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Eighth Symphony

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                        Eighth Symphony
                                 

On March 24, 1924, an audience in Stockholm was unknowingly hearing the first of the last. The fifty-eight-year-old Jean Julius Christian Sibelius was conducting the world premier of his own Seventh Symphony in one movement. There would be no more, though fate had destined him to live another third of a century. At the very height of his powers, in the midst of his greatest creative outpouring, the undisputed symphonist of his day ended his career within two years, and until his death in 1957 the world waited for a promised Eighth Symphony. But all it heard was, "The silence from Järvenpää" where the composer made his home.

Perhaps no composer has been more closely associated with the patriotic aspirations of his country than was Sibelius with Finland. His story lies amazingly parallel to the emergence of modern Finland. The deeply nationalistic compositions of his early years coincided with the growing resentment in Finland for their Russian rulers. It was this Russian government that forbad the performance of "Finlandia" within its empire for fear of it inspiring rebellion. Meanwhile, "Finlandia" and compositions based on Finnish folklore focused world attention on Sibelius, and in 1899, at the age of 34, his First Symphony was revealed.

But his First Symphony did not quite portray the Sibelius the world has come to know. His Second, of 1904, was pure Sibelius. Uncluttered, overpowering, the last movement catches hold of and sweeps up all that is not tied down to tradition or timidity. Its simple but all transcending theme has become a characteristic of Sibelius' music and a landmark in the world's.

The Third Symphony followed shortly, further establishing Sibelius as the composer. But a period of uncertainty followed. With three symphonies, a violin concerto, a quartet, and numerous tone poems behind him, he was faced with cancer of the throat and deafness. Great forces were grinding across Europe that would soon evolve into the most terrible war the world had ever known, and the fate of Finland was at stake. Out of these crises emerged his most controversial work, the grim, brooding Fourth Symphony. Sibelius was now a troubled man in his supreme test. One can detect an almost loathing hatred for fate and the trials by which it measures men and nations.

By 1919 Finland was politically free, and Sibelius was free from the threats to his health. This was the year of the Fifth. Its third movement with its swinging brass predominance portrays unbounded joy and irresistible momentum. But over this surging power appears a soaring woodwind solo, hovering, weaving a net of the restraint of prudence and wisdom. When the brass has been tamed the lonely woodwind, so characteristic of Sibelius, returns with a simple and enduring grandeur, even grander for its magnificent solitude. If Sibelius has been accused of drawing thunder from orchestras, moments like this bring the critics to their knees.

The Sixth and Seventh came in rapid succession, the works of a steady, mature hand.

On March 24, 1924, The Master, as he was now called, led the trombones to climax his last symphony. But was it intended to be his last? There is considerable evidence of an eighth, but no certain proof. Sibelius wrote to a friend about it. His brother-in-law even concluded that the Eighth was in three movements. Without doubt, sometime in the early thirties, Sibelius did complete an eighth symphony. Later rumors suggested even a ninth. But no one has ever heard either.

A reporter representing the musical world is said to have asked The Master about the Eighth. "Ah yes," the composer frowned, "What can we tell them (the public) about the Eighth Symphony?" His wife answered, "That's easy, Jean, there is none." Sibelius looked up. "That's it, there is no Eighth Symphony!" He was a great composer, but a rotten liar.

Sibelius was well into his seventies when the Second World War began. His contemporaries were dead. The romantic world he had grown up in was gone. No Eighth Symphony appeared.

What significance has this never heard work? In our dreams so near, in reality so distant, it has become an unobtainable reward after an endless, exhausting search. Maybe we will never find it. Maybe it never was. Maybe we will never know. Perhaps it is not overstepping philosophical or literary bounds to compare the elusive Eighth with a secure, lasting peace for Sibelius' Finland, which ten wars within ten decades of his life failed to make a reality.

On an early fall day in 1957, on his customary walk, Sibelius noticed the swans had flown from the lake near his home. "The swans have left me," he reported to his wife. It had been his mythical "Swan of Tuonela" of sixty years ago that carried men's souls to the land of the dead. He died that night, in his ninety-second year.

Where is the Eighth? Did he leave it with a student? He hadn't any. Did he exhaust his creative energy? Did he think it was never perfected for public approval? Was he content to live off the glory of his earlier works? Was he afraid it would reveal some slight but growing tint in his genius that only he was aware of?

Almost certainly there was an Eighth Symphony. Just as certainly it has been destroyed. Sibelius was the only man who ever heard of it, and the swans have carried him beyond our reach. Perhaps, and many will argue, he only wanted to do with his treasure what no man has ever done before: he took it with him.

Adrian Niemi

Written in his 10th grade writing class, ca 1965

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