Friday, July 13, 2012

Jean Sibelius Saved My Life

This man composed a symphony in 1915 and sent it far into the future to save my life. Without a TARDIS.

In the spring of 1996 a major relationship in my life was falling apart and I didn't know what to do about it. So, I let it continue to erode. Eventually the woman decided that moving back to her home state 1500 miles away seemed like a smart thing to do, rather than continue to endure our joint financial instability and my own Hamlet-like internal conflicts. Intellectually, I was able to convince myself that this was the right and proper thing to unfold, and so it came to pass. I told myself it would be better for both of us. I even believed that.

After she moved away, I moved to a new apartment, and pondered things. The dimensions of this loss became more and more clear to me; I was overwhelmed by my foolishness. I also stopped sleeping. At all. I could not sleep; every night was a waking torment from which I could not escape, every day I became that much more unable to manage even the simplest functions. I was wide awake and exhausted to my core. I was also becoming more and more unglued from reason and overwhelmed with despair. I found myself consumed by suicidal thoughts.

Somewhere in the midst of this phase, I found a sheet anchor of sorts, a thing that kept me grounded and prevented me from harming myself, from doing anything foolish or self-destructive. I started listening to Jean Sibelius's Fifth Symphony. Over and over. At some points, I played it around the clock, all through the day and all night long. Over and over, for probably a month or more. Through some inexplicable means, the piece gave me a reassurance that the darkness that I was experiencing would pass, that things would get better, healing was possible. And, eventually, slowly, that did happen.

As this is a music blog, I feel obliged to mention that the performance I listened to repeatedly was that of the Boston Symphony under Colin Davis (Sir Colin Davis, now). It was recorded in the mid-1970s and still sounds pretty fantastic. You can find it for an extremely reasonable sum, coupled with more of this fine composer's work. It might save your life, too.

I write about this for a number of reasons. One is that that experience has had the effect of making my own involvement with composing, recording and teaching just that much more urgent. Sibelius didn't write the piece thinking that it was for the explicit purpose of bringing souls back from the brink of despair, though it had that effect on mine. My impression is that he spent a good portion of his own life on such a brink. Colin Davis didn't harangue the strings into a more perfect blend and intonation during the recording session because, "Hey! C'mon people, we're trying to save a life here!" But that was an eventual outcome.

I cannot tell you why it was THAT particular piece and no other that I needed to hear at that moment in time. It's not even my "favorite" Sibelius symphony. (That would be the Third or the Fourth.) But that doesn't really matter much. It does matter to me that people understand that placing art into our world is not a frivolity, a waste. It's easy to argue otherwise, especially in our current political climate. But it matters. It matters with the urgency of a difference between life and death. Literally, sometimes. The great children's writer Daniel Pinkwater once told about working late night after night on an art project in college, and feeling a complete lack of purpose to it all. It was during the tumult of the Vietnam era and assassinations, with widespread social unrest and uncertainty making him feel that his own artwork was self-indulgent and pointless. Pointless, until another student whose battle with alcohol had led him to the point of suicide confided that it was seeing Pinkwater working far into the night that had kept him going and motivated him to seek help for his addiction. After that, Pinkwater said, it became vital that he keep on working, so as to support his fellow student. He began to realize that his steady modest efforts had unforeseen consequences. He's still hard at work, decades later.

So I plow forward, doing what I can to bring new music into the world and to share it with whomever I can. I teach, compose and produce with the conviction that if Sibelius's Fifth was my lifeline, then I ought to throw as many others out for whomever they are meant to be grasped by. Maybe even decades after I'm gone. I don't kid myself that I'm on any sort of par with Sibelius as a composer, but I know I have a role to play, however modest, and it's important that I do it as well as I know how. HOW that importance will manifest itself is unknown.

And that woman, whose departure caused my world to overturn? Yesterday we celebrated our fifteenth wedding anniversary.

[Update] I'm truly grateful to the overwhelming response to this posting. In response to Robert's comment, I added a link to a superb reading of Sibelius's Third (with Colin Davis leading the New York Phil), brought to my attention by blogger supreme Erik Klackner. You should be reading him instead of this right now. Another friend pointed out that the old Davis/Boston set that I played endlessly isn't that good compared to recent readings. True enough. But irrelevant to my condition back then. Interestingly, I rarely listen to the Fifth any more. But I know it's there if I need it.

Lastly, I would not want to suggest that artists are incapable of selfishness or self-indulgence. We are, yes indeed. But it's an occupational hazard that we all have to negotiate as best we can. And the benefits can be profound and life-changing.


Anonymous said...

beautiful to read.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing the power of music.

NoStoryRob said...


Thank you for sharing this, it's very moving.

Just last night after a concert I was visiting with Charles Bruffy and a choral director approached us and told Charles how the KC Chorale's Alleluia CD had changed his life. Charles and I were both very moved (me being one of the tenors on that recording). Music can be a very potent healing force and we'll never know the effect we have on others just by doing our work as musicians. As for Sibelius, I too, had a very hard time about 16 years ago and it was his Third Symphony that helped me through (Colin Davis also!), so your story had an extra resonance for me.

Again, thanks for sharing. Peace.

Leon Chia said...

Thank you for sharing this, David. I'm really glad your story ended well. While reading your words, a quotation regarding the Fifth Symphony kept appearing in my head. When he was still writing the symphony, he saw sixteen swans flying overhead while on one of his walks. He wrote in his diary, "One of my greatest experiences! My God what beauty! … Their call the same woodwind type as that of cranes, but without tremolo. The swan-call closer to trumpet, although there is something of a sarrusophone sound. A low refrain reminiscent of a small child crying. Nature’s Mysticism and Life’s Angst! The Fifth Symphony’s finale-theme: Legato in the trumpets!"

He wrote about the heartache in composing the Fifth. Struggling to bring it to final form, how he veered off course and was "blind" for a while. The work's gestation was long and arduous. Have you ever heard the original 1915 version? It is much darker in atmosphere than the final version. I think it contains more heartache and searching - though still present even in the final version. I think it is this "life's angst" that you heard. As you know, the Fifth ultimately ends positively - it seems as if you took the same journey.

david d. mcintire said...

@Leon Chia: thanks very much for your comments. I have heard the the 1915 "original version," which I find fascinating. It is indeed darker, and very peculiar in ways. It's on of my intentions to compare them more closely someday, but that's an item on a very long list.

Andrea Ostrov Letania said...

I can't say Sibelius's 5th saved my life, but I discovered it at a special time in my life, and it meant a lot to me. It's music I treasure most.