Jean Sibelius and the Music of a Sci-Fi World

Today marks 155 years since the birth of the great composer Jean Sibelius. Coming across this fact got me thinking about his music, and the paths music took and could have taken more broadly. In my science fiction setting, the 20th century was very different, but still included Jean Sibelius and his musical career. How did music evolve in my setting’s history?

The Music of an Alternate History

The biggest divergences in my setting’s history are the lack of World Wars (there is one general war in Europe in 1914 but it’s over in less than a year) and the early invention of the transistor around 1900 (and thus the microprocessor around 1930).

The first divergence at a stroke eliminates the emergence of the Aesthetics of Guilt and most of what is often called “modernism”. Certainly one would never see anything like Dada or anti-art become remotely mainstream in this timeline, as it did in real life. This would have a particularly profound impact on music.

The 20th century marked a definitive break between the music preferred by the prestigious parts of the art community, and thus the concert and high culture circuit, and the music that even relatively classy mass audiences could stand to listen to, much less enjoy.

“Atonality” is infamous for alienating even artsier mass audiences, but the problem is considerably broader than just atonality. With the direction in the prestige art community being toward inverting and mocking timeless beauty, i.e. toward ugliness, all they had to offer anyone that was prestigious or “artistic” but also genuinely beautiful was music from before the turn toward ugliness, which in most cases means music from before the 20th century started to really set in.

This leads to the libraries of classical music (at least in its high-culture incarnation) the masses listening to including virtually nothing from after the first half of the 20th century, as if for this art form time started to stand still then and has not resumed since. The same composers and the same pieces from the same eras have prevailed for generations. This is actually extremely unusual historically. Although old favorites have always been played, as late as the 1910s and 20s most of the pieces played at concerts that achieved mass popularity were either new or no more than a few decades old. Certainly the average such piece wasn’t more than a century old as is the case today.

So are we doomed to only listen to what is essentially a dead or at best static art form, to only listen to music that’s from the past or that slavishly copies what came before in the pre-20th century world? Is that what a return to timeless beauty demands?

Jean Sibelius: blazing a Path still unfollowed?

Happily, the answer is no! A new direction was needed in music by the turn of the 20th century, and this was widely recognized by the legions of artists probing for new directions to take their music even before the Great War broke out. Modernism as we came to know it ended up winning out, but there were many contenders, some of which even encountered some success. One of these was none other than the music of Jean Sibelius.

Sibelius’s music, and especially the direction he took it in as his style matured through the 1920s, was described by Milan Kundera as “antimodern modernism”. Especially when listening to the Seventh Symphony and Tapiola, it is abundantly clear that the style is not Romantic, nor is it Post-Romantic, nor is it Modernist, but rather something new and bold. Crucially, the musical style is new and bold but still beautiful and human, not ugly and alien as many of the 20th century’s “innovations” were.

Interestingly, in the 1920s and especially in the 1930s, Sibelius’s music was very popular and influential, but his reputation and popularity deflated after the Second World War, perhaps reaching its all-time low with the famous declaration by René Leibowitz that Sibelius was “the worst composer in the world”. That wasn’t the end of the story, however, since starting in the late 20th century his popularity and critical reception have experienced a resurgence.

A Music of Purity and Fluidity

As for Sibelius’s later music, one of its most striking aspects is its fluidity. Conventional music emphasizes discrete segments that contrast with each other, but a Sibelius piece is a continuous whole. There are distinct fragments and strokes within it, often contrasting with each other in rapid succession, but they are more akin to bubbles of a liquid than the surfaces of a solid, their effervescence averaging out over the course of the piece into waves that build up momentum and culminate in a giant and most satisfying crest at the end, the piece giving an impression of being one continuous movement toward its ending.

Another striking aspect is how his style seeks to liberate itself from the chains of words and linguistic structures in order to deliver a less mediated “pure sound” to the listener. Instead of each fragment being analogous to a word or syllable, Sibelius’s music represents an attempt to create an image or evoke a feeling using sound.

Nature is a prominent theme in Sibelius’s music. Instead of effectively setting a poem about an aspect of nature to music, Sibelius sought to directly translate the image, the feeling, and the sensation of that aspect into musical form. One might go so far as to label this a kind of acoustic telepathy, but it might be closer to the mark to say that each fragment of music is analogous to the brushstrokes of a painting or the caresses of the natural world upon the body.

A Sibelian Twentieth Century?

Could such a style have dominated the 20th century as the Romantic did the 19th? While Sebelius himself was singular, his style has been emulated in real life. William Walton’s First Symphony has heavy Sibelian influence, as does the work of Einojuhani Rautavaara. His Seventh and Eighth Symphonies as well as pieces like Autumn Gardens provide a window into the kind of music a more Sibelian world would have given us.

In my own science fictional alternate history, I take this idea and run with it. In that timeline Sibelius’s music sets the direction for the 20th century, possibly up until our own time as well, at least as far as classical music is concerned.

Sibelius’s music has been called “weird”, and with good reason, but for equally good reason it has also been called beautiful and accessible to the masses. A mass movement of composers emulating Sibelius’s style through the 20th century would no doubt spawn multiple movements over time, some more avant-garde and others more conventional.

This has some implications not just for high culture but also what we call popular culture. Film scores since the 20th century have served as the citadel of timeless beauty in classical music. The need to please theater-goers instead of a tiny audience of academics has meant Richard Wagner and the Romantics have exerted far more influence than any modernist over film soundtracks, for the same reason they are the most recent classical music movement that masses of people listen to outside the movie theater.

Prestige music staying popular among the masses changes this, and thus in this timeline we should expect Sibelian influence not only in concert music but also in film scores. I suspect that Sibelius’s kind of music might prove especially popular for science fiction films, and this is where the implications for art in my setting become truly interesting.

Dawn of a Space Craze

In real life there was a space craze in the 1920s (yes, the 1920s, not the 1950s or 60s) in Russia, driven by the wave of post-revolutionary optimism and the work of pioneering thinkers like Goddard, Oberth, and Tsiolkovsky finally finding a mass audience.

Although it ended up being a fad due to the progress of rocket technology not living up to the hype, it ended up being perhaps the decisive driver behind Russia being the country to pioneer spaceflight decades later; the people who oversaw the space program of the 1950s and 60s came of age in the 1920s space craze. It wasn’t confined to Russia, either; Oberth himself was the scientific advisor for Fritz Lang’s 1929 film “Frau in Mond”, an early depiction of a manned moon landing and the first depiction of a multi-stage rocket.

As an aside, the titular Frau is Friede, who walks on the Moon together with some men almost a century before NASA created the Artemis program, designed to land the first woman on the Moon. Maybe they’ll make it in time for the Frau im Mond centennial in 2029.

Given the advances in rocketry that if anything would be further along and the fact that there is a revolution in Russia in this timeline (though to a liberal democracy rather than to a communist state) it seems likely to me that there will be a space craze in my setting’s 1920s as well. Greater prosperity and scientific and technical advancements compared to real life really set in starting in the 1930s, with the absence of the Great Depression; indeed, rapid growth characterizes the decade. This leads to enough advancements and interest in spaceflight to enable the first satellite to be launched in the late 1930s, stoking the already-present space craze to new heights.

This leads to a convergence of the two space crazes in real life (the 1920s and the 1960s) into one giant craze in the 1920s and 30s, followed directly by a much more vigorous multipolar space race in the 1940s. Also converging is the film industry reaching maturity.

Film without the Depression: modern by the 1930s

Although often not remarked upon, the Great Depression had a stunting effect on the film industry. 70mm film, widescreen formats, and full living color were all being rolled out by the studios for the early 1930s until the Depression forced them to cut costs and abandon those projects, not to be revived again again until the 1950s. Movie palace construction, so hot in the 1920s, also collapsed and never recovered. In this timeline, however, money flows in at an accelerated rate in the 1930s, enabling massive investments by film studios in new technologies.

Therefore, it is perfectly plausible that studio films could be in 70mm widescreen three-strip technicolor as early as the early 1930s in this timeline, likely becoming the standard by the end of the decade. That would represent phenomenal progress from just a decade earlier, and would lead to films that look very modern to our eyes. Indeed, the experience of watching them would actually be superior to today, because they would be viewed in “movie palaces” with accommodations that gradually grow to be comparable to our luxury theaters.

Science fiction and space opera films in particular would be far more advanced. Although hard to imagine today, Hollywood was a latecomer to science fiction. In the 1920s German cinema was by far the most advanced, and this will also be the case in this timeline, stripped of the extremes of “Weimar culture” but helped along by Germany being the dominant power in Europe and the space craze.

In my view Hollywood didn’t produce a science-fictional achievement comparable to Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis until 2001: A Space Odyssey came out 41 years later. Keeping up the momentum from Metropolis could see 2001-level achievements appear as soon as the early 1930s.

The bottleneck here is visual effects technology, which wasn’t nearly as advanced even in 1920s Germany as it was in 1960s America, though it is worth noting that as far as I’ve been able to find out there’s nothing in 2001: A Space Odyssey that wasn’t already technically feasible in the 1930s, even if the techniques for doing so hadn’t been figured out yet. Given a great deal of attention from smart skilled people these techniques could have been developed that early.

Where the Space Craze and Epic Film-making meet

And there will be a great deal of attention, because the space craze will drive turnout to science fiction and space opera films through the mid 1930s. After that, television is introduced on a mass scale in this timeline (this is only a few years before it was technically and economically feasible in real life; WWII delayed its emergence), providing cinema with fierce competition.

As they did in real life when television threatened them in the 1950s, in this timeline’s 1930s film studios respond by turning to epic films. The intersection of the need for epic films and the space craze means that epic science fiction and space opera films experience a blossoming unlike anything seen in real life.

Conveniently, this corresponds to both real life’s and this timeline’s golden age of science fiction literature, which leads to the fascinating possibility of the classic authors being able to see their works adapted into film form right away, or even being able to write screenplays first instead of books.

This isn’t the only convergence happening, either! Given the fact that flying wing jetliners are opening up air travel already in the 1930s and personal computers comparable to what we had in the 1980s are entering the household, there will be more interest in science and technology in general, not just spaceflight. The space craze itself, however, gets a major boost with the launching of the first satellite in the late 1930s, and especially the first manned spaceflight in the early 1940s.

The 1940s: a Perfect Storm for Space Opera?

The more fervent space craze combines with the advent of the Internet as a major force as the 1940s roll on, providing even more competition for Hollywood. The Internet rises so quickly in this timeline that subscription cable television might be skipped altogether, with television moving directly from broadcast to streaming. Computer-generated visual effects will become increasingly viable, from primitive forms like seen in our 1980s starting to be used in the 1930s, to more sophisticated CGI comparable to the 1990s or even 2000s starting to be used in the 1940s.

The 1940s therefore sees a perfect storm for epic science-fictional space opera on the big screen in this timeline. No other genre comes close to meeting the needs and wants of the era’s moviegoers and studios.

Brooding, savage Dreams of the Cosmos Primeval

Where this intersects with Jean Sebelius’s music is that it sounds futuristic and spacey enough to work very well with science fiction. Sibelius himself declared a belief in the Music of the Spheres, the harmony of the heavens, saying “I believe that there are musical notes and harmonies on all planets”.

In particular I’ve long thought that one of his last pieces, “Surusoitto”, designed to be played on the organ as funeral music (and probably lifted from his aborted Eighth Symphony), would be wonderful in a space-operatic context, perhaps for a burial in space.

Jean Sibelius provided this prose explanation for his late tone poem Tapiola:

Wide-spread they stand, the Northland’s dusky forests,
Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams;
Within them dwells the Forest’s mighty God,
And wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.

Although obviously inspired by the mythical forest, it doesn’t take much imagination to translate it to an outer space context. After all, what could be more brooding or savage than the inky black sky of the cosmos primeval?

So there might be much more of a Sibelian influence, in addition to the film industry’s obvious Wagnerian inspirations, in the film scores of these science fiction epics. What other curveballs might this timeline bring us?

When Jazz, Electronic, and Classical meet

Western popular music, in particular the Africanized forms that came out of America, will still rise in the 20th century even in this timeline. The mass popularity of blues and ragtime, after all, predate the Great War. Ragtime had not yet played itself out by the 1910s, so it might stick around for longer as a popular genre, but the rise of jazz is highly likely and does happen in this timeline. Especially in America the possibility exists of incorporating more jazz elements into art music and film scores than we saw in real life. George Gershwin or at least his style could easily be much more influential.

Rock and roll is less certain but in my timeline I have it, or something like it, emerge in the 1950s and 60s. It’s considerably less popular, though, because not only classical music but also electronic music steals its thunder. The technology exists from the 1920s onward, and a trickle of electronic music emerges into popular from that point, congealing as a distinct genre in the 1940s but only exploding in popularity in the 1950s and 60s. This is due to vastly more advanced electronics technology as well as much greater aesthetic influence from the Futurist movement in general.

All of these styles could meld together to some extent. I’m particularly thinking that elements from electronic music could make their way into otherwise Sibelian scores of science fiction films, leading to a maximally futuristic effect.

Giving Space Opera a whole new Meaning

Another possibility I find fascinating is merging science fiction and space opera films with musical films. Musicals from the dawn of the sound era were very popular, and will be very popular in this timeline as well. The fact that this period coincides with the space opera craze won’t be ignored, and I’m sure sometime in the 1930s there will be at least one big-budget attempt at a science fiction space opera musical film. Even in real life we got a science-fiction musical comedy film, 1930’s Just Imagine.

Song, dance, and outer space, whether comedic or dramatic, is a fascinating and potentially very powerful combination. Even more fascinating is the possibility that the musicals could become sing-through with no actual talking and the singing could become more operatic, effectively transforming these space stories into operas. That would give “space opera” a whole new meaning!

This might even be likely, since Hollywood musicals of the period sometimes graded more operatic as it was, and opera wouldn’t suffer the kind of collapse in new and popular content it did in real life, thus nurturing a more vigorous remnant of its golden age (which, as evidenced by the rise of operetta and musicals, was already winding down even before the Great War!) that’s better positioned for a revival later in the 20th century.

Such a revival might still be in our future, but the road back will be harder than it would be in this timeline. It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see musicals turned into operas as the decades wear on and the space opera formula becomes more tired, in an effort to give audiences something new and exciting. The dancing might also become more balletic, or even be presented as an actual ballet in film form. A space-operatic ballet? That’s an interesting idea that has the potential to be weird in a really good way or weird in a really bad way.

Still, somebody will likely make it work, and create a successful sub-genre. So this timeline could feature what to us would be a shocking amalgamation of science-fictional space opera and high culture, though when you consider that both high culture and space opera are much more popular in this timeline it makes perfect sense.

The End of this World’s Space Craze

As movie palaces expand technologies akin to IMAX and especially IMAX Dome start to predominate, perhaps reaching saturation around the 1960s. The 1940s will likely be the peak of the space craze, though it might soldier on into the 1960s, since that’s the time Mars will begin to be colonized.

Over time like all trends as the technologies become normal and routine the hype will fade. I’m envisioning the 1960s as the beginning of the end, though the space race itself continues on, as the outer planets are visited and space habitats are built up.

Science fiction and space opera may prove to be an enduring mainstay to a much greater extent than today, though the 1960s might begin a downward part of what may prove to be a cycle of interest in the genre. As in real life fantasy may become popular; having been robbed of being the center of attention during Tolkien’s and Lewis’s primes, its time may come starting in the 1960s, perhaps dominating most of the rest of the 20th century until interest cycles back to science fiction again. Epic films, however, will stay as the bread and butter of film studios.


The culmination of this trend will be for the movie palaces to expand into space themselves, showing denizens of planetary and free-space habitats the latest and greatest in space-operatic entertainment under their IMAX domes. Ballet, opera, and hitherto unknown zero-gravity art forms, such as I discuss in my first and second posts on the topic, may also play a role, possibly being incorporated into the galactic-scale operas and ballets of this timeline as outer space is used as a filming location.

I’m actually giving serious consideration to giving that a central role in my next book, after “Letters from the Airy Deep” is finished, but whatever they do in this timeline I can assure you that what Richard S. Kirby in a fascinating lecture called the Music of the Future, the advanced descendants of a Cambrian explosion of musical form that emerged in Jean Sibelius’s wake, will be providing the soundtrack.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.