About this Recording
8.550197 - SIBELIUS: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 6

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39
Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op. 104


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 completed his First Symphony in 1899, after a series of earlier symphonic poems, in which he had shown his mastery of orchestration and his tendency, as a violinist and a conductor, to think in orchestral terms. His ability as a pianist was limited, a fact demonstrated in his generally less satisfactory writing for the keyboard, although ideas would occur to him as he improvised at the piano. The first performance of the symphony was given in Helsinki in April 1899 under the direction of the composer in a concert that included his new Song of the Athenians, the text taken from a poem by Viktor Rydberg, a work that was an immediate response to the Russianizing policies of the Governor-General Bobrikov, who was later assassinated by a Finnish patriot. The choral work was received with enthusiasm and the symphony equally welcomed, although attempts to seek a programme for it where immediately made by critics accustomed to the earlier overtly programmatic tone poems.

The first movement of the symphony opens with a long-drawn clarinet melody, after which the strings enter, suggesting first the tonality of G major rather than E minor. The form is the traditional tripartite first movement form of the classical symphony, with two groups of themes followed by a central development and a shortened recapitulation, a fact of which we may be unaware in the strongly felt sweep of the music. It is followed by an Andante in which once again the material is closely interwoven, although bound together by the re-appearance of the first theme. In this movement the composer claimed that a fugal passage for wind allowed the bassoons to add a tone-colour that was strongly Finnish in character. The Scherzo bursts upon us, its opening rhythm repeated with vehemence by the timpani. To this the central trio offers a tranquil contrast. Like Tchaikovsky in his Symphonie pathètique, which he had heard in Helsinki two years before, Sibelius uses the clarinet melody with which the symphony opened to start the final movement, although the theme is now transformed into a mood of tragic yearning, a mood that prevails.

Sibelius made sketches for his Sixth Symphony while at work on the Fifth, which he followed with a group of Humoresques for violin and orchestra and smaller pieces. The new symphony was completed in 1923 and first performed in Helsinki in April, followed by performances in Stockholm and Gothenburg. He had planned a work wild and passionate, with pastoral contrasts and a stormy finale. The symphony opens with a long-drawn Dorian melody from the strings, in a movement that might once have been envisaged as part of a new violin concerto, which he had unsuccessfully proposed to his publishers Breitkopf and Härtel. The thematic material remains predominantly modal as the music unfolds. This leads abruptly enough to a second movement of gentle mystery, apparently simple in its material and seeming to draw something of its inspiration from the countryside of Finland. The symphony ends with a movement that has its moments of tempest before the simplicity of a melody proposed by the strings, a reminiscence of the runic melodies to which the verses of the Kalevala were traditionally sung, although something more momentous grows from this material, before the wistful conclusion.

Keith Anderson

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