‘This Music Crept By Me’: Sibelius’s Incidental Music

My latest publication is now available in the July edition of Sibelius One, entitled ‘”This Music Crept By Me”: Sibelius’s Incidental Music’. The article argues that Sibelius’s incidental music forms an integral part of his compositional output, and is crucial to understanding his artistic allegiances and aesthetic sympathies. I look briefly at his music for the play Swanwhite by Swedish playwright August Strindberg, and his scores for Twelfth Night and The Tempest, both by Shakespeare. Looking at his musical language and the symbolist attitude that he adopts in these scores offers a new lens through which to view his better-known orchestral works (and vice versa). Consequently, the incidental scores are presented as integral to Sibelius’s conception of himself as a “modern” composer, negotiating the various demands of early twentieth century life.

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Extract:

‘The brevity and simplicity of this music [for Twelfth Night] could not be more distant from his final incidental score, the monumental Tempest (premièred at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen in 1926). Composed in 1925, roughly contemporaneous with Tapiola and the Seventh Symphony, The Tempest stands at the pinnacle of Sibelius’s compositional career. As Daniel Grimley has noted, the play’s themes appealed to many of Sibelius’s interests and anxieties. Most prominent of these are ideas of nature enchantment and artistic isolation, the latter felt particularly acutely as he struggled towards an eighth symphony. He wrote to Danish critic Gunnar Hauch that The Tempest appealed to him “because of its musicality”, and certainly the play seems to have prompted a significant musical outpouring: an extensive score of 34 short movements which was later worked into two concert suites.

From the opening Overture, depicting the storm that Prospero conjures to wreck his brother’s ship, the compositional techniques that Sibelius uses for The Tempest are immediately recognisable from his Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, and resurface in Tapiola. This is a sound world in which nature is uncontainable in both its physical scope and mystical capabilities, a world that is mercurial in conception and governed by instability. This fragmented landscape is inescapably modern, the lens through which Sibelius viewed the new century. As progressive as any of Arnold Schoenberg’s works of the 1920s, such as the String Quartet No. 3, The Tempest is a work fraught with anxiety — perhaps the same anxieties that would result in the silence of Järvenpää.

Addressing Sibelius’s music for the theatre gives an invaluable insight into his artistic allegiances, and helps to reorientate him within discussions of modernism and the music of his contemporaries. Both his diary and his letters to Rosa Newmarch reveal that he was well aware of Schoenberg’s works, but that he was not particularly enamoured of his ideas. He wrote in his diary in 1912 that “Arnold Schoenberg’s theories interest me. However, I find him one-sided!”‘

The magazine can be purchased from the Sibelius One website, RRP £5.

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