PROGRAM NOTES & COMMENTARY
Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, Opus 39
Genre: Symphonic; Country: Finland (Russian empire)
Period: Late 19th Century
Completed in 1899; Premiered on April 26, 1899
with the Helsinki Philharmonic Society, conducted by Jean Sibelius
It is hard to say what has made so many people, for the last 100 years, feel that Sibelius’s music is redolent of the cold winds and dark skies of the North, yet the impression is definitely hard to shrug off when we listen to this music. The opening,
a slow introduction in which a solitary clarinet plays a sad tune over a soft tremolo
in the timpani, strikes an austere and foreboding note:
The Allegro theme is passionate but terse; it grows into a grandiose statement, combined with a second idea that begins more subdued but undergoes its own remarkable transformation:
After a wonderful lyrical expansion, the Allegro theme returns triumphantly, and the
second theme, now greatly excited, brings about an unexpected dramatic ending.
The opening theme of the second-movement Andante is simple, yet profound; a classical cadential figure, almost a cliché, sounds on two clarinets playing parallel sixths as never before (refer to musical example below). A second, fugal idea leads to the movement’s first fortissimo passage. Then the music takes a step back, and the French horns sing a haunting melody against the Wagnerian “forest murmurs” of the violins. The opening theme returns, much more richly orchestrated; the sad song is gradually transformed into an agitated statement as the tempo is doubled. After the climactic moment, the opening melody returns in its original form.
The Scherzo grows out of a brief melodic gesture, like several of Bruckner’s scherzos. Interestingly, the elements of scherzo and dance do not completely alleviate that unique brooding quality that is so typical of Sibelius except, perhaps, in the brief fugal section. The Trio, slower in tempo, is dominated by horns, clarinets, bassoons, and flutes — instruments creating an atmosphere that is, in equal parts, pastoral idyll and mysterious oracle. A recapitulation of the scherzo follows. Check out this wonderful video of a performance of the Scherzo by the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra conducted by the
23-year old Filipino-Finnish conductor Tamo Peltokowski:
Sibelius in 1889
Sibelius’s home in Järvenpää, Finland from 1904 until his death in 1957
First symphonies of selected composers, with their ages at time of composition:
Mozart: Symphony no. 1 (8)
Mendelssohn: Symphony no. 1 (15)
Schubert: Symphony no. 1 (16)
Glazunov: Symphony no. 1 (16)
Shostakovich: Symphony no. 1 (19)
Rimsky-Korsakov: Symphony no. 1 (21)
Dvorak: Symphony no. 1 (24)
Bernstein: Symphony no. 1 (24)
Prokofiev: Symphony no. 1 (25)
Stravinsky: Symphony in Eb (his 1st Symphony) (25)
Tchaikovsky: Symphony no. 1 (26)
Haydn: Symphony no. 1 (27)
Mahler: Symphony no. 1 (28)
Beethoven: Symphony no. 1 (30)
Schumann: Symphony no. 1 (31)
Walton: Symphony no. 1 (33)
Sibelius: Symphony no. 1 (33)
Borodin: Symphony no. 1 (34)
Vaughan-Williams: Symphony no. 1 (37)
Bruckner: Symphony no. 1 (42)
Brahms: Symphony no. 1 (43)
The Finale is marked “Quasi una Fantasia” because its form is somewhat unusual: a slow introduction is followed by a stormy fast section alternating with a sweeping, hymn-like melody. The suspenseful introduction is based on the clarinet melody that opened the first movement. The Allegro molto takes a dance-like motif and develops it in a most dramatic way. The hymn melody brings a total contrast. The returning Allegro is even more agitated and tense than before. Finally, the return of the hymn — in E major — brings much-needed respite at first, but the tonality soon changes back to E minor and with it, the mood darkens and more and more dramatic elements appear. Yet the tempo remains stately and dignified, which only increases the tension at the end of this remarkable symphony.
For your enjoyment: the glorious hymn-like theme and the final dramatic four minutes of the symphony.
by Leo Eylar
Sibelius is often called the “Father of Finnish Music” and, perhaps a bit more humorously, the “Tarzan of the North.” He is considered a national treasure of Finland, much as Grieg is considered a national treasure of Norway. To understand the development of his music, it is necessary to examine a bit of Finnish history. Finland as a sovereign nation-state did not exist until 1917. Formerly united with Sweden, Finland was absorbed into the Russian Empire as The Grand Duchy of Finland in 1809. The maps below illustrate the situation from 1837 through 1918.
Scandinavia in 1837
Scandinavia in 1914
When Finland had been annexed to Russia in 1809, Tsar Alexander I had promised that the old laws of Finland could stay in force. However, by the 1890s, the Russification of Finland began, with the February Manifesto (1899). This narrowed the autonomy of Finland. One of the main objections was the discontinuation of Finnish Defense Forces, as well as the expansion of Russian conscription to Finland. As we move into the beginning of the 20th Century, Russian sanctions on the Finnish language and culture began to be implemented, which resulted in greater resistance among Finns and calls for independence. It was into this atmosphere that Sibelius entered the musical scene in a very prominent fashion. Works such as Finlandia (originally titled Finland Awakes), the Symphony No. 2, and the Karelia Suite made their appearance to great acclaim and enthusiasm (these works are all accessible for listening by visiting SIBELIUS VIDEOS AND SIBELIUS AND HIS SYMPHONIES in this presentation…)
Scandinavia in 1918
Finlandia was completed in 1899—the same year as the Symphony No. 1. In the middle section, Sibelius makes use of a hymn-like tune which became the “National Hymn” of Finland. We offer above a live performance from the BBC Proms featuring this middle section and rousing final moments of this remarkable work. If you carefully follow the subtitles for the words, you can see how ‘subversive’ this might have been to Russian censors. Finlandia was so successful and popular in Finland that Russian authorities (Finland belonged to Russia at this time in history) did not allow the title to be printed in programs. The Finns came up with other names to beat the Russian censors, such as “Happy Feelings At The Awakening Of Finnish Spring”, and “A Scandinavian Choral March”.
Sibelius’s nationalistic ‘phase’ did not really last very long: by the time of the Third Symphony he was already exploring new musical areas and techniques. One area that DID stay with Sibelius for his entire career and life was his love of nature.Growing up in rural Finland in the mid-to-late 19th Century was certainly a rustic experience. The composer adored nature and spent a lot of his time in the woods, sometimes even improvising on his violin outdoors (his greatest desire in life in his early years was to become a violin virtuoso). In the short video below—highly recommended!—pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy and Erkki Korhonen discuss Sibelius and nature. Check it out!
Sibelius’s love of the natural world was expressed in many of his works, but none more so than his Overture to The Tempest, which was the last work he wrote before abandoning composition. Composed in 1926, this has been dubbed "the single most onomatopoetic stretch of music ever composed". In this work, based on Shakespeare’s play The Tempest (which oddly enough was Shakespeare’s last play!), we find ourselves tossed about by a fierce storm at sea. There really is not even any melody in the piece. You may find yourself getting seasick! Give it a try below:
Sibelius in his old age
Sibelius’s music has had its fair share of ups and downs in the last 120 or so years. One of the main reasons for this may be that his life spanned a LONG period of time in music history, and a critical time at that. Music in the 1910s and 1920s was undergoing revolutionary changes by composers such as Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartok, Debussy, and others. Sibelius, much like Richard Strauss (who was one year older than Sibelius), reached a point in the 1920s where he could no longer go forward with experimentation in his music similar to that of Schoenberg and others. For many years, his music was seen as being mired in the past, passé, not relevant, etc. When certain conductors such as Leonard Bernstein, Simon Rattle, and others took up the cause for Sibelius, there was a re-evaluation. Such is the course of music history. In a very telling short interview shown below, Sir Simon Rattle discusses the neglect that has been shown to Sibelius’s music and the relevance of his music for today. A very fascinating discussion.
Sir Simon Rattle discusses Sibelius and the Berlin Philharmonic
Last but not least, we should mention that some of the truly famous musical themes of Sibelius have been widely appropriated by film composers, pop music bands, etc. for many, many years. Two examples are offered here. First, let us listen to the famous “swan them” from his Symphony No. 5 (For more info on this Symphony and an explanation of the cranes, please refer to the SIBELIUS AND HIS SEVEN SYMPHONIES section in this presentation). This oscillating ‘tune’ heard in the horns is one of his most memorable creations:
The “Swan” theme for Symphony No. 5
On My Own by the pop band “Peach”
Music from Beauty and the Beast