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Recordings

Jean Sibelius: A Film in Two Parts
29 Oct 2007

Jean Sibelius: A Film in Two Parts

The two short films about the composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), The Early Years and Maturity & Silence comprise a video biography of Finnish artist.

Jean Sibelius: A Film in Two Parts — The Early Years / Maturity & Silence.

The Christopher Nupen Films.

Christopher Nupen Film A05CND [DVD]

$26.99  Click to buy

Written and directed by Christopher Nupen, the result is a solid biographical study of the composer that takes its cue from the various shifts in the reputation of Sibelius, not only within his lifetime, but posthumously. Such a perspective is present from the start, with the narrator’s comments about the changing fortunes of Sibelius’s legacy part of the introduction to the first part of the film.

In presenting this the story of Sibelius’s career, Nupen avoided creating a biopic and, instead, chose the more straightforward approach of illustrating a solidly written narration with iconography associated with the composer as well as performances of his music. The latter include some fine excerpts by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy, along with vocal music sung by Elisabeth Söderström. To augment the visual palette, Nupen included various natural scenes from the Finnish countryside, and the subtle motion in the landscapes contributes a subtle touch to the images that are otherwise static, albeit quite effective.

At the core of this film is the text that seems driven by the questions about Sibelius’s reputation, and in seeking answers, Nupen addresses not only the biographical details but seeks, at times, to approach the composer’s motivation in certain works. Ultimately the search for answers requires an exploration of both the music and its reception, which results in establishing a context for the success of Sibelius as a composer of both national and international standing. The connections between Sibelius and Finnish nationalism are known popularly through his famous tone poem Finlandia, and Nupen fortunately goes further to discuss this aspect of Sibelius’s career further. The aspiration behind Sibelius’s Violin Concerto and the Fourth Symphony, two works that have, in some respects, fallen short of the expectations behind them. Yet Nupen is keen to establish a context for the careful composition of the Fifth Symphony, which resulted in Sibelius’s enduring contribution to modern symphonic literature.

While the enthusiasm Nupen has for Sibelius’s music is apparent in this film, it never moves toward the kind of hero-worship that biases his work. The balanced and factual treatment of the issue of alcohol in Sibelius’s personal life is part of the narrative, but it becomes neither an excuse for what some may deem failings on the part of the composer nor a sensational topic. Again, the text bears attention for the choice of works, along with the judicious selection of sources from diaries and other primary sources. The reliance on firsthand accounts is selective, and contributes a sense of authenticity that films like this require.

Thus, when Nupen approaches the second part of the film, “Maturity & Silence,” he has already established the composer as an international figure with an individual style, so that he can explore the directions in which the artist could take his musical imagination. Never simplistic, Nupen is clear in the aesthetic success of the Fourth Symphony, without exaggerating the popular appeal and immediate success of the Fifth. The composer’s own comments about his flights of musical imagination at the time he wrote the work are, perhaps, more telling than reviews or other kinds of documents. Yet it is the performance of the music itself in the hands of the Ashkenazy that make the composer’s accomplishments vivid and appealing. The selections are well chosen and as much as some are expected, they are nonetheless welcome in this film. At times, one would want to hear the acclaim of the audience at the conclusion of as bold a statement as the Finale of the Second Symphony. At times the careful superimposition of the narration on the music is nicely balanced.

This is a carefully created film that goes far in describing the life and works of Sibelius. With each of the two segments lasting just over fifty minutes, the length of the film is sufficient to explore the subject in some depth, with time enough for sometimes extended musical examples. Fifty years of Sibelius’s passing in1957, the release of this film serves as a tribute to the composer at a critical anniversary and at the same time asks the question of the composer’s future. While Sibelius’s works are regularly part of symphony programs and recording releases, how does the composer ultimately fit into the various threads that comprise the twentieth century. Is the aspect of nationalism the enduring quality, or is the individual style that inspired the later works ultimately critical to Sibelius’s legacy? Answers to such questions are beyond the scope of the film, but the repeated hearings that Nupen’s efforts will provoke may bring audiences closer to understanding the contributions that Sibelius made in works that have lasted into the early twentieth century. All in all, this is a fine film that serves both its subject and the music well. The DVD is a useful means for making available material like this, with its easily searchable contents and excellent sound.

James L. Zychowicz

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