Sibelius Pivots to the Symphony

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Dima Slobodianoul leads the BSO in Sibelius' Symphony No. 1. Photo Hilary Scott.
Dima Slobodeniouk leads the BSO in Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1. Photo Hilary Scott.

Sibelius Pivots to the Symphony

Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Dima Slobodeniouk
Koussevitzky Music Shed, Tanglewood
Sunday, August 4, 2019

Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No. 3 in d minor, op. 30, Yefim Bronfman pianist
Sibelius, Symphony No. 1 in e minor, op. 39

Note: this review focuses on Sibelius’s First Symphony. The expert performance of the Rachmaninoff Concerto is self-recommending, and commentary on that work will await another article.

A graph showing the reputation of Sibelius’s symphonies in the 20th century would look like a fever chart. When he wrote his first symphony at the very end of the 19th century, the composer was still struggling for recognition, and it took another decade for his work to receive international attention. Once that happened, his reputation rose to that of a composer whose music held the greatest interest for orchestras and audiences during a period when the early modernists were generating more polarized responses. By the time of World War I, Sibelius was lauded from Russia and Finland to Germany, England, and the United States as a leading exponent of the symphonic tradition. He maintained this position up to World War II, especially in England, where he was much admired by composers like Ralph Vaughan Williams and William Walton, not only for his adherence to traditional forms of harmony, but also for his nationalism which manifested itself in melodies that were designed to sound as if they originated in the folk culture of his country, but which were entirely original. (Unlike many of his contemporaries, Sibelius felt it was dishonest to borrow actual folk materials, but studied them carefully so as to be able to evoke their characteristics with his original melodies.) After mid-century, his stock plummeted; he was seen as reactionary compared to the newer masters like Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bartok, not to speak of the more controversial atonalists Schoenberg and Berg, or the unique individualists Varèse or Messiaen. For several decades, Sibelius lovers were on the defensive, and it was not easy to gain access to performances of all his symphonies. Some of his tone poems remained popular, and two of the symphonies, numbers 2 and 5, were heard with far more frequency than the other five.

Tabulation of NY Philharmonic performances between 1950 and 2000:

Symphony No. 2

17 performances

Symphony No. 5

12 performances

Symphony No. 1

6 performances

Symphony No. 7

6 performances

Symphony No. 4

4 performances

Symphony No. 3

2 performances

Symphony No. 6

2 performances

In the composer’s centennial year (1965), Leonard Bernstein programmed all seven symphonies, which initiated a mini-Sibelius revival; and with the more recent emergence of several generations of Scandinavian conductors (especially Finnish ones) there has been an upsurge in appreciation for the composer, owing to a new recognition of his originality and idiosyncratic form of modernity, as well as for his influence on several generations of Scandinavian symphonists whose works have also become known, such as Carl Nielson, Uuno Klami, Vagn Holmboe, Eino Rautavaara, and Kalevi Aho.1 The dualistic battle of the post-war period between the atonal composers and the so-called traditionalists did not leave room for the nuance needed to value Sibelius properly; interestingly, in my survey of NY Philharmonic performances, there was not one performance by the arch-modernist Pierre Boulez, who served as music director for six years. (There are no Sibelius works listed in Boulez’s discography.)2

It is interesting to observe that the most popular of the symphonies, No. 2, appeared with clock-like regularity on orchestral programs throughout, due to the fact that it had become the one that entered the repertory of many conductors who did not otherwise have a particular interest in the composer (such as Monteux, Schippers, Keene, Temirkanov, Welser-Möst). Other symphonies like nos. 5 and 7 are very tricky to pull off—they have uniquely Sibelian structures that require vision and control over tempo relations backed up by special insight into the unique types of symphonic structures that the composer developed and refined throughout his composing career. On the other hand, the first two symphonies belong to the mainstream of romantic symphonic tradition, with elements of Bruckner and Tchaikovsky in the foreground, and Beethoven in the background. In particular, the Second Symphony has benefitted from the attention of non-specialists, who must feel that it is more accessible to audiences and players alike. Nevertheless, Sibelius’s use of the orchestra is unlike anyone else’s, even in the earlier works.

Comparable to Tchaikovsky’s later symphonies in layout, length, grandiose use of the orchestra, and intense emotionality, Sibelius’s First nevertheless is thoroughly imbued with the composer’s personal voice, orchestral color, melodic style, and sense of continuity. In this last respect, however, like Tchaikovsky he is willing to let sections come fully to rest before continuing with new ideas. One way to summarize their difference is to indicate that Sibelius’s emotional framework seems wider than his own personality, and embraces a context of the Finnish culture and landscape, compared to which Tchaikovsky is usually engaged in externalizing his personal struggles and triumphs. Steven Ledbetter, in his BSO program notes, finds parallels between the final (slow) movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony “Adagio lamentoso—Andante” and Sibelius’s “Andante ma non troppo lento” from the First Symphony; but even the tempo markings point up a difference between a full immersion in despair and a pensive melancholy offset by moments of consolation and light-heartedness in the accents of folk music. That this symphony is pessimistic in overall outlook is confirmed by the endings of the first and last movements which, after grandiose perorations, subside with quiet plucked chords; and like Brahms’ Fourth, the composer does not relieve the gloom of the final moment by turning to major (unlike most minor key symphonies). But what gives the music its uplift, and perhaps points ahead to a series of future symphonic works, is the originality of its language and its inventive energy. In the context of contemporary politics, and recalling that this is exactly contemporary with “Finlandia,” the message seems to be an exhortation to “resist!” (or as James Hepokoski interprets it, a demand for “justice!”).

The originality of this work’s rhetoric leaps out at the beginning, where a quiet timpani roll suggestive of thunder underpins a melancholy solo clarinet exploring a meandering theme in free rhythm and in a mode suggestive of folk music, certainly an unusual way for a young composer to embark upon a career as a composer of symphonies. It will be recalled, however, that Sibelius had already written a significant number of orchestral works, including a choral symphony and a cycle of tone poems based on the Finnish national myth, the Kalevala, as well as the prototype for “Finlandia.” It was in these works that he was discovering and developing an orchestral voice that was adopted by Finland as its quintessential expression of national character.3

In the article on Sibelius in Groves Dictionary, James Hepokoski neatly summarizes Sibelius’s conflicting intentions in composing this work:

Sibelius doubtless regarded his First Symphony, in E minor (1899, revised 1900), as a watershed work. About to enter larger European markets, he now tackled head-on the central problem facing his compositional career: the harnessing of a stubbornly separatist, regionally resonant musical idiom according to the assimilationist demands of pan-European musical expectation – the forging of a potentially uneasy rapprochement of the refractory neo-primitivist style with the well-worn conventions of the post-Brahmsian, post-Tchaikovskian symphony. From one perspective, the First Symphony represented a calculated move towards a more international abstraction: the work was nominally non-programmatic and treated the issues of traditional form and the unfolding of motivic ‘logic’ with high seriousness and remarkable concentration. Yet its impact also resulted from its explosive combination of ethnically charged, latently political factors that were even more direct and would soon be identified throughout Europe as characteristically Sibelian.

The rapprochement that Sibelius sought is readily apparent in the sound of his orchestra, which is unmistakable in even the briefest sample. An easy place to hear this is the beginning of the second movement. A very deep, rich chord in the horns underpins the first theme, with the fourth horn playing in its subterranean depths. A harp slowly pulsates on the tonic in octaves, like a minstrel preparing to share a story. Once this stage has been set, violins and cellos in octaves sing a tune full of expressive sighs, while the horns’ harmony shifts chromatically in Russian style. This intensely personal moment is balanced with a response in the low clarinets, with timpani roll and the quietest very low octave in the F trumpets, with a cadence of folk-like simplicity, both mysterious and at the same time reassuring. This question-and-answer structure is heard two more times before a wind choir continues the melodic discourse as a hymn, with a pendulum-like oscillation in the violins and harp,4 as well as a dramatic interjection in the violas and cellos that dies away almost immediately; all of this is underpinned with those mysterious timpani rolls.

With an empty beat as a spacer, the second theme begins in the bassoon, moving in smooth steps and developing contrapuntally in pairs of bassoons, clarinets, oboes, and eventually flutes. (In Sunday’s performance, there was a mis-cue that led to a false entry, a very unusual error at an extremely exposed moment.) The special color of a theme rising from the depths in the bassoons is another Sibelius trademark, introducing a quality that can be called “chthonic,” arising from the depths or more specifically, from the underworld. No other composer uses the bare qualities of woodwinds, alone or in pairs, in quite the same way. (Think about the opening clarinet in the first movement, or the English horn melody of “The Swan of Tuonela.”)

These two thematic elements generate an extension of the opening theme leading to a new texture marked “Tranquillo”—whose pastoral signifiers include harp arpeggios under rustling violin figures and a new, romantic melody in the four horns. This might remind us that for a time Bruckner had been Sibelius’s favorite composer, as it vividly recalls the opening of that composer’s Fourth Symphony. But instead of monumental extension, the moment gives way to utter contrast: a delicate, light-hearted folk-dance is heard in the winds with triangle, as if from a distance, and building to a climax before the return of the opening material.

This orchestral detail is worth contemplating as an illustration of the uniquely evocative sound-world that Sibelius had already developed which was now being put to the service of a large-scale symphonic structure. If his earlier music served to associate orchestral sonorities with specific images of folklore and the natural world, the turn to “abstract” symphonism simply meant that such images were now generated in the minds of the listeners. The appeal of the music lies in its ability to stimulate our own imaginations, to conjure up pictures and feelings that we create to match the evocations that are so clearly and tangibly set forth. That Sibelius’s name and music became the image of Finland to the world is partly owing to this stubborn insistence on finding unique orchestral sounds, and unfolding them through original narrative structures, whether concrete or abstract. As his symphonic oeuvre grew, he developed away from the classical prototype of the four-movement symphony as he sought ways to allow his idiosyncratic material to unfold as organically as possible, leading eventually to the single movement structure of his final symphony.

Sunday’s performance of Symphony No. 1 was vigorous, forward-moving and light on its feet, under the precise baton of Dima Slobodeniouk. The fresco-like grandeur of the themes, gestures, and orchestral colors were well-suited the Shed as an environment, the brass choirs were particularly impressive without being overbearing, and the solo winds sang expressively in more intimate moments. The strumming, stamping folk-dance of the third movement (a Finnish version of a Brucknerian Ländler) was particularly exciting without losing rhythmic precision, despite some tricky off-beats and meter shifts. The conductor and orchestra seemed to be making extra efforts to bring the unusual instrumental combinations into a balanced, blended totality, helping to define the unique mood of each musical idea, assisted by Sibelius’s orchestral technique and imagination.

Audiences having become familiar with the symphonic oeuvre Mahler, not to speak of Beethoven and Brahms, the time may now be ripe for orchestral programmers to reappraise Sibelius’s canonic seven, along with the four-part Lemminkäinen Suite (a virtual symphony). Familiarity with the less-known symphonies (nos. 3 and 6 particularly) should reveal aspects of his development and originality that will expand appreciation of the more familiar works, all part of his innovative explorations of his continually expanding musical universe.

  1. lists 15 complete recordings of the 7 symphonies currently available from their catalogue.
  2. Similar data for the Boston Symphony Orchestra is of the highest interest, given that Music Director Serge Koussevitzky and Principal Guest Conductor Sir Colin Davis were both great champions of Sibelius’ work. Sir Colin in particular was the leader of the Sibelius renaissance of the 1970s, developing a lean, disciplined performance style in sympathy with taste of the latter 20th century. He recorded the seven symphonies with the BSO for Philips (now available on Decca). The BSO began to perform Sibelius’ symphonies as early as the first years of the century, under Karl Muck’s direction. He performed the First Symphony often, and the ever-popular Second only a few times. Overall the numbers between 1904 and 2019 are, in descending order: Symphony No. 2-215 performances; No. 1: 133; No. 5: 117; No. 7: 70; No. 6: 45; No. 4: 34; No. 3: 29.—Ed.
  3. From the Grove (Fabian Dahlström): “There can be no doubt, however, that Sibelius made his strongest utterances in orchestral works in which the radically Finnish style was pushed to the forefront. The high points before the First Symphony (1899) were Tuonelan joutsen (‘The Swan of Tuonela’) and Lemminkäinen palaa kotitienoille (literally, ‘Lemminkäinen Returns to his Home Districts’), two movements of the Lemminkäinen Suite that he published separately, after revision, in 1901 (the remaining two movements were revised again in 1939 and were not published until 1954).”
  4. This oscillation occurs elsewhere in Sibelius, especially forming the “bell-ringing” motif in the last movement of the Fifth Symphony.
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