A musical tribute and a poetic statement about the creative process
Winner of the Silver Medal in the Music Category at the 1984 New York International Film and Television Festival and the Special Jury Award at the Banff Television Festival 1985, Christopher Nupen's two-part look at the life of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius is both a musical tribute and a poetic statement about the creative process. Separated into segments, Jean Sibelius: The Early Years, and Jean Sibelius: Maturity and Silence, the film traces the composer's life from its beginnings in rural Finland to his death at age 91 in 1957 using excerpts from Sibelius' writings and those of his wife Aino, old photographs, performances of some of his best known works conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy, and gorgeous scenes of the Finland's forest, lakes, and clouds.
After an introduction by the director, Sibelius is seen in 1939 in his last public appearance conducting a performance of the Andante Festivo, one of his most deeply felt works. Discussed in the film is Sibelius' goal to be a virtuoso violinist, his bout with a throat tumor, his struggles with alcoholism and self-confidence, his retreat from the city to a secluded country home, his musical silence during the last thirty years, and his failure to produce the Eighth Symphony that musicians and critics all over the world desperately wanted.
Excerpts are heard of Sibelius major works including Finlandia, Tapiola, Kullervo, Karelia Suite, the Violin Concerto, and each of his seven symphonies (with the unexplained exception of the Sixth) but not always to their advantage, stirring crescendos trumping Sibelius' tender, lyrical passages. The works, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy, unfortunately often with too much focus on the conductor's dramatics, are enhanced by Sibelius' own words. As Nupen describes them, "they are extremely telling words, extremely poetic words, extremely deeply felt words. This man cared more than anything else that he had to compose music, and that he wanted to reach people with that music It's telling the story, but it's the story of the work and what it has to tell us today." Unfortunately, there are no interviews with musicologists and artists who might provide a deeper appreciation of the music, as in Phil Grabsky's In Search of" series. Deficient also is the expressive and searching narration of the Grabsky films. Here the British narrator talks in a soporific monotone without the expressiveness needed to sustain interest. What does come through, however, in spite of the film's flaws, is the sublime music of one of the twentieth century's great masters. Listening to Sibelius' Second and Fifth Symphonies especially as performed by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra is an unforgettable musical experience.
Although Sibelius was considered as the greatest symphonist of the twentieth century during his peak creative years, his reputation began to suffer during the 1960s but documentaries such as this will help to reestablish his greatness. According to director Christopher Nupen, "His music has lasted and I believe that it will continue to last, whatever fashion may do...his voice is inimitable, unmistakable and for me unforgettable. My first encounters with it opened up a whole new world that remains with me." In the words of Ralph Vaughan Williams, "You (Sibelius) have lit a candle in the world of music that will never go out." If you are a lover of Sibelius' music as I am, I would recommend this documentary for a broad overview of his life and, if you know little or nothing about him, this is a good introduction.
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