Did Brahms Kill Sibelius? (Brahms 1 meets Sibelius 7)


Arnold Schoenberg- Would he have been Brahms’ favorite depressed, bald composer?


Many knowledgeable musicians consider Schoenberg to be the musical successor of Brahms. Schoenberg himself thought so too. (You’ve got to hand it to Schoenberg- he managed to position himself pretty convincingly as the heir to both Brahms and Mahler, grabbing a chunk of Wagner’s legacy for good measure). Of course the comparison is apt in many ways- Brahms’ extremely dense and rigorous way of working with motives, the technique known as Developing Variation, is in many ways a logical technical precursor of serialism. On the other hand, Brahms would have found Schoenberg’s idea that the future would come around to his more difficult music incomprehensible. Hans Gal wrote of Brahms in his excellent biographical study Johannes Brahms: His Work and Personality “Brahms, himself a devoted performer of music, wrote music for people who make music. This is one of its most essential qualities; it helps strengthen its part structure and makes it stimulating for the executants. For him, these were always the decisive critics, and beyond them was the public, the community of listeners. No matter how mixed, it constituted a tribunal whose competence he always acknowledged. The idea of apealing from an unappreciative present to an imaginary future would have seemed preposterous to him.” * And as open as Brahms would have been to Schoenberg’s technical approach and even his use of dissonance (and as strong as Schoenberg’s part structure is), I don’t think Brahms could possibly have accepted the meaning of form without modulation or tonal centers.

Sibelius, for me, is the composer who most directly tries to answer the challenge of Brahms in the same way that Brahms answered the challenge of Beethoven.

Sibelius: Balder and more depressed than Schoenberg. Would Brahms have been impressed?

Much was expected of Brahms as a symphonist from the time that Robert Schumann announced him to the world. However, there was surely nobody alive who thought Brahms, or any other future talent, would be able to meet Beethoven on the territory where he reigned most supreme in the eyes of musicologists and composers, that of motivic development, and actually surpass him. However, after many long delays, much uncertainty and many years of withering self-criticism, Brahms did indeed produce a symphony which met Beethoven on his own terms, and at least this respect, surpassed him. Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 is a beautiful piece of music. It is deeply moving. It has great tunes. It is fun to play, and has fantastic solos for the members of the orchestra. It is music that has the power to shake your very soul.

It is also one of the towering intellectual achievements in human history.

Brahms takes motivic development and formal unity on the microscopic level to a place that Bach, Haydn and Beethoven never attempted to go.  This is composition as communication, composition as creativity, composition as an act of willing beauty into the world, but also composition as analysis, as mathematics, as high reasoning. Brahms takes Beethoven’s method of motivic development and extends it into something we call Developing Variation (every musician should read Walter Frisch’s marvelous book Brahms and the Principle of Developing Variation)

Several years ago, I wrote a short blog post on the subject of composition as analysis. The article focused a great deal on Sibelius, as well as Mahler and Beethoven, but somehow avoided Brahms. To say it was met with some skepticism is an understatement.  However, I was reminded of one comment from composer Bryan-Kirk Rheinhardt (aka Composer Bastard) this week as I was working on these two symphonies side-by-side.

“Or let us not forget that our dear friend Sibelius seemed to have ended his long career by composing himself into a corner with motives…and the only reason he didnt end up shooting himself in the head with a Mauser, is that bullets were both expensive and hard to find considering there were a few wars going on in Europe during his time. He chose the bottle instead…to end his creative depression. And burned his last motives in a waste-fire…to make sure it remained so…”

Brahms paid a high price for his determination to write a symphony that would meet and match the challenge of Beethoven. There were the years of toil, the destruction of countless unpublished works, the monkish isolation without a life partner to comfort him, the abandonment of dreams for an opera.

It would seem that after Brahms, there would be nowhere else to go. Surely it is impossible to compose anything more rigorous than Brahms 1 (never mind Brahms 2-4)?

Sibelius didn’t seem to think so. I can’t read his mind, but I can read his scores, and he does seem to constantly be mindful of the example of Brahms. Like Brahms, Sibelius was a classicist at heart.  Like Brahms, he found limits exciting and essential- as he developed as composer, his pieces get shorter and tauter, not longer and looser. His orchestra gets smaller and more transparent, not bigger and bolder. He uses less and less material in each piece.

Developing Variation in Brahms is really a formal principal- a revolution in how we understand sonata form. Instead of exposition-development-recapitulation, we have an exposition which is primarily developmental in nature. All the themes in the exposition are revealed to us through the development of motivic micro-cells. Of course, the theme of the first movement of  Beethoven 5 is a perfect example of Developing Variation. Brahms just took the implications of Beethoven’s technique and made it a formal principle.

I am now going to make up a musical term (at least I think I am making it up).

If Brahms looked at Beethoven’s “motivic development” and created “developing variation,” Sibelius seems to have looked at “developing variation” and created “transitional development.” **

Brahms saw that “development” didn’t need to be confined to “the Development” of a form, but could and should be constantly occurring from the very beginning of a piece.

Sibelius saw that a constant process of development could mean that the form becomes an expression of development, rather than of structure. Brahms essentially adheres to the classical model of sonata form. Even as the thematic groups in all three sections of the exposition are built of the same motivic cell, the sectional-ization of form into primary theme, contrasting theme and closing theme  remains important in his exposition.

In Brahms, you generally have a sonata movement, divided into the three main sections (exposition-development-recapitulation), and each of those sections is divided into three sections. Add to that an introduction and coda that are essentially mirrors of each other, and you have a perfectly symmetrical form that emphasizes a sense of fulfillment and closure


Intro      Exposition (3 themes)      Development (3 episodes)        Recap (3 themes)       Coda


Sibelius insight was that in a piece where ideas are constantly being developed, the variation of material is what drives the music from section to section. In Brahms, we still have music divided into sections and transitions. Each section has its own tonality and its own mood, then we have a transition and a new section. In Sibelius from the 3rd Symphony on, he is moving towards music in which everything is a transition because everything is a development. Hence Transitional Development, or Developmental Transition or whatever you want to call it.

However, this process brought Sibelius into some conflict with his nature as a classicist. Philosophically, it isn’t hard to see that in a form where the material is evolving and developing as a living organism would, and in which that organic development drives the form, there is little room or rationale for the kind of symmetry and closure we have in traditional Sonata form. Living beings don’t recapitulate, they run their life course and then they cease to exist.

And so it becomes in Sibelius music. It is music in which you can never, as the great writer said, go home again.  If I can oversimplify, let me suggest that Brahms expanded the development back into the exposition. Sibelius extends it forward into the recapitulation. This means that while his great symphonic movements might have a tremendous sense arrival, fulfillment or breatkthrough, you rarely, rarely have a sense of return. (In this sense, Sibelius as symphonist is far more modern than Schoenberg. The First Chamber Symphony, for instance, is one of the towering masterpieces of early 20th c. music. The level of dissonance may make it sound more “modern,” but ultimately the form is much more traditional and sectional than a piece like Sibelius 7, completely nicely rounded return of the opening theme in the closing bars).

The first example of this for me is the Finale of Sibelius’ 3rd Symphony. I always think of the long stretto and sudden, abrupt ending as feeling something like a desperate swimmer racing for shore. Each stroke of the arms is a little faster, but a little more desperate as the stakes are getting higher as the sea gets stormier. Suddenly, we arrive on land and the piece ends. There is no sense of return whatsoever, but a powerful feeling of having reached a goal.

Similarly, you can brave my long analysis of the first movement of the 5th Symphony here. In that case, there might be some more sense of return and closure because of the return of the opening of the horn theme at the end of the Scherzo section, but the transformation the material has gone through means this is easy to miss. The sense of closure is further undermined by the fact that the climax of the whole symphony occurs halfway through the opening span of music.

And what could be more Sibelian? What emerges as climax and fulfillment becomes transition. By this point, he has not only let his transitional variation process largely disrupt the sonata structure of the first movement, he’s used it to meld a first movement, in what should be Sonata form into a Scherzo.

The Fifth is, like Brahms 1, as much a monument to human intellect and analysis as it is one of the most beautiful and moving pieces of music ever written. Like Brahms, finishing it took quite a toll and many years of effort. Sibelius had to revise the piece twice before he was able solve all the problems of the material.

Like Brahms, the only response to such a triumph was to take the process further. If Sibelius 5 is a work in which transitional development swallows boundaries between pairs of movements (just as the first movement is both Sonata Allegro and Scherzo, the second movement is both Andante and Finale), in the 7th Symphony, he creates a symphony in a single breath, a single word.

And what a symphony it is! Of course, the effort it took was even greater than the 5th- Sibelius was so agitated when writing it that he reportedly had to drink vast quantities of whiskey to keep his pencil on the paper. In a single movement, we have a whole world, even more tightly knit together than Brahms 1 (the mind boggles). And through it all, not only the constant development of ideas, but the constant process of transition. There are no arrivals, only the beginnings of new transitions. There is no closure at the end, but plenty of completion. It is one of the ultimate expressions of what it feels like to reach a goal after a titanic and often tragic struggle in all the symphonic literature. It is a beautiful piece of music. It is deeply moving. It has great tunes. It is fun to play, and has fantastic solos for the members of the orchestra. It is music that has the power to shake your very soul

It is also one of the towering intellectual achievements in human history.

But, Bryan-Kirk was right. Sibelius had composed himself into a corner. He had taken his language almost as far as it could go. I feel like you can sense this in the final pages- this sense of desperation that even as the goal is in sight, that the goal is also The End, and very close to the very end. After the 7th there was only Tapiola and an 8th Symphony thrown on the fire. Simon Rattle, in his perceptive interview on the Sibelius Symphonies recorded for the Berlin Philharmonic’s cycle last year, points out in a different way that solving all your problems is not always helpful for a composer. Simon was talking about financial problems, but the same is true artistically

But Sibelius was also right. You can see the 7th Symphony as a dead end, or the reaching of a goal. In that sense, his concept of form was a perfect mirror for his life- material says all it has to say, and then you reach the end.

Most of the greatest composers kept composing to their last breath. A very few retired or fell silent. Sibelius.




Curiously, each of them was among the tiny minority of composers to reach a sort of perfect marriage between technique and material in their work. What a price they pay to reach that kind of perfection- to have taken their talent and their language as far as it can possibly go. The price for each was their voice, their muse.

If Bryan-Kirk is right that Sibelius’ obsessions ultimately silenced him, I can only answer that the music he left us was worth the price he paid for it. Of course that’s easy for me to say- I don’t have to face 30 years of remembering what it felt like to be able to compose like Jean Sibelius.




* I was first directed towards Gal’s book about Brahms by Gal’s grandon, producer Simon Fox-Gal. When I asked if there were any writings by Gal on his own music, said there were a few short things but they were very guarded and not very illuminating. He said that if I really wanted to understand Gal’s  music, he revealed far more of himself in his books on Brahms, Schubert and Schumann. Anyway, Gal’s Brahms study is magnificent, and a very easy read.

** Just as developing variation can be spotted in Beethoven, transitional development certainly occurs in Brahms. A case in point could well be the Finale of the 1st Symphony, which pretends to be a Sonata allegro movement, but instead follows its material in unexpected directions. The ending, as in Sibelius, is more about culmination than about closure.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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9 comments on “Did Brahms Kill Sibelius? (Brahms 1 meets Sibelius 7)”

  1. Richard Bratby

    Fascinating article Ken. But I always feel that Haydn actually accelerated creatively towards the end; contemporary biographers recorded his frustration, that, in his final years, his brain teemed with musical ideas that he simply could not, physically, get on paper (70 was a very advanced age for someone of the generation born in 1732). Given the advances he made in his art between Op.33 in 1781 and his final quartets, just 20 years later, it’s staggering to think what he might have achieved if he’d been able to write down the music that must have been in his head in that last half-decade before 1809. As it is he signed off with that extraordinary, half-finished quartet Op.103 and its heartbreaking after-word: “Gone is all my strength / Old and weak am I”. But he was only physically old. It was a forced retirement.

    Poor old Elgar, you get the impression, really did give up on music – emotionally battered by the war, his wife’s death, the poor reception of his post-1911 masterpieces, and maybe the sheer spiritual exhaustion of his rather oddly-shaped career: 25 years of hard graft before establishing himself as a composer only in his mid 40s, followed by a swift decade of acclaim, and then critical dismissal by a younger generation. You get a sense (from his post-1920 trifles, Anthony Payne notwithstanding) that he’d “spent” himself emotionally, rather than (like Sibelius) technically.

    Much to think about here re Brahms and Sibelius – thank you again!

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Richard

    Many thanks for the interesting thoughts! I basically agree with you about Haydn and Elgar, but it still does strike me that, like Brahms and Sibelius, they had both found a sort of finished fusion of what they had to say and how they said it. I’m sure if Haydn had been healthier, he would have written more, but also think that if he had any sense at all he hadn’t made it to the top of the mountain, he might have found the willpower to write for 6 more months or whatever.

    An interesting comparison is Beethoven. He never went to the lengths Brahms did to hide the evidence of how his works were created, including in the pieces himself. Hence, his pieces don’t look as polished on the surface as Brahms’ do. However, I think Beethoven saw himself reaching the same crisis point as Brahms and Sibelius at the end of the middle period. When you get to 7th and 8th Symphony, there’s suddenly a recognition that he’s gone as far as he can go in that direction, and he did all but stop finishing pieces for several years, and the ones he did, the Serioso Quartet and the last 2 Cello Sonatas sometimes give the impression of an artist destroying his own workshop (rather thrillingly). Maybe he was just that much younger, soberer or stronger than Brahms and Sibelius in being able to get himself re-started…. Did Sibelius secretly hope he would have that kind of breakthrough into a late style that Beethoven had?

    Thanks for reading!

  3. Erik K

    The thing about Elgar, though, is that he was also a man of many interests. It’s probably a given that a big part of his relative silence was due to the circumstances mentioned by Mr. Bratby, but I always got the impression, too, that Elgar wanted to try out some new shit, not the least of which was conducting his own music with the advent of the gramophone. Maybe I’m buying too much into the stereotype of Elgar as Renaissance man and noble British gentleman, but his later years seemed to be the silence of “I’m just gonna be over here doing whatever I want because I’m Sir Edward Elgar.”

    Sibelius, on the other hand, definitely seems like he boxed himself in, and as someone who often gets frustrated at the lack of intellectual stimulation in his own life, I cannot even begin to comprehend the frustration Sibelius must have felt…I’d have hit a lot worse than the bottle in that situation.

  4. Johan Herrenberg

    Fascinating article! A lot to mull over… What about ‘permanent transition’, though (a bit like Trotsky’s ‘permanent revolution’)?

  5. Kelly Johnson

    Too bad Schoenberg through out the baby (the triad) with the bath water (the V7 chord).

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  8. Bert Brouwer

    Fascinating reading stuff! Sibelius himself, while working on his 6th symphony, complained in a letter that people of his time only wanted to listen to music of the past and were hardly interested in what he was doing. What he writes in that letter is also a reflection of his music. Sibelius himself indeed was more focused on the future and things to come than on looking back: no return to the past for him.

    But I believe that there’s a catch to this, because in a sense his music developed to the essence and the core of what he believed music was all about. Thus he tracked music back to its source. Especially in his 6th symphony I get this impression of youth and purity, like music from the time of the garden of Eden. You never get the impression whatsoever that he stands in a long tradition of composers. It is al fresh and like the beginning of something new, and logically from there you can only move (or rush) forward. Of course this idea is already present in his earlier works – did you for instance notice that the 3rd mvt. (poco vivace) ends much like the scherzo section of the 5th 1st mvt? There he also truly rushes the musical argument to a closure, but without having the feeling of exhaustion that one could expect from an old man. Indeed I believe that in his 6th, Sibelius has found his fountain of eternal youth.

  9. Bert Brouwer

    The big, simple question you could ask about Sibelius 5 in order to understand that symphony better: “how many movements are there in this symphony – four , three, two?”, you can also ask about Sibelius 7. In essence in think there are actually only two movements; Adagio & Finale (vivacissimo etc.), which makes this symphony in my view in some ways an incomplete symphony; an Adagio & Finale in search for a 1st and 2nd movement. When you look at Sibelius 7 like this you could also compare it with Schubert 8, which of course is incomplete in a different way (unfinnished) but nevertheless also can give you the impression, despite its two movement form, that it is complete and needs nothing more.

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