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ClassicsOnline Home » SIBELIUS: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39
Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52
The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius was born in 1865, the son of a doctor, in a small town in the south of Finland. The language and culture of his family, as with others of their class and background at the time, was Swedish. It was at school that Sibelius was to learn Finnish and acquire his first real interest in the early legends of a country that had become an autonomous grand-duchy of the Tsar of Russia in the period after the defeat of Charles XII of Sweden at Poltava in 1709. Throughout the later nineteenth century there were divisions between the Swedish-speaking upper classes and the Finnish-speaking people, the cause of the latter embraced by influential nationalists, and accentuated by the repressive measures instituted by Tsar Nicholas II, before the revolution of 1905. In this society Sibelius was deeply influenced by his association with the family of General Järnefelt, whose daughter Aino became his wife. Nevertheless Swedish remained his mother tongue, in which he expressed himself with greater fluency than in Finnish.
The musical abilities of Sibelius were soon realised, although not developed early enough to suggest music as a possible profession, until he had entered university in Helsinki as a law student. His first ambition had been to be a violinist. It later became apparent that any ability he had in this respect – and here his own violin concerto would have offered insurmountable technical difficulties for him – was far outweighed by his gifts as a composer, developed first by study in Helsinki with Martin Wegelius, then with the pedantic Becker in Berlin and with Goldmark, and more effectively, with Robert Fuchs in Vienna.
In Finland once more, Sibelius won almost immediate success in 1892 with a symphonic poem, Kullervo, based on an episode from the Finnish epic, the Kalevala. There followed compositions of particular national appeal that further enhanced his reputation in Helsinki, including the incidental music to the student patriotic pageant Karelia, En Saga and the Lemminkäinen Suite.
During this period Sibelius supported himself and his wife by teaching, as well as by composition and the performance of his works, but it proved difficult for him to earn enough, given, as he was, to bouts of extravagance, continuing the practice of his days as a student. In 1896 he was voted the position of professor at the University of Helsinki, but the committee's decision was overturned in favour of Robert Kajanus, the experienced founder and conductor of the first professional orchestra in Helsinki. As consolation for his disappointment, Sibelius was awarded a government stipend for ten years, and this was later changed into a pension for life. The sum involved was never enough to meet his gift for improvidence, inherited, perhaps, from his father, who, at his death in 1868, had left his family bankrupt.
Sibelius continued his active career as a composer until 1926, his fame increasing at home and abroad. The successful First Symphony of 1898 was followed by the still more successful Finlandia. Busoni had tried to arrange the publication of his music by the benefactor of later Russian musical nationalism, Belyayev, on the plea that Finns were, in a sense, Russians, or at least citizens of a Russian grand-duchy. This came to nothing, but publication by Breitkopf and Härtel ensured a wider public abroad than provincial Finland could ever have offered.
The Second Symphony, in 1902, won an unprecedented success in Helsinki. This was followed by the Violin Concerto, a Third Symphony and, after an illness that put an end for the moment to any indulgence in alcohol and tobacco, a Fourth, with travel to the major musical centres of Europe and international honour. The Fifth Symphony was written during the war, after which Sibelius wrote only four more works of any substance, the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, incidental music for Shakespeare's The Tempest and, in 1926, the symphonic poem Tapiola. An Eighth Symphony was completed in 1929, but destroyed. The rest was silence. For the last 25 years of his life Sibelius wrote nothing, now isolated from and largely antipathetic to contemporary trends in music. His reputation in Britain and America remained high, although there were inevitable reactions to the excessive enthusiasm of his supporters. On the continent of Europe he failed to recapture the position that he had earlier known in pre-war Germany, in France and in Vienna. He died in 1957 at the age of 91.
Sibelius completed his Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Opus 39, in 1898 and it received its first performance in April the following year under the direction of the composer in a concert that also included his new Song of the Athenians, a work that used a text by Viktor Rydberg and was seen as an immediate response to the Russianising policies of the Governor-General Bobrikov, who was later assassinated by a Finnish patriot. The choral work and the symphony were welcomed with equal warmth, although critics at once sought a possible programme for the second of these, seeing it as a sequel to earlier orchestral works of overt national programmatic content.
The first movement of the symphony starts with a long-drawn clarinet melody, over the sound of the timpani. After this the strings enter, suggesting first the tonality of G major rather than E minor. The introduction contains the seed of what follows in the tripartite Allegro, with its two subjects, the gentler second related to the first. There is a central development and recapitulation, although the great sweep of the music may conceal the underlying structure. The poetic and strongly felt Andante is again closely interwoven in its material, with a central contrapuntal episode for bassoons for which Sibelius claimed a strongly Finnish character, and a return of its intensely romantic first theme. The Scherzo bursts upon the listener, its opening rhythm repeated with vehemence by the timpani. To this the central trio offers a tranquil contrast. Influenced, perhaps, by the Symphonie pathétique of Tchaikovsky that he had heard in Helsinki two years before, Sibelius uses the clarinet melody of the opening of the symphony to start the last movement, now entrusted to the violins that impart to it a greater degree of poignant yearning, a feeling that finally prevails, before the resignation of the last chords.
In 1905 Sibelius visited England for the first time, at the invitation of Granville Bantock, through whose agency, and that of Henry Wood and others, his music had begun to create a very favourable impression both in the provinces and in London. The composer was, in turn, favourably impressed by the English and the practical result of his brief stay was a commission from the Royal Philharmonic Society for anew symphony, his third, to be performed under his direction early in 1907. In the event the work was delayed and was performed for the first time in Helsinki in September in a programme that included the symphonic fantasia Pohjola's Daughter, music of more obvious contemporary appeal. It was introduced to the St Petersburg public in November, when its first two movements, at least, pleased Rimsky-Korsakov, who commented on its difference from Russian music, although he added that the apparent originality might be simply superficial. Glazunov had taken exception to the closing material, the sinister hushed and relatively discordant scale in contrary motion, of the first-movement exposition, but the performance of the work in St Petersburg is an indication of the international attention that Sibelius was now receiving. The composer conducted the new symphony, dedicated to Granville Bantock, in London in 1908.
Symphony No. 3 in C major, Opus 52, is classical in its proportions and in general lacks the overtly national characteristics of the earlier and later symphonies of Sibelius. The first movement opens with material that, as it is developed, is bound to suggest, if only fleetingly, Mahler in his favourite countryside. An unusual and harmonically remote minor key is chosen for the second subject and the exposition ends with a curious scale in discordant contrary motion, followed by a closely argued central development, before the return of the first theme in recapitulation, with its second subject in a key to correspond to its earlier appearance. The unusual key of G sharp minor is chosen for the slow movement, giving it an immediate feeling of remoteness, with its gentle woodwind melody accompanied by plucked strings, growing in intensity and leading to a deeply felt passage for strings, joined by the woodwind. Closely integrated material, analysed either as a form of rondo or even, if the relationship of the episodic material is thought close enough, as variations, leads to a final movement that starts as a scherzo. There are references to something of what has passed and a fragmented thematic texture, before the emergence of a hymn-like theme, which is used to lead to a conclusion of ultimate triumph.
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SIBELIUS: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3