Music, and nationalism. So interesting that the two go so well together. Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2 was so grandiose that Finnish audiences believed it had something to do with their own struggle for independence from Russian rule.
I heard this symphony last night at the University of Puget Sound. The conductor, Christophe Chagnard, explained that the music was useful in solidifying the Finnish people in 1902, who were struggling against Russian occupation and restrictions upon their language and culture. But that Sibelius himself said his music had no political message whatsoever, that it was created independent of any political ideas, or rebellious attitudes at the time. This is a thorny problem.
The audiences used it for what they felt was most important to them. To give a text an author and assign a single, corresponding interpretation to it “is to impose a limit on that text,” wrote Roland Barthes in Death of the Author. And the same idea applies here as the death of the composer.
Here are what some critics have had to say about the piece, from a Sibelius fan website.
“The effect of the andante is that of the most crushing protest against all the injustice which today threatens to take light from the sun (…) [The scherzo] depicts hurried preparation (…) [The finale] culminates in a triumphant closure which is capable of arousing in the listener a bright mood of consolation and optimism.”
Robert Kajanus, conductor, 1902
“The second symphony is a great romantic symphony. It no longer displays the archaic Slavic flavour of the first symphony; the ideal is Central European. The symphony is closer to Brahms than Tchaikovsky.”
Erkki Salmenhaara, scholar, 1984
“In comparison with the first symphony, the second symphony already shows a dignified man of the world looking into the horizon. We have moved from Slavism to Central Europe. Still, from time to time I also see images of Karelian grandmothers practising their witchcraft.”
Jukka-Pekka Saraste, conductor, 2002
“The second symphony is connected with our nation’s fight for independence, but it is also about the struggle, crisis and turning-point in the life of an individual. This is what makes it so touching.”
Osmo Vänskä, conductor, 1998