Sibelius in 1945

And the sounds are godlike – Last Three Symphonies of Sibelius

An Essay on Sibelius’ final three symphonies, the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh. These notes were published as the programme notes for The Philharmonic Orchestra’s 3rd concert of the complete symphonies of Sibelius, performed on 27 July 2008, which is reviewed here.

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Jean Sibelius Square, Toronto, Canada
Photo of Jean Sibelius Square, Toronto by nyxie.

On the evening of September 20th, 1957, just a little over 50 years ago, Jean Sibelius died, aged 91. At the time, not far away in the capital of Finland, the Helsinki Orchestra and Sir Malcolm Sargent were performing the Fifth Symphony.

Written during the time of World War I, one might have expected such a work to reflect the times. But no, the symphony that Sibelius created was the complete opposite: life-affirming, noble, brimming with humanity in the face of nature’s majesty.

The final version was completed in 1919. It begins with a serene horn call at dawn, heralded by birdsong on woodwind. As the mood of anticipation unfolds, the developing material pours into a swinging string theme that precedes a trumpet call echoing through the mountains. Though sometimes misty and ominous, the music always retains a certain “human” feeling. We seem aware of our presence in the landscape.

Originally, the Fifth existed in four movements, but the composer ultimately fused the first two. There is no hint of separation as the first seamlessly joins to the original second movement, which energetically concludes the movement in brassy splendour.

Sibelius’ journey to complete this symphony was not easy. Even by his immensely self-critical standards, no other work had to endure so much revision. Granted we are thankful that his high demands produced music of such quality, but – why was Sibelius so “unsure” of his music?

It is often thought that the essence of a symphony lies in its form, but this is certainly not the case. The content is always the primary factor, while form is secondary, the music itself determining its outward form.

Sibelius does not discount the importance of form, but places it at the logical service of content. Content being the music’s theme, a token of identity. The cell, which makes up the body, is not aware what it grows into unless it has an “identity”, a content, a plan. Organic growth is not random – its ending is “built-in”.

Perhaps the reason why much of Sibelius’ “modern” music remains so directly appealing, so lyrical and accessible, is simply because content is king.  This is in direct contrast to the absolute formalists, who allowed the theoretical concepts of form (eg. serialism, minimalism) to determine its content.

Sibelius perceived his role as composer to determine how the theme “struggled” to its “final” form. On April 10th, 1915, he wrote in his diary:

Spent the evening with the [Fifth] symphony. The disposition of the themes: with all its mystery and fascination, this is the important thing. It is as if God the Father had thrown down mosaic pieces from heaven’s floor and asked me to put them back as they were. Perhaps that is a good definition of composition. Perhaps not. How should I know?

Sibelius Finland Jubilee Stamp - by TBWA\PHS, Finland
Sibelius Finland Jubilee Stamp – Designed by TBWA/PHS (Finland)

The composer was grappling with his paradigm of composition. What is composition? The mosaic pieces (cells? Themes?) are there before him, but their final form eludes him until he has “composed” them together. But if he isn’t aware what is the final form, how would he know when he achieves it? That perhaps is the chicken-and-egg question that he struggled with, that cost him revision after revision.

Sibelius often invoked the name “God” or attributed a “god-like” nature to things, when commenting about his compositional journeys, even though he was not in fact particularly religious. In 1946, Sibelius commented on how marvelous nature is, “What peace and deep devotion Nature can evoke in man”. He discussed with his secretary the magnificent logic of the universe, a harmony so immense as to be incomprehensible to the minuscule capacity of humanity. “That,” Sibelius concluded, “is precisely what I call ‘God’.”

In this way, Sibelius reflected upon his position as but one man in an entire universe, trying to understand the indefinable logic of nature. In composing, he is trying to harness the natural logic that causes a thematic cell to grow into a symphony.

But we must be careful of over-defining:

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 exercising its beautiful logic. The key Sibelius was pointing out is to write and listen without over-analysing, to understand without defining.

Perhaps because of this particular philosophy, which meant that the composer allowed his music to grow at its own “will”, Sibelius’ struggle with his compositional thoughts is a combination of trying to develop his themes logically, and yet allowing them to determine their logical conclusion – and then having to ask yourself if what you’ve done is true to the spirit of the material.

We can appreciate this further by understanding how Sibelius worked on the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Symphonies around the same time. The composer had begun sketching ideas for the Sixth around 1914-1915, when he was still working on the Fifth. Material from the Sixth was even at one point planned as a second “lyrical” violin concerto (“Concerto lirico”).

The sixth symphony always reminds me

of the scent of the first snow.


The Sixth Symphony is intimately based on the D Dorian mode – i.e. all the white keys from D to D on a piano. Lacking C# which produces D major/minor, the music of the Sixth floats, and brings to mind Renaissance sacred polyphony.

But this is not church music. In sketches from 1919, Sibelius was apparently writing a tone poem called Kuutar (“Moon Goddess”) – though this never came to fruition, its material ended up in all three symphonies.

For the Sixth, a theme from the first movement was once called “Winter” – a fitting way to describe the serene opening.  It is music of tender, child-like innocence, flowing with fairy-inspired serenity and forest sunshine. The classical clarity of the score is filled with carefree delight. Although holding faith to the heavenly Dorian mode, Sibelius also alternates to C major as a second base. Indeed the astonishing ease at which he alternates between keys is one of the Sixth’s most remarkable points.

The Sixth is noteworthy for recalling the transparent sparkling waters of the Third Symphony, while also embodying the heart-strung refinement of the Fourth. It is a masterpiece of orchestral transparency, of music free from the norms of bars and rhythms.

The second  movement, Allegretto moderato, begins with flutes and bassoons, creating a sense of distant space. Faintly intoxicating, somewhat dreamy, the music evokes perhaps the image of being in a forest in dim light, looking up at the canopy with shreds of light seeping through. It seems to foreshadow the tone poem Tapiola, Sibelius’ last published masterpiece, the dark brother of the Seventh Symphony. Particularly towards the end, when suddenly in the quiet, the strings play flautato. This means to bow lightly and further away from the bridge to produce harmonics that sound flute-like.  Along with the woodwind birdsong punctuating the air, it is not surprising that this passage has been related to the “Forest Murmurs” section from Wagner’s Siegfried.

Less than 4 minutes long, the scherzo is dominated by an insistent trochaic (accented note followed by unaccented) rhythm that suggests an over-the-hills horse ride. Woodwinds take their turn before being answered by strings, with formidable violin passages that perhaps came from the planned violin concerto.

The final movement opens with alternating phrases on the wind and strings , a sacred atmosphere preparing for a conclusion.  Like the finale of the Third Symphony, there is a feeling of tight, indefatigable concision – no excess, and a miraculous logic where the energy foresees its ending even as it is being born. Like the Fourth Symphony, the momentum at times gives a sense of depletion at the same time it is being generated. Before you know it, the music has reached the calm of dusk – again the “sacred” mood is re-invoked, night is falling – or is it ending? The cycle is completed, and the symphony fades into starlit tranquility.

The Sixth might have been a sacred invocation to the Moon Goddess; the Fifth’s journey a struggle with “God”. The Seventh has a passage that Sibelius described “as if before the face of God”. And Tapio IS a god. Now that we have an idea what Sibelius meant by “God”, what is the nature of their relationship?

On November 13, 1914, Sibelius wrote in his diary another one of his heartfelt bits of literature that beautifully fuses nature’s beauty and his own emotions. He was working on the Fifth Symphony:

I have had a wonderful idea. The Adagio of the symphony – earth, worms and heartache – fortissimos and muted strings, very muted. And the sounds are godlike.

Earth, worms and heartache. We cannot underestimate the power, influence and bond that existed between Sibelius and nature. In his hands, the very earth sings. But there is also “heartache”, a human feeling.

This planned Adagio was not, in fact, realised. In its place is the lyrical Andante mosso, quasi allegretto as we know it today. Over a light orchestral field of soft grass, the woodwind and strings take turns to weave a tender pastorale. Thereafter the strings unfold an expressive and nostalgic melody. Hints of the finale’s mighty “Swan Hymn” appear inconspicuously on the basses and brass.

One day, on his routine walk through the countryside, Sibelius watched as sixteen swans flew overhead, a sight that took his breath away:

One of my greatest experiences! My God what beauty! … Their call the same woodwind type as that of cranes, but without tremolo. The swan-call closer to trumpet, although there is something of a sarrusophone sound. A low refrain reminiscent of a small child crying. Nature’s Mysticism and Life’s Angst! The Fifth Symphony’s finale-theme: Legato in the trumpets!

This momentary encounter evidently inspired the majestic swinging horn theme of the Fifth’s finale. The orchestral strings summon a great ascending wind of energy before the horns begin their wonderful tribute. They are soon joined by a long-breathed melody on the woodwinds, which intone a beautifully free theme soaring above the undulating current of basses. As the swans soar into ever-higher skies, Sibelius modulates the music’s dignified E-flat major into the grandeur of C major, creating one of the most heart-burstingly affirmative climaxes in music.

The original 1915 version of the Fifth Symphony is considerably “darker” music. Quieter, not quite as openly “emotional” as the final version. Its sound world is closer in tone to the austere Fourth Symphony. If you have ever wondered where is the link between the Fourth and the final Fifth, it is probably here. When Sibelius was working on the first major revision of the Fifth, he wrote:

I must confess I am working again on Sym.5. Struggling with God. I want to give my new symphony a different, more human form. More earthy, more vibrant.

“I want to give my new symphony a different, more human form.” Not just earth, worms and swans – but heartache. Sibelius wanted his music to be more than just earth-song, but to have heart-song, heartache. This is perhaps how the composer now struggled to reconcile the inexpressibility of nature’s universe, both her beauty and her logic, with the consciousness of a human being.

And then, he would draw upon all his powers to give us the Seventh Symphony.

It begins with the soft timpani tremor of distant thunder, on a C major scale beginning on the note G, but ending enigmatically on a distant A-flat. Is this a sunrise or a sunset? Perhaps neither – it is simply Time.

Mists float by, and the woodwind greet the twilight with the Seventh’s important motif, the foundationary up-down, down-up figure D-C-B-C which in this case on the woodwinds is: D-C-D-E, C-Bb-C-E. Strings shimmer, urging gently forward – momentum is the other key. 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 cast in primeval C. An urgent development section follows, full of moving strings, distant winds, cries of life, pulsating rhythms.

The Seventh was originally planned as a three-, possibly four-movement work. Sibelius developed it alongside the composition of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, and there was of course, Kuutar.  One of its themes is related to material from the opening “Adagio” section of the Seventh Symphony. This was called Tähtölä – “Where the Stars Dwell”.  A fitting, “god-like” image.

There is an interesting comment relating the Seventh to the Fifth. Nearing the completion of the Fifth’s final revision, in April 1919, Sibelius cast doubt once again on his work.

Have cut out the second and third movements. The first movement is a symphonic fantasia and does not require anything else. That’s where it all began!!! Shall I call it “Symphonie in einem Satze” [“Symphony in one movement”] or “symphoniesche Fantasie: Fantasia sinfonica I”?

Sibelius did not follow through with this plan for the Fifth. But for the Seventh, Sibelius finally abandoned the multi-movement plan in favour of a continuous single movement in 1923, and the symphony was completed on 2nd March 1924. Except that he didn’t at first considered it a “symphony”. It was premiered in Stockholm as the Fantasia sinfonica or “Symphonic Fantasy”. The composer grappled with the name and its subtitles until 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)”.

Sibelius had realised that “that” is where it – his symphonic holy grail — all began: the concept of the continuous symphonic singularity, total unity of musical expression based on the organic development of the most basic cell.

Sibelius in 1949
Jean Sibelius, 1949

There was a time when composing in C was considered fruitless – it had “nothing more to offer.” But in response to the Seventh, Vaughan Williams declared that only Sibelius could make C major sound completely fresh. Peter Franklin, writing of it in the Segerstam/Chandos recordings (c.1999), calls the conclusion “the grandest celebration of C major there ever was.”

The development of the material is tightly concentrated, leading into the second appearance of the trombone theme, an imposingly stern C minor storm. Dark clouds rolling with silent lightning, ominous winds swirling and stirring solemn thunder with the enduring force of life. As this passes, the mood flows into a pastorale-like sequence. The alpine trombone theme finally achieves its highest being in its third and last appearance, once again centered on the tonality of C. The strings swell, the winds billow with understated power before it 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 are transported beyond. Intensely, the violins soar higher and ever higher, piercing unreachable star-studded blackness. As if returning to the dawn-touched opening, distant horns reveal a quiet flute solo – the hymn of the trombone transformed, all children of the D-C-B-C figure.

Ultimately we return to the source – C. The Symphony gathers for one final paean to universal life – every instrument joins in “the grandest celebration of C major there ever was”.  Gathering with the force of revolving planets, upon a monumental C major chord held by the winds and timpani, the strings descend from D and ascend from B, and at long last, coalesces space, time, stars and logic into C.

Sibelius had built the final resolution from the point the symphony’s key and cell were born. The decisive way in which the penultimate B resolves to the concluding C, as simple as it seems, resounds with such incredible finality that we are left staring into the awesome vastness of silence.

And so it seems too, for Jean Sibelius. But that is another story.

On that day, September 20th, 1957, Sir Malcolm Sargent would have directed the Helsinki Orchestra in one more unique ending in music. As the Fifth Symphony’s Swan Hymn is revived on the trumpets, triumphantly ascending out of the darkness, the orchestra concludes with six massive chords. But these are not the hammer blows of death – they are the affirmations of life.

As the orchestra forges each chord into being, the silence between each one reverberates in the ears, in the air, the earth.  Heartache. We hear around this space, the divine life of nature, the everlasting momentum between heartbeats and the sublime harmony of the universe.

Nature is coming to life: that life which I so love, now and always,
whose essence shall pervade everything which I compose.




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Leon is Singapore's resident champion of Jean Sibelius.

4 thoughts on “And the sounds are godlike – Last Three Symphonies of Sibelius”

  1. Leon, you are a poet! Leaving that observation aside, you have touched my heart with this expose’ of Sibelius final symphonies. I am unable to put such precise words to either his musical expression or what moved the man, as you are, but even before I knew anything at all about Sibelius’ music, the first time I heard his symphonies, I told Erik that my favorite of them all was the 7th. You may be surprised how I came to this observation, as it has little to do with music. I know only that in the 7th, I saw a Sibelius who had pierced the barriers of our earthly life and found Truth. I’ve been there, and I instantly connected. People ask why he did not “finish” his repertoire of symphonies. I believe he had said all he had to say and had reached a place where words – music – could no longer express what is greater than us – it is just too sublime. I base this comment not on knowledge, but on what I discovered in the 7th and recognized from what life has given me, a gift indeed. I have much to learn about him, but I know this – he gave us a look at something greater to which we all eventually must connect – and it is wonderful! I’m the richer for “knowing him.” Thank you for your insight, and for your friendship.

  2. Lorena, thank you for your beautiful comment. I don’t know what to say, except, you’ve described the sublime power and the soul-lifting experience of the Seventh perfectly!

  3. As Lorena says, Sibelius had already said all he wanted to say. Already after the sixth symphony, the supreme statement of the mystery and beauty of the human predicament. We can regret the loss of the eighth but must accept the composer’s own judgement. The final décades of his life were simply a long contemplation of what he had already expressed in music. A critic said Sibelius was “probably the greatest symphonist of the 20th century” The only word we might want to omit is “probably”. When we look at the fate of classical music since, a long descent into sterile experimentation with sound which holds critics in its thrall but no-one else, we have at least the perpetual challenge and continual pleasure of Sibelius’music.

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