On 26th December, 1926, Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphonic Society gave the première of Tapiola, a tone poem depicting the forest spirit of the Kalevala. No-one knew that Tapiola would turn out to be the composer’s last major work; although small-scale compositions and revisions intermittently appeared, Sibelius’ oeuvre ends with an ellipsis rather than a triumphant conclusion.

Jean Sibelius
Jean Sibelius

When Tapiola received its première, Sibelius’ Eighth Symphony was well underway. In the autumn of the following year, he even stated that two movements were already on paper with the rest complete in his head. Until the end of the composer’s life, the symphony remained tantalisingly out of reach. Proposed premières were postponed and eventually cancelled as Sibelius wrestled with the work which he envisioned as the culmination of his life’s work. Yet, as the symphony appeared to near its completion – the copying process began in 1933 – Sibelius grew increasingly anxious. The work was never far from his mind for the rest of his life. In a 1945 letter, he admitted: “I have finished my Eighth Symphony several times, but I am still not satisfied with it.” Around this time, Sibelius burned the two existing copies of the symphony, along with numerous drafts and sketches. The work continued to occupy him: in 1954, he confided to a friend that he would never complete the symphony. Three years after that, Sibelius died.

Ever since, musicologists have devoted themselves to uncovering any traces of the symphony. The Helsinki University Library contains a number of sketches and fragments believed to be linked to the work, and in 2011, scholars Timo Virtanen and Vesa Sirén prepared a number of the most fully developed for performance. The Helsinki Philharmonic recorded these excerpts in 2011: although they only offer glimpses, they have proved fascinating. Sirén described the snippets as “strange, powerful, and with daring, spicy harmonies – a step into the new, even after Tapiola and the music for The Tempest.”

Why did Sibelius deem the work unsuitable for performance? Although Sibelius always stated that each work should explore fresh musical ground, the surviving fragments of the symphony point towards a new direction. Some scholars have suggested that the composer’s hand tremor prevented him from completing the work, but this again seems unlikely. It appears that a combination of two factors prevented Sibelius from completing his symphonic swansong: the composer’s iconic status (and the weight of the accompanying expectations) and his self-criticism.

Sibelius took on the mantle of Finland’s national composer relatively early in his career. Kullervo (1892) was the work which first brought him widespread public acclaim, and his compositions for Finnish historical pageants only increased his popularity. His music came to be associated with the country’s struggle for independence, and his works were received with great fanfare for the rest of his life. Sibelius struggled to cope with this attention, turning to alcohol, and his public appearances after World War II were limited.

With fame comes expectations. Considered by many to be the greatest living composer, every note which left Sibelius’s pen was golden. Each new work was highly anticipated and celebrated in turn, placing the composer under stress as he strove to surpass his previous composition. Perhaps it was this fear that eventually crippled him: Sibelius’s perfectionism emerges in diary excerpts, suggesting that his exacting standards ultimately prevented him from releasing his Eighth Symphony. In 1927, the composer confided: “Isolation and loneliness are driving me to despair ... Am abused, alone, and all my real friends are dead. My prestige here at present is rock-bottom. Impossible to work. If only there were a way out."

Sibelius with Kirsten Flagstad in 1952
Sibelius with Kirsten Flagstad in 1952

Despite this, Sibelius kept composing. He may not have completed his valedictory work, but a number of songs, small-scale chamber works and arrangements occupied him. His final year saw him return to the Kullervo Symphony – the work which first catapulted him to success – and a song for a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night from 1909 poignantly entitled Kom nu hit, död (Come Away, Death).

The idea of Sibelius’s silence is nothing but a myth – an attempt to ensure that the composer’s legacy was rounded off in an appropriate manner for someone of such stature. While Tapiola was deemed a suitable conclusion to Sibelius’s body of works, even this looks towards new horizons. In his final large-scale statement, the composer invited the next generation to take his place.