Sound and Silence Print Jean Sibelius and the symphony that never was by By Sudip Bose
Measure by Measure will return on July 6. In the meantime, here is a second look at Sudip Bose’s essay, from our Spring 2016 issue, on why Sibelius burned what may have turned out to be his magnum opus.
From 1904 until his death in 1957, the composer Jean Sibelius lived some 20 miles north of Helsinki, in a rural villa built of timber and stone on the shores of Lake Tuusula. He called the house Ainola, after his wife, Aino. Surrounded by fields and birch forests, it befitted the isolation of Sibelius’s later years, when Finland’s most revered musician became a withdrawn, reclusive figure. From about 1933 onward, he published no music of any significance, nothing but a few trifles and arrangements. Yet he continued to wage a turbulent artistic struggle with himself as he attempted, over the course of several years, to write his Eighth Symphony.
Sometime in the 1940s, the struggle was seemingly lost. One day, Sibelius carried a laundry basket filled with his manuscripts into the dining room at Ainola and began feeding the pages into the raging fire in the stove. Aino, who would recall the event after her husband’s death, could confirm the identity of only one of the pieces her husband burned—the early Karelia Suite—but it is now considered a certainty that the Eighth Symphony was destroyed as well. Afterward, a strange calm descended upon the composer. His mood lightened. He appeared strangely optimistic, no longer depressed, as if the fire had brought on some magnificent catharsis.
The gestation of the symphony may have been long and troubled, but Sibelius had, at various times, referred to his manuscript as “brilliant,” “a great work in the making,” a piece that would have been “the reckoning of [his] whole existence.” For so long, he had had but one desire: to finish the piece before drifting off “to the final silence.” Why, then, did Sibelius destroy such a highly anticipated and promising work? This remains one of the most perplexing questions in all of music history.