A Rebirth for Classical Composer Sibelius

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of classical composer Jean Sibelius. Musician David Was says the composer's work was in danger of falling out of fashion, but is recently enjoying a burst of new interest.

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ALEX COHEN, host:

Now to another great artist who also struggled with demons and was often misunderstood. His name was Jean Sibelius, and this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Finnish composer's death.

In death and in life, Sibelius was alternately praised and ignored. But now he's getting some new attention. Starting this weekend, the Los Angeles Philharmonic will celebrate his legacy with a month-long series of concerts.

Sibelius deserves that fresh look, according to our resident musician, David Was.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVID WAS: The music of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius inspired either passionate devotion or outright hatred during his career, which spanned the first half of the 20th century.

This week, the Los Angeles Philharmonic pays tribute to his music in a series called "Sibelius Unbound," led by his countryman, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, who himself didn't always revere the grand old man of Finnish classical music.

In my early 20s, Salonen has said, I thought his music represented everything I disagreed with compositionally and made a point to avoid him.

The critic Teodoro Adorno expressed the same sentiment in 1938, but even more harshly. If Sibelius is good, he said, this invalidates the standards of musical quality that have persisted from Bach to Schoenberg.

(Soundbite of music)

WAS: But while some decried his supposed conservatism, 20th century orchestras embraced and developed an audience for his seven symphonies, mostly through his symphonic tone poem "Finlandia," which Sibelius composed in a quasi-Wagnerian celebration of his heritage and his nation's quest for independence from the Russian empire. It is a turbulent and emotional piece which ends in a calm and melodic reverie.

(Soundbite of music)

WAS: Sibelius himself was anything but serene in his personal life. Demon alcohol was ever coursing through his veins, especially before conducting his own works. While writing his fourth symphony, he had several throat operations to remove a tumor and had to desist drinking on doctor's orders.

The resultant work is certainly sober. It's dark and brooding, and includes materials Sibelius had written to set Poe's "The Raven" to music. A symphony, he said, is a confession of faith at different stages of one's life.

(Soundbite of music)

WAS: The composer's own creative faith waned in the last 30 years of his life. He died at 91, having remained musically silent since the age of 60. He even wound up burning what may have been sketches for his never-completed eighth symphony. It is very painful to be 80, he once said with characteristic wryness. The public likes artists who fall by the wayside in this life.

Half a century after his death, the LA Philharmonic remains unconvinced of his demise.

(Soundbite of music)

COHEN: The music of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. Our musical contributor, David Was, is half of the group Was Not Was.

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