Sibelius: The First Symphony

Photo: Winter Landscape - Baar, by Nobsta

The common and easily jumped-to conclusion about Sibelius’ First Symphony is that it is a “Romantic”, “Nationalist” and/or “patriotic” work. There is indeed some element of truth in using these convenient terms, but it would be unjustified to claim that that is all to this symphony.

Portrait of Sibelius (1892) by Eero Järnefelt
Portrait of Sibelius (1892) by Eero Järnefelt

Sibelius vehemently denied any extra-musical meaning to all his symphonies, and yet his listeners – first and foremost his fellow Finns – saw everything from forests and mountains to swirling winds and sweeping snowscapes to the being of Finnish-ness in his music. In the final analysis, the composer also admitted that it is not incorrect to find, “let us say, a feeling of nature [in his music]… . [Let that be said], 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 …”

This compromise is perhaps representative of his struggle to unite the torrent of human feeling he felt (for nature, his home, land among other things) and the “profound inner logic” which propelled his music’s search for symphonic perfection.

It is arguable that Sibelius’ Symphony No.1 in E minor, op.39 is not in fact his first symphony. Completed in 1898 and premiered to great acclaim, it comes after the Four Lemminkainen Legends (1893-5), the music for Karelia and En Saga (1892). But even all this came before the composer’s first attempt at large-scale orchestration, the mighty Kullervo, a 70-minute “Symphonic Poem” or “Choral Symphony” for soprano, baritone, male choir and orchestra.

It is a sign of the times that today, (just) over 100 years after Sibelius’ First Symphony was born, it is increasingly being acknowledged as less “Romantic” and more “Modern” (oh look – more useless terminology). And yet it is still in tone a very “Romantic” work by virtue of its open feelings.

What is interesting is that this sense of open emotion is also present throughout many of his greatest “mature” works, eg. the human darkness of the Fourth Symphony, the heroic magnificence of the Fifth, the tender forest love and innocent wonder of the Sixth and the profound majesty of the Seventh. So are these Romantic works? No, this we are sure. The point is there is no convenient break which we can describe as the end of Romanticism and the beginning of Modernism – so it is with much of Sibelius’ music, straddling two worlds: human emotion and human logic.

March of the Men of Pori by Albert Edelfelt
'March of the Men of Pori' (1897-1900), by Albert Edelfelt

The First Symphony has often been brushed off as a Romantic symphony of the Tchaikovskian vein. Sibelius violently objected to this comparison. I mean, think about it – Russia was Chief Political Oppressor of Finland in those days!  No, at the most, the comparison is loosely based on the simple condition that both composers shared a common musical language. This is a language which found its words, for examples, in the snowy landscape of their homes, and its soul in the emotional preoccupations of the composers. Both had feelings to express, opponents to struggle against – but they were not the same. (It is tempting to say that for Sibelius, his “Romanticism” found emotional words in the Nationalist struggle against Russia, while Tchaikovsky found his in his own inner psychological tumult.)

Other than the fact that Sibelius heard Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony (the Pathétique) in 1896, commentators often highlight the opening of the finale as proof that Sibelius was influenced by Tchaikovsky. Yes, true, those strings singing tragically over mournful brass does ring bells of the Russian composer. But that’s about it. You can’t call all swans black just because the first one you saw was not white.

But of course I’m biased and it is natural for me to find ways to defend Sibelius. No, I’m not saying that being “Romantic” is a bad thing. I’m just saying that we should not think that the work is only Romantic.

This is important because most listeners are only familiar with Sibelius as a “Romantic composer”, thinking only of Finlandia and the Violin Concerto when it comes to his music. (This is still true even today, in the year 2010, eleven years since I first published this article). I find it a waste that relatively few are aware of the important contributions he made to symphonic thought in the 20th century, which continues to influence many composers. Just as Beethoven brought out his best, broke and advanced many of the rules of symphony-composition in the first quarter of his new century (the 19th), so Sibelius did the same for that of the 20th century.

I often wonder what goes through a composer’s mind when he decides to compose his first symphony. Brahms had the unfortunate timing of having the ghost of Beethoven behind him, while Beethoven himself obviously knew his Mozart.

This first of Sibelius’ symphonic canon greets the world not with outburst or fanfare, but – unusually – with a forlorn clarinet solo over a quiet timpani drumroll. Immediately, the sense of distance, of unexplored worlds overlain with mystery is there. The wintry Finnish landscape is unmistakable, and a sense of expectation fills the air.

Romantic music is typified by long, singing melodies. It is therefore a little surprising that Sibelius’ First Symphony does not actually seem to have many. (Essentially just two, in the Andante and Finale) The wandering clarinet solo reminds one of the assymetrical structure of the cor anglais solo of  The Swan of Tuonela, one of the Four Legends. The heroic, jagged trumpet theme that bursts forth as the strings soar into the sunlight isn’t a long-breathed melody. Neither are the woodwind chirpings or the monumental brass growls.

Sibelius’ music is already developing its organic technique. These little theme-packets grow and evolve into greater and greater structures. These rising and falling ideas are the basic steps of music, here cleverly woven together to sound like a stretch of melody. The process itself forms the movements, which forms the symphony – this is perhaps what is meant by “symphonic”. Listen carefully and you will hear the opening clarinet theme repeated throughout the entire work, morphing through different forms.

A possible reason to forward Sibelius’ first two symphonies as “immature” (relative to the later ones) is the relatively more crude “ends” with which he seemingly directs his organic technique towards. In both the First and Second Symphonies, although his motifs-growing method is already very proficient, he directs them towards the creation of a concluding movement with the aforementioned “long, singing melodies”. Both symphonies ultimately fuse their themes into an outpouring, long-breathed melody – the finale of the Second Symphony being one of music’s most spectacular examples.

Later in his symphonic thinking, Sibelius would refine this technique in more unified ways: organic growth not towards such a blatant end, but for its own artistic sake – symphonic development that celebrates symphonic development, culminating in the monumental musicosm of the Seventh Symphony and the tone poem Tapiola.

Thus, it is important that the explorer of Sibelius’ symphonies not be only familiar with the “great(er)” or more popular of the canon, but all. This for the simple reason that from Symphony No.1 to No.7, the organic process is also discernible. From note to motif, motif to theme, theme to movement, movement to symphony, symphony to canon.

Don’t worry if the previous paragraphs sound like I’m describing some strange intellectual “modernist” work – the atmosphere of the First Symphony remains undeniably Romantic. From the heroic, surging energy of the first movement Allegro energico, one is treated to an exciting musical journey. The clarinet solo lays the field open for the sunlit sky of sweeping strings and mountain-trumpetting brass, all the way to the dramatic, fearsome diminuendo of the final two chords, pizzicato.

Slow movements in Sibelius’ symphonic canon hold some of the composer’s most moving and beautiful music. The opening of the Andante here seems to sigh in wonder at the frail beauty of some sunset scene. Mists roll by wistfully, clouds scud serenely over the glowing sky. The winds come in strong gusty utterances buffeting mountainsides next to tender whispers caressing the leaves of trees.

The third movement Scherzo begins distinctively with the entire string section pizzicatoing, with the timpani thundering the rhythm in reply. Horns lead the luscioius central trio, but it isn’t long before the scherzo returns. The quick interchanges within the score provide the music with a palpably nervous momentum – a sure test for any orchestra.

In the finale, the Symphony’s opening clarinet theme is quoted (briefly) in anguish by the strings. The pace gradually quickens into an anxious passage in “chase” mode (a Sibelian hallmark), but suddenly all is relieved by a long-breathed, Romantic melody (yes, full-scale singing melody), harp rippling, strings broadly singing in yearning passion. Both sections are “repeated”, the latter intensifying into a grand climax. The ending sequence after the big theme is remarkable for its very quick succession of different phrases which nevertheless are completely and utterly symphonically unified. The drums roll ominously as the Symphony ends. As in first movement, with two dramatic and fateful pizzicato chords, fading into the oblivion of silence: the last twinkle of stars at dawn.

Survey of Recordings

Three Choice Recordings of the Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase:

Iceland Symphony Orchestra/Sakari, 1997 (Naxos)
“a very very desirable disc” –The Nutcase Choice. Read Full Review.

The Hallé Orchestra/Barbirolli, 1966 (EMI) – “The first movement is a vision of splendour – the crafting of the music is utterly convincing” – Review.

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Karajan, 1981 (EMI) -“one of the most convincing accounts of the First ever. The climaxes roar to power, the lyricism sings and soars with clarity.”

Others Reviewed:

Philharmonia Orchestra/Ashkenazy, 1981 (Decca) – Review

Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Vänskä, 1996 (BIS)

London Symphony/Davis, 1994 (RCA/BMG)

Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/Jansons, 1990 (EMI)

Boston Philharmonic Orchestra/Davis, 1976 (Philips)

New York Philharmonic/Bernstein, 1967 (Sony)

Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra/Leaper, 1989 (Naxos)

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Leon is Singapore's resident champion of Jean Sibelius.

4 thoughts on “Sibelius: The First Symphony”

  1. I’ve discovered 2 other recordings that are not included in this survey. They are Kamu/Helsinki RSO on DG 429 525-2 and Bernstein/VPO on DG 435 351-2. Both are great recordings!

  2. You emphasize that Sibelius’s First isn’t just Romantic. However it is its Romantic style that has made me such a fan of it. The only recording that I know of that satisfies this type of interpretation is the Bernstein/Vienna Philharmonic on DG, now out of print. I like the way he draws out the big tune in the finale. Do you know of any in print versions that sound the most similar to the Benstein/Vienna?

  3. I have in my possession a Columbia Stereo 360 Sound First Stereophonic Recording of Sibelius/Symphony No. 1 in E Minor (The Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy) in good condition, if interested. You may also contact my wife e-mail ( Make offer.

  4. Great survey, Nutcase! One recording of the First Symphony you might want to check out is a live performance by Victor de Sabata in a live performance with the New York Philharmonic from 1950. I’ve heard several of the recordings you review on the webpage, and de Sabata’s is simply in a class of its own for drama and lyricism. The sound isn’t that good, but the performance makes that irrelevant! Available here: and here:

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