If you haven’t caught up with the current issue of The New Yorker, I recommend the article by Alex Ross, Apparition In The Woods, a review of the life and work of the composer Jean Sibelius.

Alternating biographical segments with analyses of the music, Ross gives a human and sympathetic picture. His analysis of the music is sharp (this former music theory major never felt it was dumbed down) without being technical. For the most part, he puts the form and movement of the music into everyday terms that are still very descriptive. “The finale [of the Fourth Symphony] thins out as it goes along, as if random pages of the orchestral parts had blown off the music stands. This is music facing extinction…”

When he does allow himself a more poetic metaphor, such as the flight of swans that the finale of the Fifth Symphony describes, he does so only with the tacit permission of the composer’s own diaries. The closing of the Fifth is cryptic, to say the least, but with a little help it comes together.

Another very good account of his life, with many good photos, is online thanks to the Sibelius Museum of Finland. The last decades of his life were a tragic mess of alcoholism, insecurity, perfectionism and ultimately a bonfire of unpublished work. Reviewing the “blank-faced chords” that end the Fourth, his life was clearly reflected in his work.

Suggested places to start, if you’re unfamiliar with his music, would be the Karelia Suite, the Second and Fifth Symphonies, and the Violin Concerto. Besides the performers recommended in the article, Colin Davis has conducted a good cycle of the symphonies, and Lorin Maazel has an excellent reputation (as opposed to his reputation for interpreting other composers).

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