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8.550199 - SIBELIUS: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4
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Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52
Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63

 

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.

Sibelius followed his Second Symphony with a violin concerto, written originally at the prompting of Willy Burmester, but entrusted finally to other players. Its technical difficulties, which the composer, as a violinist, well understood, had been modified by 1905 in a thorough revision that caused him much trouble but gave the work its present form and standard place in the solo repertoire. In the autumn of 1904 he moved into the new house he had built in the country near Järvenpäá and for which he had borrowed further. The pension he received from the state and the regular payments that his loyal supporter Axel Carpelan had been able to raise from patrons were generally insufficient for his needs, which included drinking bouts in Helsinki with his friends, a habit that it seemed a move to the country might restrict. The sale by his principal Finnish publisher of earlier works to Breitkopf and Härtel brought him a disproportionately low return, particularly for Valse triste, a piece that might have made a fortune for him. A new contract with the German publisher Robert Lienau, according to which Sibelius was bound to supply four major works a year, proved impossible of fulfill.

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 a new symphony 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 new symphonic fantasia Pohjola's Daughter, music of more obvious appeal at the time. Sibelius conducted the new symphony, dedicated to Granville Bantock, in London in 1908.

The Third Symphony is relatively classical in proportion and lacks the overtly national characteristics of the earlier and later symphonies. The first movement opens with a theme played by cellos and double basses, with a B minor second theme from the cellos, before the music moves to its expected dominant tonality, followed by the closing group played by the strings, before the central development and recapitulation.

The second movement has an air of mystery about it, in the remote key of G sharp minor and with its gentle opening woodwind melody, accompanied by plucked strings, growing in intensity and leading to a deeply felt passage for strings, which the wind instruments join. Closely integrated material leads immediately to a final movement, which opens as a scherzo from which a final theme emerges to end the symphony in ultimate triumph.

In 1908 Sibelius underwent successful treatment in Berlin for a throat tumour. One result of his illness was an end, for the moment, to his habits of drinking and cigar-smoking, abstinence that continued for seven lean years. At the same time there were recurrent money difficulties, as his debts accumulated. The state pension was never sufficient to meet more than a small fraction of his expenses, and once again he was saved by the intervention of Carpelan, who arranged support for him. In 1909 he ended his contract with Robert Lienau and returned to Breitkopf and Härtel, a change that relieved him, at least, from the immediate pressure of providing four substantial compositions a year, an obligation he had been unable to meet.

The Fourth Symphony, completed at the beginning of April 1911 in time for a first puzzling performance in Helsinki, had occupied Sibelius intermittently for some eighteen months, its progress interrupted by material anxieties and by other commissions. The symphony represents a change of mood from its immediate predecessor, its original inspiration the mountains of Northern Karelia, although it is in no way programmatic or pictorial in content, as some early critics suggested. The first movement opens with a motif "as harsh as Fate", in the composer's works, from which the principal theme emerges with a solo cello, to continue its development in Canon, followed by a shift in tonality already implied in the opening to the key of F sharp major.

The second movement serves as a scherzo, its happier mood darkened by a reiteration of the characteristic interval of a tritone, already a feature of the first movement, contrasted with a slow section that takes the place of a trio, if it is possible to use conventional terms of analysis in describing a movement of some formal complexity. The slow movement that follows falls into three sections, the longest at its heart, drawing their substance from the principal theme, which only gradually emerges. The final movement is a rondo in form, its scoring unconventionally brightened by the inclusion of a glockenspiel and the inspired use of the solo cello. The development introduces material suggested by an abortive setting of Edgar Allan Poe's poem The Raven, commissioned while Sibelius was working on the fourth movement of the symphony, but never finished. The desolate conclusion, with its descending oboe motif, defies the tradition that had dictated a finale in the form of a song of triumph. The Fourth Symphony ends in bleak pessimism, an expression of a frequent mood of the composer and perhaps of the increasingly difficult political and social circumstances in which Finland now found herself.

Keith Anderson


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