Nature’s hidden heart
I am thinking today about the music of Sibelius. There is no music that captures our experiences of nature more profoundly than that of Sibelius. Although when I say that, most of us are so smothered by rolling verdant hills and havens of tranquillity and quiet corners that time forgot we need Sibelius’s music to unchocolate box us and enrich, and in some strange way remind us, of experiences we didn’t know that we had had. I have never been to Finland but when I listen to this music I do not feel ‘must be nice out there, do they do package tours to Helsinki’, I feel this IS the landscape of Finland. There is always a driving onwards quality, even a sense of menace in this music (Oh to be in Finland now that Russia’s there, wrote E.E. Cummings in 1939). Yet when I take a walk on a nice sunny day in the Lake District, about as close as we can get in the U.K. to the landscape of Finland, I don’t feel a sense of driving onwards or muttering menace. Or, now I’ve listened to Sibelius, do I? How does he do this, this this IS the landscape of Finland thing, when the visual component that is so central in our experiences of nature is by definition absent altogether? No visuals then, but at least nature and music share sounds. But Sibelius never just copies natural sounds, although I suppose the beating of the swans’ wings in the Fifth Symphony is the closest he gets to it, but then there is no passage in the whole of his music that is less just a flapping of wings and doesn’t tell us far, far more about the journeyings of swans. No, it’s some hidden heart, some inner essence that he communicates.
Art is never just a high quality fast food for the emotions. It is always a personal encounter, a subjective engagement with its author, in which you have a role to play just as he does (or my goodness, this being International Womens’ Day, I’d better quickly add ‘or she’). Suppose that you, an admirer of T.S. Eliot, get a letter from the great man saying ‘Dear Admirer, yes I did write Four Quartets, and yes each poem is set in a place that has personal significance for me, Yrs sincerely Thomas Stearns Eliot’. How you would treasure it, and what a coup it would be at dinner parties to casually drop into the conversation ‘I had a letter from T.S. Eliot the other day’ and wait gratified for the oohs and aahs and how amazings. But it wouldn’t really communicate more of the T.S. Eliotness of T.S. Eliot, that indefinable, unanalysable, diaphanous thing we call personality, than your electricity bill. No, to get something of the flavour of Eliot the person, his himness, his meness, you need to turn to his poetry, his gait, his style, more than that a crossing of bridges between you and him, a meeting of hearts, touching the soul inside the skin.
No music is more personal, more immediately identifiable as his in this sense than that of Sibelius, but he is special, perhaps even unique, in that he so immediately and passionately communicates to us nature’s hidden heart, its inner driving force, the soul inside the skin. Some deeply buried sacred power, as present in Wordsworth’s Lake District as it is in Finland. Perhaps we could even say not just some deeply buried what, but a hidden who, for Sibelius’s presentation of a personal element in nature is so intertwined with the personal communication, the soul of the artist animating his art, that is always present in music, it is impossible to separate the two. I do not want to use the term God, for it is a reference whose use has become so debased, traduced, misunderstood and exploited, it has now become virtually unusable. We should ban use of the G word for at least a century. Perhaps after so long a lapse of time, once more regaining its sacred power – the raging flattener of mountains and raiser of valleys of Isaiah – shily revealing its hidden trembling heart, it will become usable again. Meanwhile, at least we have the music of Sibelius.