Performing Sibelius

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

An item about orchestral performance practice, with reference to Sibelius

The visit of the National Finnish Orchestra to Queen’s Hall had the merit of presenting Sibelius in the light in which he is seen by his fellow countrymen. He is such a distinct and original personality that we could welcome a number of similar visits, if only to note the divergence of playing between English and Finnish orchestras. The Sibelius symphonies played by, say, Beecham, Wood and Harty vary mostly in the way of dynamics and rhythm: the biggest punches come from Wood, smartly marked rhythm from Harty, and the finest musicality from Beecham, which includes both punch and rhythm.

There is no doubt that the records issued recently by the Sibelius Society of his symphonies played by an English orchestra under a Finnish conductor are unlike the performances of the same works under English conductors. Sibelius to the Finns appears as Epstein the sculptor: and to me the difference of interpretation of the Finnish and London orchestra, is as great as that between Assyrian and Greek sculpture. Sibelius himself seems to favour savage blows and explosive rhythms, which is what the Finns gave us, and we must assume that they know their master and his mind exactly. I see nothing unusual in this, for the two composers who stand nearest to Sibelius in similar dynamic demands are Beethoven and Brahms.

The omission of the necessary savaging from the Brahms Nos. 1, 2 and 4, and from Beethoven’s Nos. 5 and 9, makes them appear colourless, reducing their grandeur to meaningless quantities. Not all conductors will agree with me, but the gentility of some conducting appals me, for every strong accent fades into nothingness, Students of musical psychology thus have such to ponder on. I saw recently at the Austrian Exhibition a portrait of Beethoven I did not know: but there, clearly enough, was the man who could push aside the philanderers and cynics: the contemptuous, pugnacious jaw, and the fiery eyes: the embodiment of the symphonies. I have seen no such look in any portrait of Brahms: but still I say the punch is there in his music.

Now, all that I have seen in the portraits of Beethoven is transfigured in the portraits of Sibelius, and the feeling has been growing on me during the past thirty years. These are my evidence and exhibits to the court about to adjudicate on the correct rendering of the Sibelius symphonies. Sibelius himself is not available as a witness, so some will go on disputing to the end. They are still disputing about Beethoven. I was lately seated with some men who had adjudicated on the playing of a Beethoven piano sonata. A little later one of the adjudicators was assailed with the question, What did he know about the Beethoven tradition? ‘Well, not much’, was the reply, ‘though my piano professor was a pupil of Moscheles, who was taught by Beethoven’.

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, July 1932, pp. 859–860