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Jean Sibelius (1865 - 1957)


Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43
I. Allegretto
II. Andante
III. Vivacissimo; Lento
IV. Allegro moderato

Although he was profoundly inspired by nature and mythology, Sibelius never painted "pictures of nature" in his music - the natural world is somehow inferred from his methods of musical construction. His music is always classically based, but he has many original stylistic fingerprints, such as repetitive string tremolandos, long pedal notes, and a bare harmonic style. These are easier to play than explain! One of the most potent is the ability to have two different speeds in operation at once, the first busy and rapid, the other slow, underpinning the motion like a tolling bell. Although his later works are shorter and more concentrated than early ones (the last two symphonies are both about half the duration of the first two) these fingerprints persist throughout, and many appear for the first time in the second symphony. Written in 1901, while the 36 year old Sibelius was travelling in Italy and central Europe with his wife and young family, the second symphony was first performed in Helsinki in March 1902. Coming shortly after Finlandia, the public was receptive to the new symphony, and the concert was repeated four times, to packed houses. Some commentators detect the warmth of Italy in the score - I can't recognise it, but perhaps you might!

The first movement is the most advanced in style, being complex and subtle in construction. The tunes, of which there are several, are closely related, and seem to grow out of each other. The opening pulsing string figure is the source of the first dancing woodwind theme; a sustained tune on violins alone sounds very different, but is actually related. A third motif - a long held note followed by a turn and a falling fifth - becomes the first phrase of a rich glowing tune later in the movement. The interest with which this material is developed means that the end, with the same pulsing string figure as the beginning, comes almost abruptly.

The slow movement is looser and more rhapsodic in form, opening with a pizzicato 'walking bass' line, out of which emerges a mournful bassoon tune. Eventually the tempo accelerates, and a huge brass climax is built. Several other ideas offer consolation and energy, until the angry brass climax is rebuilt. Again consolation is attempted, more successfully this time, but the movement ends quite bleakly.

The third movement is more concise. An energetic scherzo is followed by a trio section (marked Lento, suave) with a remarkable oboe tune, starting with nine repeated notes and a falling fifth. The scherzo is repeated, and, unusually, the trio section again. But this time the trio grows into something else -tension grows, and the music heaves and surges its way directly into the finale.

The finale launches confidently, with a theme presented first in separate sections, before being joined up on its second presentation. This soon moves into a long section which gets 'stuck' for a while in F# minor, building up considerable tension before it breaks out into F# major. The major key brings relaxation, and a long crescendo through many keys works back to D major for a recapitulation of the main theme. This is again followed by the minor key section, in D minor this time, which gets stuck for even longer than before. The tension Sibelius works up as he tries to get the music out of D minor is colossal - more and more energy is pumped in without a result - until the major key suddenly blazes out like a dam bursting. The relief is palpable, and the triumphant coda - the brass parts really are marked sempre fff - is totally justifiable!

Symphony No. 5 in Eb major, Op. 82
I. Tempo molto moderato - Allegro moderato (ma poco a poco stretto)
II. Andante mosso, quasi allegretto
III. Allegro molto

In 1914, when Europe was unwittingly descending into the madness of the First World War, the 50 year old Sibelius was having ideas for a fifth symphony. His previous symphony had shocked listeners by its bleakness, veering into atonality at times, but while the fourth casts shadows into his later music, he never again plumbed quite the same depths of despair.

He worked on the new symphony over the winter of 1914 and spring of 1915. Two diary entries are of interest. “April 10th - Spent the evening with the symphony. The disposition of the themes: with al/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?” This gives a profound insight into how Sibelius saw the process of composition, also into his own nature (especially his self-doubt) and into his music. Two weeks later he was on a country walk when a flock of wild swans flew low overhead. “One of my greatest experiences! My God, what beauty” he wrote, and these words are followed by the horn theme of the last movement. It is hard to distinguish the mystic from the nature-lover in Sibelius.

By the late summer the symphony was finished and it was first performed in Helsinki in December 1915, with Sibelius conducting. The audience and critics loved it, with one calling it “true musical magic” and “a masterpiece”. The only person not totally satisfied was the composer. Sibelius re-worked the symphony extensively during 1916, telescoping the first two movements into one, and making many other changes. This revised version was first performed a year to the day after the (first) premiere, in December 1916, again with the composer conducting. Again the public loved it, but again Sibelius wasn’t satisfied. Other work intervened, and it wasn’t until 1919 that the composer was finally happy with it, and this 1919 version, first performed in November that year, is the version we have today.

What Sibelius was working towards was a symphony where all the themes are subtly connected, and where the symphony is perhaps “about” the discovery of these connections. (In fact it goes deeper than that: the music of the 5th, 6th and 7th symphonies and Tapiola are all inter-connected as well.) He was also exploring new sonorities for the orchestra, and in these later works Sibelius conjures some extraordinary sounds from a normal orchestra. This is a1l the more remarkable because he never uses percussion beyond timpani and usually a woodwind section that would be familiar to Mozart.

The first movement opens with a soft horn call above a timpani roll — one of the germs of the whole symphony. The woodwind append an oscillating pattern to the motto and it becomes a second theme. A third theme appears starkly in the wind above a rustling pattern in the strings who after a big climax have a compressed variant of the same theme. The fourth symphony casts its shadow in a wailing bassoon theme (marked “lugubrious”) accompanied by sinister mutterings in the strings, but eventually the music heaves itself out of this half-tone world into a lighter and more joyous one. The tunes are closely related to those in the first movement - a unity the composer emphasises in removing the boundary between the movements. This allegro quickens gradually through its course until by its end the joy almost has a hint of hysteria about it.

The second and third movements chart a similar course to the first movement: a journey from shadow to liqht. The second movement is a set of variations, though where one ends and the next begins is very bard to say. The theme is a long winding one played first alternately by plucked strings and flute. It is hard even to say where this theme starts and stops. The variations are sometimes brisk, sometimes passionate, and one is troubled by dark threats from the brass. The ending is in no way final, but just a slightly disconcerting shrug of the shoulders.

The last movement gets quickly under way and soon the “swan theme” is heard in the horns, Notice how it is supported by the same theme in the basses played three times slower, and soon it supports a sustained and passionate tune in the woodwind and cellos. The change from E-flat to C major is magnificent! The music subsides and then becomes very mysterious on muted strings in the remote key of G flat. The swan theme is head in spectral outline, and the wind gently intone the sustained theme. The tempo slows, and both themes combine as the music works its way seriously and intensely bock to its E flat home. Upon arrival the tempo picks up a little for the final chords, unique and extraordinary — six resonant hammer blows, separated by enormous, echoing silences.

Symphony No. 7 in E minor, Op. 105
Adagio - Vivacissimo, Adagio - Allegro moderato, Vivace, Presto, Adagio

While Walton was just beginning his career, Sibelius was at the peak of his powers, and the years 1923 - 1926 saw his four last orchestral masterpieces completed: the 6th and 7th symphonies, the tone poem Tapiola and his incidental music for The Tempest.

The earliest sketches of the seventh symphony are mixed up with material which ended up in the sixth, and even parts of Tapiola. It is first referred to in a letter of 1918, while he was still finishing the fifth symphony. After talking about the fifth, he goes on to mention plans for the sixth and seventh. The latter was to be "full of joy of life and vitality, in three movements, of which the last is a 'Hellenic Rondo'". He goes on to add that ".. the plans may be altered according to the development of the musical ideas. As usual I am a slave to my themes and submit to their demands."

The form took a long time to settle. His ideas went through many stages (at one time he even planned the normal four movements) before the work ended up in a single movement, and musicologists still argue today over whether it is 'really' a symphony. Some can find four movements condensed into one, others can find a normal sonata form structure concealed within its single movement. The lack of agreement is, at the very least, testimony to the originality and subtlety with which Sibelius has shaped his material. He was indeed "a slave to his themes", but he "submitted to their demands" with astonishing originality. The symphony was first performed in 1925 under the title Fantasia Sinfonica. It was only after several performances over the following months that Sibelius himself decided that it is a symphony, and re-titled it Symphony No.7, in one movement.

The originality of form makes it hard to describe its twenty minute span. Although the tempo varies from very slow to very fast and back, twice, the changes are all gradual and not obvious.

The opening is slow, and a number of fragments of themes soon appear. However the tonality is uncertain, until a long meditative string passage works up to a big C major climax. Here a trombone theme appears, which plays a key role in the work. Earlier themes are explored further, and the tempo gradually accelerates to a spiky vivacissimo (as fast as possible). This quite soon loses momentum however, and the big trombone theme reappears, but in the minor key this time, above a surging chromatic string line. This dark section eventually heaves itself out of C minor into a brighter key, and the speed picks up again to allegro moderato. Now the air clears, and a light and fresh C major tonality is established for the 'Hellenic rondo' theme. This is worked out quite thoroughly, dropping into E flat for a while, and gets even faster in the vivace. A gradual slowing down from presto to adagio brings us to the closing section, where the trombone theme forms the basis of the final declamation. But this is no simple triumph, and by the shifting tonality in the last few bars we are reminded of the doubts and uncertainties that underpin this hard won but ultimately affirmative view of life.

These uncertainties affected Sibelius profoundly, and hint at the factors that caused him to completely destroy every trace of his eighth symphony. He was working on it over several years in the 1930s, but it was never delivered. It was burnt, along with many other manuscripts, by the composer himself.

Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47
I. Allegro moderato
II. Adagio di molto
III. Allegro ma non tanto

The bulk of Sibelius' greatest music is contained in the series of seven symphonies and a dozen or so tone poems which comprise his main orchestral music. But he also wrote one splendid string quartet, and this single very fine concerto. This is surprising since he was a very good violin player himself, having studied the instrument at the Helsinki Music Institute. He was good enough to perform the Beethoven Romance in F and the Mendelssohn concerto, and he once auditioned to join the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

He wrote the violin concerto in 1903, shortly after finishing his second symphony, and he asked the virtuoso Willy Burmester, one-time leader of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, to help him with aspects of the solo part. On seeing the score Burmester wrote “I can say to you only one thing – magnificent!”. Sibelius had intended that Burmester should premiere the concerto in Berlin, but a financial crisis forced him to introduce it sooner in Helsinki, played by the violin teacher at the Music Institute Viktor Novacek. Unfortunately it was only a mixed success – Novacek struggled with the severe difficulties of the piece, and it was mauled by one of the most influential music critics.

Despite having been passed over for the premiere, Burmester was still enthusiastic, writing to Sibelius that “all that my artistry and insight allows will be placed entirely in the service of this work”, and promising to “play the concerto in Helsinki in such as way that the city will be at your feet.”

Sibelius did not accept this generous offer. Instead he decided to revise the concerto, a process which took the next 18 months. This resulted in a rather shorter concerto, more integrated in style and with several substantial changes. The revised version was first performed in Berlin in October 1905, but again not by Burmester. Instead the leader of the Berlin orchestra, Carl Halif, played it, and Richard Strauss conducted. (Burmester, understandably upset, never played the concerto in public.)

There are three main themes in the first movement, which is the only one in D minor. The first, introduced on the solo violin at once, is one of Sibelius’ finest inventions – long, flowing, noble, effortless. The soloist expands on this, and then the orchestra introduces the second theme, darker and more sombre. Again the soloist comments, and then the orchestra gives us a third theme, fast and driving. The mood eases, and with a terrific leap the soloist launches into a brilliant cadenza. When the orchestra rejoins we are back at the first theme, and in the remainder of the movement the soloist and orchestra develop all three themes in turn, ending with a fast and driving display of virtuosity.

The main theme of the adagio is another enormously long tune (20 bars in the slowest of tempi), and is given to the solo violin after a few bars of curious woodwind commentary. These comments are then turned into another theme by the orchestra after the soloist finishes. Despite two orchestral climaxes, the mood is primarily contemplative and peaceful.

The finale is fast and full of energy, is in D major and (rather unusually for a finale) in triple time. It is built on two tunes – the first is propelled by its dotted rhythms and is given to the solo violin; the second, which alternates between 2/4 and 6/8 rhythm, first appears in the orchestra alone. There is no cadenza for the soloist, and the ending is even more brilliant than the first movement.

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