Cou nter poi nts
Out of the fire
By 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 Rau-
He wrestled with demons: Composer Jean Sibelius tavaara, 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.
Survivor of Stasiland
BY ANNE McELVOY
Ihave my work cut out defending to Standpoint readers an East German author who was revealed to have been a Stasi informant in her past and thought that utopian socialism was a better bet than liberal capitalism.
In the case of Christa Wolf, who died in December, it is a risk I am happy to take.
Beliefs matter and wrong ones can do harm, as intellectuals did who tolerated an inhumane system. But so do books and Wolf is one of the finest writers post-war Germany has produced. From Divided Heaven, about the Berlin Wall (1963) to What Remains, with its revelation that the Stasi had also spied on her for decades, published in 1990 after the end of the GDR, Wolf engaged elegantly and bravely with the big questions of a thinking life. What is the “I” we become or adopt and why do we believe what we do? These aren’t just questions for the Left, but for anyone who values the idea of commitment and struggles to live with the consequences, when the real world doesn’t oblige.
Neither did she bowdlerise the East. In my favourite Wolf novel, The Quest for Christa T, the narrator mourns a friend: a teacher who chafes against the constraints of collectivism and celebrates individual freedoms and quirks in a society “where it was hard to see the people behind the banner-slogans they carried”. There is both poignancy and terrible accuracy in her simple language and awareness that the serious writer spans not only ideological divides, but centuries.
When she exhumed the literary memory of Heinrich Kleist’s forgotten contemporary, Karoline von Günderrode, in No Place on Earth, the novel expressed through her the peculiar heartache of those who do not fit their time and place. She echoed Faulkner in her belief that “the past is not dead: it is not even past”, and her references ranged from the Enlightenment poets to Lutheran pietism, with its creed of self-denial. Relentlessly ambitious for the contemporary novel, she applied Greek myths to the Cold War and feminism, in Kassandra and Medea. Personally, she was discreet and campaigned for writers like Wolf Biermann, who was exiled in e
January/February 2012 HenryVIII’s Psalter, London c. 1540 depicts the king, praying in his bedchamber. This treasure can be seen alongside other medieval and Renaissance illuminated manuscripts, collected by royalty over 800 years, in the British Library exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination until March 13. The manuscripts, in their vibrant colours, provide a vivid source for understanding royal life and beliefs from the ninth century onwards.