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Where Sibelius Fell Silent

But, you will say, he was a world-famous composer. His music was constantly played; he was feted everywhere, not least in Britain—"the land without chauvinism", as he called it (we are to presume he was only talking musically). Constant Lambert, in his 1934 study "Music Ho!", extravagantly called him "the most important writer [of symphonies] since Beethoven". Yale gave him a doctorate in 1914. How could such a man not afford to pay off the debts on his house? How come he was only saved from bankruptcy in 1910 by the intervention of generous patrons?

The answer lies mainly in history and the curious laws of copyright. When Sibelius started composing, Finland was part of the Russian empire, and Russia was not a signatory to international copyright treaties. So—apart from performing fees (and he often conducted)—Sibelius's income came from selling his work outright to music publishers. In 1905, for instance, he signed an agreement with Robert Lienau in Berlin to supply "four major works" in the coming year, the first of which went to pay for the sauna house Aino designed. Finland gained independence from Russia in 1919, but didn't sign the Berne Convention on Copyright until 1928—by which time Sibelius had entered into his silence.

And in any case, you couldn't retrospectively claim copyright on what you had previously sold outright. To take the most egregious example: Sibelius composed his famous "Valse Triste" as part of the incidental music to "Kuolema" (1903). The following year he made two arrangements of the piece, each of which he sold outright for 100 marks (a little less than €3,000 in modern money). This may have seemed canny at the time. But "Valse Triste" was to become the best-known piece of music Sibelius ever composed; in the 1930s it was estimated to be the world's second most-played tune after "White Christmas"—yet from all the recordings and playings and sheet music Sibelius didn't receive a cent. He survived with the help of donations, national collections and a government pension; in 1912, he even thought of emigrating, whereupon the government raised his stipend and there were relieved newspaper headlines reading "Jean Sibelius remains in Finland". He finally became solvent at the age of 62, in 1927, and was eventually to die a fairly rich man. But it is an instructive story at a time when copyright is once again an issue, music piracy rife, and "Don't-be-evil" Google has illegally digitalised hundreds of thousands of books still in copyright.

There is something heroic about those writers and artists who choose silence when it would be easier to supply profitable titbits to an adoring audience. Sibelius struggled with his Eighth Symphony for many years. He was constantly badgered about its progress; conductors and concert impresarios begged a foretaste. He always refused. Some believe that in the decades he worked on it he had finished only one movement. Sibelius himself claimed that he had "completed" the Eighth "many times"—though perhaps only in his head. In any event, at some point in the early 1940s, he piled the manuscript sketches of the Eighth plus a large quantity of other unfinished or (in his view) inadequate works into a big laundry basket, took them to the dining room, and, with Aino's help, began to feed them into the stove. After a while, Aino no longer had the strength to watch, and left the room, so she was unable to confirm exactly what had gone into the flames. But she reported that afterwards, "My husband became calmer and his attitude was more optimistic. It was a
happy time."

Source: The Economist
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