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Sibelius: A Composer’s Life and the Awakening of Finland by Glenda Dawn Goss (review)

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 85, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 524-526 | 10.1353/scd.2013.0035

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Beyond the shadow of a doubt, Glenda Dawn Goss is the most helpful of musicology’s many Sibelian experts. After an initial career at the University of Georgia, editing the songs of the Flemish Renaissance composer Benedictus Appenzeller, Chansons (Vereniging voor Nederlandse Muziekgeschiedenis, 1982), and writing Music and the Moderns (Scarecrow Press, 1993) about the expatriate composer and clarinetist Carol Robinson, she moved to Finland, quickly mastered the nation’s cultural languages, and brought out one big Sibelian item after another: Jean Sibelius and Olin Downes (Northeastern University Press, 1995); The Sibelius Companion (Greenwood Press, 1996); an edition of his youthful correspondence, Jean Sibelius: The Hämeenlinna [Tavastehus] Letters (Schildt, 1996); the proceedings of The Sibelius Forum: Proceedings from the Second International Sibelius Conference (Sibelius Academy, Department of Composition and Music Theory, 1996); and Jean Sibelius: A Guide to Research (Garland, 1998), capping the list in 2009 with this massive work, Sibelius: A Composer’s Life and the Awakening of Finland. Recently, she piled a witty Pelion on the biography’s Ossa with Sibelius, Amerikka ja amerikkalaiset: Vieläkö lähetämme hänelle sikareja? (W. Söderström, 2009; Sibelius, America and the Americans: Are We Still Sending Him Cigars?), twenty-four essays, translated by Martti Haapakoski, on such topics as “Jean Sibelius and Hollywood,” “Samuel Barber and Jean Sibelius,” and “Jean Sibelius and the Big Apple.” Goss has a Horatian gift for entertaining, even as she instructs. When will the English originals of these tidbits appear between book covers?

Before Goss, Anglophones wishing to learn more about Sibelius—once so popular in American music-appreciation classes, and, even today, despite occasional objections, a staple on the American symphonic stage—were well advised to turn to Erik Tawaststjerna’s behemoth in Robert Layton’s translation. Mining material come to light in the almost half-century since Tawaststjerna-Layton, but with a butterfly touch, Goss has dispelled, one devoutly hopes, American ignorance about Sibelius’s essential Finland-Swedishness, and has filled in the American blank about Finland’s complex cultural-political history. Under her spirited and deeply informed guidance, her readers will have their attention constantly kept alert by her gift for ladling out just the right amount of germane detail as they pass through the labyrinth of “The Autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire,” “The National Awakening, the Politics of the Theatrical,” and all those lotteries (plus concerts), held for Finland’s sake, and then through Sibelius’s growing aestheticism and his withdrawal, plus family, into the state-financed villa at Järvenpää, his growing fame, and his trip to America (May–June 1914), the shock of the Civil War, the “Militaristic State” of the 1920s and 1930s, the “private compositions not meant for ‘the people’” (Sixth Symphony, Seventh Symphony, music for The Tempest [Stormen] at Svenska teatern, Tapiola), and the decades of silence—a mystery Goss addresses early and late. All the while, of course, she keeps her audience abreast of what really matters. She is wonderfully adroit in her recreation (plus score-excerpts) of major compositions not often heard, and, when performed, little grasped, for example, Kullervo (Opus 7), the “breakthrough,” which Goss knows inside and out, having edited it for the standard Sibelius edition. Or, among the Kalevala-inspired tone-poems, Luonnotar (Opus 70), “a tone-poem with soprano solo.” “Even in Finland there is a serious question of who in 1913 would have appreciated such a work, so esoteric, so mystically Finnish.” Conversely, for Goss, no mystery attaches to the great theme in the Fifth’s final movement, an expression of Sibelius’s engrained Lutheranism. One wishes Goss could have said still more (on p. 384) about Sibelius’s next undertaking, the music for Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Catholicizing Jedermann (Opus 83), which indeed “cries out for mention.”

Goss knows so much about every Sibelian work she adduces—and about his putative bout with syphilis, the Helsingfors friends (Ferrucio Busoni, Adolf Paul) of his bachelor days, the possibly stultifying, long-term effect of his marriage to the Fennomaniacal Aino Järnefelt—that one senses, everywhere, still greater stores of knowledge and interpretation, bursting to get out but restrained by publishing’s practicalities.

Were he...



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