For a full description and program notes for Symphony No. 1, please refer to the PROGRAM NOTES AND COMMENTARY section of this Conductor’s Corner Home Page. Presented here is the wonderful Scherzo movement of the Symphony No. 1, conducted by the 23-year old Filipino-Finnish conductor Tamo Peltokowski with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony.
The Second Symphony of Sibelius is by far the most popular and most-often-performed symphony by the composer. It was composed in 1901-02. The Symphony was written during a time of Russian sanctions on the Finnish language and culture, as well as growing Finnish calls for independence from Russia (Finland had been absorbed into the Russian Empire in 1809). The work has been dubbed the “Symphony of Independence”, based on the rousing Finale (the end of which is heard here), and it was ecstatically praised at the first performances in March, 1902 (conducted by Sibelius). Patriotic emotions were at a fever pitch. Sibelius had previously composed overtly nationalistic pieces, such as Finlandia (1899), and the Finnish people were anxious to find a similar message in the new Symphony. Sibelius himself did not agree with these nationalistic interpretations—he claimed that “my second Symphony is a confession of the soul”. Critical reception was mixed: the public admired it because the Finale was seen as being connected to the struggle for Finnish independence, and many critics savaged it as being “vulgar, self-indulgent, and provincial beyond all description.” Offered here are the final moments of the Symphony, conducted by Susanna Mälkki with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony.
After the First and Second Symphonies, audiences were completely confused when they first heard the Symphony No. 3 in 1907. This Symphony was called “A Symphonic U-Turn.” Sibelius wrote to a friend that “after hearing my 3rd Symphony, Rimsky-Korsakov shook his head and said ‘why don’t you do it the usual way; you will see that the audience can neither follow nor understand this’”. The heavy Russian influence of Tchaikovsky and Borodin which is heard in the 1st and 2nd Symphonies is largely absent in this work. Instead, Sibelius experiments with a technique that will become more important in his later works: static and circular music. This is demonstrated in the second movement which is heard here in this video, with the young Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Note how the lilting melody heard at the beginning continues to pass between the winds and the strings for a number of minutes, producing a certain static quality to the music. This shows Sibelius moving away from the romantic, patriotic, grandiose works such as the 1st and 2nd Symphonies and moving toward a slimmed-down, almost Classical style characterized by musical economy: containing material in the feast possible melodic figures, harmonies, and durations. Fascinating!
The Fourth Symphony of Sibelius is the toughest nut to crack of all seven Sibelius Symphonies. This symphony sounds nothing like Symphonies 1, 2, or 3. It is the most forward-looking and “modern” of all the Symphonies. It was completed in 1911: a critical time in the history of Western music. Composers such as Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartok, Ravel, and others were breaking down the traditional tonal system and experimenting with rhythm, texture, collage, and other musical elements. Commentators immediately associated the incredibly dark tone of the entire work as a foreboding of impending doom or tragedy (World War I would commence 3 years later…). When asked about the Symphony, Sibelius quoted the poet August Strindberg: “One feels pity for human beings.” On a personal level, there are two things to consider: 1) Sibelius had surgery in Berlin in 1908 where a tumor was removed from his throat. The operation was a success, but Sibelius lived in fear of death for years afterward. 2) A musical crisis; Sibelius was confronted with the changing tides of the musical world and once confessed to a friend that “the symphony stands as a protest against modern-day music. It has absolutely nothing of the circus about it.”
Composed in 1914-15, The Symphony No. 5 is considered by many to be the magnum opus of the composer and the greatest of his seven symphonies. This Symphony would be the turning point in his career: would he follow the new trends of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok, and other younger revolutionaries, or turn back to the late 19th-Century? Sibelius himself wrote: “I wished to give my Symphony another-more-human- form. More down-to-earth, more vivid.” In this remarkable video, Leonard Bernstein conducts the London Symphony in the final moments of the Symphony. It took Sibelius 6 years to complete this Symphony to his satisfaction: three versions! We hear the majestic “swan theme” that Sibelius wrote about in his diary: “April 21, 1915. Today at 10 to 11 I saw 16 swans. One of my greatest experiences. Lord God, that beauty!” It is one of the most thrilling and stirring closings to any symphony in all of music, and the surprise of the final 6 chords that bring the work tots end are simply without precinct in symphonic writing.
The Sixth Symphony is very different than the outgoing and extrovert Fifth Symphony and miles away from the Fourth Symphony. There are no negative emotional states in this work, and it is often called the “Pastoral” Symphony of Sibelius. It was completed in 1923, just three years before the composer gave up composing for the rest of his life-and he had 31 more years to live. Sibelius had this to say about the Sixth Symphony: “While other composers are serving up cocktails of every color, I’m giving my audiences pure cold water.” Isa-Pekka Salonen leads the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in this performance of the Symphony.
The final Symphony by Sibelius was completed in 1924 and is unusual in that it consists of one single movement that lasts 24 minutes. It was first performed in 1924, when it was called “Symphonic Fantasy”; only when the piece was published a year later did Sibelius call it a symphony, the last he would give to the world). Sir Simon Rattle describes the final moments of this Symphony:
“It’s almost like a scream. It’s the most depressed C major in all of musical literature. There’s no other piece that ends in C major where you feel it’s the end of the world. Look at how carefully he orchestrates is so that it doesn’t sound like a victory, but as something you reach on the edge of death. You finally reach C major – and it’s over. It should be a struggle for the strings to achieve this last note with their last bit of energy”. The underlying main idea of the Seventh Symphony is one of compression; and idea that he had been working on ever since the Third Symphony. All of the drama and development of a full four-movement symphony is compressed into a single 22-minute work.