(Image from World Record Club album 'Symphony No. 2 in D major Opus 43 by Sibelius - The Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Paul Kletzki')
Just why is Mr J Sibelius looking so glum? Is he lamenting the fact that he is nothing more than a disembodied head in a bodied world? Is he cogitating on the fact that we are nothing more than autumn leaves crushed underfoot by an Unfeeling Universe? Or has he just heard the news that one Rene Liebowitz not only described him as as the worst composer in the world but produced a pamphlet* with that very title?
Now, it would seem that Mr Leibowitz was a little harsh in his pamphleteering smear. My father, having a covertly Romantic soul and all that, would occasionally play us Sibelius and Smetana during Sunday lunch. He would also get excited when he heard Finlandia or The Karelia Suite emitting (with exuberant tinniness) from his little tranny (note to any youngish readers of this blog, if they in fact exist: in my youth, a 'tranny' meant a transistor radio - nothing more, nothing less. Dad's little trannies were about the size of a block of soap and invariably held together by black electric tape. This was because he invariably dropped them and was invariably too cheap to replace them). So, as a result of this exposure in my youth, I am familiar with some of Sibelius' more popular works and I must say that there is something dark and bombastic and occasionally gentle that draws me in. And I must also say that 'Be still my soul' is a beaut tune (if we must have hymns, they should at least sound something like that. It is amazing just how deep my hymn-memory runs. Many would be surprised to come upon a notorious atheist such as I whistling, in a jaunty manner, such well-loathed standards as 'Stand up, stand up for Jesus, ye Soldiers of the Cross' as I recline in my kaftan. But it happens).
(Uncharacteristically, I digress. My humble apologies. It is not all about me. It is Mr Sibelius' moment to shine.)
So then, worst composer in the world or no, glum Sibelius inevitably upped and died. Two days before he died he saw some cranes and said, 'There they come, the birds of my youth' only to see one crane break away and circle above his beloved home before rejoining the other cranes on their journey. Pretty, but probably utter bullshit. His most famous quote, however, is kind of understandable, given Mr Liebowitz and his pernicious pamphlets:
'Pay no attention to what the critics say; there has never been set up a statue in honour of a critic'.
Ah, why be profound when you can be a total bitch? Why indeed. I must confess that there is a tiny part of me that would like to travel the world searching for the Famous Critics Sculpture Garden that would disprove Mr J's catty little theory. But I cannot be arsed. And life as an Autumn Leaf in the Unfeeling Universe is too short to worry about such trifles.
In closing, I would like to be rash and cry, 'No, Sibelius was not the worst composer in the world - Wagner was! What a yawn! What a load of overblown nonsense! Roll the presses - pamphlet-City, here I come. But then my frothing at the mouth subsides and I realise that I would most probably be talking through my hat. No, just because I spent some unthrilling weeks in less-than-magnificent Bayreuth, am plagued by sighing, melodramatic Wagnerites in real life and loathe everything that the old buzzard stood for does not necessarily make Wagner the worst composer in the world. I mean, as I said before - after all, it is not all about me, is it?
*PS Is it just me or do other people find the word pamphlet amusing? It is just so, I don't know, lame or something...