Culture - Tuesday 24.10.2000
VESA SIREN / Helsingin Sanomat
Theodor Adorno vs. Jean Sibelius - seconds out for the final round?
Thesis argues that Adorno's criticisms of Sibelius's Nazi sympathies were unfounded
By Vesa Sirén
Why is it that the music of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) and perhaps also that of other Finnish composers finds a relatively chilly reception in Germany? One reason that
has been offered up for decades is the writing of the German philosopher and sociologist Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno (1903-1969), who took a very dim view of our national composer.
For Adorno, Sibelius was a "scribbler" and to be classified along with the other amateurs who were frightened to study composition
theory. These barbs carried some weight, since Adorno was an important figure on the cultural scene in West Germany in the
Antti Vihinen, Managing Director of the Sibelius Hall in Lahti, presented his doctoral thesis on Friday, and listed his views on what it
was precisely that so annoyed Adorno. The thrust of his conclusions is staunchly patriotic and puts Adorno down with a vengeance.
To be fair, Vihinen (see photo above) himself did not escape a number of critical brickbats from his academic opponent, but
even a flawed interpretation of the facts suggests that Adorno was out of line.
- "Adorno's theories prove to be... nationalistic, chauvinistic, and even racist", thunders Vihinen. He bases his claims in part on the view offered by Professor
Eero Tarasti (who suggested the topic for the thesis) of Adorno's "extreme Germanic ethnocenticity". Another leading Sibelius scholar,
the late Prof. Erik Tawaststjerna, observed more than 30 years ago that Adorno "wanted to swear by the world supremacy of German music".
So, where are the roots to the animosity? Adorno glanced through a short work published in 1937 by Bengt von Törne entitled Sibelius: A Close Up. According to von Törne, Sibelius was the greatest composer of his age, and much bigger than Gustav Mahler or Arnold Schoenberg. He recalls that Sibelius himself put down Mahler in private.
- Adorno took a very different view: Mahler and Schoenberg were good, and Sibelius was lousy. He published his views in the magazine Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung in 1938 under the dismissive heading "A Marginal Note about Sibelius".
In addition to taking Sibelius to task on aesthetic grounds, Adorno associated him with the National Socialist ideology. "Sibelius's
supporters scream in chorus: nature is all, nature is all. Great Pan, and where necessary blood and earth, step up into the
picture." Sibelius was thus identified with the Nazis' Blut und Boden slogans, stolen originally from National Romanticism.
In the 1960s Adorno, one of the doyens of the "Frankfurt School", returned to Sibelius in his lectures as "a dangerous example",
and he picked up his earlier "Marginal Note" for inclusion in the anthology Impromptus (1968).
According to Antti Vihinen, Sibelius and Adorno remain even now inevitably intertwined in German programme-notes on Sibelius
concerts. The one cannot be mentioned without the other.
- Adorno was irritated among other things by the great popularity accorded to Sibelius, and perhaps by the fact that Olin Downes, the influential critic of the New York Times during the 1930s and 1940s, would boost Sibelius at the deliberate expense of Mahler and Schoenberg. "If Sibelius is to be
considered a good composer, then we shall have to disregard all of the criteria historically used to evaluate music from Bach
to Schoenberg", grumbled Adorno. The historical benchmarks remained German, despite the fact that Adorno was himself an exile
arriving in the United States via England.
And was Sibelius really a Nazi sympathiser, as Adorno indirectly hinted?
Professor Erik Tawaststjerna, the author of a definitive five-volume biography of Sibelius, argued that there was "not a scrap
of truth to the claim", because the Nazi doctrines were "completely at odds with Sibelius's inherent humanism". In addtion,
Tawaststjerna asserted that Sibelius felt "a strong sympathy towards things English and American".
- Sibelius's most important Nazi links are easily listed. In 1934 he was invited (along with a couple of other composers) to become the deputy chairman of the Ständige Rat für die internationale Zusammenarbeit der Komponisten.
The chairman at the time was Richard Strauss, Germany's most prominent composer and an old acquaintance of Sibelius. It soon transpired that the organisation was little
more than a mouthpiece for Blut und Boden propaganda.
In 1935 Adolf Hitler awarded Sibelius the Goethe Medal on the occasion of the composer's 70th birthday. And in 1942 Joseph Goebbels founded (according to his diary entries at least) a German Sibelius Society on the initiative of "Finns" - more than likely
the Finnish Foreign Ministry.
- It is almost as simple and speedy a task to wipe off the smears on Sibelius's reputation. According to his secretary, Jean Sibelius was always eager
to accept honorary appointments, even to the extent of becoming the honorary chairman of a) a Japanese gramophone record club,
and b) an American anglers' association. His acceptance was a routine exercise, and hardly the result of serious consideration.
I'd also tend to the view that in 1934 only the very sharpest-eyed of foreigners would have been able to spot the true nature
of the foundation chaired by Richard Strauss.
The Goethe Medal was only one of dozens of gongs received by Sibelius when he turned seventy (or indeed before and after this
point). In the 1930s he was arguably the most popular living composer in the world. For him to have turned down this particular
accolade would have been quite an achievement, and not without political ramifications. At this point nobody sought actively
to isolate Germany; let us not forget that Britain, France, and the United States all took part in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
As for the establishment of a Sibelius Society in Germany, this was almost certainly a ministerial request from Helsinki.
Gainsaying this honour would have caused friction and problems between Sibelius and the Foreign Ministry at a moment when
the composer wished to add his symbolic weight to the cause of the nation. In his thank-you address, broadcast on radio, he
even mentioned the "shared destinies" of Germany and Finland. Then again, the two countries were both fighting against the Soviet Union at this juncture.
- Some while ago I collected the memories of Sibelius's contemporaries and the composer's and others' own diary entries and correspondence
for inclusion in a book. According to Sibelius's granddaughter, he was "aggrieved" in the 1930s when "the Finnish press wrote
for the first time about the doings of Mr Hitler". "Pappa was in no sense a Hitler devotee", stressed Laura Enckell in my interview with her.
Other family members reinforced this perception in separate interviews: Sibelius remained dubious about Hitler and wondered
at the personality cult that surrounded him. Already in the Swedish-language edition of the Tawaststjerna biography there
is a reference to a diary entry from August 1943 in which Sibelius condemns anti-semitism out of hand.
Sibelius continued in this vein on September 19, 1943, with the back-handed remark that "In certain countries, Germany for
example, the ‘Aryan Clause' is essential in order to get rid of awkward talented people. Without it, eugenics would never
get its place in the sun". Sibelius recognised the big lie when he saw it.
The very next day, he condemned the race laws. "You (meaning himself; Sibelius often used the secon person to address himself
in his writings) are a cultural aristocrat, and you can fight against such stupid prejudices". Another day went by and he
was writing even more strongly: "These childish Rassenbestimmungen, which are the most complete hogwash! I am an artist, and I have without doubt benefited from the good sides of different
- Whilst Sibelius may show himself to be no admirer of Nazi German policies on race, the Party's wooing of him does make Adorno's ire somewhat easier to understand.
And it is quite true that Sibelius and many other foreign composers really were buttered up and politicised by the regime.
The Nazis even wrote new lyrics of The War Song of Tyrtaeus, known to the Finns as "The Song of the Athenians". Gesang der Atherner became Hymne des Wehrwillen - A "Hymn to Defensive Resolve".
- Antti Vihinen notes that Sibelius benefited in kind from the advances of the Nazis, since his music was performed in Germany more often after their rise to
power. This is true enough, but it is also true that Sibelius's popularity increased in Britain and the United States during
Vihinen also sees Sibelius spreading "fascist propaganda" in his statement to the U.S. in 1941, when he spoke of the Bolshevik
assault on Finland and the dangers of Bolshevism in Europe. One could read these things another way.
Antti Vihinen's work contains a whole host of other delicious references. This is one of the most extensive examinations in
Finnish of National Socialist music policy and indeed of Adorno himself, although the "opponent" or ex officio examiner did
find translation errors in Vihinen's text and things that he regarded as clear misunderstandings by the writer.
Theodor Adorno's Germanic bias stands proven, albeit that Adorno applauded only those German composers whom he regarded as
the best, and he also had great respect for figures such as Béla Bartók, Leos Janácek, and other non-German giants. For some reason "the Germanic in music" was for Adorno "a suitable tongue for humanism". He
had little truck with other languages.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 21.10.2000
- More on this subject:
- Theodor Adorno vs. Jean Sibelius - seconds out for the final round?
- Opponent expresses serious reservations on thesis
- Coming shortly: a German thesis on "The Heroic Composer"
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