Sibelius: Symphony No. 5 in Eb

Jean Sibelius, Finland’s most famous composer, wrote seven symphonies. That’s a little nugget I tucked away, stale in a cupboard, during three semesters of music history. Bach learned to orchestrate in the library at night, copying scores by candlelight. That’s another, though I’m suspicious of its provenance. Felix Mendelssohn revived Bach’s music with his performance (as a conductor) of the St. Matthew Passion. He also wrote the “Wedding March” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, so popular at weddings. Wagner wrote the “Bridal Chorus” from Lohengrin, perhaps the only wedding music to rival the March in popularity. Mendelssohn was a Christian of Jewish heritage. (Bach was Lutheran, but one of his most famous pieces is a Catholic mass.) Wagner was virulently antisemitic. He and Friedrich Nietzsche were friends but Nietzsche grew disillusioned with Wagner’s vision of the world. Hitler had a soft spot for both of them. By the time Hitler invaded Russia, Sibelius was but a recluse in the Finnish woods. And we’re back.

My mind wanders a lot lately.

I walk down the street, thinking up words to describe the shifting relationship between structures in my field of vision. I stare at a fixed point on the corner of an old prewar building in the Flatiron district of Manhattan as the sun washes over the roof and cement curly-cues that adorn the sills and frames. Inert grayish-pink and cool maroon shadow hang over most of the building while the tangerine glitter of the sun spills thickly across, like molten orange candy dripping over cold chocolate in slow motion. The hard lines of the building behind it shift slowly under its brick horizon as I walk. Corners drift toward each other and, for some reason, I think of balloons in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade bobbing slowly together and then bouncing away at a snail’s pace. I’m moving but, when I don’t relinquish my gaze, they seem to move as I stay still.

My mind wanders.

Jean Sibelius lived most of his life at an estate in the wilderness outside Helsinki. I didn’t live in the wilderness, exactly, but I lived on its edge. Mountains sprang up in the distance, maple trees burst into cherry and auburn in October, and gnarled pines and cedars closed around serpentine ribbons of road. I actually climbed one of the mountains – a very small mountain, but a mountain nonetheless.

During my senior year of high school, I went hiking with friends two or three times a month. We usually went to White Oak Canyon in Shenandoah National Park, out past my aunts’ house on the back end of Madison County. White Oak was an easy hike: gentle grades, marked trails, bridges over the ravines, and conveniently located outcroppings for rest. Halfway up the trail was a deep bend in the river at the bottom of a huge waterfall. We swam in the pool and the cold water pounded our shoulders in great glassy sheets. We tried climbing the falls even though a branch in the footpath wound a far safer path to their top. The climb was successful, but I did brush straight through a thicket of poison ivy that clung to the rocky face and paid for it in the subsequent week.

One day in November, we decided to hike a different trail and drove out further into the park to climb Old Rag Mountain. All I knew of Old Rag Mountain was that years before, it came as close as a geological formation can come to burning off the face of the earth. Shenandoah National Park was plagued by wildfires when I was in fourth grade and the most ferocious and widely publicized were on the slopes of the granite mountain. No one was allowed to climb for weeks and we could smell the smoke in town, thirty-some miles away. Mom drove me to a soccer game once in Sperryville and we caught a glimpse of the peak from the road, shorn against the blue sky and gasping above chalky clouds of brown smoke.

Eight years after the fires died, we made the top. It was cold when we left and, by the time we reached the mountain, little flakes of snow fell around us. Old Rag was much more difficult with forty degree inclines in places, drastic turns in the trail, boulders to circumnavigate, and creeks to hop. Guarding the summit was “the scramble.” We crested what felt like a peak but, when the trees parted, the terrain dipped and then leaped again to a peak still higher – the summit. The dip and summit were scattered with massive slabs of rock that formed spines and angles, cracks and ravines, causeways and ladders. “The scramble.”

We emerged from the trees and clawed our way through rocks. The Blue Ridge opened in a ripply mountainous wash of burgundy, silver, and evergreen viridian as the flurry broke and clouds drifted apart, sun streaming through onto the forest below. I always loved the odd little moments after a rain broke or cloud cover gave way and sunlight burst through in beams. Rays of afternoon light spilled out of the clouds like sheaves of hay into still gray air. It always reminded me of the drawings in Sunday School bibles of God exploding through the sky to confront Saul on the road to Damascus or call the resurrected Jesus up to heaven. We stayed for two hours at the summit, watching light spill out of the clouds over what looked like the entire world.

For no particular reason, I listened to Jean Sibelius’s Symphony No. 5 in Eb the other day. As the first movement came to its dramatic conclusion, I thought of Old Rag Mountain and the light spilling out of the clouds over what looked like the entire world. I hadn’t thought of it in a decade but some music has that power; potency concentrated like the tip of a spear, directing the force of an experience into a single, tiny, razor-sharp point. That symphony, for me, is one single point.

I can reduce my impression of Sibelius No. 5 to the last fifty or sixty seconds of its first movement. A pattern in the violins – almost tedious – finally breaks under an explosion and the movement ends in a hail of brass, strings skittering about like falling shards of shattered glass. I isolate a single passage – a single chord – inside which the entire symphony is contained: an atom so dense that it needs only a prime mover to send an entire existence caroming about the empty universe. The thunderous ultimate cadence, beaten over and over again against the pulse of timpani until the abrupt conclusion, carries the power of a thirty-minute symphonic behemoth.

I listen to music that way. That much has always been apparent. But my memory files the rest of the world that way as well. Single things, infinitesimally tiny spaces, store the gargantuan weight of experience until something cracks them open and sends their contents gushing out. I don’t remember particular Christmas mornings well, but I remember waking up at five o’clock and sneaking into the living room to check my stocking by the barely detectable orange light of the overhead lamp above the kitchen sink in the next room. Some nights at my parents’, when I’m awake late and the stockings hang on the wall-sized bookshelf, something like Christmas-in-an-instant bursts out of that dark corner and bounds about the house. I don’t remember outcomes or opponents from varsity soccer, but I remember looking over my shoulder and running full tilt along the arc of a ball as it soared into our empty backfield and sliding, cleats first, under the legs of a heaving forward as he tried to bring it under his control. The peculiar, still, white of stadium lights and curl of frozen breath bring that rush of adrenaline back for the briefest of moments.

I heard the last sixty seconds of the first movement of Sibelius’s Symphony No. 5 in Eb and immediately thought of my hours at the scramble, looking down on my entire world. One or two chords – F-horns and trumpets barreling forward atop galloping timpani, scattering strings before them like little metal jacks – carry a mountain. Sibelius spent his life savings moving into wooded seclusion with his family and journaled of inspiration he derived from the wildlife around him. I spent my (short) life’s (meager) savings moving out of wooded seclusion and into a teeming metropolis to pull sounds from the racket. In a few strokes of his pen, Sibelius brought me away with him.

And we’re back.

My mind wanders.

Music, VirginiaPeter Amosreview