Strictures on Sibelius
To a person who grew up in the German or Austrian musical sphere Sibelius’s name
doesn’t mean much. If such a person doesn’t confuse him geographically with Sinding or phonetically with Delius, he is aware of him as the composer of the Valse triste, a
harmless salon piece; at the concert hall he has had one-off encounters with such
program-fillers as The Oceanides and The Swan of Tuonela—fairly brief, rather
physiognomically vague pieces of program music about which it is difficult to recollect
If one comes to England or even to America, his name begins to swell to inordinate proportions. It is mentioned as often as that of a make of car. Radios and concerts reverberate with Finish notes. Toscanini’s programs find room for Sibelius. In lengthy essays larded with musical illustrations he is extolled as the most significant composer of the present, as an authentic symphonist, as timelessly old-fashioned, and virtually as a kind of Beethoven. There is a Sibelius Society that subserves his fame and makes sure that the man himself receives gramophone recordings of his oeuvre.
One becomes curious and listens to a few of the principal works; say, the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. One studies the scores beforehand. They look paltry and Boeotian, and one surmises that their secret can be revealed only via the corporeal act of hearing. But the sound doesn’t change the picture in the slightest.
This is what it looks like: what are deployed as “themes” are haphazard sequences, sequences that are trivial and utterly lacking in plasticity; for the most part they are not even fully harmonized but rather written as unisons with pedal points, static harmonies, and whatever else the five lines of the staff afford to someone trying to avoid a logical chordal progression.
Quite early on these sequences suffer a misfortune, a bit like a suckling babe that falls from the table and injures its spine. They can’t walk properly. They get stuck. At an unforeseen point the rhythmic movement breaks off: the progression becomes unintelligible. Then the simple sequences return, displaced and distorted, without being able to budge so much as an inch. In the eyes of his apologists, these episodes count as Beethovenesque: they fashion a world out of the insignificant, out of the null and void. But this world is worthy of the one in which we live: it is raw and at the same time mysterious, shopworn and riddled with contradiction, long-familiar and impenetrable. Again the apologists say that this attests to the incommensurability of the form-fashioning Master, who will have no truck with cookie-cutters of any sort. But we cannot believe in incommensurable forms that are manifestly incapable of measuring out a four-voiced passage: his consistent use of schoolboyish material inclines us to believe not that he is superior to the established school but merely that he does not know how to follow its rules. His is the originality of helpless incompetence, in the tradition of those amateurs who refrain from taking composition lessons for fear of losing their distinctiveness, which itself is nothing but the disorganized residue of what came before them.
As a composer Sibelius is worth as few words as such amateurs. He may have garnered considerable kudos for musically colonizing his homeland. It is quite easy to imagine that when he returned there after his composition studies in Germany he quite rightly felt a sense of his own inferiority, that he was then probably conscious of the fact that he had not been vouchsafed the ability either to offer up a chorale or to write correct counterpoint, that he had buried himself in the land of a thousand lakes in order to remain safely hidden from the eyes of his schoolmasters. Probably nobody was more surprised than he was to discover that his failure was being interpreted as success, his incapacity as an imperative. In the end he probably believed it himself and then brooded for decades over his Eighth Symphony as though it were the Ninth.
The effect is of interest. How is it possible for a composer to attain worldwide fame and, by whatever manipulative process, the status of a classic, a composer who has not merely lagged drastically behind the technical standards of his time—for this is actually regarded as a virtue in him—but rather who is showing himself to be utterly inadequate by his own standards and making shaky and indeed downright bungling use of his traditional means, from the basic building materials to the large-scale construction? Sibelius’s success is a symptom of a disturbance in the musical consciousness. The earthquake that found its expression in the dissonances of the great works of the new music has not spared minor old-fashioned music. It has become cracked and lopsided. But in fleeing from the dissonances, it has taken refuge in false triads. Stravinsky has taken the false triads as far as they can go in composition. Via superimposed wrong notes he has demonstrated how wrong the right notes have become. In Sibelius’s music pure notes already sound wrong. He is a Stravinsky against his will. But he has less talent.
His devotees don’t want to hear any of this. Their song hearkens to the refrain, “Everything is nature; everything is nature.” The great god Pan, with blood and soil in tow as needed, promptly makes an appearance. Triviality counts as originality, inarticulacy as the sound of insentient creation.
Categories of this sort elude criticism. That nature’s mood is bound to reverential silence is their cardinal conviction. But if the concept of nature’s mood might not even be unquestionably operative in reality, it is certainly not operative in works of art. Symphonies are not a thousand lakes, even if they are pitted with a thousand holes.
Music has cultivated a technical canon for the depiction of nature’s moods—that of impressionism. In the wake of French painting of the nineteenth century, Debussy developed compositional methods for salvaging the expressiveness and the expressionlessness, the light and the shade, the bright and the fading colors of the visible world in sounds behind which the poetic word still lingers. These methods are alien to Sibelius. Car nous voulons la nuance encore—this sounds like mockery of his dull, stiff, and accidental orchestral complexion. His is nothing like music en plain air. It is music evocative of a rough-and-tumble schoolroom where during recess the youngsters showcase their genius by emptying their inkwells. There is no palette: it’s all just ink.
This is also turned into a virtue by his admirers. His Nordic depth is said to be intimately involved with insentient nature but to refrain from enjoying her charms. His is an inhibited promiscuity in the darkness. His asceticism of impotence is celebrated as creative self-discipline. When he has relations with nature they are purely internal. His kingdom is not of this world. It is the kingdom of the emotions. Once one has reached it, all one’s other debts are cleared. If the content of the emotions is as little ascertainable as their basis in the musical events themselves, this is regarded as proof of their depth.
It is nothing of the kind. The emotions are ascertainable. Admittedly not in the way they might like; namely, in terms of their metaphysical and existential substance. They have as little of this as do Sibelius’s scores. It is the configuration of the banal and the absurd. In isolation everything sounds workaday and familiar. The motifs are fragments of the cursive script-scape of tonality. One has heard them so often that one thinks one understands them. But they are combined into a meaningless nexus: it is as if nouns like filling station, lunch, death, Greta, and ploughshare are being haphazardly coupled with verbs and particles. An incomprehensible assemblage of the most trivial details produces a mirage of the unfathomable. One is delighted at being able to comprehend everything uninterruptedly, and delighted with a clear conscience even as one realizes one actually comprehends nothing. Or, rather: the complete lack of comprehension that constitutes the current musical consciousness finds its ideological justification in the semblance of comprehensibility elicited by Sibelius’s vocables.
In the manifestations of resistance to progressive new music, in the attitude of sneering detestation with which it is defamed, resounds not the mere traditional and general aversion to the new, but rather the specific intuition that the old means no longer suffice. Not that they have been “exhausted”: mathematically speaking, the diatonic chords still afford countless new combinations. But they have become specious and inauthentic: they serve only to transfigure a world that is no longer transfigurable, and no music that does not potentially further the critical assault on the existent down to its innermost procedural cells has any longer any right to be written. People are hoping to use Sibelius to evade this intuition. This is the secret of his success.
Absurdity, which the genuinely depraved means of traditional post-Romantic music in his work embrace as a given thanks to their inadequate management, seems to hoist that music aloft of its own degeneration. The possibility of composing music that is fundamentally old-fashioned and yet entirely new: that is the triumph inaugurated by conformism under the aegis of Sibelius. His success is equivalent to the yearning for the world to be cured of its exigencies and conflicts, for it to be “renewed,” while still allowing the yearner to hold on to his worldly possessions. What such fantasies of renewal as well as Sibelius’s originality really have to offer is nevertheless revealed by their meaninglessness. This meaninglessness is no more merely technical in character than a sentence devoid of meaning is only “technically” devoid of meaning. It sounds absurd because the attempt to express something new with old and dilapidated means is itself absurd. Nothing whatsoever is expressed.
It is as if all the arguments that have characterized the reaction against musical cultural Bolshevism have found their justification in the rock-ribbed Finn. If reactionaries fancy that the new music owes its mode of existence to an insufficient command of the material of the old music, this insufficiency is nowhere more apparent than in Sibelius, who clings to the old. His music is in a certain sense the only “subversive” music of our time. But not in the sense of the destruction of the status quo; rather, in that of the Calibanesque destruction of all the musical results of the mastery of nature that humankind purchased at an expensive enough cost in the course of familiarizing itself with the equal-tempered scale.
If Sibelius is good, then the perennial criteria of musical quality from Bach to Schoenberg—the criteria of evocativeness, of articulateness, of oneness in multifariousness, of diversity in unity–are now null and void. All of this is betrayed by Sibelius to a nature that is no such thing, but rather the shabby photographic paraphernalia of our parents’ sitting rooms. He is self-interestedly contributing to the great attritional selling out of serious music, even if he is easily outbidden as a seller by industrialized light music. But such destruction in his symphonies is masked as creation. Theirs is a dangerous influence.
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2018 by Douglas Robertson
Source: Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Werke, Rolf Tiedemann, ed. in collaboration with Gretel Adorno, Susan Buck-Morss, and Klaus Schultz (Suhrkamp: Frankfurt am Main, 1986; Directmedia: Berlin, 2003), Vol. 17, p. 247.