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May 1930 was an extraordinary moment in the alliance and codependence of music and recordings. That month the government of Finland paid the English Columbia Graphone Co. 50,000 markka (about $15,000, a considerable fee at the time) to record the first two symphonies of native son Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). A press release proclaimed, “This is the first occasion that any government have interested itself in recording native music for world propaganda purposes.” (Of course, this was before “propaganda” took on its current pejorative connotation.) The investment brought worldwide fame to Sibelius as well as international notice to his nation’s political plight. The gesture still stands as a testament not only to the exceptional importance of Sibelius in the history and emergent culture of Finland, but also to the power of the phonograph to spread local culture and foster global understanding. The path to this daring and extraordinary act was a half-century in the making. Johan Julius Christian Sibelius (he later adopted Jean, the French form of his nickname, Janne) was born into a stressful time for his country, long smothered under both Swedish culture, which dominated the educational system, and the Russian military, which maintained a garrison in his hometown of Tavastehus. His passion for music arose only at age 15. Realizing that it was too late for him to achieve his aspiration of a career as a concert violinist, he turned instead to composing. He poured into his work not only a vivid imagination but also an intense love of his country that became reflected in a deeply personal style rooted in the geography of his homeland — titanic struggles that suggest the battle for existence in a harsh climate, sustained tones that reflect the deeply forested terrain, and bracing but lucid sonorities that seem to breathe the health of the crisp, clean Northern air. Sibelius’ other fundamental influence was Finnish legends, which enjoyed a resurgence after an 1835 publication of the Kalevala collection of epic folk poetry. It was the publication of that collection that brought the Finns an awareness of their own legends and sense of patriotism. After Sibelius aligned himself with the rising tide of nationalism, much of his work assumed symbolic significance as an artistic vehicle for resistance to foreign influences. His first major composition in 1892 was a raw, sprawling setting of the myth of Kullervo, one of the tragic figures in Finnish mythology. Despite its popularity today, the work first received caustic notices, even from Finnish critics. Nevertheless, audiences sensed that a vital cultural force had erupted. (Critical barbs never seemed to bother Sibelius — he once quipped that a statue has never been erected to honor a critic.) Through the end of the 19th century, nearly all of Sibelius’ key works were steeped in Finnish folklore, culminating in his celebrated 1899 “Finlandia.” Its riveting themes, yearning sonority, earnest hymn, and stirring heroic finish attained global fame and became a rallying point for national frustration and pride. (To mollify foreign censors, it was occasionally, and perhaps facetiously, programmed under the title “Nocturne,” but no one hearing it could possibly have been lulled by the ruse.) Sibelius became so identified with Finnish aspirations that even his “Song of the Athenians,” whose text had nothing to do with Finland, was widely interpreted as a veiled symbol of defiance of Russian repression. Musicologist Simon Parmet summarized the importance of Sibelius as the first great musician Finland had ever produced — he translated its folklore into a universally understood language that expressed his nation’s soul, filled a gap in the spiritual life of the country, made it an active participant in world culture and politics, and gave his countrymen tangible hope for a vibrant and independent future. A gesture of appreciation led to his Symphony No. 2. In 1902, Baron Axel Carpelan, a wealthy benefactor, had sent Sibelius and his family to Italy for a year. There, freed from the pressure of daily life and basking in the hospitable warmth of the Mediterranean springtime, Sibelius wrote a new work that stimulated considerable discussion as to its meaning. Sibelius himself thought of its drama as “a struggle between death and salvation” and “a confession of the soul,” but others tended from the outset to cite its strong national character. One critic dubbed it “our Liberation Symphony.” Finnish conductor George Schn�evoight went further to assign it a specific patriotic programmatic interpretation, in which the first movement was a picture of the Finns’ pastoral life, the second the brutality of foreign rule, the third the crushing of patriotic spirit, and the fourth the glorious hope for deliverance from tyranny. LIGHTS AND SHADOWS From the very outset, Sibelius’ work was recognized as standing apart from the mainstream. In one of the most prescient early notices outside Finland (where fervent support was impelled as much by patriotism as by musical judgment), Duncan Hume wrote in the 1908 edition of the conservative English Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians: “Sibelius is a composer who must be taken on his own merits; it would be difficult to compare him to anyone else, the whole atmosphere of his work is so strange, and so permeated with lights and shadows that are unfamiliar, and colours that are almost from another world. . . . Sibelius has much to say; much that is new and much that no one else could either imagine or express.” Indeed, the Symphony No. 2 is a magnificent work whose traditional four movements fully reflect the Sibelian style. The very first notes not only emulate native folk music but project an extraordinarily fluid sense of rhythm, in which extra beats and irregular phrasing often transcend the written meter; instead, inflection is indicated through a vast number of accent markings. Throughout the first movement, held tones and pedal points produce tension and slow the harmonic flow to intensify climaxes. The second movement is buffeted by fitful, wrenching moods and grating climaxes that erupt from a fundamental pastoral ground of haunting sorrow. As in the Fifth Symphony of Sibelius’ hero Beethoven, an incessant triplet figure of the scherzo leads directly to a triumphant finale that proudly pounds out the home key with a simple yet unforgettable main theme. The magnificent culmination relentlessly builds a tender theme into a shattering climax, capped off by a brass-drenched coda assembled from fragments of earlier material. Sibelius led the premieres of nearly all his works and conducted them often, with great success. He gave the first performance of the Symphony No. 2 on March 3, 1902 in Helsinki, where the press lauded the inventiveness and enthusiasm of his leadership. Yet Sibelius was mike-shy and never made a recording. For the 1930 project, he passed the baton to conductor Robert Kajanus. Sibelius wrote at the time, “Very many are the men who have conducted [my work] during the last 30 years, but there are none who have gone deeper and given them more feeling and beauty than Robert Kajanus.” Though it is true that Sibelius tended to effusively praise all who programmed his major works, his choice of Kajanus was especially apt. In 1882, Kajanus had founded Finland’s first permanent orchestra, with which he championed the work of its native composers, both at home and on tour, for the next half-century. His “Aino” symphony, based on Finnish folklore, had kindled and guided Sibelius’ ambition. Kajanus gave the struggling composer his first commission and, throughout his long career, served as the most ardent advocate of his younger colleague’s work. EXERCISE IN FRUSTRATION Kajanus’ recordings exemplify the composer’s performance ideals. Kajanus corresponded frequently with Sibelius during the composition of the second symphony and snuck into the rehearsals (from which Sibelius barred witnesses) to study and absorb the composer’s intentions. The Kajanus recording of Symphony No. 2 is unique for its extraordinary flexibility of tempo and phrasing; indeed, following the score is an exercise in frustration, so utterly free-flowing is the pace and so natural the accents and dynamics. Overall, it breathes a thrilling air of improvisatory freedom that has never been matched. Despite the nearly three decades that had elapsed since he wrote the symphony, it is Sibelius himself who speaks to future generations through the enduring wonder of the magnificent Kajanus recording. Sibelius wrote: “I trust earnestly that Columbia will avail itself of the services of Professor Kajanus should they consider recording any more of my compositions.” They didn’t, but the success of the initial venture prompted the formation of a Sibelius Society, which soon produced recordings of the other five Sibelius symphonies and thus paved the way to his subsequent fame.
Peter Gutmann is a partner in the D.C. office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice. More than two dozen recordings of the Symphony No. 2 are reviewed on the author’s Web site.

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