If I was exiled to a desert island and was only allowed to take one thing with me, it would probably be the works of Sibelius. As a child I belonged to the great mass of people who regarded classical music as boring, but in my teens I heard part of a Sibelius symphony on the radio and I felt as if I had been swept up by a giant wave. I had no idea that music like this existed. I always thought that classical music was the 'tum-tee-tum' banality of Mozart's horn concertos, but listening to Sibelius was made me realise that at its best, music had the potential to achieve a level of profundity that made most other art forms seem crude by comparison.
When I was 17 I became obsessed by the 4th Symphony. Sibelius wrote this in his mid-40s and was suffering from a tumorous growth in his throat. Convinced that he was going to die of cancer, Sibelius went away to a remote retreat in the Karelian mountains and wrote one of the most most remarkable pieces of music ever written.
When it was completed, the symphony was greeted with boos and hisses in the concert hall and one conductor actually apologised to the audience before the performance, explaining that he didn't like the music but felt that it was his duty to allow it to be heard. Today the music is acknowledged as a masterpiece, but it will probably never make it to the Classic FM 'Top 100'.
I realise that this post is of minority interest - to everyone - but if I can convince one person to try the 4th symphony then it will have been worthwhile. Don't listen to it once or twice, but at least three times before you give up (which hopefully won't happen). I hated the music the first time, but like many great works of art it took its time to reveal its secrets.
My mother-in-law likes Sibelius but didn't warm to this symphony. It was ironic, as she had just been treated for breast cancer and was going through the same sort of crisis that inspired Sibelius. I told her the background to the music and the next time we spoke, she got it.
Amazingly, Sibelius survived the surgery for his throat cancer and lived for another half century, dying in 1957 at the age of 91. Why am I writing about this? Because today is his 141st birthday. Happy Birthday Sibelius!