Thursday, September 20, 2007


John Cage, whose birthday I noted recently, is of course the first name you'd associate with silence, as enshrined in his notorious piece 4'33". But there's another composer whose career is partly defined by silence.

It's 50 years since Sibelius died, and approximately 80 years since he produced any significant work. I can't think of any parallel to this. It seems he worked on an eighth symphony for some years, before burning everything he had written in 1943. Tom Service in today's Guardian suggests that this 30 year silence was simply the only appropriate response Sibelius could make after what he achieved in his final symphonies and Tapiola; he simply could say nothing which would not diminish those achievements.

There's probably some truth in this, although it may be romanticising crippling self-doubt on the part of Sibelius. After he burnt the eighth symphony, he became much happier. Maybe this was because he had reached a point where he felt able to let go of his idea of himself as a composer.

I often think about what makes one a composer*, especially when I'm not actually writing anything. If I at what point do I cease to be a composer? Elisabeth Lutyens used to say "If you're a composer, you bloody well compose", which implies that you're only a composer if you're actually writing. This appeals to me, as I've always felt uncomfortable with the presumption and pretension that seems to go with a declaration of "I am a COMPOSER!". And yet, I'm always conscious, even during those dry, unproductive periods, that I feel that I am, in some way. And this is a disturbing feeling, because if I'm a composer, why am I not composing? Generally, before the suspicion that I'm not a composer anymore takes complete hold, I have an idea, start writing,and become myself again.

But that awesome, oppressive 30 year silence of Sibelius continues to haunt me, and sometimes seems as powerful as anything he wrote. I wonder if that happiness that was noted in him after his immolation was due to a sense of freedom, that he had finally abandoned ambition, had unshackled himself from reputation, had admitted to himself that he was a man who had once been a composer, but no longer was.

*Harrison Birtwistle once gave a talk to an audience of schoolchildren, one of whom asked him, "But how do you become a composer?" Birtwistle replied, "Well, you've got to write music. There's no way round it."

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