Esa-Pekka Salonen on Mahler and Sibelius

by Mary Hammann, violist

After a recent rehearsal, fellow violist Vincent Lionti and I had the pleasure of speaking with Esa-Pekka Salonen about this season’s Carnegie Hall series, which featured Mahler and Sibelius. As an opera band, the MET Orchestra rarely gets to perform their works, as neither composed any operas.

“I find the Mahler-Sibelius juxtaposition fascinating because each had such a different approach to the concept of a symphony,” Esa-Pekka explained. “In many ways, these two were the last symphonic composers—meaning composers whose most important work happened within the form of a symphony. Soon after Mahler died, the concept of a symphony was perceived as unfashionably bourgeois. It is interesting to me that these last two symphonists had such different ideas as to what a symphony should be.

Esa-Pekka Salonen (Photo by Nicho Soedling)

Esa-Pekka Salonen (Photo by Nicho Soedling)

“During Sibelius’ mature period, early last century, he was trying to perfect the logic in symphonic form. In contrast, Mahler was never concerned with the form. With Mahler, the form is the result of everything else he does. Sometimes this is to the detriment of his composition, but quite often this works very well.

“Every symphony Mahler wrote can be seen through his songs. The material from Des Knaben Wunderhorn and also from Das klagende Lied carries him through his Sixth Symphony, at least, whereas Sibelius, although he did write a few songs, was essentially an instrumental composer—a violinist who tried unsuccessfully to get into the Vienna Philharmonic.

“When one thinks of these two great composers, who were roughly of the same generation, it is interesting to think of the huge difference in their visibility. Mahler was at the very center of the musical world in Europe. He was the most celebrated conductor of his time. Yet it was rare to hear one of his symphonies during his lifetime. Sibelius had probably never heard a Mahler symphony.”

After composing his Seventh Symphony, one of the last of his surviving works, Sibelius lived another thirty-three years. “As far as we can tell, he burned what would have been his Eighth Symphony, in drunken despair, as his wife and daughter looked on in tears.

“I cannot help think that the last four bars of the Seventh Symphony are a farewell to tonal music, more than a farewell to his creative life. There is a pronounced C-Major statement with the leading tone, the B, hanging there while it melts, or more literally, drowns in the ending C-Major chord.

Sibelius in 1940

Sibelius in 1940

“I have a personal theory about this. I don’t think Sibelius was thinking that his composing life was ending at that point. He was in good health and he was fine, except that the source was drying up. My theory is not scientific, nor even musicologically sound. But look at the way he uses fewer and fewer notes in his motifs as he gets older. If you look at Tapiola, his last tone poem, he spins the motif out of only three notes. What happens when you reduce from three notes? Two notes? It was as if this process of concentration left him with nothing.

“Mahler’s use of orchestra—if you follow his development from massive symphonies into this incredibly delicate textural thing at the end of Das Lied von der Erde, is a process of economizing until finally, at the end of the Abschied, every note is like a diamond. Nothing is superfluous.”

Growing up and studying music in Finland, Salonen felt saturated with Sibelius. “I decided to go to Italy to study composition in a Sibelius-free zone. One day, during my studies there, I found some pocket scores in an old bookstore. They were as cheap as a cup of espresso, so I grabbed a few. One happened to be Sibelius 7. Leafing through that score, it occurred to me that it doesn’t even look like other music. On the page it is already different. It was at that point that I began to study it.“

When we asked the Maestro about collaborating with our orchestra, he said, “There is a freedom in conducting the MET Orchestra because you are a Sibelius-free zone. There is a freshness in your approach simply because you have never performed Sibelius 7. You don’t have any preconceived approach. So, as I work with you, I’m not challenging any previous concept. We don’t have that friction at all. I find that very liberating and invigorating. The process of rehearsing becomes familiarizing you with my concept. For me, this is a very special pleasure.

Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler

“My conducting teacher always said that the least interesting thing about conducting is the so-called authority. Nothing should be about power or rank. There is one goal and one goal only: making great music.

“Sibelius preferred to work as a gardener rather than a mechanic. He did not want to put something together by its parts, but rather cultivate it and let it grow organically. I find this concept very appealing. My best experiences in performance have been moments when the piece unfolds, rather than being controlled. When the piece is a two-way channel, where both are influencing each other, that is the most satisfying way of making music.”