Gustav Mahler and Jean Sibelius

Gustav Mahler right around the time he composed his First Symphony in 1888.(Photo: Leonhard Berlin-Bieber)
Gustav Mahler right around the time he composed his First Symphony in 1888.(Photo: Leonhard Berlin-Bieber)

When someone asks, “who’s your all-time favorite composer?” what do you say if it depends on your mood or the time of day?  So, when push comes to shove I say, Bach-Mozart-Beethoven (or I change the order, depending). But, if someone were to say, “who’s your favorite composer from near the beginning of the 20th Century?” That would narrow it down to only two for me: Gustav Mahler and Jean Sibelius.

Both, Mahler and Sibelius struggled to find the right form for symphony in the late Romantic era, with its ethos of conflict and resolution in music taken to new and ever-dizzier heights. (We heard quite a bit of Mahler this past summer on Symphony at 7, but this evening (Nov.10) we’ll hear Symphony No. 7 from Finland’s greatest composer.)

There is the famous story of these two composers meeting in 1907 in Helsinki in which they shared their vision of what the symphony should be. When Sibelius stated his ideas about  the “severity of forms” and the “profound logic” that should connect symphonic themes, Mahler responded, “No!  The symphony must be like the world. It must be all-embracing.”

They came to different conclusions about musical forms, yet in spite of the tension and drama expressed in unique ways in their music, there is a common emphasis on, and a great ability to also express sublime beauty and serenity. The Romantic spirit in Mahler required music to expand outward into larger forms, while the equally Romantic spirit in Sibelius (recall the powerful feeling of nature in his music) required him to turn inward to find the essence of expressive power in shorter forms.

To express his vision, Mahler’s symphonies were huge and sprawling works, the longest almost an hour and 45 minutes, with long sections of dramatic and turbulent orchestral writing, and long stretches of profoundly peaceful music (the ending adagio of the Third Symphony is over half an hour).

Sibelius’ symphonies, on the other hand, got shorter and more compressed; his Seventh Symphony is in one movement and lasts about 21 minutes. After the first two symphonies (which owe quite a bit to Pyotr Tchaikovsky for their inspiration), symphonies Three through Seven demonstrate a concern with paring down music to essentials without sacrificing emotional expression.

I am indebted to Alex Ross in his wonderful book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, for a great insight into what makes Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony such a moving work for me.

He says: “In emotional terms, the  symphony unites the dark and the light sides of the composer’s personality, the worlds of the Fourth and the Fifth.”  Sibeliues’ Fourth Symphony is the most bleak and austere, and the Fifth (a favorite of many people) has a gloriously positive and uplifting finale.

It is a wonder that Sibelius can condense the dramatic conflicts in a Romantic symphony into such an economic form, with alternating episodes of anguish and peace, turbulence and repose, and to do it in such a powerful way in 21 minutes, in one movement.

And while it’s true that Sibelius’ music is not as overtly extreme in emotion as Mahler, perhaps that difference reflects, in part, their differing temperaments. Mahler, the urbane man of the world in Vienna who found solace in nature, and Sibelius, surrounded by the vast northern landscapes of Finland, perhaps longing at times for the more urban world of Vienna. For whatever reasons, Mahler sought to expand the form of the symphony, and Sibelius worked to condense it.

Sibelius didn’t write very much music after the Seventh Symphony from 1924, although he lived a long life until 1957. There was the tone poem Tapiola, about the Finnish god of the forest, several short pieces and incidental music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest. And perhaps, just a bit like Prospero at the end of Shakespeare’s play, Sibelius, for all practical purposes, Sibelius the composer did “abjure his magic and drown his book,” for he completed no more music after that.