“About 100,000 years ago I must certainly have been related to swans and wild geese, because I feel so drawn towards them.”
Jean Sibelius, letter to Jussi Jalas, 24th August 1940

Jean Sibelius
Finnish composer
8 December 1865, 00:30. Hämeenlinna, Finland
Sun 15 Sagittarius 55
opposite Asbolus 14 Gemini 17
squared by Chiron 14 Pisces 23
squared by Hylonome 14 Virgo 48.

There’s something about the music of Jean Sibelius, something both human and transcendental at the same time in a way that’s different from the music of any other composer. Sibelius was deeply rooted in the lakes and forests of his native Finland, but he was more than just a Finnish composer in that his songs, tone poems and symphonies touch not only lovers of classical music but people of all musical tastes from all over the world.

At the time he was composing in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century many European composers were writing music based on mythological and folkloric narratives, but Sibelius’ music doesn’t just illustrate the dramas of heroes, their conflicts, passions and retaliations, it takes you through the veil to mystical worlds: the awesome majesty of the forests, the melancholy of the land of the dead … lands that only music can describe.

In Sibelius’ birth chart, the Sun in Sagittarius is part of a grand cross involving no less than three centaurs: an opposition from Asbolus in Gemini, a square from Chiron in Pisces and a square from Hylonome in Virgo.

Squares and oppositions have a reputation for being tough. And when they’re configured to form a grand cross, you’ve got an aspect pattern that’s make-or-break, especially when, as in Sibelius’ chart, it’s focussed on the sun, the centre of personal consciousness. For every time one of the arms of the cross is touched by a major transit or an eclipse, the whole circuit is set resonating and we are faced with an inescapable challenge.

Often in a chart where the sun is beset with a number of transpersonal or deep space influences, Mercury takes over the role of conscious focus. But Sibelius’ Mercury in Capricorn, although in a beneficial conjunction with Jupiter, is taking an opposition from emotionally unpredictable Uranus in Cancer and a capriciously wilful square from Neptune in Aries. Fortunately, Saturn is in a sextile with the conjunction of Mercury and Jupiter, helping to stabilise the proceedings. So, when Sibelius was writing music or receiving the plaudits that his Leo moon enjoyed, he was fine, but the rest of the time it’s quite understandable that he took his consumption of alcohol too far, to the extent that it became a major risk to his health and threatened the stability of his marriage.

Finnish Mythology

The general influence of the three centaurs aspecting the sun in his chart led Sibelius to explore the alternative reality of mythological time in particular the world of the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic. This began as most epics do as oral tradition, folk poetry held in the hearts and memories of country people, sung to the accompaniment of the kantele, the traditional Finnish harp; an oral tradition that survived despite the Russian occupation and the prohibitions of the church. Then in the nineteenth century, the process of collection began with philologist and poet Elias Lönnrot travelling around the villages, listening, transcribing, leading to the publication in 1849 of fifty poems. This is the edition which inspired not only the music of Sibelius but was also a great influence on the Middle-earth mythology of J.R.R. Tolkien.

The Kalevala starts with a creation myth – telling of the origins of the earth and its creatures. It is peopled with women of power and shaman-heroes who use the resonant magic of words to complete their tasks or to acquire skills such as boatbuilding or iron making. In addition to the casting of magical spells, there are many stories of lust and seduction, kidnapping and romance. The heroes are often required to complete impossible tasks, leading, when they inevitably fail, to tragedy and humiliation.

But this national epic also had an important role in the growth of Finnish nationalism. At end of the nineteenth century Finland was involved in a struggle for independence from tsarist Russia and the publication of the Kalevala was key in the development of a national identity. Sibelius’ music perfectly matched this spirit with pieces such as the Karelia suite, Op 10, (1894), and Finlandia, Op 26, (1899-1900).

But it was with his exploration of the myths of Finland that Sibelius found the mother lode. Starting with the early choral symphony Kullervo, Op 7, 1892, whose style is still heavily under the influence of Wagner and the German tradition, it’s with The Wood Nymph, Op 15, 1894-5 that Sibelius’ original voice starts to emerge.

Then in 1897 with the Lemminkäinen Suite, Op 22, his mature voice is more apparent. Based on the legend of Lemminkäinen, one of the shaman-heroes of the Kalevala, Sibelius wrote four tone poems, one of which is the exquisite Swan of Tuonela depicting the mystical swan that floats on the dark river surrounding Tuonela, the realm of the dead.

This was followed by the orchestral piece, Pohjola’s daughter, Op 49, (1906) and Luonnotar , Op 70, (1913) for soprano and orchestra, illustrating other episodes from the Kalevala.

‘Pohjola’s daughter’ is also known as ‘Daughter of the North’ or ‘The Wound’ (how Chironic!). The Shaman-hero, Väinämöinen is riding a sleigh through the dusky landscape and sees a woman sitting on a rainbow, weaving a cloth of gold. He asks her to join him, but she replies that she will only leave with a man who can perform a number of challenging tasks. He completes most of the tasks with the aid of his magic but is thwarted by evil spirits in the completion of the final task, wounding himself while attempting to build a boat. Admitting defeat, he travels on alone with her mocking laughter ringing in his ears.

‘Luonnotar’, otherwise known as ‘The Daughter of Nature’ takes as its theme the myth of the creation of the world from the very beginning of the Kalevala. It starts in the cosmic nothingness where the daughter of the air floats alone in the universe. She descends into the sea where she lives for 700 years, becoming pregnant by the waves. Then she sees a sea bird looking for somewhere dry to lay her eggs and out of pity, Luonnotar raises her knee to provide a place. But when the eggs hatch it creates an intense heat, Luonnotar flinches, the nest falls into the water where it breaks and the eggs shatter forming the world as we know it, with the shell becoming the sky, the yolk becoming the sun, the white becoming the moon and the speckled pattern on the shell, the stars.

Here’s an animated version of ‘Luonnatar’ , sung in Finnish with the lyrics translated into English.

mysterious forestBut in Sibelius’ last major work, Tapiola Sibelius brings together the natural world and the world of spirit in one of his most powerful evocations – there’s no narrative, just a mystical vision of the awesome power of the spirit of the forests, that “calmly disdains to destroy us”.

Other Mythologies

But Sibelius was a Sagittarian and in addition to the legends of his native Finland, he explored other mythologies and symbolic realities from other cultures.

The suite from the incidental music for Maeterlinck’s play, Pelléas et Mélisande tells a story of doomed love. The very first movement ‘At the Castle Gate’ is our entry into a brooding, evanescent world of shifting symbols. The piece finishes with a tender and moving evocation of sadness and loss.

The Bard, Op 64, 1913 an exquisite 8-minute orchestral tone poem with a prominent role for the harp, evoking a mysterious world of poetic inspiration.

Time came when winter touched his locks
And age paled his cheeks;
And so once more he took his lyre
And plucked sonorous chords – and died
Rendering up his soul to the spirit from which it came…
J.L. Runeberg (1804 – 77)

Painting by Gustave Dore of the Oceanides on an island rock
The Oceanides, Painting by Gustave Dore

The Oceanides, Op 73, 1914 refers to the nymphs in Greek mythology who inhabit the Mediterranean. Rather than the glittering surface that Debussy gives us in La Mer, Sibelius has given us spiritual depth, the mythology of the ocean.

 

 

theatre poster for a performance of Shakespeare's The Tempest The Tempest, Op 109, 1928 is Shakespeare’s most mythological play set on an island full of spirits, lorded over by a magician. For Sibelius it was, along with Tapiola his last completed work before the silence of his last thirty years.

Sibelius was not alone among composers in late nineteenth century Europe in working with mythological material. Notably, Wagner’s massive ‘Ring Cycle’ is based on a blend of German and Norse myths. In Russia, Rimsky-Korsakov frequently made use of fairy-tale and folk subjects in his operas such as ‘The Snow Maiden’, ‘The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh’ and ‘The Golden Cockerel’. Then after the second world war, the English composer Harrison Birtwistle mined mythological and folkloric narratives to great effect in operas such as ‘Gawain’ and ‘The Minotaur’. But while these composers involve the listener in the dramatic narrative of myth, none of them transport you into the numinous world of mythological time as Sibelius does.

Chiron and the 4th Symphony

Notwithstanding the magic of his tone poems, it is as a symphonist that Sibelius is best remembered. His Fourth Symphony in A minor, Op 63 (1910-1911) is supremely Chironic, in that it takes us through tense passages of wounding dissonance, then a series of brutal slashes in the second movement, (golpes como el odio de Dios) followed by a slow movement where the natural world mirrors our deepest emotions, to a bitonal conflict in the last movement where two keys are vying for supremacy, and then, rather than a triumphant finale, an ending of quiet resignation. Needless to say, this symphony was just too strange for its initial audiences but is now considered by some the greatest work Sibelius ever wrote.

Asbolus and the 5th Symphony

When we come to the Fifth Symphony, the Asbolian influence is clearly audible even without any mythological programme. It was when working on this symphony, that Sibelius had an experience which he described in his diary thus:

“Today at 10 minutes to 11, I saw 16 swans… Lord God, what beauty! They circled over us for a long time. Disappeared into the solar haze like a gleaming silver ribbon… Their call is the same woodwind type as that of cranes but without the tremolo… Nature-mysticism and life’s angst, The Fifth Symphony’s finale theme.”

The swans reappeared three days later: “The swans are always in my thoughts and give splendour to [my] life. [It’s] strange to learn that nothing in the whole world affects me — nothing in art, literature, or music — in the same way as do these swans and cranes and wild geese. Their voices and being.”

Symphony 5, Finale. Bernstein conducts.

*

In another instance, Sibelius’ friend and biographer Erik W Tawaststjerna relates the following bird-related anecdote.

Sibelius was returning from his customary morning walk in the fields and forest around Ainola, his house near Helsinki, scanning the skies for cranes flying south for the winter. They were part of his ritual of autumn; when he was writing the Fifth Symphony, he had noted in his diary, “Every day I have seen the cranes. Flying south in full cry with their music. Have been yet again their most assiduous pupil. Their cries echo throughout my being.”

His wife, Aino recalled the day in mid September 1957 when the composer, drew her attention to a flock of migrating cranes and exclaimed, “Look, there they come, the birds of my youth.” One bird, she recalled, suddenly broke away from the flock, circled the house, cried out as if to say farewell, before flying away to rejoin the flock to continue its journey to the south.

Two days later, on the evening of 20 September 1957, Sibelius died of a brain haemorrhage at age 91.

Hylonome and the Music of the Underworld

The third centaur to form a hard aspect to Sibelius’ sun in Sagittarius was Hylonome in Virgo. In Greek mythology, Hylonome was a female centaur, the lover of the centaur Cyllarus. When he was struck by a spear at the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs, she was by his side and tried to prevent his spirit from leaving his body by covering his mouth with hers. Then when she realised that this was in vain, she impaled herself on the same spear that had killed her beloved, joining him in death.

Death was a theme in a number of Sibelius’ compositions, particularly the Swan of Tuonela – set in the underworld of Finnish mythology, a realm surrounded by a large river of black waters, in which the swan of Tuonela glides majestically, singing.

 

The Death of Mélisande from the incidental music to the play ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’ which captures a brooding, evanescent world of shifting symbols in a story of doomed love.

And Lemminkäinen in Tuonela, telling the story of the shaman-hero’s journey to the underworld.

We can conjecture that memorialising death in music grants eternal life to the moment of the soul’s passing. And although from the completion of Tapiola and the incidental music to the Tempest, Sibelius was to produce no more for the last 30 years of his life, his music can be said to grant him immortality.

 

Epilogue : The Silence of Järvenpää

There has been much conjecture regarding why Sibelius never composed anything new during the last 30 years of his life. After ‘Tapiola’ and the incidental music to ‘The Tempest’ there was much speculation about the composition of an eighth symphony but all that appeared were a few revisions of earlier pieces. His wife Aino reports that after many years of struggle, he burned all the sketches of the eighth along with a number of other uncompleted pieces.

Also, at that time in Europe, the modernist music of Schoenberg and Stravinsky was in the spotlight and Sibelius was considered old hat. Musicologist, Theodore Adorno sharpened his critical claws, describing Sibelius’ scores as a ‘configuration of the banal and the absurd;’ where all details sound ‘commonplace and familiar, but their arrangement is meaningless.’ And further: ‘If Sibelius is good, then all criteria of musical excellence valid from Bach to Schoenberg, such as complexity, articulation, unity in diversity, multiplicity in oneness, are frail.’

Sibelius response was, “Pay no attention to what the critics say. A statue has never been erected in honour of a critic.”

However, as astrologers we might be able suggest a reason for this three decades of silence. Sibelius stopped composing when he was around 61 years old. He seems to have got through the second Saturn return at around age 58 to 59 but when Saturn hit his sun, setting off his grand cross, that was it. He may have been able to shrug off the attacks of his actual critics, but he fell victim to his own inner critic. Saturn seems to have closed the door on Asbolus’ mythological realm and laid Chiron and Hylonome to rest.

This period in Sibelius’ life is known as The Silence of Järvenpää, after the town nearest to Sibelius’ home.

Ben Belinsky

May 2021

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