I am 14 stone 10 pounds. I weighed myself before I went to the gym. I was amazed, appalled and slightly sickened. Thank God I didn’t know that before I signed up for gym membership. That would have been completely the wrong motivation for committing to a year-long exercise contract. I left the house disappointed with myself, but with unshakeable resolve.
Discovering what my weight was post-Christmas may not have put me in the best frame of mind for listening to Sibelius 6 today.
Former colleague (sort of) Ant Miller suggested the work after I put out a tweet for recommendations. I only know two Sibelius symphonies – 2 & 5. Here was an opportunity to discover something new and in the process remind me that my listening repertoire isn’t quite as broad as I thought it was.
Sibelius 6 is bizarre. It starts with the bleakest of introductions. Someone or something has been abandoned. Crushed. On its last legs. There’s a stabbing with a rusty kitchen knife at 2’14” – the subtlest of orchestrations but enough to underline an unexpectedly chilling chord. Will whatever it is be healed? At this point I’m not sure. All I am sure of is that I’ve been completely taken by surprise. Maybe that’s the point.
There’s a hint of the rest of the world carrying on around the subject. From time to time we skirt around vaguely familiar sounds in more orthodox settings offering potential respite. But come the end of the first movement it feels to me as though we’re still wrapped up in the hurt, whatever that hurt is. If there is joy, then its someone else’s joy being observed by someone who sees it as something he’ll never obtain.
It’s not a self-indulgent or sentimental kind of pain. The opening of the second movement confirms that for me. Come the mid-point of the second movement there’s an overwhelming sense of loneliness accompanied by one very potent question: will we ever get to a point where whatever is causing this is resolved? Will there be redemption? The likelihood seems very, very slim.
A brief escape at the beginning of the third movement. Something exciting is going on with a dribble of hope thrown in just to tempt us. If Sibelius is going to deliver us a triumphant end, we’re going to embark on a monumental trans-formative journey from this point on.
That transformation isn’t made explicit at the beginning of the fourth. There’s been a subtle shift in mood – comparing the opening of the first movement with the opening theme of the fourth for example suggest that the dark clouds have lifted – but its brief. Once the allegro molto gets underway proper the image being painted is that the world is imperfect and that we’ve got to find a way of navigating our way through it.
I don’t think its that Sibelius can’t give us unequivocal redemption, just that to do so wouldn’t be especially authentic of the world as he experiences it.
I might add, I don’t actually know this is as fact – they’re just the thoughts that emerge as I listen to the symphony for the first time during the 20 minutes cardio.
I’m on the leg presses by the time the symphony comes to an end. I pause for a moment, catching my breath in between sets. I like this work because it poses more questions than it answers (Britten was being typically Britten when he dismissed Sibelius’ 6th). And I like it because at the end of the work we return emotionally somewhere very close to where we began. Life is a struggle. You’re not going to be transformed in the space of 30 minutes like you do in some other symphonies. Things are going to take a little longer than that.
But, inevitably, I need something to pick me up. I resort to my Eurovision playlist and start on my second set of leg presses just as I spy through the office window in front of me the gym instructors tucking into a cupcake. Swines.
I was listening to a performance of Sibelius’ Symphony No.6 given by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Paavo Berglund on Spotify.
If you’ve got a suggestion for a work for me to listen to, leave a comment below or tweet me @thoroughlygood.