Sibelius 7 and What’s Difficult in Music

Courtney Lewis, Conducting ElectricityLeave a Comment

I’ve spent the last few weeks visiting friends and family in New York, London, Salzburg and Belfast. It’s been wonderful catching up with their news, and also sharing mine, much of which has been about what we’ve been doing in Jacksonville. Invariably, everyone asks what the first concert of the New Year is. It’s a program that looks quite straightforward on paper, but in reality it’s one of the most difficult of the season: Beethoven’s Second Symphony, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony.

What exactly makes some pieces of music more difficult than others? I’m often surprised at how back-to-front audiences’ ideas about this are. Some moments that seem very impressive are actually rather easy to pull off, like the loud and fast music in the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth. Compare that to a piece that sounds like simplicity itself, Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, and for most musicians there is absolutely no comparison between the two – the Mozart is infinitely more difficult.

Simply playing the notes on the page is rarely difficult for a professional orchestra. Sure, there might be a few thorny corners that need some polishing, but for the most part everything is there at the first rehearsal. The difficulty comes in making the piece make sense beyond individual notes. This might be a question of adjusting the way the instruments balance with each other to create special colours in French music. It could be finding a way of unlocking a phrase of Haydn that give the music human character and wit, or deciding how best to realize Mozart’s eighteenth-century language with a twenty-first-century orchestra. Sometimes even great composers didn’t write especially idiomatically for certain instruments in the orchestra, so those musicians have to work harder than usual to make their parts sound natural. But one of the most important tasks, and one that falls to the conductor alone, is making sense of the structure of a piece of music as a single coherent shape, so that the audience feels safely delivered from point a to point b. This week I’ve been driving a stick-shift car, and after years of driving in America I’ve lost the ability to change gears smoothly. My passengers feel every crunch. That’s the automotive equivalent of bad conducting.

Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony is a formidable mountain for any musician to climb. As Sibelius got older, his compositions became shorter and denser. If you compare the Second Symphony, with its famous singing melodies and expansive slow movement to the taut Seventh (which lasts less than half as long) you discover that Sibelius developed an uncanny ability to say more profound things in less time. The musical material changes too: melodies are replaced by fragments of notes that attain their character by the intervals (the distance) between them. Everything becomes more abstract. As this happens, specific moments in the piece attain expressive meaning not from how they sound in the present but rather from how they relate to the whole structure of the piece. That sounds very complicated, but just think about early and late Picasso. In the early paintings we see tangible objects that have meaning to us in and of themselves: people’s faces in portraits, or furniture in a room. But by the late works we see strange, dismembered body parts that only make sense when you look at the whole painting. Because music unfolds in time (you can’t hear a whole piece in an instant the way you can look at a painting), it’s the conductor’s job to make the connection between the abstract present and the meaningful whole clear to the listener. And that is difficult!

Sibelius’s Seventh takes us on a journey. I often think it’s about summation, especially since it’s one of the last pieces he wrote. It begins ominously but quickly moves into a valedictory mood. It’s like we’re looking back over our lives, like the moment before death in which one’s entire life is rumoured to flash before one’s eyes. Then we find ourselves back in the thick of life’s turmoil, as if we’ve traveled back in time. Finally, the music turns elegiac, as if the life we’ve been thinking about is already over. When the music ends we are confronted with silence so terrifying Samuel Beckett would have been proud. But the astonishing thing about the piece is that it all takes place in one movement – it doesn’t stop and start like most four-movement symphonies. Each of these different phases takes place in wildly different tempos, which the musicians and conductor must negotiate in such a way that the audience doesn’t notice the transition. That’s really difficult, but when it’s done well the music has tremendous power that whisks us along on a psychological expedition unlike any other.

Despite being written in 1924, much about this strange piece is new and unusual. Even the way Sibelius writes for the orchestra can seem odd if you’re used to the Austro-German tradition. When we played Elgar a few months ago, the musicians knew what to do instinctively. The piece might have been new, but the style was familiar because it has so much in common with Wagner and Brahms. Not so with Sibelius. Whereas German composers often think of the strings as the backbone of the orchestra with the winds and brass adding colour, Sibelius turns everything upside down. Often it’s the sound of the rumbling timpani, reminiscent of the wind in a northern forest, that forms the basis of the texture. That’s difficult for us on stage because we need to learn to listen to each other in a different way. And finally, the Jacksonville Symphony has never played this piece before, so everyone (including me) is figuring out how to present it to you for the first time, in a way that makes it speak directly and powerfully. That’s difficult, but a challenge well worth undertaking.

I hope you’ll join us next week for this fascinating and profound work. I’m really looking forward to introducing Anthony McGill, principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic, in Mozart’s evergreen Clarinet Concerto. And we also have our first Symphony in 60 of the year, so it’s a perfect time to come and hear the orchestra accompanied by a cocktail! See you at Jacoby Hall.


Reprinted with kind permission of The Florida-Times Union.

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