In 1984, the great American avant-garde composer Morton Feldman gave a lecture at the relentlessly up-to-date Summer Courses for New Music, in Darmstadt, Germany. “The people who you think are radicals might really be conservatives,” Feldman said on that occasion. “The people who you think are conservative might really be radical.” And he began to hum the Sibelius Fifth.
–Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise
The above anecdote made a lot of us smile. Of course we knew Sibelius was a monster, probably the moment we first heard the Fourth, Fifth or Seventh Symphonies, or maybe Tapiola, but it was great to hear Morton Feldman, bona fide patron saint of late 20th-century modernist cool, say it. Even better, true to his style, he said it without saying it!
But it's easy now to forget how past critics used Sibelius as a political football, first praising him as a nationalist hero, then trashing him as an lightweight conservative boob and favorite of fascists. Since Darmstadt would have been the perfect place to try "is it just me, or is Sibelius is the worst composer ever?" as a pickup line, it was quite lovely that Feldman would drop his little Molotov cocktail there.
But why juxtapose Sibelius and Feldman over a week's programming? OK, it's partly a whimsical reaction to a striking quote, but there are, at least in their mature work, compelling commonalities. They might be outlined with a few terms: time, space, small cells, large forms and sound worlds. Both composers prefer slow harmonic rhythm, holding a tone or a pedal note until it rings out or combines with others, producing a sense of floating and, around that floating material, a sense of space and openness.
Both also use small melodic cells that gradually shift and morph into new configurations, suggesting large scale organic growth. In doing that, they both create events that seem more atmospheric than discursive, heard not so much as the product of conventional development, theme and counterpoint, but as total sound worlds.
They are both radical and sublime.