Strength and Satisfaction – Sibelius’ Second & Fourth Symphonies

An Essay on Sibelius’ Second and Fourth Symphonies. These notes were published as the programme notes for The Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2nd concert of the complete symphonies of Sibelius (Northern Exposure), performed on 30 March 2008, which is reviewed here by Dr Chang Tou Liang.

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Sibelius around 1910

Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony is often related to a difficult period in his life – not only was he in a financial crisis, but the threat of cancer hung over his life. Many commentators describe the bleak, dark music of the Fourth as a reflection of impending doom.

While there is no doubt that such thoughts would find a place in his art, it is important to understand that the Fourth is not about doom – rather, the composer must have thought this was his final chance to set down his symphonic ideals once and for all, before he loses his life.  Sibelius’s (and his critics’) mixed feelings about his preceding three symphonies, and the threat of death propelled him from the world of his first three symphonies, all the way to the absolute core of his symphonic thinking.

“It stands as a protest against present-day music. It has absolutely nothing of the circus about it.”

– Jean Sibelius.

The Fourth Symphony begins with its famous tritone incantation, C-D-F#-E. It growls, it threatens, it calls, it questions, it may even be a prayer. “As harsh as fate,” Sibelius instructs. Heart-searing, chilling, humbling.  The entire symphony stems from this single seed, the tritone – all themes and harmonies are tightly integrated and can be related foundationally back to it.

Of course a lot of music is about development of a basic theme. The difference here is that there is only one basic “theme”, indeed merely a tiny cell. The growth of the symphony is as mystifying as the growth of an entire person from a single ova.

The tritone generates movement using its own inherent disharmony. It constantly undermines the sense of key, traveling to the edge of tonality. Because it is not a “balanced” force, it teeters, seeking equilibrium, and in moving, grows as if being molded and remolded. It grows within its own sphere without need for new thematic material. We are in an aural womb.

Written between 1909-1911, the Fourth’s  extraordinary concentration and integrity means that frankly, no narrative description of the “musical flow” of the Fourth Symphony is likely to help the listener “follow” the music. Rather, think of the Fourth as a growing organism, one structure or harmony growing another. Listen to it not as a song, but as an act of aural evolution.

The second movement, a scherzo, begins in F major, but is constantly disrupted by the tritone. The  disruptions serve to generate a trio – but whereas traditional trios are a contrasting breakaway from its “parent” scherzo, this trio grows out of the disharmonies within the scherzo. The trio itself becomes the rest of the movement, which ends abruptly.

The third movement, a largo, is quiet contemplation, the tritone now generating music of desolation and sympathy, laden with bleak sadness, but spiritual in tone. It hums an air of compassion over a long forlorn pedal, then gradually grows into a broad hymn. Then quietens. The orchestra sighs in weariness. Sibelius said to the writer August Strindberg, regarding the symphony, that “being human is misery”. The tritone surfaces out of the dark water, spine-tingling. Sibelius asked for this movement to be  played at his funeral.

The finale opens in a deceptively bright mood quite at odds with the rest of the symphony. A set of woodwind figures in E-flat flit against the strings playing in A major – two keys a tritone apart. The orchestra gradually darkens as Sibelius unravels and depletes the music’s inherent energy. The symphony decelerates miraculously, extraordinarily, and ends in an awesome nothingness cast in A minor.

THE FOURTH has traversed the frontiers of tonality, reached the brink of atonality – but not crossed over. Sibelius described the beyond as  either “madness or chaos”, an area inhabited by the atonalists which he would not cross into. He had, as it were, and if you would pardon the contemporary reference, seen and grasped hold of the Matrix. In this way, the ending of the Fourth is not a picture of nothingness which brings a sense of loss – rather it is a sadness brought on by the realization that we have reached the edge and cannot go beyond.

Jean Sibelius
Jean Sibelius

And he was still alive. His tumour was successfully removed, and he would live to age 91. Curiously, in having to accelerate his symphonic thinking because of the threat of death, Sibelius had now mastered his symphonic prowess ahead of time, so to speak.

The future of the symphony now lay before Sibelius to hone and sculpt. He would return to the soundscape of which he is master, and write for us music of heartfelt “tonality” riding upon the principles of the Fourth as a foundation. This sweep of masterpieces comprise, among others, his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, as well as those at the one frontier Sibelius truly could do no more to surmount, Tapiola and the Seventh Symphony.

“I am pleased that I did it, for even today I cannot find a single note in it that I could remove, nor can I find anything to add. This gives me strength and satisfaction. The fourth symphony represents a very important and great part of me.”

 – Jean Sibelius, in the 1940s

The crowd-favourite Second Symphony, completed in 1902, seems very far removed from the soundscape of the Fourth – but like the latter, also makes use of the basic idea of growing larger structures from simple cells of material, as well as the synthesis of seemingly unrelated themes into a greater singular theme like in the Third.

The Second Symphony begins with a shimmering rising string figure, woodwinds and horns answering, always in 3-note figures – which would reach final magnificence in the glorious finale. No true melody really develops in this movement, more like a series of calls and answers. The music mysteriously seeks form using this 3-note figure and another comprising a long note, “trill” and a descending interval of a fifth.

One way of understanding the latent drama in this music is to realize that Sibelius had originally planned to write a cycle of tone poems based on the legend of Don Juan, similar to what he had done for his Lemminkäinen cycle. When this “Orchestral Fantasy” was finished Sibelius realized that it was in essence, a symphony – his Second Symphony. The music thus seems to accompany a drama, without itself bursting into a big song/theme.

The mysterious slow movement begins with a brooding pizzicato theme on cellos and basses. Sibelius ascribed the music to Don Juan’s encounter with Death – Death appearing on the ominous bassoons. The music builds to a dramatic climax exhorted by brass, before the clouds part to reveal a serene second theme. Tranquility and ominosity both speak, battle for dominance – a sense of heroic defiance rings true for both, and tightens the dramatic tension in the symphony.

The blistering scherzo is linked directly into the finale, its oscillation between the fast excited section and its lyrical pastorale serving only to heighten its internal tension. The link is as appropriate as it is powerful in the way the pastorale’s second iteration, now turning hope into defiance, churns and unravels its encapsulated energy – the release is as ecstatic as it is monumental. The 3-note figure now blazes to full splendour.   Like the previous movements, a second contrasting theme, like thunderclouds waiting to reveal the sun, moodily fills the orchestra before allowing the luminous silver of D major to retake the stage. Strings climb inexorably, trumpets pierce radiantly, timpani and trombones lay a sonic carpet of solidarity in their path. In the final climax, with booming basses and timpani as herald, the trumpets take up the 3-note figure, and for the first and last time cast a decisive fourth note into being, generating a titanic paean that consummates all that has gone on before.

 The Second Symphony, from its first performance to today, remains one of Sibelius’ most popular works.  Its importance during its time is also due to the Finnish struggle for independence. The symphony’s heroic stature was exactly what the Finns needed to hear – the ardent song of their fellow Finn, the frost-carved sound of their landscape, the dauntless spirit of Finland.





  • 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.
  • Jean Sibelius. Finnish Club of Helsinki.

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