Lost Chords: Sibelius (2)
In July 1945 Sibelius wrote to the conductor Basil Cameron: “I have finished my eighth symphony several times, but I am not satisfied with it – I will be delighted to hand it over to you when the time comes” But a few days later his wife Aino found him sitting before the fireplace feeding sheaths of manuscripts into the flames. Peace and happiness returned to the household after the burning, she said. The composer also mentioned the burning of the symphony to his secretary. What exactly went into the fire that day? Did anything escape? Do the fragments that we currently know of provide enough material for a reconstruction? And will anything else be discovered once Sibelius’ private papers become available for public scrutiny in 2017? Here are four strands of evidence that bear further investigation.

The manuscript of Surusoitto (‘mournful music’), op 111b for organ. This piece, composed in 1931 for the funeral of the artist Akseki Gallen-Kallela, a close friend of Sibelius, has been described as being “like a study of the other world” with its bleak open tones and unresolved dissonances. It was written in just a few days after years of compositional silence from Sibelius – but not until he had made strenuous efforts to get out of his obligation to provide some funeral music. Years later his wife Aino confirmed that its material was taken from the Eighth symphony. How does Surusoitto and other late pieces fit into the story of the Eighth?

The cigarette packet. In the summer of 1932 during a visit to Finland, the pianist Harriet Cohen asked Sibelius about the Eighth. “I don’t believe it exists,” she told him. In response he emptied his cigarette packed, opened it up, drew a set of lines and wrote down the notes of a large spreading chord. “This is the first chord of my Eighth Symphony,” he said. Cohen called it “the only other manuscript” of the Eighth. Where is it now? It’s likely that she would have kept it. Cohen’s London home was bombed during the war and much of her extensive collection of letters and manuscripts were lost, but quite a bit still survives in the archives at the British Museum.

The copyist’s bill. Koussevitzky was promised the first performance of the Eighth for the Spring 1932 season in Boston, and in London a performance was booked, and even advertised, for the following Spring. But messages from the composer continued to shed doubt on how far advanced the compositional process was. Olin Downes was told in June 1932 that the work “is still in my head”. But evidence exists that a fair copy of the first movement was prepared in 1933, and in 1938 a “Symphonie” was sent out for binding in seven volumes. Was this seven full copies or multiple movements with separate choral parts? Was this really the completed work?

The remaining fragments. In 2004, scholar Nors Josephson wrote an article “On Some Apparent Sketches for Sibelius’s Eighth Symphony”, making a case for a possible reconstruction. Since then, another scholar, Timo Virtanen, has sifted through some 800 pages of sketches to identify unknown works of the relevant period – and although he doesn’t believe a full reconstruction is possible, three of the most promising fragments were the subject of a play-through by John Storgards and the Helsinki Philharmonic in October 2011 – and the results can be heard here. The dissonant sound world of opus 111b is clearly evident.