JEAN SIBELIUS (1865–1957)
SYMPHONY No. 5 in E flat
Composed: 1915, revised 1916 and 1919
Premiered: Helsinki, Finland, 1915 (original version); 1916 (first revision); 1919 (final version, heard this evening)
- Tempo molto moderato—Allegro moderato (ma poco a poco stretto)—Vivace molto—Presto—Più Presto
- Andante mosso, quasi allegretto—Poco a poco stretto—Tranquillo—Poco a poco stretto—Ritenuto al tempo I
- Allegro molto—Misterioso—Un pochettino largamente—Largamente assai—Un pochettino stretto
Only two composers have ever been written by name into the laws of their country; both, strangely enough, were in one way or another foreigners in the country concerned. The official rubric for a British coronation contains the phrase “here shall be played Mr. Handel’s Zadok the Priest” at the moment when the crown is placed on the monarch’s head. Handel, a German, was one of the first persons to be naturalized as a citizen of the British (as opposed to English) state. Sibelius’ presence in the law books is more prosaic: a lifetime alcoholic, he was excluded by name from Finland’s stringent alcohol distribution regulations. The law forbidding the maritime transport of booze on a Sunday has a specific exclusion for boats going to Sibelius’ private island. Weirdly, sixty years after the composer’s death, the exception is still in force.
Sibelius became, and remains, Finland’s “national” composer, but he was well into his twenties before he even began to consider himself Finnish. He only spoke labored, broken Finnish; he was born into Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority, most of whom considered themselves to be Swedes and their Finnish-speaking neighbors to be barbarians. His wife was an ethnic Finn, and simply refused to speak Swedish to him, so he had to learn. His German was excellent, however. The letter from the Finnish government commissioning the Fifth Symphony on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday was written in such flowery Finnish that Mrs. Sibelius had to translate it for him.
One musicologically significant afternoon in 1907, Sibelius was taking an after-lunch stroll with Gustav Mahler, who wound up with the miserable task of more or less carrying Sibelius home after he topped up with Schnaps at the top of a mountain. While still coherent, Sibelius told Mahler that what he liked about the symphony as a form was its logic and precision; Mahler, disagreeing fiercely, declared that the symphony must be “like a world,” embracing all emotions and musical forms. More or less from that day, the symphony—even music itself—split into two camps: Mahlerian universality (Berg, Britten, Shostakovich) and Sibelian logic (Walton, Arnold, Harris). Yet the truth is that Sibelius’ supposedly absolute music is as emotionally all-encompassing as anything in Mahler.
Much critical ink has been spilt on the structure of the symphony—especially the first movement. Does it have two expositions? Is the recapitulation in the wrong place? As so often, the answer is simple: there were originally two movements, which gradually coalesced in the composer’s mind into a single edifice. What really does matter structurally is the opening horn call, which contains most of the musical material for the entire symphony. This principle was taken to an almost disturbing extreme by William Walton, whose awe-inspiring First Symphony does exactly the same thing in more or less the same way. The least baffling analysis of the first movement describes it as having two expositions, a Scherzo (the waltz-like section, replacing much of the development, itself partly redundant because of the size of the exposition) and a recapitulation. The structurally minded listener has much to do; it is far less intellectually strenuous to simply listen to that horn call grinding through the grim Scandinavian mill, leaving twitching hunks of romanticism in its wake. No wonder the Russians left.
The second movement seems almost like a vacation after the Herculean architectonic slavings of the first; it is a theme and variations, built around the flute melody heard at the outset over pizzicato strings. But—at the risk of evoking the first movement—compare it to the work’s opening horn call, and learn how composition really works.
The finale begins with a definitively Sibelian gesture: tremolando strings picking out a melody derived from the work’s opening, leading to a swaying horn melody usually referred to as the “swan call.” It is alleged (not by Sibelius, of course) to have been inspired by the composer seeing sixteen swans take off simultaneously from his private lake (to avoid the booze boat?) By way of a sidelight, connoisseurs of bad music will also recognize it as the fade tag of First Class’s hit Beach Baby—ironically, the sort of fate that only befalls really great music. (There are worse—much worse—examples.) The “swan call” itself becomes the underlay for another mighty Sibelian melody; the two are then developed in a more or less orthodox manner (at least by the standards of the first movement) until the Melody makes its final bow in an opulent E flat major.
The work closes with one of the most famous moments in Sibelius’s music. What could have been a fairly conventional series of cadence chords is spaced out over several measures, each chord hammered like a rivet into a wall of resonance. In Sibelius’ hands, the ultimate orchestral instrument is the hall.
About the Concert
Conducted by Catherine Ferguson.