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An Inexplicable Inspiration?

by Arthur Butterworth

Composers are often asked how musical ideas come to them. Elgar, once being asked this question, is reputed to have remarked: ‘Oh, music is all around, you just pluck it from the air’. But this is a glib, all too facile answer; hardly likely, or even intended, to satisfy the ordinary person who is not a musician.

There is a perceptive line by Wordsworth from the poem ‘Intimations of Immortality’: Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears ... It has often seemed to me that this could be paraphrased and extended: Thoughts that do often lie too deep for words can better be expressed in music ...

Most people, even unmusical ones, have melodic ideas floating in the mind from time to time; musical people can identify them, composers go a stage further and actually write them down for others to savour. As a boy of perhaps nine or ten I first heard a brass band playing Finlandia and was immediately captivated by this uniquely memorable theme. At that time my imagination was generally more stimulated by visual rather than aural impressions. My parents had some fine prints of fishing boats becalmed on a summer evening in northern waters, the green-blue waters shining in the pale sunlight. Other family pictures were of whaling ships beset in the ice of the Arctic in winter time. These essentially Nordic impressions were most powerful. Coupled with that I recall romantic tales of the Vikings, read to us at school. We also had tales of ancient Greece and Rome, but somehow these hardly interested me one little bit; my emotional view was ever northwards. After all, I am a northerner, whose forebears in the dim and distant past originated from the northlands. As I grew that little bit older it was hardly surprising then, that — for some reason — I came to recognize the indefinable emotional and cultural connection between visual impressions and aural ones. This did not happen immediately, nor easily.

It must have been about 1937, when around the age of fourteen, and having seen the name ‘Sibelius’ and connected it with Finlandia, I was curious one evening to listen to a performance on the radio by the Queen’s Hall Orchestra, conducted by Sir Henry Wood, of the Second Symphony. It was so puzzling that, after four or five minutes, I just had to switch it off. This was not like any symphony I had ever heard before: Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven. There seemed to be no readily identifiable ‘tune’ or ongoing pulse. I was bemused yet somehow still curious. Not very many years later, when first called up to the army, I was in a noisy, rowdy canteen surrounded by dozens of other young men and, dimly in the background, the radio could be heard. It was a programme very familiar and regular in the early 1940s — These you have loved introduced by Doris Arnold, whose alluring, mellifluous voice was utterly captivating. One piece of music, quiet, mysterious, mesmerizing, held me in a kind of spellbound trance - and this despite the clatter of cups, the raucous shouting all around. When it was finished she said: ‘That was The Swan of Tuonela by Sibelius’... That was something of a turning point in my musical life.

A year or two later, the war being over by a month or two, I was idly sitting in a billet in north Germany; no one else was around but the radio was on and I listened with curious anticipation to the Hamburg Radio Symphony Orchestra playing Tapiola. This was an electrifying experience indeed. It was soon followed by hearing the Hallé Orchestra under John Barbirolli, while I was on a brief leave in Manchester, performing the Second Symphony, that ‘curious thing’ that had so puzzled me almost a decade before.

In the gloriously exhilarating late March of 1947, after the most bitterly cold winter in living memory, I heard one day the Sixth Symphony of Sibelius and ever since that day I have connected this symphony with the fresh, ecstatically uplifting nature of springtime. Of course, these are only a few of the more obvious impressions of the composer. For me it has ever since gone much, much deeper than a mere liking for his music. It is, I think, something connected, but quite philosophically, and psychologically inexplicable, with my own intuitive awareness of what Nordic things signify: ancestry? weather? climate? culture? attitudes of mind and ways of thinking? landscape? ...

When I began to write music, however inexpertly, around the age of ten, my earliest influences were imbibed from what was then around me: light music of the early 1930s — the local brass band, Gilbert & Sullivan (of which my mother and father were inordinately fond), church music that I learned as a choir boy, popular overtures, and the like. My leanings were inevitably towards English music and especially English composers: Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Bliss, Parry, Stanford and others. It has to be admitted that I am still allied to this tradition of earlier twentieth-century English music and came especially under the influence of Vaughan Williams.

But something else happened: at the end of the war in Europe I found myself in north Germany and spent much time on the Danish border in and around Schleswig-Holstein. There was something in the aura of the region that suggested Nordic culture; this suited me and I felt strangely at home with everything: the music I heard, the landscape, the architecture, the light: it all fitted for me. Not long afterwards, after a few years as a student at the Royal Manchester College of Music (now the RNCM), I went to join the Scottish Orchestra (the present-day Royal Scottish National Orchestra). This inevitably led to a closer awareness of northern landscape, climate and that indefinable quality that goes to make up the north in the widest sense of the word. Sibelius seemed to express it all precisely for me. So it is perhaps not surprising that my own more mature music was inspired by the example of Sibelius more than any other composer. The criticism of such an avowed allegiance is, of course, that one becomes a mere epigone, lacking in any original ideas or inspiration of one’s own. I have ever been most acutely aware of this and I know all too well that much of my musical thinking is derived from the example of Sibelius. Vaughan Williams once said to me: ‘All young composers have to learn from their forebears; come to terms with the common usage of musical language, its traditions, its melodic and harmonic qualities; to struggle, to create a totally original style, merely for the sake of being different and "clever" is arid ...’

His exhortation was to be true to one’s self, not to force things into a style that was not natural. If something had already been said before, it was not really of such import that it was expressed again by a later generation, for we, each one of us, in our turn, experience much the same emotions as the previous generation. Inventing a completely new musical language — as some composers at the beginning of the twentieth century most certainly did — runs the risk of leaving others puzzled by the message they would like to communicate, although it is not by any means denied that new ideas and ways of expressing them have indeed often proved enlightening, nor that they possessed a new kind of beauty and expressiveness: for example the Berg Violin Concerto or some of Webern. The firm traditions of musical language are never exhausted, however, for it is not primarily a matter of originality being essential, but of individuality.

Now, individuality is subtly different from originality: it rather implies that one uses a language — a recognized mode — in one’s own individual way, just in the same way that one’s signature is individual. Vaughan Williams stressed that individuality could not be forced: given time it could come of its own accord if the composer had something in his or her make-up that needed to expressed. There is never a guarantee that this will happen; some composers achieve it, others do not. Sibelius, then, has been the most influential of all musical sounds; his aura, melodically, harmonically, structurally and in aspects of technique, has inspired my own creations. Most of all in that totally inexplicable, emotional way that I can only imagine must stem from a common awareness or a like-minded emotional response to one's surroundings and a feeling that what he expressed in musical sound has found an undeniable counterpart in my own experience.

I am not Finnish, so my own reactions to my surroundings can never have been just a carbon copy of what he experienced; they may indeed have echoes and at times suggestive facets of how he did it, even to the acknowledged extent of — like all composers regarding their predecessors — avowedly quoting recognizable characteristics of the earlier creative artist: Brahms acknowledging Beethoven, Bach respecting Buxtehude, Shostakovich paying tribute to Mahler, and so on.

It has not been without significance for me that, some few years ago, I was attracted to Nordic painting and found that my visual interests paralleled those in music; this all seemed to make sense to me. It was not just Sibelius’s music, but everything that his culture expressed that found a response in my own way of thinking and my attitude to life.

My own music has generally been confined to listeners in this country. I cannot claim an international following, but I was especially gratified some years ago to have some orchestral music played by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. One of my most ardent wishes would be to export one or other of the symphonies I have been able to write to the Nordic countries.

Arthur Butterworth

This article first appeared in the UK Sibelius Society magazine and is reproduced with permission



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