Sibelius: The Seventh Symphony

ONE MORNING at 2 am, in the quiet of the night, I put on a CD of Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony and shut off all the lights in my room. What proceeded is a wholly personal experience which I do not ask you to understand; I only ask that you listen. Deep in the darkness, at the height of Sibelius’ last completed symphony, I was delivered into a mountainous haven of musical ecstasy. So utterly absorbed was I that I thought I saw pinpoints of light in my room. Perhaps I was dreaming, half-asleep, maybe even delirious. In any case, I have always imagined these were stars before my eyes, and have called them as such.

Four years later, I bought this illuminating (if incredibly expensive) book entitled The Sibelius Companion* and inside, between pages 239-270, was an introduction to the manuscript and compositional history of the Seventh Symphony. Reading this, I was fascinated to find the author describing Sibelius’ sketches for a never-realised multi-movement tone poem called Kuutar (“[Feminine] Moon Spirit”). One of the themes of this work is related to material from the opening “Adagio” section of the Seventh Symphony. This was called Tähtölä – “Where the Stars Dwell”. My memory leaped four years back and my jaw dropped.

Sibelius in 1920

THE SEVENTH was originally planned as a three-movement work. Evidence also suggested that at one point, the composer was considering four. Sibelius planned it alongside the composition of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, which were also the final homes for material from Kuutar. Although his first mention of the Seventh occured in December 1918, the source for its material has been traced back to around 1914/15, the period of the Fifth Symphony.

Before attaining its final home key of C, the Symphony existed in embryonic form in the key of D. There is something about C that is very primal, as if it is the “mother” of all keys – it is in a sense the simplest, and in this way all other keys are organic variants or descendants.

There was a time when composing in C was considered fruitless – it had “nothing more to offer.” But in response to the Seventh, the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams declared that only Sibelius could make C major sound completely fresh. Peter Franklin, writing of it in the Segerstam/Chandos cycle, calls the apocalyptic conclusion “the grandest celebration of C major there ever was.”

Sibelius apparently abandoned the multi-movement plan in favour of a continuous single movement in 1923, and the Seventh was completed on 2nd March 1924, 75 years ago. Except that it wasn’t then considered a “symphony”. It was premiered in Stockholm in the autumn of 1925 as the Fantasia sinfonica or “Symphonic Fantasy”. The composer grappled with the name (and its subtitles) for quite a while, and only on February 25, 1925, with the publication of the score, did he finally direct the publisher, Hansen, to title it “Symphony No.7 (in one movement)”.

At some point, Sibelius seemed to realise that what he had created was perhaps what he had always sought in symphonic thought: total unity of musical expression based on the organic development of the briefest of material. With his penchant for the fusion of motifs and movements (eg. Second and Fifth Symphonies), the highest form of these techniques must be a single stretch of music completely based on the development of a single theme or motif. This is exactly what the Seventh is.

THE SEVENTH SYMPHONY in C, Op. 105, can in fact be analysed into four parts. Many CD recordings of the work make this clear by dividing the 20+ minute work on four tracks. But to understand this unique model of symphonic thought, one must see beyond what can be articulated…

If someone writes about my music and finds, let us say, a feeling of nature in it, all well and good. Let him say that, as long as we have it clear within ourselves, we do not become a part of the music’s innermost sound and sense through analysis … Compositions are like butterflies. Touch them even once and the dust of hue is gone. They can, of course, still fly, but are nowhere as beautiful …

To understand a flower, you can cut it up and label the parts. But once you have done that, it is dead, dissected, no longer growing, no longer meaning. The key Sibelius was pointing out is to listen without analysing, understand without defining.

The Seventh Symphony is the apotheosis of Sibelius’ symphonic thought. Its unfolding and culmination is wrought with so much finality that one cannot blame Sibelius for being unable to complete another symphony after it, even though he lived for another 33 years. Pestered by supporters, fans, critics and conductors alike, Sibelius struggled with his Eighth Symphony through the 1930s and probably the 40s. In 1945, he even said that he had “finished [it] many times”, but was unsatisfied with it.

Eventually, Sibelius seemed to come to terms with the fact that he could not improve on the symphonic perfection of the Seventh. The score of the Eighth, in whatever form it may have existed, was destroyed in the flames of his fireplace around the mid-1940s.

WITH a soft stroke of timpani, the Seventh Symphony rises from the darkness. A rising C scale enigmatically ends on A-flat. Mists float by, the woodwind, like some primeval bird, greets the barely-lit dawn. Strings shimmer, nostalgic yet urging gently forward. Light fills the sky, but it is neither night nor day. Surging from the undercurrents, the great trombone theme surfaces and fills the universe with a grand evocation of infinity. An urgent development section follows, full of moving strings, distant winds, cries of life, pulsating rhythms of nature.

The development of the material is tightly concentrated, leading suddenly but inevitably into the second appearance of the trombone theme, dark, solemn with the enduring force of life. Ominous winds swirl, stir and growl in the background. As this passes, the mood flows into a pastorale-like sequence. The alpine trombone theme finally achieves its highest being in its third and final appearance. Where one might think it could not become more awesome, it does – the strings swell, the winds billow with understated power before it then roars into being. Raising a great storm of brass and strings, the symphony seems to struggle in its birth, life and culmination all at once, driving vast galaxies of intense energy.

Suddenly, we seem transported beyond all that has transpired. Ecstatic violins soar higher and ever higher, penetrating the blackness beyond. As if returning to the dawn-touched opening, distant horns reveal a quiet flute solo – is this not the mythic call of the opening, seeming to speak to us from another time, another space?… It is the same voice, the hymn of the trombone in another form, the same musical material that has gone on before, transformed. The breathing, living nature that does not know ending. In all times past and to come, it forms and transforms, never stagnant, always dynamic.

And yet always the same – wherever the Symphony goes, it remembers the essence of its birth. Thus, ultimately we return to the beginning – C major. The Symphony gathers its orchestra for one final paean to universal life itself – every instrument joins in “the grandest celebration of C major there ever was”. Except the clarinets, 1st and 3rd trumpets (playing E and G), the entire orchestra, layer by layer, hymns the note C at every octave. Delivered from mortal bonds of earthly understanding, rising above mountains we cannot conquer, gathering with the force of revolving planets, thrust into the chordal Om of the universe, to where the stars dwell.

 

References:
Kilpeläinen, Kari. “Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony: An Introduction to the Manuscript and Printed Sources”. Trans. James Hepokoski. From The Sibelius Companion. Ed. Glenda Dawn Goss. Greenwood Press, Connecticut, 1996.

ONE MORNING at 2 am, in the quiet of the night, I put on a CD of Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony and shut off all the lights in my room. What proceeded is a wholly personal experience which I do not ask you to understand; I only ask that you listen. Deep in the darkness, at the height of Sibelius’ last completed symphony, I was delivered into a mountainous haven of musical ecstasy. So utterly absorbed was I that I thought I saw pinpoints of light in my room. Perhaps I was dreaming, half-asleep, maybe even delirious. In any case, I have always imagined these were stars before my eyes, and have called them as such.

Four years later, I bought this illuminating (if incredibly expensive) book entitled The Sibelius Companion* and inside, between pages 239-270, was an introduction to the manuscript and compositional history of the Seventh Symphony. Reading this, I was fascinated to find the author describing Sibelius’ sketches for a never-realised multi-movement tone poem called Kuutar (“[Feminine] Moon Spirit”). One of the themes of this work is related to material from the opening “Adagio” section of the Seventh Symphony. This was called Tähtölä – “Where the Stars Dwell“. My memory leaped four years back and my jaw dropped.

Sibelius in 1920 THE SEVENTH was originally planned as a three-movement work. Evidence also suggested that at one point, the composer was considering four. Sibelius planned it alongside the composition of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, which were also the final homes for material from Kuutar. Although his first mention of the Seventh occured in December 1918, the source for its material has been traced back to around 1914/15, the period of the Fifth Symphony.

Before attaining its final home key of C, the Symphony existed in embryonic form in the key of D. There is something about C that is very primal, as if it is the “mother” of all keys – it is in a sense the simplest, and in this way all other keys are organic variants or descendants.

There was a time when composing in C was considered fruitless – it had “nothing more to offer.” But in response to the Seventh, the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams declared that only Sibelius could make C major sound completely fresh. Peter Franklin, writing of it in the Segerstam/Chandos cycle, calls the apocalyptic conclusion “the grandest celebration of C major there ever was.”

Sibelius apparently abandoned the multi-movement plan in favour of a continuous single movement in 1923, and the Seventh was completed on 2nd March 1924, 75 years ago. Except that it wasn’t then considered a “symphony”. It was premiered in Stockholm in the autumn of 1925 as the Fantasia sinfonica or “Symphonic Fantasy”. The composer grappled with the name (and its subtitles) for quite a while, and only on February 25, 1925, with the publication of the score, did he finally direct the publisher, Hansen, to title it “Symphony No.7 (in one movement)”.

At some point, Sibelius seemed to realise that what he had created was perhaps what he had always sought in symphonic thought: total unity of musical expression based on the organic development of the briefest of material. With his penchant for the fusion of motifs and movements (eg. Second and Fifth Symphonies), the highest form of these techniques must be a single stretch of music completely based on the development of a single theme or motif. This is exactly what the Seventh is.

Jean Sibelius THE SEVENTH SYMPHONY in C, Op. 105, can in fact be analysed into four parts. Many CD recordings of the work make this clear by dividing the 20+ minute work on four tracks. But to understand this unique model of symphonic thought, one must see beyond what can be articulated…

If someone writes about my music and finds, let us say, a feeling of nature in it, all well and good. Let him say that, as long as we have it clear within ourselves, we do not become a part of the music’s innermost sound and sense through analysis … Compositions are like butterflies. Touch them even once and the dust of hue is gone. They can, of course, still fly, but are nowhere as beautiful …

To understand a flower, you can cut it up and label the parts. But once you have done that, it is dead, dissected, no longer growing, no longer meaning. The key Sibelius was pointing out is to listen without analysing, understand without defining.

The Seventh Symphony is the apotheosis of Sibelius’ symphonic thought. Its unfolding and culmination is wrought with so much finality that one cannot blame Sibelius for being unable to complete another symphony after it, even though he lived for another 33 years. Pestered by supporters, fans, critics and conductors alike, Sibelius struggled with his Eighth Symphony through the 1930s and probably the 40s. In 1945, he even said that he had “finished [it] many times”, but was unsatisfied with it.

Eventually, Sibelius seemed to come to terms with the fact that he could not improve on the symphonic perfection of the Seventh. The score of the Eighth, in whatever form it may have existed, was destroyed in the flames of his fireplace around the mid-1940s.

WITH a soft stroke of timpani, the Seventh Symphony rises from the darkness. A rising C scale enigmatically ends on A-flat. Mists float by, the woodwind, like some primeval bird, greets the barely-lit dawn. Strings shimmer, nostalgic yet urging gently forward. Light fills the sky, but it is neither night nor day. Surging from the undercurrents, the great trombone theme surfaces and fills the universe with a grand evocation of infinity. An urgent development section follows, full of moving strings, distant winds, cries of life, pulsating rhythms of nature.

The development of the material is tightly concentrated, leading suddenly but inevitably into the second appearance of the trombone theme, dark, solemn with the enduring force of life. Ominous winds swirl, stir and growl in the background. As this passes, the mood flows into a pastorale-like sequence. The alpine trombone theme finally achieves its highest being in its third and final appearance. Where one might think it could not become more awesome, it does – the strings swell, the winds billow with understated power before it then roars into being. Raising a great storm of brass and strings, the symphony seems to struggle in its birth, life and culmination all at once, driving vast galaxies of intense energy.

Suddenly, we seem transported beyond all that has transpired. Ecstatic violins soar higher and ever higher, penetrating the blackness beyond. As if returning to the dawn-touched opening, distant horns reveal a quiet flute solo – is this not the mythic call of the opening, seeming to speak to us from another time, another space?… It is the same voice, the hymn of the trombone in another form, the same musical material that has gone on before, transformed. The breathing, living nature that does not know ending. In all times past and to come, it forms and transforms, never stagnant, always dynamic.

And yet always the same – wherever the Symphony goes, it remembers the essence of its birth. Thus, ultimately we return to the beginning – C major. The Symphony gathers its orchestra for one final paean to universal life itself – every instrument joins in “the grandest celebration of C major there ever was”. Except the clarinets, 1st and 3rd trumpets (playing E and G), the entire orchestra, layer by layer, hymns the note C at every octave. Delivered from mortal bonds of earthly understanding, rising above mountains we cannot conquer, gathering with the force of revolving planets, thrust into the chordal Om of the universe, to where the stars dwell.

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Leon

Leon is Singapore's resident champion of Jean Sibelius.

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