After his seventh symphony (1924) and Tapiola (1925) little appeared from Sibelius. There was his incidental music to The Tempest (1926), his Five Equisses for piano Op.114 (1929) and his Three Pieces for violin and piano Op.116 (1929) but nothing large scale. Then there appeared to be silence from the great composer. Yet Sibelius’ brother-in-law, Armas Jarnefelt recalled that the composer had, at his apartment in Helsinki two bulky scores in a cupboard. One was the score of a large choral work believed to be based on a biblical text and the other a large orchestral work. Both of these works were believed to have been burnt either in1945 when Aino saw her husband feeding large piles of paper into the living-room fireplace at their home or later in the early 1950’s.
In 1931 Sibelius wrote that he was ‘living in my music…am so caught up in my work…the symphony is making great progress…and I must get it finished while I still have the mental strength…
Whether the large orchestral score kept at his apartment was the long awaited Eighth Symphony we cannot be sure but he wrote to Koussevitzsky later in the summer of 1931 ‘…if you wish to perform my new symphony, next spring, this will, I hope, be possible…’ In January 1932 Sibelius asked for a postponement until October that year but still it was not ready.
Work on the new symphony certainly appears to have continued as in September 1933 he was able to send to his usual copyist the first 23 pages of the orchestral score. Both his wife, Aino and his daughter, Margareta, visited the copyist during this period to deliver manuscripts indicating that the symphony was at an advanced stage. During the 1930’s the HMV Sibelius Society even went as far as listing the Eighth Symphony in their prospectus as a forthcoming issue. Sadly nothing came of the new work.
After his death in 1957 the Sibelius family gave a large number of scores to the library of Helsinki University. Over the last few years the Sibelius scholar Timo Virtanen has looked at over 800 pages of the manuscripts held at the library.
He searched for manuscripts that could be dated to Sibelius’ so called period of silence. From these he has produced three short sketches that could well have been part of the intended Eighth Symphony. These sketches were played during the Prom talk and can still be heard on YouTube played by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Storgårds. www.youtube.com/watch?v=HmIGn97BXs8
Listening to the first fragment with its beautiful dissonances that promised to open up new vistas brought a lump to my throat, but for members of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra playing these fragments it brought tears.
As expected, it didn’t take long for those who have doubts about the sketches being part of the projected symphony to express their views. It is true that the sketches have been accessible to everyone for many years and many scholars have seen them. Nevertheless these tiny fragments lasting in total no more than three minutes are a tantalising and poignant taste of what might have been.