 1900. To Carpelan’s horror, however, they decided to stay in Berlin for several months — funding the stay with the money that Carpelan had procured.

By January 1901, all of the cash was gone, and Sibelius and his family were still in Germany — much to the annoyance of both Carpelan and Sibelius’s wife. Then Sibelius wrote to Carpelan and apologized. Satisfied with the apology, Carpelan hit the recruiting trails again, asking more friends for more money to pay for Sibelius to finally visit Italy. Once again, the baron’s contacts came through. And with this new money now in their hands, Sibelius and his family at last made their way to the Mediterranean coastal town of Rapallo.

Then Don Juan entered the picture. Carpelan’s fundraising produced enough money for Sibelius and his family to stay in a mountainside villa. The building was beautiful. Over time, however, it seemed to produce an odd effect on Sibelius, particularly in the evening hours. He began believing that a supernatural presence had entered the villa, leaving him increasingly uneasy. In one letter, he noted that he was feeling “a greater need for company than ever.”

The paranormal sensations reached their zenith on February 19, 1901. In early evening, a vision consumed him, an intuition so strong that Sibelius scrawled his impressions on a sheet of paper. “Don Juan. Sitting in the twilight in my castle, a guest enters,” the composer wrote. “I ask many times who he is — No answer. I make an effort to entertain him. He remains mute. Eventually, he starts singing. At this time, Don Juan notices who he is — Death.”    

He turned the paper over. On the back side, he sketched a musical staff. Then he penned a dark and ominous melody, a sinister-sounding tune in the key of D-minor. The music seemed to represent the hallucination of Don Juan and Death that had consumed him on that day. Long after leaving Italy, he kept that piece of paper with him.

And before long, it seemed as if that vision had been a premonition. Sibelius’s six-year-old daughter, Ruth, contracted an illness that Sibelius believed to be typhus, placing her life in grave danger. Just one year earlier, typhus had taken the life of another daughter, fifteen-year-old Kirsti, tumbling Sibelius into a deep and alcohol-laden depression. The idea that he might lose another daughter in the same way was simply too much for the composer to bear. Abruptly, he packed his belongings and took off for Rome.

In doing so, Sibelius effectively abandoned his wife for a fortnight. Alone, she cared for the ailing Ruth while her husband haunted Rome’s art galleries and attended the opera. Within a couple of days, he wrote a guilt-filled letter to his wife: “It is because of my thoughtlessness and insecurity that I have been unable to make you happy. Besides this, my nature is so volatile.”

Incredibly, Sibelius’s wife managed to nurse Ruth back to health. Perhaps even more remarkably, she managed to forgive her husband’s desertion. Healthy and together again, they left the villa in Rapallo, traveling to Florence. And while they were staying together in Florence, Sibelius wrote another segment of music, a slow and ethereal set of passages. Later, he would place a heading over these notes: Christus [“Christ”]. Today, some musicologists believe that Ruth’s stunning recovery inspired this material.

From Florence, Sibelius and his family traveled to Vienna and Prague — where Sibelius met Antonin Dvorak — before returning to Finland in May 1901. They arrived home in the midst of social and political turmoil. Since 1809, Finland had existed as an independent Grand Duchy within the Russian Empire. In 1899, however, Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II issued a manifesto declaring that Russia could exercise imperial rule over Finland. He named this sudden historical shift “Russification.”

Thus began one of the most difficult periods in Finland’s history. Russian currency became Finland’s currency. The Russian Orthodox Church became the official church of Finland. Russian became Finland’s official language. Russian leaders seized the right to censor the Finnish press.   

As Russia’s political takeover intensified, a backlash arose among many Finnish citizens. Civil disobedience to Russian orders became increasingly common. In July 1901, when Nicholas II abolished Finland’s independent army and annexed its soldiers into Russia’s imperial military, this quiet rebellion within Finland intensified. Nationalistic Finnish citizens yearned for symbols of their homeland’s identity, images and motifs that represented their independence.

And it wasn’t long before they turned to the man who had composed Finlandia only a couple of years earlier. After returning from his eventful travels in Italy, Sibelius had tried to spin his Don Juan theme from Rapallo and his Christus theme from Florence into a series of tone poems based on Dante’s Divine Comedy. Yet this project quickly stalled. Realizing that his ideas about these themes had advanced beyond the realm of a few tone poems, Sibelius changed his plans. He would turn these musical motives into a symphony.

Shortly after reaching this conclusion, Sibelius sent a letter to Baron Carpelan. “I have been in the throes of a bitter struggle with this symphony,” he wrote. “Now the picture is clearer, and I am proceeding under full sail. Soon I hope to have something to dedicate to you.” Right away, Carpelan started soliciting more money for Sibelius. When the strain of composing this symphony became too great for Sibelius to continue his “day job” as a music teacher, these funds became the only relatively reliable income on which Sibelius’s family could depend.

On March 8, 1902, Sibelius’s new symphony received its world premiere in Helsinki. His contrasting themes from that trip to Italy consumed the second movement: the Don Juan theme entering first in the bassoons, with the Christus passages serenely arriving midway through the movement. The two segments announce themselves with defiance, ultimately struggling with one another for supremacy in a battle that is never fully resolved.

Yet when the audience in Helsinki heard this movement, they heard neither Don Juan nor Christ. Instead, they heard their hopeless battle against Russian oppression. “The Andante [slow movement] strikes one as the most broken-hearted protest against all the injustices that threaten at the present time to deprive the sun of its light and flowers of its scent,” wrote Helsinki Philharmonic founder and conductor Robert Kajanus after the premiere. A number of commentators ascribed similarly nationalistic ideas to this musical struggle.   

For the remaining three movements, many Finnish listeners continued to attach Sibelius’s ideas with current events. For instance, Kajanus wrote that the scherzo movement “gives a picture of frenetic preparation” for challenges ahead. In the slowly unfolding but ultimately majestic final movement, some people heard the sonic symbolism of triumph after a long campaign. As Finnish composer Sulho Ranta put it: “There is something about this music — at least for us — that leads us to ecstasy; almost like a shaman with his magic drum.”   

Sibelius, however, adamantly resisted such patriotic analogies. “My symphonies consist of music thought up and set down purely as a musical expression, without any literary basis,” he insisted shortly after the premiere in Helsinki. “As far as I am concerned, music begins where the word ends.”

Yet this blunt objectivity was not Sibelius’s last statement regarding the symphony. Seventeen years later, Baron Carpelan died, depriving the composer of his devoted “Mr. X.” Upon receiving the news of Carpelan’s death, Sibelius reportedly exclaimed, “Who shall I compose for now?” Within a couple of decades, he had stopped composing entirely, retiring to his home in Järvenpää and entertaining many visitors, but writing no published music works. Whether this silence was a case of writer’s block or something else remains nebulous today.   

And in 1943, during this creative dry spell that lasted until his death, Sibelius penned a letter to his son-in-law that offered one final tantalizing declaration about the origins of this work that had instilled so much national pride throughout his homeland. “My second symphony,” he wrote, “is a confession of the soul.”

So perhaps listeners will never fully know Sibelius’s intentions in this work which is now widely considered a masterpiece. So many squares seem to form this patchwork symphony: letters from Mr. X and visions in an Italian villa and gratitude for a young daughter’s life and struggles for a national identity. An impoverished baron and Don Juan and Christ and Tsar Nicholas II and a country looking for a hero in notes and rhythms. And maybe, within the layers upon layers that form this creation, more stories rest, waiting to be discovered.

The Schenectady Symphony Orchestra performs Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2 on April 24 at 3 p.m. on the Proctor’s Theater Mainstage. $20 Preferred Seating/$12 Regular Seating, All student tickets (18 and under) FREE courtesy of a grant from Price Chopper.Tickets are available exclusively through Proctors Theater Box Office: 518-346-6204, or online. 



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