few days ago with nothing very much in mind, I was aimlessly browsing
through different countries with the aid of Google maps and for some reason
I found myself looking at a map of somewhere in northern Finland. Switching
to “street view” it turned out to be a grim and joyless landscape, a
single-track narrow road with snow everywhere, gaunt-looking trees for miles
around and an ominous sense of Poe-like bleakness. There was a compelling
need to follow the road, which of course you can with Google maps, and
having nothing better to do, I plodded along this dismal track until I could
bear no more. There was not a vehicle in sight, not even a house or other
sign of life. This cheerless road brought to mind some of the darker music
Born in 1865 as Johan
Julius Christian Sibelius, he was the most important and influential
composer that Finland has produced and he began using the French form of his
name, “Jean” during his student years. This is the name by which he’s
universally known. He churned out an enormous amount of music in his time
including seven highly individual symphonies and some evocative tone poems
(which in case you’ve forgotten, or possibly never knew) are single-movement
descriptive pieces for orchestra.
In his seven
symphonies, he developed a style of composing in which tiny phrases and bits
of melody continuously evolve into a final heroic melodic statement. It’s
like seeing – or rather hearing – organic cells gradually merging together
and becoming transformed into a complete living being. I have a feeling
that Darwin would probably have appreciated this kind of music.
Sibelius had a musical
style that is almost instantly recogniseable and so often his music,
consciously or unwittingly, seems to conjure up a vivid sense of place;
images of lakes and forests that are so typical of the Finnish landscape.
In Britain he is best known for the opening movement of his suite Pelléas
et Mélisande which was used as the theme of the world’s longest-running
TV programme, the BBC’s The Sky at Night, presented by Patrick Moore.
(1865-1957, Finland): The Swan of Tuonela. Norwegian Radio Orchestra
This is one of the
composer’s more introvert pieces; music which transports you into a secret
and mysterious world of brooding shadowy landscapes. The piece is virtually
a solo for cor anglais (a kind of alto oboe) and this exceptional
performance is conducted by the Israeli conductor, Avi Ostrowsky and
features the evocative cor anglais playing of Ingrid Uddu.
Composed in 1895 when
Sibelius was thirty, this short tone poem is part of the composer’s
Lemminkäinen Suite which is based on a story from the nineteenth century
Kalevala, one of the most significant works of Finnish literature.
The piece is scored for a comparatively small orchestra and the music paints
a haunting, unworldly image of a mystical swan floating on the gloomy river
around Tuonela, the Finnish underworld and the island of the dead.
Williams (1872-1958, England): Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.
BBC National Orchestra of Wales, cond. Tadaaki Otaka
(Duration: 16.50; Video 360p)
I always think that
the music of Vaughan Williams has a kind of timeless quality, and none more
so that this haunting Fantasia. It was composed in 1910 and takes
its name from the English composer Thomas Tallis, who was one of Europe’s
leading writers of sacred choral music during the sixteenth century.
This music just
sounds so English. It really seems to speak of the English countryside
with gentle, rolling hills and summer meadows. Written for string
orchestra, the composer divides the players into three groups of different
sizes. As well as the large main group, there’s a smaller one of nine
players and a string quartet.
At the first
performance, Vaughan Williams evidently obtained dramatic spatial effects by
placing the three groups of strings some distance from each other to give
the effect of an echo. Needless to say, the work sounds best in a church or
cathedral, which is where the Tallis original would almost certainly have
been heard and indeed where the first performance of the Fantasia was
given. The depths of feeling, rich harmonies and sense of Englishness in
this music are extraordinary. Ironically though, the sensitive performance
on this video is given by a Welsh orchestra and a Japanese conductor.
And strangely enough,
having listened to this so very English music, I feel a compelling urge to
go back to that same deserted country lane in Finland and continue my search
for human life.