About this Recording
8.550198 - SIBELIUS: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 7
English 

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105

 

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 being Swedish. It was at school that he was to learn Finnish and to acquire his first interest in the early legends of a country that had become an autonomous grand-duchy under the Tsar of Russia, after the defeat of Charles XII of Sweden. 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 the composer's wife. Nevertheless Swedish remained his mother tongue, in which he expressed himself more fluently than in Finnish.

The musical abilities of Sibelius were soon realised, although not developed early enough to suggest music as a 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 as a violinist - and here his own violin concerto would have defeated him - was 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 from 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 a 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 sufficient to meet a 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 for the publication of his music by Belyayev, on the excuse 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 offer. 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 his indulgence in alcohol and tobacco, a Fourth Symphony, 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 works of any substance, his 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, remaining 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.

The year 1900 brought Sibelius an opportunity for wider contact with the world outside Finland, with a tour by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, ending with concerts at the Paris Exhibition. In the same year Sibelius found a patron in the dilettante Axel Carpelan, a man who lacked the resources of Tchaikovsky's Nadezhda von Meck but who was able to persuade money from others and was liberal in offering advice. Carpelan recommended a visit to Italy and provided enough money to make this a possibility for Sibelius, his patient wife Aino and his children. Time was spent in Berlin on the way south, but it was in Italy that the first sketches of the Second Symphony were made, including the principal theme of the second movement, which occurred to him in connection with the story of Don Juan and the idea suggested by the garden of the villa at Rapallo. In Florence he sketched the second idea for the Andante of the new symphony, writing above the word "Christus", and his thoughts now turned to a work based on the Divina Commedia.

In Finland once more Sibelius was able to work seriously on his new symphony, which he completed early in 1902 and conducted at a series of concerts in Helsinki in March. Audiences in Finland, where feelings of nationalism now ran high, were eager to find a patriotic statement of protest in the work, a programme that later writers have sometimes chosen to impose on the music. The first movement of the symphony seems to move from the northern mists of Finland to a sunnier world, and critics have noted the pastoral atmosphere apparent here and in the trio of the third movement, with its pattern of repeated notes. The Andante, in origin at least, suggests Don Juan's mysterious guest, Death, and his defeat by Christ, and the scherzo adds a movement of busy turbulence and a repetition of the trio, with its pastoral oboe melody, leads directly to the grandiose principal theme of the heroic finale, darkened by the Finnish second theme and its sinister accompanying figure.

Sibelius completed his Seventh Symphony in 1924. He had in 1918 explained something of his intentions to his friend and supporter Axel Carpelan, to whose perceptive advice and altruistic practical help he owed so much. There should be an air of Weltschmerz, with added energy and passion; the symphony would be in three movements, of which the last was to be a "Hellenic" rondo. These ideas were modified in a symphony that, with hindsight, may seem to summarise the composer's formal achievement. The work is cast in one movement, which opens and closes with an Adagio, embracing a scherzo and a rondo, and may be considered in one aspect as a continuous single movement or otherwise as four connected movements, of which the last recalls the first. The achievement is a remarkable one, marking not only the climax of the composer's own work as a symphonist but the logical apotheosis of the symphony itself, an organic structure, in which motifs are inextricably interwoven into one gigantic unity.

Keith Anderson


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