A Mysteriously Lost Sibelius Symphony Emerges

Scholar's research brings never-before-heard Sibelius to life

Wednesday, November 16, 2011 - 01:21 PM

In a new video featuring the Helsinki Philharmonic, sketches of what are believed to be Jean Sibelius's mysteriously unfinished Eighth Symphony are heard for the first time in history.

Sibelius scholars may never get their answer to the question: "What happened to the Eighth Symphony?" Left unfinished, the manuscripts were assumed to have burned in an infamous fire at the composer’s home. But hundreds of pages of sketches by Sibelius exist in the Finnish National Library, including a significant amount from the time period when Sibelius was known to be working on his illusive Eighth.

The pot was stirred in 2004 when the Sibelius researcher Nors Josephson, struck by the sheer quantity of sketched manuscripts, published an article proposing that the entire Eighth Symphony could be reconstructed, based on a central motif that he identified. Timo Virtanen, another Sibelius scholar, disagreed. Indeed, Josephson’s evidence, though passionately compiled, was sketchy itself – but Virtanen's interest was piqued.

The editor-in-chief of the complete critical edition of Sibelius's works, Virtanen has carefully selected score fragments for which significant orchestral treatment existed, and had them copied out. Recently, he shared the clarified scores with the Helsinki Philharmonic. The result is what you hear in this video, performed for the first time by the orchestra under the direction of John Storgårds. (Scan to 2:10 for the music.)

Responding to the sketches on his blog, New Yorker music critic Alex Ross writes, "It's rather astonishing music, alternating between piercing dissonances and a spare, chantlike kind of writing. You get tantalizing glimpses of a musical landscape stranger and more unstable than almost anything in Sibelius's published output. Are we actually listening to the mythical Eighth? Whatever this is, it is thrilling to hear."

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