The Manhattan Review
The Manhattan Review
Established 1980

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John Greening

from The Silence


Sibelius lived in Järvenpää, Finland, until he was over ninety. But he released virtually no music from his forest home for the last thirty years of his life and “the Silence from Järvenpää” became as much of a talking point as the music. Continually pestered about an eighth symphony, the composer battled alcohol addiction, depression, and above all self-criticism.

In seven languages he says nothing. The work is never complete.

But in his sleep his arms keep moving to the music of a dream.

The same two pages always. It will happen in time,

he reassures them, it will emerge, you simply have to wait.


 As the wing of a butterfly crumbles when you touch it, so if he talks

about his work.... Keep quiet, then. Pages fall

open on a piece he wrote half a century ago, while

the bulbs explode and he looks up quizzically, then takes


his usual walk for the sake of the world’s press. Strolling across

his tenth decade, no more enlightened than he was as a boy,

he draws straight lines in his head again. From the sky

weird birds descend and perch on his singing wires. Engrossed


for the last time in what can never be, he makes great strides

through the forest, up the hill, and over the lake, wearing

hand-made walking shoes he bought in Berlin, and glaring

at the assembled lenses, knowing he does not need to offer words.


 The meteorite is made of papier-maché. The bears and wolves are stuffed.

The men are noble and peaceful and poetic. The women have nothing to say.

And so we all experience the culture of the land of a thousand lakes.

An ice-breaker. A tar-pit. Some fisheries. The Friends of Handicraft.




“Here silence speaks,” he says, and falls silent again.

The interviewer persists. “What advice would you give to the young?”

“Everything must be necessary. Everything must live.” A long

pause, before “Do you have a favorite?” How could he explain?


Generality and depth; inevitability. But also economy and

the unexpected. Listening to a broadcast, he heard his White Dwarf

humming its distance and its destiny. A new probe went off

towards the eighth planet, but God knows where it will end.


“Have there been recent successes?” So it goes on and on.

He says how he likes to tune in to the radio, to the new works,

that he sees a great future for his country and its artists. The green bricks

glisten above the fireplace; in the grate there is nothing left to burn.




“I haven’t written before as I didn’t want to disturb your peace,

but I’m planning the season already and wonder whether the work,

which we all await with great impatience in Boston and New York

will be ready for the spring? I understand you never like to discuss


what’s only in your head, but since you have spoken of it as ‘complete’...

We hope to present your works in sequence, culminating in this.

If you can tell me its length and what would sit well with it, please?

The papers are keen to announce it. Can we settle on a date?”



Cranes fly across his twilight; turn to enemy planes,

out to bomb him. He reaches in his sleep for one of Beecham’s pills

and wakes to a sound from another room that reminds him of turntables

squeaking to be fed what he has not yet produced; the artist leans


towards the radio and hears familiar strains and a voice announce

that at a quarter past nine this evening, peacefully,

and in his own bed... He laughs out loud, blissfully

aware his friends and family are there, that the cranes and geese and swans


have flown and he is with them, beating, working, still creating

as they carry him, as they bury him, pushing on through time

to achieve that last great something, released now from his fame —

its tidal wave, the keys, the bars, the waste — to go on writing.