One of the more memorable lines in Four Weddings and a Funeral (my favourite rom-com – but that’s an argument for another day) is when one of the characters describes Hugh Grant’s character as a “serial monogamist”. In other words, he’s not a cheater but he has no qualms about ditching a girlfriend and moving on to new pastures when he gets itchy feet.
In musical terms, I think I’m a bit of a serial monogamist myself. I get totally absorbed in a specific act, or album, or genre, to the extent that nothing else hits the spot for me. But then I just move on to something else. Does anyone else get this?
Although a bit childish I suppose, it can also be rejuvenating. With a new obsession you hear something with the honest ears of a fresh convert. There’s a lot to be said for blind enthusiasm.
My current love affair is with Sibelius. It’s early days and I need to get to know more about him, but from what I know so far he seems like The One. (Ask me again in a couple of months). I know I’m not going to be able to convince anybody of his genius, but if the Afterword isn’t the place for waxing enthusiastical about a musical obsession, then what are we all doing here?
Jean Sibelius was an alcoholic, cigar-smoking rapscallion who seemed to live on the permanent knife edge of bankruptcy and caused no end of stress for his family until he calmed down in his later years. He was a fervent nationalist for Finland, the country of his birth and where he spent most of his days. He was born in 1865 and died in 1957, a timespan of heaving, radical change.
When his music clicks with you, suddenly a lot of cinema music sounds shallow and derivative. I can hear Bernard Hermann, John Williams and LOTS of Hans Zimmer. It makes me think that the story of Sibelius has been the establishment of a kind of aural mood board for movie composers to plunder. Great shifting slabs of brass and highly strung tension interspersed with moments of reflection.
He’s also a total tease. He’s all about building up to these gargantuan climaxes that never quite peak, leaving you itching to listen to him over and over again for another fix.
So far, I’ve done Finlandia, and the 2nd, 5th and 7th symphonies. I don’t want to be here all day so I’ll concentrate on the 5th.
Ole’ Sibe wrote his 5th symphony for his fiftieth birthday in 1915, then revised it a few times over the next few years while some little events like the Great War and the Finnish Civil War played out in the background.
For me (and for most people I suspect) it’s all about the finale, the last of three movements. The first two movements are fine, but they dance about and I haven’t really found a foothold in them (yet). It’s a short symphony though, only about half an hour, so you can just treat the first two movements as an appetiser.
Oh! That finale! There’s a minute or so of frantic, mousey scuttling that sounds like so many Christmas movies, with elves frantically getting ready for Christmas. But that cheapens it and you really have to try and put such thoughts to the side…
All of a sudden the Big Anthem lumbers into view, as the bass instruments in the orchestra slowly waken into life. Sibelius is a total master of the Big Anthem, the type of melody you can play with one finger on a piano but can still shoot an arrow right through your heart.
This Big Anthem is a great swaying ship, it’s huge bulk rolling gently from side to side as the violins (dolphins? seagulls?) continue to rush about on the periphery and try and keep up. It feels gentle and massive at the same time, like being picked up by the BFG. Also slightly off-kilter, seeming to wander drunkenly and threaten to fall over at any minute. It’s one of those instantly familiar things that will stay with you forever. And just Disney enough to be poignant without being cloying.
If I was to try and compare it to anything, I’d say the overall feel was maybe a bit like The Orb’s “Spanish Castles in Space” (Sibelius is ripe for an Orb remix). And if you played it on a piano you’d sound like Erik Satie.
In anyone else’s hands, this Big Anthem might just be played straight, and repeated for good measure. But Sibelius the Teaser is having none of that. It gets subsumed into an all together more formless and atonal (though still rousing) soundscape, reappears a second time in diluted form and then after the mother of all climaxes the whole thing ends in a series of almighty power chords. I don’t think anything sounded as epochal as this from Beethoven’s Fifth to the big chord at the end of A Day In The Life.
(Check out Leonard Bernstein conducting this beast on Youtube and you’ll probably get a good idea what his orgasm face looks like).
It baffles me how people survived before recorded music. Would you really only hear something like this once in your life (if even that), without the ability to play it over and over again?