Ormandy on Sibelius

Eugene Ormandy talks about Sibelius

Meeting Sibelius for the first time, I had the impression of being in the presence of someone almost superhuman.  Here was a being I had admired and looked up to all my life — and suddenly I was in his presence.  He was a towering man, a towering personality, with a magnificent head and powerful face.  His beautiful home was full of records, many of which we had sent him from America throughout the years.  Goddard Lieberson sent him many recordings from Columbia Records.  I remember that I once sent him a recording taken off the air of his Lemminkäinen suite, which we later recorded for Columbia.  He didn’t want it to be performed; that was one of the works he had a strong aversion to, and he wanted to keep the score from the public.  But I managed to get a copy from Helsinki, studied it thoroughly, liked it and performed it.  Then I sent a special recording to Sibelius.  I understand that he put it away for weeks before listening to it.  He was afraid because he was such an uncompromising critic of his own work.  But when he heard it he was pleased and sent me a cable followed by a kind and enthusiastic letter.  When we recorded the work officially, I sent him several copies and he was really touched.  I like to think that I was instrumental in getting Sibelius to appreciate one of his own works!

Sibelius’ First Symphony was the “first” for me in another sense — it was the first of the master’s symphonies I ever conducted.  This was in 1932, with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra — and we recorded it for RCA Victor in that year.  I think perhaps it was the first Sibelius symphony to be recorded outside of Scandinavia.  Of course the great Finnish conductor, Sibelius’ friend Kajanus, had broken ground for Sibelius years before, and so had Koussevitzky, Stokowski and Beecham.  I have played the First Symphony many times in the intervening thirty years, and it never loses its fascination for me.  Recordings have changed a great deal since 1932, and so have interpretations of his works to the end, and he always had admiration for the work of my colleagues Stokowski and Koussevitzky.  I will risk immodesty to add that he praised my readings too.  His enthusiasm is a source of great pride to me.

Strangely enough, Sibelius has never been popular in the Germanic countries — excepting, of course, Scandinavia. Germany and Austria never took him to their hearts the way the British and we did.  And yet he studied in Germany and the German masters influenced his musical development — I remember a dozen years ago when the State Department asked me to conduct some concerts in Berlin with the RIAS Orchestra.  I programmed the Sibelius Second Symphony and it didn’t take me much more than one measure to realize that the orchestra had never seen it before.  When we had played it through, the very Germanic concertmaster said to me, “This isn’t such a bad work after all,” and left it at that.  The work seemed to make even less of an impression on the critics — one of them began his review with the question, “Why Sibelius?”  Fortunately, there are still a few conductors around whose answer to that question would be, “Because Sibelius is among the giants.”

It is difficult for me to choose a favorite among the seven symphonies of Sibelius.  The first is still under the influence of Tchaikovsky, but it is a healthy thing for a first symphony to recall the past, and Sibelius does so gloriously.  The Second Symphony shows the composer struggling heroically to free himself from this influence, but not fully succeeding; the very tensions created by this struggle give the work its power.  Like the First, it is filled with passages that only Sibelius could have conceived.  The Third I don’t understand, frankly.  The Third and Sixth remain enigmas, as far as I am concerned.  The Fourth I love, the Fifth I love and the Seventh — all of them free, wild, beautiful things, more like elemental forms of nature than consciously shaped works of art.  And I wish I could say that I love the Eighth, too, but alas, like everyone else I have never heard it and don’t know if it exists or ever existed.

The Eighth Symphony is a mysterious subject.  Everytime I saw Sibelius — and I saw him four or five times, perhaps more — in his home about twenty-seven miles away from the city of Helsinki, I asked him about it, sometimes very tactfully, sometimes quite directly.  And his response was always the same:  he became very upset and nervous and quickly changed the subject.  He seemed to be disturbed that anyone should bring up the subject of the Eighth Symphony.  His son-in-law, Jussi Jalas, a very fine conductor and a good friend of mine, had told me that he was convinced that there was an Eighth Symphony.  On the other hand, Sibelius’ oldest daughter assured me that there was no such symphony.  If there was one, he destroyed it.  Sibelius is reputed to have said to intimate friends, “If I cannot write a better symphony than my Seventh, then it shall be my last.”  Apparently he was not satisfied — if he wrote an Eighth Symphony — with what he had done.  At any rate, he seems to have enjoyed the mystery surrounding the existence of the work.

Naturally, I always told him that if and when his Eighth Symphony was ready for performance I hoped he would give me the opportunity to give it its world premiere.  There was never any response:  his fine, nervous hands would begin to tremble even more and he would look away with a troubled expression.  Out of my admiration and respect I would never press the matter, although I felt puzzled and disappointed.  Twice I went to his house with Olin Downes, who was one of his greatest admirers and had written a book about him.  Mr. Downes promised me that he would bring up the subject, because I told him I didn’t dare to anymore.  But he got the same reply, or rather non-reply:  a strange twist in Sibelius’ face, a nervous intensity in his eyes, and the trembling hands.  I said in an aside to Mr. Downes, “We’d better drop the subject.”  We did.  It shall always remain a tantalizing mystery for me.

As wonderful as it was to meet Sibelius for the first time, it was even more wonderful to have been able to introduce him, some years later, to the members of The Philadelphia Orchestra.  That occurred in June 1955, and there is a rather touching story connected with the meeting.  For some months previous I had been in correspondence with Dr. Ringbom, the director of the Helsinki Philharmonic, in order to arrange for the orchestra to meet the master while we were in Finland on tour.  Sibelius was very ill at the time, very old and fragile and tormented by ear trouble.  The day we were to go to his secluded villa at Järvenpää arrived, and though it was cold and raw and raining, the men were as excited and eager as children.  And I was as excited as any of them.  Imagine my disappointment when Dr. Ringbom called to confess that when he had written to me in Philadelphia to say that everything was arranged he had not mentioned that Sibelius himself knew nothing about the projected visit.  He had only spoken to Mrs. Sibelius, who had agreed at the time but now flatly said no, her husband was too ill to receive us.

There we were, in Helsinki, thousands of miles from home and within twenty-seven miles of Sibelius.  “Dr. Ringbom,” I said, “you must not disappoint us.  Please call up Mrs. Sibelius and explain to her that this orchestra, from the very earliest days with Stokowski, has done as much to spread Sibelius’ fame as any orchestra in the world.  All they ask in return is to see him.”  It worked.

My wife and I were havingh tea with him, and the orchestra came in two buses.  Even then he hadn’t been told that they were coming.  He was so sensitive — perhaps the most sensitive, shy man I ever met in my life — that the knowledge that he was to meet 110 musicians would probably have incapacitated him if he were given  too much time to think about it.  And those poor colleagues of mine were standing out in the cold rain with thin raincoats on, waiting!  Finally I took the bull by the horns and said, “Mr. Sibelius, do you know that the entire Philadelphia Orchestra, the orchestra that played your music when nobody else did, is waiting outside, hoping to meet you?  Would you just go out on the balcony and say hello to them?”

“But I cannot speak English well enough,” he protested.  “They will not understand me.”

“Speak German, they’ll understand you.  Just look at them, don’t say anything.”

And so he got his heavy winter coat and hat — there are pictures of that visit — and came out with me.  “Gentlemen,” I said, “Mr. Sibelius needs no introduction.”  They applauded him and bravoed him until I had to tell them, “Gentlemen, Mr. Sibelius is not well, but he wanted to come out and say a few words to you.”  And then he told them, with the beautiful simplicity of his few English words, how grateful he was to them for playing his music so nobly.  At last his oldest daughter pulled him back, saying, “Daddy you’re going to catch cold.”  Fortunately, he didn’t catch cold, but we were worried that he might, for it was bitter that day.

He died two years later, in 1957.  And I think today we perform his music better for the memory of those few minutes when he came out on his porch and spoke to us.  It was an experience that none of us will ever forget.

- Essay from Sibelius: Symphony No. 1 in E-Minor, Op. 39.  The Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy, Conductor.  Columbia Masterworks MS-6395.

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