One of the legendary stories associated with Jean Sibelius is that which concerns the non-appearance and fate of his Eighth symphony. Sibelius produced no finished major orchestral works after the end of the 1920s (his last being the Seventh symphony and the suite of music for a production of The Tempest). He embarked on an Eighth symphony and in the early 1930s there was an international hope that it would shortly be performed. At this time Sibelius’ popularity as a composer was very high and there was huge anticipation for another symphony. Unfortunately it never materialized, and in the mid-1940s we know that he burned a number of manuscripts and it is thought the Eighth was one of the works. Even after this he occasionally mentioned to close friends that he was working on another symphony, though whether this was ever on paper is doubtful (Sibelius often composed in his mind before he wrote anything down). So the Eighth is regarded as one of the great lost works of the C20th.
When I was at the Sibelius Festival I had the chance to chat with Timo Virtanen, who has been working on and editing Sibelius for a long time. He made it possible for a few fragments of unperformed music to be recorded by the BIS label on a CD called The Unknown Sibelius. These fragments last about 3 minutes. They might be part of the Eighth’s composition or not – we don’t know. They are late Sibelius. Timo published an interesting article on the status of some of the manuscript drafts Sibelius left, partly as a reply to an article by another scholar Nors Josephson who created something of a wave by claiming that the Eighth could be reconstructed. Timo told me that this created a number of enquiries from both composers and conductors around the world who wanted to know if this was true and whether they could have the task of completing it or conducting the premiere! Timo had to point out that this wasn’t possible from the scraps and drafts that are left. Whether anything else will turn up remains to be seen.
He also told me that many composers had thanked him for the three minutes of fragments because they found them inspiring for their own work. That I can certainly understand, as they are quite haunting.
The writer Julian Barnes wrote about the relative silence of Sibelius’ final 30 years in a short fiction piece called ‘The Silence’ published in the magazine Granta vol76 Winter 2001 – a special issue dedicated to music.