Sibelius: Symphony No. 3 in C

Rabbit holes are magnetic to me. Whole hog, I dive right in, grip a tangent and ride it to wild places. I’ve always been that way. In roughly chronological order: Firetrucks and trains, dinosaurs, the Civil War, baseball, Pokemon, baseball cards, soccer, guitar, jazz, the Civil War again, and so on. I recently fell, maybe – rather than dove – into classical music again. Classical music is not a hole but some sort of catacomb, a depthless network of endless holes, a Moria filled with creatures of the deep, ancient evils, goblins, and what have you (“The air doesn’t smell so foul down here”). Jean Sibelius is deep. I thought his fifth symphony would never end until it spilled into his third and spiraled ever longer.

And here I am again.

The world is bizarre. Nature ranges from functional and drab to opulent and wild, though even the opulent is functional in its own way. Banyan trees grow so thick in northern India that they can be coaxed across rivers and used as bridges. A Texan named Casey Wagner was struck twice by lightning and survived. After news outlets warned that handling chickens might lead to a salmonella outbreak, the CDC stated that it was, in fact, perfectly safe to dress a live chicken in a Halloween costume. By that standard, nothing particularly odd happens in my life.

I once stepped on a rat’s tail while I was walking toward a stopped train. Something tugged under my shoe and I looked down to see a vilely corpulent rodent squirming against my weight. I barely reacted, just lifted my shoe so that the little scavenger could bolt for the gap between the platform and the open train door. Someone once told me that you’re not a New Yorker until you’ve stepped on a rat. So I’ve done that now. Robin Scherbatsky on How I Met Your Mother claimed that you aren’t a New Yorker until you’ve killed a cockroach with your bare hand. I’ve done that too, but that’s all beside the point. A handful of commuters actually witnessed the “pizza rat” pulling an intact slice of pizza down a subway platform during rush hour. I should be so lucky. Mark Twain supposedly predicted his own death, stating that he’d like to go as he came in: on an evening graced by the appearance of Halley’s Comet. Not sure if I should be so lucky.

Arnold Schoenberg painted genuinely disturbing self-portraits. Carlo Gesualdo murdered his wife and her lover before fleeing to the countryside to avoid retribution. He later became the third Prince of Venosa and eighth Count of Conza. He continued writing music wracked by unseemly and strikingly modern flashes of dissonance and atonality. Very strange.

I laundered several years of my life through music. (For what it’s worth, I still do – these essays, themselves, being prime examples.) Metaphors spilled from notes on a page, everything wound its way through scores and songs over which I labored. That’s no real surprise. In music history class we spent hours making every note into something external: a manifestation of personal characteristics, extension of earlier techniques, driver of later innovation, microcosm of the wider world. Tonality is order: consonance, light and simplicity. Carlo Gesualdo’s violent destruction of the carefully ordered increments of modes and disruption of neatly arranged frequencies must’ve poured from profound guilt and the darkness of his life. That sounds plausible: possibly even true. But it doesn’t necessarily need to be.

An ear is a fickle thing: pitches pass across like visions in sleep. History classes piloted predictably through centuries. As music became complex, more sophisticated, notes stacked on top of each other ever deeper (“a shadow moves in the dark – we cannot get out. They are coming”). Neapolitan sixths, chromatic mediants, mode mixtures, and tone clusters blossomed like the dizzy blur of inebriation from a radiating staff (“Your dark fire will not avail you!”). Theory piled atop key signatures until they collapsed in an exhausted heap of loops and springs. What I never heard in school were the ways in which something can be altogether pleasant and still profoundly strange.

So much that we think of as normal is truly elaborate, fascinating, odd. That we take for granted an airplane, tons of metal and flammable fuel tracing lines across the sky, is a cliche but no less outlandish for the mundanity of the observation. Still, there is so much else over which we’d marvel if our souls were intact and eyes open. Some of it is shallow.

  • Most fashion: a feather on a hat that serves no purpose, skintight leggings, styled hair.

  • The ink on money: shifting under light, tiny pinpricks, presidents in pointillism, watermarks.

  • Cats.

Some is mesmerizing and sublime.

  • The bark on a tree: a spidery network of pocked surfaces and tiny canyons, a chimera of endless imperceptible cells splitting and stacking and falling about into new topography, breaking off in chunks big enough to crumble under a fist.

  • Glass: a liquid hard enough that it cannot be scratched and shatters into a thousand individually unyielding pieces that strip flesh from bone, but completely cold and transparent.

  • The alien robotics of mantises and ants: segmented and crystalline, claws and pincers and serrated jaws, gauzy and translucent, terrifying in miniature.

To say that we take for granted air travel, modern medicine, the internet, and how truly extraordinary they are is fashionable. But so much of the genuinely ordinary world is remarkable. We take for granted the chemistry of baking; that a few powders and ground grains, softened butter, and a bit of water can puff up into a something cohesive and solid in the right heat. Wheat is not strange, water is common enough, perhaps butter is a little odd. But the act of baking and the explosions and fizzing and combining of molecules that turn a pile of disorganized matter into a rigid shortbread? Strange is composed of a million normals and the normals break again into strange.

Horsehair grates over gut, strung across tiger-stripe wood in time with a dozen other arrangements of the same. Air flows through pipe, a Fibonacci spiral cut short at exact intervals, precise ratios of the live to the inert to the whole. Rings of sound blossom from a bell in carefully arranged relationships to a whole universe of vibrating inanimatia. Sibelius flows through time and space, moving waves and electrons, into a set of earphones.

The first movement of his Symphony No. 3 in C major is a jigsaw puzzle: normal, sonorous, and pleasant from afar, but comprised of pieces and with each piece collapsing again into component parts. Melodies ring like Finnish folk songs, stacking into grand cathedrals and falling into endless piles of tiny specks breaking further and further. The pattern of thatch on a roof, lace on the wings of a bee, the arrangement of crystals into rocks, molecules into diamonds and angles, atoms into molecules, protons and space into blocks and cement and cities. Everything simple collapsing into something small, strange, and complex for its unfamiliarity. Tiny interconnected complexities piling again into landscapes and towers, monolithic silhouettes familiar for their ubiquity.

I played a small instrument, a chamber instrument. There are only a few concertos for guitar that orchestras perform on a regular basis. It’s quiet and does little good in large orchestrations with brass or bowed strings. Trios, quartets – a flute, a lone violin, a voice. I never got into symphonic music – the massive tone poems, symphonies, incidentals, or ballet suites. Sometimes I think it was because there wasn’t much literature for me, no place for a guitar in their power and flair. But I was also turned off by the grandiosity.

Apparently, Jean Sibelius and Gustav Mahler didn’t agree on the purpose of a symphony. Alex Ross writes of the time after Sibelius wrote his Third:

“It was in the wake of composing this terse, elusive work that Sibelius got into a debate with Gustav Mahler on the nature of the symphony. Mahler came to Helsinki in 1907 to conduct some concerts, and Sibelius presented his latest ideas about ‘severity of form,’ about the ‘profound logic’ that should connect symphonic themes. ‘No!’ Mahler replied. ‘The symphony must be like the world. It must be all-embracing.’”

Putting aside the amusing clash of egos, their opinions aren’t mutually exclusive. Brilliance at apparent odds tends not to be. That Ross uses the words “terse” and “elusive” to describe something that sounds so organic and direct to my ear is evidence itself that not everyone sees the same thing when they look at the color “blue.” I would take issue with the words “severity” and “must,” but otherwise Mahler and Sibelius are staring through opposite sides of the same kaleidoscope. Everything is majestic – the world is grand and consequential, beautiful and mysterious and awesome. But the world is also logical – logical and bizarre, carefully arranged patterns from chaotic bits of nothing. Normalcy is a hodge-podge, sublime and titanic, built from trillions of infinitesimal interlocking curiosities.

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