Monday, 7 December 2009

"God is opening his doors for a moment, and his orchestra is playing the fifth symphony." (Sibelius, letter to a friend, 1914)

Despite the presence of British composers David Bedford and Andrew Poppy contributing arrangements to Strawberry Switchblade's one and only (eponymous) album, it was apparently producer David Motion who lifted the horn motif from the finale of Sibelius's fifth symphony for the intro to 'Since Yesterday' (unbeknownst to Jill Bryson and Rose McDowell: "It's only afterwards we had to ask, 'Who's Sibelius then?'" Of course, it remains possible that Motion himself didn't know the source and simply took it from the end of The First Class hit 'Beach Baby' from ten years earlier).

It would seem that the theme in question was inspired by the sight, on the 16th of April, 1915, of sixteen swans taking flight ("God, what beauty!" He wrote in his diary, "They circled over me for a long time. Disappeared into the solar haze like a silver ribbon."). Deleuzians should, no doubt, appreciate that this refrain - whose 'adventure' has taken it from the fifth symphony of the world's most popular composer (in the 1930's), through the power pop of the 1970's, the New Pop of the early 80's, and finally the dance pop of Stock, Aitken and Waterman in the chorus to Sinitta's (1988) hit, 'I Don't Believe in Miracles' - was inspired initially by a (quite literal) line of flight.

The fifth symphony came at something of a turning point in Sibelius's career, following the avant-gardist dissonance of fourth symphony with its heavy reliance on the interval of an augmented fourth, or tritone (known in Bach's time as "the devil in music"). It is perhaps interesting to note that the 'modernist' fourth symphony was composed during a rare period of sobriety in the life of Siblelius, after being hospitalised for alcoholism in 1908. By the time work was afoot on the fifth, Sibelius was merrily off the wagon again and reverted to classical tonality, believing only "madness or chaos" to lie beyond the tentative chromaticism of the fourth.

It was perhaps inevitable that to renege on the modernist deal in such a way, stepping back from the brink just as Schoenberg was boldly stepping over it, would earn Sibelius his detractors. The world's most popular composer he may well have been in the 1930's, but a book Bengt von Torme's 1937 Sibelius: A Close Up) that claimed he was a greater composer than Mahler or Schoenberg would pique the anger of one of dissonance's greatest standard bearers, Theodor Adorno. 

Sibelius, wrote Adorno in a 'marginal note' published in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung of 1938, was a mere 'scribbler', "If Sibelius is to be considered a good composer, then we shall have to disregard all of the criteria historically used to evaluate music from Bach to Schoenberg." Sibelius's pastoralism (inevitably, Adorno believed, a symptom of German Blut and Boden propaganda), his acceptance of the Goethe medal from Adolf Hitler in 1935, made him not just a bad composer, but a Nazi composer. But Sibelius, it would seem, was somewhat in the habit of accepting garlands without too much concern over their origin. A fault, to be sure, but perhaps one more personal than political. 

In his diaries of 1943, he explicitly condemned the "stupid prejudices" of Nazism as "utter hogwash" even as he relieved himself, as a "cultural aristocrat", of the necessity of fighting against them - only a year after this same vanity had led him to accept the foundation in Germany of a Sibelius Society (Finland and Germany were, at the time, allies in war against the Soviet Union and the Society was most likely a diplomatic request from the Finnish foreign ministry). If, then, Adorno's political argument against Sibelius is somewhat tendentious, his musicological attack relies, according to semiotician Eero Tarasti, on the "colonialist discourse" of a more or less explicit assumption of German musical superiority.

If Adorno's attacks may have largely banished Sibelius from the corridors of academic musicology, possibly even contributing to the self-doubt that prevented him from completing, or leaving any traces of, his eight symphony, and led to the silence of his later years, they could do little to tarnish his iconic status in his native Finland. Though Tarasti sees the birth of the "Sibelius cult" in Finland as early as the first performance of the Kullervo symphony in 1892, still all his references date significantly from after the publication of the fifth symphony. Completed only very shortly after the declaration of Finnish independence, it was at the very first performance that composer Robert Kajanus claimed, here Sibelius had created a distinctively Finnish style of composition, "The little that had seen the light of day before that was only a feeble offshoot of the German school containing – if I may use the expression – ethnographically inoculated material from Finnish folk music."

Sibelius's fifth symphony remains a curiously contradictory beast: a retreat from the modern whose theme would haunt popular music more than half a century after its composition, appropriated first as a hymn to the soil, and unofficial national anthem, and later, by the BBC, as the music to accompany the first images of the Apollo moon landings. "Is the bird's refrain necessarily territorial," ask Deleuze and Guattari, "or is it not already used for very subtle deterritorializations, for selective lines of flight?" The co-called 'swan' theme from Sibelius's fifth symphony seems to illustrate perfectly this seemingly paradoxical movement of the refrain. As we listen to each of the four incarnations of the melody in order (Sibelius - The First Class - Strawberry Switchblade - Sinitta), we can hear not just the stripping away of the musical context, but the gradual whittling away of its tone colour, the richness of the sound, up until its final reduction to the tinny synth part in the chorus to 'I Don't Believe in Miracles'. Music, "lays hold of the refrain, makes it more and more sober, reduced to a few notes ... no origin or end in sight . . . "