Eduard Tubin: Symphony No. 1

This article has been marked as in need of a revisit. That’s where I feel like I didn’t do the piece justice or have more to say (usually because I didn’t know it nearly well enough or didn’t have the right perspective). I’ll keep the original article for posterity, but publish a new version that will eventually be linked here for my new take on it.

performed by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra under Neeme Järvi

I listened to this about five times.

I have enjoyed quite a bit of the modern Finnish composers, maybe due to the influence of people like Sibelius, and by extension Rautavaara. And by quite a bit, I guess I only mean Sibelius and Rautavaara and Aho… And Tubin. Sort of kind of.

Both of Tubin’s parents were musicians, his father a trombonist. Little Tubin grew up playing the flute in the local orchestra. His dad traded a cow for a piano and he finally had the chance to learn piano. He became known in his town for his playing.

On to university and different teachers and a few wives. He managed to escape to Sweden during Soviet occupation of Estonia in 1944, and this is apparently responsible for a change in his compositional style. He only started receiving greater international recognition toward the end of his life, thanks in part to Neeme Järvi as well as performances of his tenth symphony by the Boston Symphony the year before he died.

There is an ethereal soundscape to this style of music, one you can feel as much as hear. Whether it is heavy and intense or light and otherworldly, it is still sonically interesting.

With this symphony, however, although it is sonically pleasing, I find it structurally…. Perplexing. There are lots of contrasts in this piece: violent, stormy passages bookended by peaceful, delicate expressions, to the point that I don’t really understand the structure. Maybe this is my fault from a music-theory standpoint.

Regardless of why, I would liken this piece to some movies. Some movies, while pretty to look at (The Tourist, for example, is stunningly beautiful to watch, from the scenery to the people to the clothes), but lacks an engaging plot. Others have very well-meaning and passionate acting, but this still may not make up for a boring or confusing plot. Even so, there may still be redeeming moments of brilliance where the acting, filming and plot all come together. I feel this is that kind of symphony.

I don’t dislike it; I want to like it more. There are very satisfying snippets or “scenes” in this soundscape, but I just don’t understand then within the context of the whole piece. It’s interesting, but maybe I just don’t “get it” all as a whole from beginning to end.

This makes me wonder a few things. Sometimes people feel pressure to like a movie because it’s a cult film or is just accepted as “good”. If you don’t like it, the problem is with you, not the film. Either you don’t understand it, or have poor taste, because anyone would agree the film is a work of art!

Others may admit that a film is no cinematic masterpiece, but that it’s a good fun brainless film to enjoy, like a chick flick. Not everyone is always in the mood for a dramatic tragedy or one that requires all mental faculties to understand. A film of less gravity (and quality?) can be a nice relaxing break.

There are also opposing camps with things like James Joyce’s magnum opus, Finnegans Wake. Some laud its brilliance and ingenuity as the the work of no less than a genius, while others pan it as a bunch of nonsensical drivel. Who can say for sure?

Is there such a thing as “bad art”? Who has the right to say?

This certainly isn’t a bad symphony (I would be interested to hear an example of one), but I don’t quite follow it all.


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