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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
 A Film in Two Parts: The Early Years [52:31]; Maturity and Silence [50:34]
Elisabeth Söderström (soprano); Boris Belkin (violin)
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor)
Recorded 1984
Cameraman: David Findlay, Editor: Peter Heelas,
Writer and Director: Christopher Nupen.
NTSC All regions
Includes bonus film Allegro molto
The Christopher Nupen Films
 ALLEGRO FILMS 05CN [103:05]

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Until such time as music is composed by machines and performed by robots, any real engagement with it must include a human element. Composing is part of the human impulse to create, and to express feelings and ideas. This remarkable film, first in the important new Allegro Films series, is about that human impulse, and how itís reflected in the music of Jean Sibelius. Itís not merely a film with music, but a work of art in itself.

Like a symphony, it starts with a reference to the ending. Thereís a shot of an oven blazing, and a score going up in flames. The two films are an attempt to understand how the artistic spirit compelled Sibelius to create, and why, perhaps, he was ultimately thwarted. Then we move back to Sibeliusís last moment of public glory, when he came out of seclusion in 1939, to conduct his Andante Festivo via shortwave broadcast to the United States. The intensity of this performance reflects the darker side of his success. Sibelius knew what the world expected of him, and it placed him under even greater pressure to excel. Ashkenazy conducts a rousing Finlandia, the short piece that became so popular it took on a life of its own and connected Sibelius inextricably with Finnish nationalism. His worldwide popularity conceivably gained such sympathy for Finland that it contributed to international support for the country against the Russians and ensured its independence after decades of war. No composer has carried such a non-musical responsibility.

Nonetheless, Sibelius was able to retain his integrity as a composer. The film is particularly good at describing his development as symphonist, beyond the early context of Finnish folklore. Extracts from each symphony are played, with a brief description about how Sibeliusís technique and ideas advanced. But what made Sibelius a composer in the first place? His childhood dream was to play the violin. Towards the end of his life, he confided in his diary "I dreamed I was twelve years old again, and a virtuoso". Yet by the age of 10 heíd already composed a piece called "waterdrops" for violin and cello. What fleshes out the narrative, besides the excellent performances, is the quality of the visual images. It helps that Finland in winter is a landscape of mysterious beauty. We see scenes which at first seem like abstract studies in black and white: then we realize that they depict forests, rivers, clouds. In one powerful image, a 1930s car drives out of the forest, its lights preceding it ominously. There are panoramic shots of the lakes of Karelia, dotted with islands and swathed in mist. Horizons melt into sea, the sky laden with frozen fog. Sometimes the images are close-ups of water, completely formless and yet evocative. Itís easy to understand why such landscapes inspired profound feelings in the composer. Naturally gregarious and fond of alcohol, he was distracted by city life. At critical times in his life, he would return to the wild silences of the countryside to recharge. As a red sun glowers in a grey sky above Koli, Sibeliusís words ring out: "as always when stillness speaks there are dreadful undertones".

Because film can express unspoken ideas, through opaque images, it is particularly sensitive about intangibles, such as Sibeliusís crises of confidence. It mentions obvious causes of anxiety such as debts and alcoholism, but hints at something more complex. It was the very fertility of his imagination that propelled him towards new ideas. The greater his aims, though, the greater his self-criticism. Earlier works like Kullervo were suppressed, and the Violin Concerto did not achieve quite the heights he had hoped. His hopes for the Eighth Symphony were high. "It is going to be wonderful Ö what I am doing in this symphony only a few people in the worlds can know". Although it reached the printers, Sibelius withdrew it: it ended up in the bonfire in the oven at Ainola. The artist in Sibelius knew he was capable of great things, but also led him to destroy what he felt did not express them sufficiently.

Like a poem, this film speaks obliquely through subtle, indirect images. It is breathtakingly atmospheric, capturing the spirit of Sibeliusís music and motivations by implication rather than direct comment. For me, the most haunting image is of Elisabeth Söderström, singing the song, "Since then I have questioned no further". In a strikingly spare and dignified way, Sibelius sets Runebergís understated lines

"Why is Spring so quickly over, why must summer flee so soon?
Thus I used to wonder often, and my mind could find no answer Ö..
Since then I have questioned no further, while my heart fills with sorrow
At the passing of beauty, at the fickleness of fortune".

It expresses so much, beyond the mere words. At the very end of the two films, it is played again, wordlessly, on solo piano.

This is a true collectorís item, a poetic and imaginative essay on Sibelius and on the nature of artistic creation. Obviously, not all the composerís greatest works are performed. Rather, the value of this film is that it can stimulate deeper contemplation when listening to full performances, and to enhance our appreciation of what it is that makes music so human. An added bonus is that, like everything else in this beautifully crafted series, the producers have taken care to get Finnish pronunciation perfect Ė what a joy it is to hear!

Anne Ozorio

See Anno Ozorio's interview with Christopher Nupen


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