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.
I’ve recently had on loan a copy of the new book on the English singer-songwriter Nick Drake. It’s called Nick Drake Remembered For A While, and it is one of the loveliest books I’ve ever seen dedicated to a musician.
Almost 450 pages, it is compiled by Cally Callomon and Nick’s sister Gabrielle Drake. It includes contributions from a number of writers, including people who knew Nick Drake or worked with him. There is some excellent commentary on his songs (including tips for guitarists about Nick’s altered tunings). Several famous essays are reprinted, such as Ian MacDonald’s ‘Exiled From Heaven’. Most remarkable are the lengthy extracts from Rodney Drake’s diary for the years 1971-74 charting he and Molly Drake’s struggles to help and understand their son during his long mental illness. These rivetting and disturbing extracts should do much to prevent people romanticising the more troubled aspects of Nick’s life.
There are many unpublished photographs, reproduced clippings from the music press, and other illustrations. The design and graphics are marvellous. It is a beautiful monument both to Nick’s music and to his tragic life, and contains much material for long reflection on memory, time and change.
Nick Drake Remembered For A While is published in hardback by John Murray. If you have never heard Nick Drake I would seek out his first album Five Leaves Left or go straight to the song ‘River Man’.
My ‘symphathon’ continues (more on that at the end of the month) assisted in the past week by the wonderful Sibelius performances by Simon Rattle and the Berlin Phil in London (Symphonies 5, 6 and 7 were screened on British TV’s BBC4). I’ve made a little progress with my book on the symphony.
I’m currently waiting to hear the new remastered Led Zeppelin album Physical Grafitti and its companion audio disc. I have an extended piece of writing about their 1975 Earl’s Court concerts appearing in the next issue of Dave Lewis’ magazine Tight But Loose.
A final thought, a definition: music is pure meaning without an apparent referent.
It has been awhile since I last posted because of the run-up and start of the Oxford Experience summer school programme on which I teach. So far I’ve taught the courses ‘From a Blues to the Symphony’, ‘The Beatles, Popular Music and 1960s Britain’, and ‘The Romance of the Railways’, and everything seems to have gone fine so far. It was interesting to see the reaction Bruce Springsteen’s song ‘Stolen Car’ got on Day 1 of the first course. Several people were obviously quite moved by it, despite its simplicity (mostly two chords but haunting). It was released on his 1980 album The River.
The railways course is really about how they have inspired poets, writers, artists and composers. There are hundreds of railway songs, especially in the American tradition, but less familiar to my students were some of the classical pieces inspired by trains – notably Honegger’s Pacific 2-3-1 (1923), Charles Ives’ ‘The Celestial Railroad’, Steve Reich’s ‘Different Trains’ (1988) – something of a minimalist classic – and (a recent discovery of mine) a string quartet by the Danish composer Rued Langgaard, the second movement of which is a 2:15 evocation of a fast train ride, written for just the four strings.
I meant to blog about several rock documentaries shown on BBC4 recently. One was on The Who’s Quadrophenia album and the other on Bowie and Ziggy Stardust. Both were eminently watchable, but showed an alarming tendency to make highly uncritical claims. It is rare these days to get any contrary view on a music doc to take the heat out of the exaggerated praise. The world really didn’t change THAT much when Bowie put his arm round Mick Ronson on TOTP one June night in 1972. You would think it was the trigger for the reversal of the magnetic poles and the fall of various governments …
I’ve been listening a lot to various works by Weinberg, the Estonian composer Lepo Sumera, and the Swede Kurt Atterberg. This morning I had a blast of Nielsen’s third symphony, which I don’t know as well as no.4. The more I hear of Nielsen’s music the more I admire the positivity which much of it radiates – a fascinating contrast to another favourite of mine Jean Sibelius, whose music’s positivity is often harder won.
Speaking of Sibelius the man reminds me that for the past two weeks I have watched with horrified and avid (pun intended) attention the drama playing out over the Sibelius notation system’s future. Sibelius was sold by its originators the Finn brothers to the company Avid 15 months ago. Avid have announced that they are closing the London office of Sibelius. This apparently means the break-up of the very team whose skill and dedication have made Sibelius a world-beating notation software. It is unbelievably short-sighted. A campaign to save Sibelius has been launched. You can read about this over at the Sibelius forum. I’ve used Sibelius for 10 years now for my composing and it revolutionized my musical creativity.
And just to prove that rock music documentaries don’t have the monopoly on misleading claims, there have also been a couple of radio programmes about the alleged resurrection of Sibelius’ lost 8th symphony. All that has happened is that three tiny pieces of music – lasting about 3 minutes – have been transcribed from manuscripts in the University of Helsinki Library. They might have been intended for the 8th, but perhaps not. Again, they’re online if you google Sibelius 8.
I have just heard that there is a Kindle edition of my book Play Great Guitar published by Infinite Ideas. There is a discount on it at the moment. It is suitable for beginners and people who have a couple of years’ experience on guitar. Their website is http://www.infideas.com.
Since I last blogged I’ve had tentative discussions about another book in my Backbeat songwriting series, which would appear in 2013. I’ve been working on another writing project not to do with songwriting and making good progress with that.
I have a short article in the Music You Might Like series in the new edition of the journal of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society.
Talking of books I can recommend record producer Tony Visconti’s biography Bolan, Bowie and the Brooklyn Boy.
On the creative front I’ve revised two scores for string orchestra – ‘From Cornish Springs’ and ‘The High Oaks’ – and have worked on generating new audio for them. I’m now ready to write the strings for Kate Bush’s next album … should she need me. 😉
I was also writing some acoustic guitar instrumentals, but that project has got pushed out for lack of time.
Since I last wrote the acoustic player Bert Jansch has died. I interviewed him back in the 1990s around the time of the release of Crimson Moon. I always found his music a little on the dour side; much preferring the brighter, more mercurial John Renbourn for folk-baroque British guitar.
I was intrigued to discover recently that the unfinished second symphony of E. J. Moeran has been completed and recorded on the Dutton Epoch label. First listens suggest it was a worthwhile thing to do. Unfinished symphonies are an interesting topic. Moeran’s first symphony (Symphony in G) from the late 1930s (I think) is a very enjoyable piece. There’s a good recording on Naxos. It owes something to Sibelius, who was dominating the world of the symphony in the 1930s and 1940s, but not to the point of it spoiling Moeran’s music.
First, welcome to those of you who recently signed up to this blog; I hope you’ll find these notes on music interesting. Apologies to all for the absence from writing. This has been due to several weeks getting to grips with a new computer and new software (for music-making) plus a much-delayed summer holiday in Finland.
The holiday included attending all the concerts at the Sibelius Festival in Lahti, about 100km north of Helsinki. This is an annual festival dedicated to the music of Finland’s most famous composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) who for awhile at the beginning of the C20th played an important symbolic role in the struggle for Finnish national identity. He composed quite a bit of music in most genres, but it is his tone-poems and seven symphonies on which his reputation probably most rests. The symphonies in particular are held in high regard – so much so that at his funeral seven white candles were used during the ceremony, each standing for one of the symphonies. That gives an idea of the reverence in which they were/are held. They are all quite different from each other, as became apparent at the festival this year, because over the course of three nights we heard them all in chronological sequence. The first lasts about 40 minutes, the last only about 22 and is essentially in one movement instead of the usual four.
If you haven’t sampled Sibelius before try some of the tone-poems such as ‘Night-ride and Sunrise’ or ‘The Bard’ or the spooky ‘Tapiola’, or a short piece such as ‘Spring Song’, or the ever-popular ‘Karelia Suite’. Among the symphonies no.2 and no.5 are probably the most accessible to begin with, the former being a late-C19th romantic work, the latter being more compact, optimistic and with the beautiful ‘swan hymn’ theme in the last movement (also featuring one of the greatest key-changes in all orchestral music as Sibelius swings from G flat to C major just as the swan hymn is launched).
The Sibelius Festival is held in the first week or so of September Thurs-Sun. It is good to fit in a visit to his home which is now a museum about 60 km from Lahti. The capital Helsinki is also good to visit and walk round. There is an excellent DVD by Christopher Nupen about Sibelius’ life and music if you can’t get to Finland and also a 2004 Finnish biopic called Sibelius which I haven’t seen yet.