London Symphony Orchestra
All Music Guide
All Music Guide
===== Symphony No. 1, for orchestra in E minor Op. 39
The 1890s were a time of both great turmoil and great hope for the people of Finland, and, although he grew up in a Swedish-speaking family, Jean Sibelius stood proudly among the Finnish patriots. Sibelius made little effort to restrain his ardent nationalism when he began composing his First Symphony in 1898, and indeed, the spirit of Nordic folk music positively saturates the score. Like the Second Symphony that would follow in just a few years, this first essay in symphonic form is a sweeping Romantic epic of highly individual expression that, though somewhat leaner in musical means (as compared to the composer's own later works in the genre), wholly deserves its special place in the repertory.
Cast in the four standard movements, the Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39 is Sibelius' first purely instrumental work to bear such a title (the early Kullervo Symphony employed chorus). Although much of the First Symphony is deeply indebted, somewhat ironically, to the Russian school-the broad lyricism reminds one of Tchaikovsky, as do the sharp brass attacks which crop up periodically-the first hints of the kind of organic unity which would come to dominate Sibelius' symphonic output can easily be heard.
After the introductory clarinet solo, the body of the first movement follows (Allegro energico). The melancholy of the clarinet's E minor is discarded in favor of a G major theme. Sprightly harp figures and a staccato oboe tune begin the second theme area, while the development is filled with sharp brass outbursts and sparse imitation, often pizzicato or tremolo. The recapitulation occurs in a somewhat unusual fashion, as a subsidiary motive to the primary idea is presented in the home key of G major before the dramatic arrival of the main theme is affected. During the coda, the ominous brass chords in E minor seem to hint at a fateful conclusion, but the final two, terse pizzicato chords dispel any such idea.
Typical of the composer's earlier works, the First Symphony's harmonic language is an almost paradoxical combination of the warmth Sibelius must have inherited from the Russian tradition of Borodin and Tchaikovsky, and an iciness very particular to Sibelius. The principal melody of the lovely, lyric Andante (ma non troppo lento) is a potent example of this powerfully individual language.
The Scherzo (Allegro) is robust, with a main idea built on three repeated quarter-note "C's" (in 3/4 time) and a neighbor-note figure that emphasizes the lowered seventh scale-degree. Pizzicati are provided by the lower strings to support this weighty motive. The trio section calls back to the lyric second movement for its inspiration.
The Finale (Quasi una Fantasia) opens with a restatement of the clarinet tune that opened the work, now voiced by all the strings against intimidating brass chords. A mysterious introduction follows, breathlessly arriving at a hasty Allegro molto and, fifteen bars later, the movement's highly rhythmic primary theme. The development is, as one would expect, both highly imitative and quite stormy. The re-statement of the main theme in the home key of E minor is marked by the dance feel of the triangle and timpani. No other passage in all of Sibelius can rival, in terms of breadth and overt passion, the re-working of the lyrical second theme (very similar to the melody of the slow movement) during the recapitulation. The epic-sounding conclusion in E minor is roughly curtailed, and Sibelius, who was rarely one to end a piece in text-book fashion, instead provides a few quiet pizzicato chords as the close. - Blair Johnston
===== Symphony No. 3, for orchestra in C major, Op. 52
Jean Sibelius' reputation rests more squarely on the shoulders of his orchestral music than does that of almost any other major composer. He is certainly one of the most important symphonic composers to emerge in the post-Beethoven era, and yet one can make no sweeping statement in which each of his seven essays in the form are summed up concisely. While his highly individual techniques of motivic development and interconnection are present, to some degree, in the pair of popular and unabashedly lush symphonies with which he began his explorations of symphonic form, it is arguably with the Symphony No.3 in C major, Op.52 that Sibelius' powers first display themselves in full regalia.
The Third Symphony is occasionally referred to as the "English" Symphony, because of Sibelius' extended trip to Britain in late 1905 which seems to have affected to some degree the outlines of the still-gestating work. Completed by 1907, it is a work whose lean textures, orchestration, and dimensions continue to be disconcerting to listeners whose familiarity with the composer comes from the thicker, more epic Second Symphony.
The Symphony commences with a vigorously rhythmic statement by the lower strings. The primary "theme" is really an assortment of related (but at this point still disconnected) motivic fragments: the opening idea in the celli and bassi, a following sprightly woodwind tune, a dotted figure in the violins, and a noble idea in triplets first asserted by the horns and woodwinds as the opening passage reaches its climax. Sibelius makes a sudden dramatic shift to B minor to begin his secondary theme material. However, this fine cello melody soon disintegrates into running sixteenth-notes that derive from the sprightly woodwind tune mentioned above. Sibelius cunningly overlaps the development and recapitulation. Now, after a slightly extended presentation of the opening motivic group, the second theme is played out in E minor against a harsh, fortissimo woodwind background. Once again the running sixteenths ensue, but before they have a chance to take over completely Sibelius makes another unusual transition, this time to a noble coda.
Even more interesting is the second movement, marked Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto and set in the key of G sharp minor. The gentle, fragmented dance tune first presented, quite shyly (pianissimo dolce), by the flutes, is perfect in its blend of gracefulness and melancholy. As this theme plays out Sibelius makes effective use of a brief connecting figure in the clarinets and of an attractive cross-rhythm. The elaborated repetition of all this material winds down to a mournful G sharp minor close to prepare the way for a schizophrenic central section.
Formally speaking, the Finale is entirely unprecedented: it cannot be described as any of the standard forms, and, indeed, it seems in many ways to defy even the very principles on which those forms were originally based. This energetic movement takes some time to get moving, first running through some scherzando string passages and a brief reprise of the second movement tune before finally arriving at the steady Allegro eighth-notes that will carry the rest of the movement. After a thrilling climax in A flat major, a new and robust theme emerges in the lower strings. Soon this idea comes to dominate the proceedings, and little thought is given either to any other material or, indeed, save for two brief digressions to E minor, to any triad other than C major. The motoric drive persists to the very end. - Blair Johnston
Jean Sibelius' Finlandia became the composer's most enduring work in part because of the political climate in Finland at the time of its creation. Russia imposed a strict censorship policy on the small nation in 1899. In October of that year, Sibelius composed a melodrama to Finnish writer Zachria Topelius' poem The Melting of the Ice on the Ulea River, which is marked by a particularly patriotic fervor; "I was born free and free will I die" is typical of its sentiments, and one of which Sibelius took particular note. The following month saw a fund-raising gala organized by the Finnish press. While its ostensible purpose was to raise money for newspaper pension funds, it was in fact a front for rallying support for a free press at a time when the czarist hold on the country was tightening.
Sibelius extracted six tableaux from his melodrama for a performance intended to provide a celebratory end to the gathering on November 4. Innocuously titled Music for Press Ceremony, the score concluded with "Finland Awakens," which Sibelius reworked into an independent symphonic poem in the following year. Following the suggestion of his artistic confidant Axel Carpelan, he retitled this rousing patriotic essay Finlandia; since that time, the work has virtually become Finland's second national anthem. Because of censorship restrictions, the work was most often performed under the not-altogether-apt title "Impromptu" until Finland gained independence following World War I.
The work opens with a questioning, vaguely ominous brass progression that evokes the "powers of darkness" from Topelius' text, setting off a colorful drama that is at turns reflective, jubilant, and militant. Most famous, though, is a hymn-like theme which makes its first appearance in an atmosphere of quiet reverence; by the end of the work, it has become a powerful statement of triumph. Indeed, Finlandia is a clear precursor to the composer's symphonies, in which the orchestra so often assumes the role of an ever-strengthening, defiant juggernaut. - All Music Guide