An Essay on Sibelius’ First and Third Symphonies. These notes were published as the programme notes for The Philharmonic Orchestra’s 3rd concert of the complete symphonies of Sibelius, performed on 4 Oct 2007, which is reviewed here.
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To the casual listener, Jean Sibelius is popular as a “Romantic Nationalist” composer; to the serious listener, he is a unique master symphonist. To both, Sibelius is one of Nature’s greatest musical avatars.
Sibelius once described his Third Symphony as “thoughts crystallizing out of chaos” – his music drawing order out of unshaped chaos. This idea does not sound new. But Sibelius did not seem to mean that the chaos is completely random.
He also once commented that his compositional process was like having “mosaic pieces” thrown down from heaven with which he had to put back together. In this sense, the chaos is not completely without meaning. It exists in a disconnected state which has not yet come into full being. Like seeds waiting to be grown. Like molecules waiting to crystallize. Sibelius believed his task was to grasp these unformed potentials, and utter them in a form meaningful to their origin.
Written in 1898-1899, Sibelius’ First Symphony is often associated with Romantic music of the Tchaikovskian vein, venting Finnish Nationalist emotion. With its large-scale scoring (including tuba and harp), outpouring of memorable melody, melancholic song, full-blooded brass exhortations and urgent defiance, this association is not surprising in the historical context of the Finns’ struggle for independence .
The audiences loved it. The First made a name for Sibelius outside Finland. But admirers also placed the label “Romantic Nationalist” on composer and symphony.
Sibelius himself never ascribed any program to any of his symphonies. To him they were essays in symphonic art, no more and no less. Coupled with his extremely self-critical attitude and his desire to be recognized as an accomplished composer, the “just another late Romantic Nationalist” label did not sit well with him.
Thus, by the time of the Third Symphony, his symphonic path had visibly changed.
The Third Symphony is startling different from the First, to say the least. The orchestra has been pared down, the soundscape is more transparent, the traditional scherzo and finale movements have been fused. Written between 1904 and 1907, its opening movement is decidedly Mozartian – “To my mind a Mozart allegro is the most perfect model for a symphonic movement.” Sibelius remarked, “Think of its wonderful unity and homogeneity! It is like an uninterrupted flowing, where nothing stands out and nothing encroaches upon the rest.”
How unique is the Third during this period? It was premiered in the same year as Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, which is thrice longer and requires a lot more performers.
The Third opens with a cheerful, vigorous theme on cellos and basses, paving the way for a movement showcasing much interplay between winds and strings, over energetic chugging string writing, sometimes in stretches, sometimes mysteriously in brief.
The clarity in the orchestration is indeed worthy of classical writing. Emotionally, the music often slips into dark contemplation, but also swings back into the optimism of the opening. Seemingly different themes are developed and in the process revealed to come from the same source material – and then combined in ways so natural as to seem inevitable, pre-ordained. This is what it means when seemingly random mosaic pieces are reconnected to form something they have always been a part of.
The Andantino slow movement, without any formal analysis, is simply one of Sibelius’ most beautifully melancholic works. Wistful, elegant in a way of a slow dance, it begins and ends with a theme starting on woodwind, as of butterflies flitting in a melancholy breeze, and is later danced by the strings.
We are loath to disturb the quiet, the faint sadness, the fragile beauty. It is a mood Sibelius mastered to perfection, which he used effectively on many pieces throughout his compositional life, including the slow movement of the First Symphony.
The Third Symphony features the first of Sibelius’ fused symphonic movements, in this case, the traditional scherzo and finale – a feat he would repeat for the Fifth and ultimately the Seventh.
One of the interesting common reactions of listening to the final movement of the Third Symphony is that it sounds “too short” and seems to end abruptly, prematurely. Sibelius shows his thematic material, weaves them together, and grows larger structures from earlier small motifs. Themes, including that from the Andantino, are introduced in an atmosphere of anticipation, which slowly and inexorably gather momentum, leading to a grand conclusion.
The sensation of an abrupt ending can perhaps be said to showcase Sibelius’ remarkable capacity for unbroken, seamless development of his material – in the way you don’t see a seedling growing but one day it has suddenly become a tree. The realization can be as startling as it is ingenious. Sibelius will not overstate his material – once the motifs have grown into their inevitable final form, their highest state of being, it is done.
Sibelius’ Third Symphony, which he called the “least fortunate of my children”, was not received well at its premiere. Most critics and even supporters displayed confusion, even distaste for the symphony, so far truncated and underwhelming compared to the huge First and Second. The Third exercises much of its ingenuity under the surface, compared to the open emotions of its older siblings. Only posterity, with the benefit of study and hindsight, would recognize it as the first of Sibelius’ truly great symphonies, “the key to all that followed it.” (Harold Truscott)
The First Symphony opens with a forlorn clarinet solo soaring over a faint timpani roll. Then – shimmering strings cast rays of light, clearing the skies for the shattering brass that storms the orchestra.
From here lyrical exchanges between woodwind and string allow you to hear the unique way Sibelius’ music often develops. Listen and you will realize there aren’t many overt melodies but short motifs that almost become a melody but not quite – yet. Instead, they drive the symphony onwards, one instrument or section taking turns from each other, churning and answering, and suddenly, lines of thought conjoin and flow into melody. Romantic pathos is working together with the first steps of Sibelius’ growing symphonic principles. The distinct conclusion, foregoing a loud bang for a finale, instead raises anticipation, brass-powered defiance, then a warning growl on basses, and two fateful pizzicato chords.
The slow second movement, Andante ma non troppo lento, features a wide range of moods generated from the opening gently-sighing lullaby theme. This is developed in quick succession, eventually passing through a pastoral episode whereupon a storm slowly gathers strength to reach a powerful climax. We are then returned to the opening lullaby, bringing the music to a peaceful close.
The Scherzo conforms to traditional expectations with its brisk and capricious mood, with episodes of Mendelssohnian woodwind exchanges punctuated by brass or timpani admonishments, as well as a central serene trio.
The opening clarinet theme returns with the finale, first on strings then on woodwinds. This gives way to an agitated section relieved by the appearance of the impassioned C major theme, cantabile ed expressivo, which is later restated again soaring breathtakingly, gradually rising in passion, followed by a dramatic and tragic coda, ending once again on two bleak pizzicato chords.link)
As mentioned, the First was received well by audiences. The grand finale is one of two times Sibelius would truly indulge in fervent Romantic magnificence in a symphony, the other being the finale of the Second. It was a kind of expression he knew from established European/Russian composers, something he had to taste. But he also had to taste the feeling of being critically branded as “just another late Nationalist Romantic”. And the distaste of that spurred him to change.
To sum up – the First gathered public favour, but the critical favour was not the kind Sibelius wanted. The Third perplexed everyone, revolutionary in its time.
This combination probably intensified the composer’s defiant desire to pursue even further his own symphonic path, to prove his critics wrong and to shed the label he didn’t want. He would comment that while other composers were indulging the public with cocktails, he offered only “pure cold water”. Sibelius refused to be “nothing more than a nationalistic curiosity”.
From the Third Symphony, Sibelius continued in a direction that led to the primeval core of his symphonic thinking, the austere Fourth. This was a necessary point of symphonic enlightenment for the composer, from which he would rise again with his majestic Fifth, the seraphic Sixth and the awe-inspiring single-movement Seventh, the apotheosis of Jean Sibelius’ symphonic journey.
- Strength and Satisfaction – Sibelius’ Second and Fourth Symphonies (Northern Exposure II)
- And the sounds are godlike – Last Three Symphonies of Sibelius (Northern Exposure III)
- Goss, Glenda Dawn. Jean Sibelius and Olin Downes : music, friendship, and criticism. – Boston : Northeastern University Press, 1994.
- Rikards, Guy. 20th Century Composers: Jean Sibelius. Phaidon Press, 1997