Symphony No. 8 (Sibelius)

The eighth symphony of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius is one of the great mysteries of 20th century classical music. Today virtually nothing of the composition exists, with the manuscript probably having been burned by the composer in 1945.

Sibelius produced his last major work in 1924, but he lived another thirty years, and many think he spent much of this time working on an eighth symphony. He promised the work as early as 1930. In letters to his wife he discusses writing it; and there are records that he ordered large amounts of manuscript paper, and in the mid 1930s he had a large work copied out. In 1937 there is a receipt stating that a large work had been bound. At least twice a date for the first performance of the new symphony was even announced.

But after all this, the symphony never materialised. There will always be debate as to how complete it actually was. His wife recounts seeing him feeding manuscript papers into a fire in 1945, and many believe that among these papers was the completed Eighth Symphony. Sibelius was prone to insecurity and depression, and such behaviour was not unprecedented. He is believed to have destroyed an earlier version of his fifth symphony and an extended version of the Karelia Suite, but fortunately both of these have now been recovered.

While Sibelius refused to discuss the matter with journalists, he did talk about the symphony privately with colleagues and friends. But what he said was contradictory and inconsistent. He told some that he had several movements written, but others were told that it still only existed in his mind. Even into the 1950s, long after it was supposedly written (and supposedly destroyed), Sibelius would still say that he was still working on his Eighth Symphony. Whatever its state of completion, the work died with him.

The only traces of the symphony that have survived are some marginalia in a copy of his seventh symphony, and some minor sketches on the symphony that have been found in the library of Helsinki University.

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