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.

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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.

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