Sibelius’s Eighth Symphony

Back in the olden days when I was first acquainting myself with classical music, I became somewhat obsessed with the then-new Colin Davis/Boston Symphony recording of the complete symphonies of Jean Sibelius. Right after purchasing the set, not knowing much about the music, I turned as I always do to the enclosed program notes. What I found was an interesting essay by Jack Diether, editor of “Chord and Discord,” not so much about the seven extant symphonies, but dealing with what the evolution of Sibelius’s symphonic style in those works might have led to in the legendary Eighth Symphony that no longer existed, if it ever did. This was called to mind recently as I read about a performance of some fragments from what may have been the Eighth. My interest piqued, I decided to do some proper research on this whole Eighth Symphony story.

Jean SibeliusSibelius is famous for having composed practically nothing during the last thirty years of his life, despite being one of the most acclaimed composers of his day. He completed his Seventh Symphony, Op. 105 in the first half of 1924, and his last major work, the symphonic poem Tapiola, Op. 112 in 1926. A few other, relatively minor works followed: the Masonic Ritual Music, Op. 113, collections of short pieces for solo piano and violin with piano, and the Suite for Violin and Orchestra of 1929 (which was only published as Op. 117 years after the composer’s death and wasn’t given its first performance until 1990). The Eighth Symphony was probably the last major work on which he spent any time, during what has come to be known as the “silence from Ainola” or the “silence from Järvenpää” (Ainola, or “Aino’s Land,” named after Sibelius’s wife Aino, was the Sibelius family home located in Järvenpää, a small town north of Helsinki).

The information about the genesis of the Eighth Symphony is contradictory and confusing. Sibelius may have started on some sketches for the Eighth as early as 1924, but almost certainly had done some work by the end of 1926. In the fall of 1927 he apparently told writer and critic Olin Downes that two movements of the Eighth were already on paper, and the others were complete in his head. Sibelius went to Berlin in February 1928 to compose what he simply called “new works.” That September he wrote to his sister, “I am writing a new work, which will be sent to America. It will still need time. But it will turn out well.” But in December 1928 he told his publisher Wilhelm Hansen that the Eighth Symphony existed only in his imagination, and hadn’t yet been written down at all.

Specific references to the Symphony No. 8 started turning up in Sibelius’s writings in 1930. In a letter to his wife Aino in early 1931 Sibelius reported that the symphony was taking “great steps” forward. Just a few weeks earlier he had rashly promised the premiere of the Eighth to Serge Koussevitzky, whose interpretations of his music Sibelius greatly admired, for the Boston Symphony’s 1930-31 season. That didn’t happen, though, and Koussevitzky wrote Sibelius if the symphony might be done in time for 1931-32. But that season came and went as well, and still no symphony.

The European premiere, set for London under the direction of British conductor Basil Cameron, was advertised in newspapers for the spring of 1933. On May 4 of that year Sibelius wrote in his diary, “It is as if I had come home. In my art. I’m working on the first movement; in other words, I’m forging it. I’m taking everything in another way, more deeply. A gypsy within me. Romantic.” A few months later he told journalist Bob Davis that the symphony “will be the reckoning of my whole existence – sixty-eight years. It will probably be my last. Eight symphonies and a hundred songs. It has to be enough.” Around that same time he told conductor Georg Schneevoigt, “You have no idea how brilliant it is.”

Koussevitzky was promised the symphony score by October 1933, for a 1932-33 season in which the Boston Symphony was going to play all seven existing symphonies and wanted to cap the series with the world premiere of the Eighth. But a note from Sibelius arrived on January 17, 1933 – “Sorry impossible this season” – and Koussevitzky essentially gave up hope.

There had been some interesting action that year, however, and we start getting some hints about how the work was taking shape. On September 4, a famous bill (still extant) from German musician Paul Voigt, Sibelius’s copyist, for copying the first movement of the Eighth Symphony, indicates that he sent 23 pages of the score to Sibelius. Sibelius wrote back: “There should be a fermata at the end. The Largo continues directly. The whole work will be about eight times as long as this.” Since slow movements usually take up fewer printed pages than fast ones, it would seem that the third movement was to be unusually lengthy, or that there were more than the three movements sometimes mentioned by Sibelius. There were subsequent meetings between Sibelius and Voigt that, according to witnesses, involved quantities of manuscript paper. Receipts also exist for large purchases of music paper in both 1933 and 1935.

Now we have to jump forward to 1938. A receipt from August indicates that a “Symphonie” was being bound. Curiously, the bill was for binding seven volumes. Sibelius was known not to have manuscripts of his seven numbered symphonies. On the other hand, it seems implausible that the Eighth Symphony would have been in seven separately bound movements. But no more is known. Some believe that he actually completed the Eighth that year, but kept it entirely to himself. Much later, in 1943, Sibelius mentioned to a couple of people that he was in the midst of some new work, which many scholars assume to be the Eighth.

Then, one day in 1945, we are told that Aino saw her husband feeding large piles of paper into the living-room fireplace at their home (pictured here). The aftermath of this “great burning party” was witnessed by Sibelius’s grandson Erkki Virkkunen, who arrived at the Sibelius home in Ainola as the embers were still smoldering. In an interview decades later, Virkkunen recalled, “Grandmother was almost in tears; she was totally shocked. I don’t know what scores it was that went up in smoke that day. I presume the self-criticism had reached such a point that… well, you know. Grandpa just mentioned, almost in passing, that we’d had a big bonfire. He didn’t make a big thing of it; it seemed more a subject for humor than anything.” According to Aino, Sibelius seemed a much happier person after the fire.

The supposition is that the Eighth Symphony was part of the inferno. But no one knows for sure. For instance, in the late 1940s, perhaps 1947, conductor Nils-Eric Fougstedt reported seeing a score of the Eighth Symphony “with separate choral parts” on a shelf in Sibelius’s home. Even as late as the summer of 1953, Sibelius would occasionally mention that he was continuing to think about his Eighth Symphony. There was a further report from one of Sibelius’s daughters that she destroyed the score of the Eighth on her father’s death in 1957, according to his wishes.

Possible excerpt from Sibelius's Eighth Symphony(Photo of possible Eighth Symphony excerpt by Markus Jokela, Helsingen Sanomat)

In 1982, Sibelius’s family donated his writings, including a huge trove of music manuscripts, to the University of Helsinki and the National Library. It was the multi-year task of Sibelius scholar Kari Kilpeläinen to catalogue the piles of manuscripts. According to Tino Virtanen, the editor-in-chief of the critical edition of the composer’s collected works, those manuscripts seemed to include drafts of portions of the Eighth Symphony. One page, for instance, is inscribed “Sinfonia VIII commincio” on one side. However, the other side contains a short sketch of a few bars. Another included with some drafts from the Symphony No. 7 includes a written “VIII” next to a particular melody.

In 2004, Nors S. Josephson, a researcher who was involved in editing the critical edition, published an article entitled “On Some Apparent Sketches for Sibelius’s Eighth Symphony.” Having examined roughly 800 pages of Sibelius’s miscellaneous manuscripts – many of which date from the time of the Eighth Symphony – Josephson went so far as to suggest that the entire symphony could be reconstructed!

While few agree with such a startling declaration, Timo Virtanen took a closer look at the sketches that remain of orchestral music from Sibelius’s later period, and said in an interview that those sketches “could well point us towards the Eighth Symphony, and they indicate that Sibelius had taken off in a quite startling direction.” Virtanen decided to prepare a few of those sketches for performance. John Storgårds, chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic, agreed to try them out with the Philharmonic during a rehearsal. That performance is documented in the video that prompted this article (scroll down the page just a little and you’ll find on the left a small video box with a play button).

What do the excerpts sound like? In an article about the Eighth, Vesa Sirén described the fragments as “strange, powerful, and with daring, spicy harmonies – a step into the new.” Sirén also cites conductor Storgårds: “You can recognize the composer’s late style from the fragments. But particularly in that opening passage the harmonies are so wild and the music so exciting that I’d really love to know how he went on with this.”

The first excerpt (2:10 to 3:16 in the video) sounds rather like an opening of a first movement – an initial outburst from the timpani (not unlike the opening of Tapiola), followed by a passage featuring fragmentary melodic phrases and unusual, evocative dissonances. The use of winds, both solo and as a choir, sounds like classic Sibelius. Another brief excerpt (3:19 to 3:29) is scherzo-like, with short playful solos from the flute and other winds. The third (3:32 to 4:36), possibly part of a slow movement, begins with a mysterious bassoon solo, soon joined by the other winds in a chorale-like passage. A new theme is introduced by pizzicato strings before the wind chorale continues. All this music sounds very characteristic of late Sibelius, familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.

Jean Sibelius by Akseli Gallen-KallelaWhat further hints can we draw from the direction Sibelius’s music seemed to be headed in the years before these fragments? The Symphony No. 7 had achieved a new level of economy and terseness – the usual four movement form has here been reduced to a single movement of some twenty minutes. The atmospheric tone poem Tapiola featured a central storm that is unlike anything Sibelius had written before, explosive and fierce. In between the Seventh Symphony and Tapiola, in the 1925 incidental music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Op. 109, one can also hear Sibelius exploring new textures and surprising dissonances. Sibelius’s wife Aino insisted that sketches from the Eighth Symphony were used in the moody Surusoitto (Funeral Music), Op.111b for organ, which Sibelius quickly composed in 1931 for the funeral of his good friend, artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela (whose 1894 portrait of Sibelius is reproduced here). Characteristic of all these works is an elusiveness of expression, sudden and dramatic contrasts, polyphony inspired in part by Sibelius’s love of the choral music of the Renaissance, and a turn toward modal harmonies and away from the usual major-minor dichotomy. We can only speculate, though, on the extent to which these ideas would have found expression in the Eighth Symphony.

Why did Sibelius not loose his Symphony No. 8 on the world? Obviously more speculation is involved, but a consensus seems to have emerged. Sibelius was highly self-critical, and was known for ongoing revisions of many of his compositions (original versions of the Violin Concerto and the Symphony No. 5, among other works, have been recorded by the BIS label in its complete Sibelius Edition). It is evident from his many comments about the Eighth that, however happy he may have been with his momentary progress, he never achieved total satisfaction with the score.

Perhaps even more importantly, the high expectations of the musical community must have overwhelmed him. As I said earlier, Sibelius was famous around the world, and anticipation of any new music from his pen – especially a new symphony – was substantial. Jack Diether’s essay mentioned above quotes biographer Harold E. Johnson on the Eighth, saying that Sibelius’s “excessively ardent champions destroyed it … The release of the Eighth Symphony would have involved a calculated risk that he was not willing to take. Would it show the world that he too enjoyed the glowing creative sunset of a Verdi? Would it, on the other hand, be compared with the last feeble efforts of his contemporary Richard Strauss (1864-1949)?”

While there is always the possibility, however slim, that the score of the Eighth Symphony will miraculously turn up in someone’s attic or in a library somewhere, the odds are very good that we will never hear anything more than fragments like the ones discussed above. Just before the famous 1945 fire, Sibelius wrote to conductor Basil Cameron, “I have finished my eighth symphony several times, but I am still not satisfied with it. I will be delighted to hand it over to you when the time comes.” That time never came.

3 thoughts on “Sibelius’s Eighth Symphony

    • Thank you! I’m still holding out hope that the complete score of the Eighth is going to turn up one day in someone’s attic or in the stacks on the bottom floor of some library.

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