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8.550200 - SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 5
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Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 82
En Saga, Op. 9
Belshazzar's Feast, Op. 51

 

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. His musical abilities 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.

After the completion of the Fourth Symphony, Sibelius turned his attention to its successor, which was performed in its first version in 1915 in celebration of his fiftieth birthday. The intervening years had brought the usual swings of mood, accentuated by anxieties about money and about his position in the world of music. In 1914 there were honours from the University of Helsinki and from Yale, which offered him doctorates, and an invitation from Horatio Parker in America to conduct his new tone poem The Oceanides at Karl Stoeckel's Norfolk Festival. His reception in America was encouraging and he mentioned in a letter to his psychiatrist brother Christian in Finland the possibility of a concert tour in the United States that would solve all their financial problems.

In Finland the war of 1914 accentuated the divisions that already existed in society, with support for Germany from those who were fiercely anti-Russian and the emergence later of a Finnish Red Guard attempting to seize power for the new Communist régime that had succeeded in establishing itself in Russia. Historical divisions in Finland itself still persisted between the Swedish-speaking ruling classes, to which Sibelius belonged, and the Finnish-speaking people, whose cause the composer's wife's distinguished family had long espoused, In 1917 Finland declared its independence and a subsequent civil war ended with victory to the "white" forces, under General von Mannerheim.

Sibelius finished the final version of his Fifth Symphony in 1919, As early as 1912 he had spoken of the work in apocalyptic fashion, declaring that he saw himself in a deep valley, with the mountain that he should ascend visible before him - "God opens His door for a moment and His orchestra plays the Fifth Symphony". In structure the work is closely interwoven. In its first form it had four movements, while the final version brings together the first two of these. The first movement opens with the horns in an expansive mood, followed by the woodwind in thirds, with the entry of the strings delayed, leading to the rising tension of tremolo strings, as the music moves forward towards the second subject. The centre of the movement takes the place of a scherzo, with a solo trumpet theme, suggesting what is to follow in the last movement, the counterpart of a recapitulation, although some have proposed other analytical explanations of the novel composite form of the movement.

The second movement is in the form of a G major theme and variations, its opening melody given to pizzicato strings and flutes in thirds, and providing a rhythmic unity to the music, as it moves from the idyllic to the passionate. The massive finale starts with the busy swelling activity of the strings, after which the well known theme that dominates the movement emerges in all its strength, with a secondary accompanying theme from the woodwind.

Sibelius had returned to Finland from study in Berlin and Vienna in 1891. The following year he married Aino Järnefelt. During this period he wrote the purely orchestral work En Saga, which he completely revised in 1902, introducing changes in orchestral lay-out and in harmony. The work is general rather than particular in its extra-musical reference, reflecting in a symphonic poem the nature rather than the detail of Scandinavian sagas of ancient oral tradition.

Sibelius provided incidental music for various stage productions, including Maeterlinck's Pelléas et Mélisande in 1905, and music for an otherwise undistinguished play Belshazzar's Feast (Belsazars gästabud) by the composer's friend Hjalmar Procopé in 1906. Sibelius devised a concert suite from the whole score the following year. The story of the play is in general the familiar one and both the concert suite and the incidental music itself open with an Oriental March, setting the atmosphere of Belshazzar's kingdom of Babylon. Solitude, originally The JewIsh Girl's Song, with a delicate accompanying string ostinato, is followed by evocative Night Music and a final dance, derived from the original Songs of Life and Death.

Keith Anderson


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