TORCH Sibelius Symposium

  • Rebecca Day (Invited speaker)

Activity: Participating in or organising an eventParticipation in conference


Two sides of the same symphonic coin? Sibelius, Mahler, and self-referentiality in the twentieth-century symphony

In their 1907 Helsinki interaction, Sibelius and Mahler are recorded as famously unable to agree upon the meaning of the symphony: “I admired its style and severity of form, and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motives … Mahler’s opinion was just the opposite. “No!” he said, “The symphony must be like the world. It must be all-embracing.” Yet, the two symphonic styles—one Germanic, psychological, and highly philosophical, the other Finnish, nationalist and naturalistic—are not as far removed from each other as the pair may have thought. Both evoke tensions between tradition and progress, vast natural spaces and individual expression, and formal expansion against teleological constraint, and both are heavily reliant on principles of thematic variation where the material determines the form in a ‘bottom-up’ construction, to use Adorno’s term.

This paper follows and expands upon the connections made by Tawaststjerna between Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony and Mahler’s Ninth. It considers aspects of self-referentiality—contextual, biographical, and most significantly, formal—in a discussion of the aforementioned tensions between tradition, progress, expansion and constraint, in order to consider Sibelius’s symphonic style within the wider context of the twentieth-century. Sibelius’s fourth symphony is described by Hepokoski as ‘between classicism and modernism’ in an example that ‘expand[s] the [formal] concept whilst constraining the timescale’. Written between 1910 and 1911 it is the work that often characterizes the break from classicized formalism into a more nuanced individualism in Sibelius’s symphonic development, as the start of a period of ‘compositional redoubling’ following his encounter with the possibility of an early death. Mahler’s Ninth symphony, also said to have been ‘written in the shadow of death’, is equally described in terms of such tension: it’s ability to maintain a sense of progress and coherence despite deviation from tradition is frequently commented upon. Using principles of Hepokoskian rotational analysis alongside contextual discussion, this paper ultimately aims to situate Sibelius’s symphonic style within that of a particular, self-reflexive, fin-de-siècle musical modernism.
Period14 Nov 2015
Event typeConference
LocationOxford, United KingdomShow on map