The Worst Symphony in the World

In an essay in the New Yorker recently, Alex Ross quotes a member of the Schoenberg circle as calling Sibelius “the worst composer in the world”.  I don’t know where this quote comes from, Ross mentions “a pamphlet”. (See postscript below.) Patently, this gross defamation is the product of envy and frustration, although in many respects I sympathise with the predicament of composers who feel a sincere and dedicated obligation to the cause of modernity and are suspicious of perorations in E-flat major, which the Sibelius 5th patently features.

I doubt if the atonalists understood the ingenious and innovative ways Sibelius used tonality, or could appreciate the necessity of a hierachical tonal system in the composition of a symphony.  I dislike the presumption of a monopoly of truth exhibited by some of the atonalists, but also exhibited from thousands of concertgoers who a priori rejected the new or difficult; when I was a kid, I went around foolishly proclaiming the poverty of atonality…and I was wrong.  Not necessarily wrong about atonality, although now I am sure I was wrong about atonality, but wrong because I was a wet behind the ears tenderfoot who should have been listening, not telling.  If there is one thing that infuriates me today, its the smiling, indulgent way some people (friends, as well)  think I’m putting them on when I mention how moved I am by a work like Moses und Aron, or almost anything from Anton Webern’s maturity.  That’s like saying I’m a liar, or lack integrity. 

The 1915 version (the familar version is from 1919) of Sibelius 5 is the worst symphony in the world.  

Just kidding.  But it would be the worst symphony in Sib’s oeuvre if he had let it stand, and never has a work benefitted more from revision.  Not Tannhauser, not Boris, not anything.  I bring this up because I just heard the 1915 version on CD from an orchestra based in Lahti.  My understanding is that it’s the first performance since the time of its premiere.  Loosely constructed, with a pastel scoring style that turns it into a Sib “pastoral” symphony (and he has an utterly exemplary pastoral symphony, his sixth, composed after, of course), with mistiming of the climaxes, over abruptness at the end of the first movement, repetitious phrase lengths, and a “Thor’s Hammer” wielded by the prolix and effeminate Thor (Donner) of Wagner’s Rheingold rather than the mighty Thor of the final version (this is caused not by orchestration, but by timing) the first 5th is not a winner.  It was very popular at its premiere, but Sibelius, with uncanny instinct, knew better than his audience.  He fixed it. 

Update:

I just re-read the excellent Ross article.  The Schoenbergian he mentioned is Rene Leibowitz, conductor, teacher, author, and reasonably prolific composer.  Most famous for his book, Schoenbergand His School, which was translated by Dika Newlin, who wrote an especially charming book about studying with Schoenberg. Ross mentions a pamphlet, not the dodecaphonic house organ, Die Reihe, which somehow I associated with Leibowitz’s quote. Apparently Leibowitz didn’t contribute to that magazine.I don’t know this pamphlet. Speaking of  Die Reihe, according to one of Robert Craft’s books, Sravinsky made a mildly humorous joke about having his (pretendedly authentic) subscription to Mad magazine confused with the very much unwanted periodical, Die Reihe. Die Reihe has articles about all sorts of modernist topics from Ernst Krenek to electronic music.  Its contributors are quite distinguished.