Sib1 Sym

Severance Hall
February 6 – Thursday at 7:30 p.m. 

February 8 – Saturday at 8:00 p.m.

Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Opus 39

Jean Sibelius  (1865-1957)
composed 1898-1899

At a Glance
Sibelius composed the first of his seven symphonies in 1898.  It was first performed on April 26, 1899, in Helsinki (Helsingfors) by the Helsinki Philharmonic under the composer’s direction.  Karl Muck introduced it to the United States on January 5, 1907, with the Boston Symphony.

This symphony runs about 40 minutes in performance.  Sibelius scored it for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, triangle), harp, and strings.

The Cleveland Orchestra first presented this symphony in January 1921 at the “New” Masonic Hall, conducted by Nikolai Sokoloff.  It has been programmed occasionally since that time, most recently in July 2016, conducted by Jahja Ling.

About the Music
At the cusp of a new century, Jean Sibelius was bracing himself to make his mark.  In 1899, the thirty-four year-old had written a few larger works, but was mainly known for a clutch of patriotic theater pieces and tone poems — including Finlandia, which would become an anthem to Finland’s resistance to Russian oppression.  (For centuries Finland had been a pawn between Russia and Sweden, and Swedish was still the language used in government paperwork and by high society up into the creation of an independent country in 1917.)

With those earlier works finished, the time had come for Sibelius to step up and write his first symphony.

First symphonies had been considered major statements in almost every composer’s catalog, especially after Beethoven so clearly transformed the symphony itself as the highest sort of musical work one could or should write.  By the mid-1800s, symphonies were understood to be a declaration of serious intent, a bid to be accepted into the pantheon of symphonic composers that featured the most famous names in classical music.  As a magnum opus for an ensemble that could comprise up to a hundred players or more, the symphony gave composers the scope and canvas to flex their creative muscles — and to take risks — while also requiring them to respect the constraints of a multi-movement form.  Brahms famously waited until he was forty-three before he dared to extend Beethoven’s legacy with his own first symphony.

Inevitably for the first outing of a major work in this genre, comparisons are invited and influences sought — by audiences and musicians, if not by the composer who has created it.  

It is often said that Sibelius’s First Symphony owes a lot to Tchaikovsky, whose Sixth Symphony of 1893, nicknamed the “Pathétique,” he had so admired.  And, yes, In Sibelius’s No. 1 there is a pathos and a Russian Romantic sweep to the string sound in the broader tunes.  But surely this has as much to do with Sibelius’s love of Italian and French opera as any Russian influence.  Stravinsky once described this aspect as “Italian melody gone north.” 

Throughout his symphonic career, Sibelius wrote full-blooded themes that lodge in the memory despite not being typically “catchy” nor based on standard melodic formulae.  Many of these draw on the gruff tones of Finnish rune-singing and the asymmetric shapes of the country’s folk tunes — the typical spoken cadence of the Kalevala — giving them a unique Nordic accent.  Thus, a Sibelius tune can be blunt and imperious, like a towering iceberg, majestic on a canvas of whites and grays (if rendered visually).  Yet, they can also express a deep yearning, built with the kind of softer melodic arches often favored by Romantic composers of the 19th century.  Either way, they are inimitable, as particular to Sibelius as the landscape he was so often describing.

The story so far
Sibelius’s First Symphony is actually his third “symphonic” work, following two large-scale pieces based on heroes from the legends of the Kalevala.  Indeed, both the Kullervo Symphony (1893) and the Lemminkäinen Suite (1895) are important orchestral statements.  But they are also hybrids, in the sense of blending the symphonic four-movement genre with the programmatic approach of a tone poem — with each movement depicting a different chapter in the hero’s adventure.  In terms of the composer’s evolution, however, they represent his first steps into the world of the symphony, while stopping short of the abstract purity and logical rigor he envisioned for his first symphony proper.

As with En Saga, Sibelius’s First Symphony testifies to a deeply original mind.  Imagine a Romantic tableau, a scene from nature perhaps.  Your eye may be caught by some highlights daubed in eerie colors, or to corners obscured in shade.  On closer inspection, however, you may see (or hear, if you are catching my drift) the small swirls and twists of the brush proliferating into the whole picture.  And you will marvel at how it holds together beautifully, one image echoed in another — one movement built from parts and parcels.  This organic growth was all part of the “profound logic” that Sibelius vaunted when famously discussing the purpose of the symphony as a genre with Gustav Mahler in 1907. 

Where Mahler would happily take the scenic route if the trajectory of his narrative demanded it, Sibelius stuck to the path preordained by the natural development of initial cell ideas of music.  Rather than be governed by a story or external concerns, Sibelius’s symphonies give the impression of being germinated from their opening bars alone, the music evolving from within itself to an extent not seen or heard before (and almost never since, either).  If Mahler was telling a story — and letting the emotional weight carry him forward — Sibelius was painting a picture or creating a fully-formed place, consistent unto itself.  

Listening to Sibelius’s First Symphony
I.  Andante, ma non troppo — Allegro Energico:  The symphony starts, if you lean in to listen closely, with a soft tremor on timpani — the sonic equivalent of rolling mist, and a sound that would become a signature trait of Sibelius’s symphonic style.  Above, a clarinet sings a lament that slowly descends through an octave, turning on itself as it falls. This slow-motion turn, another Sibelian signature, will be reflected in much of the melodic material to come, setting the path that so many of his melodies will follow.

The vigorous entry of the strings quickly dispels the soporific mood.  The brass and wind play the clarinet’s turning figure as the music is wound to a climax, the strings’ theme now played with stern authority by the whole orchestra.  That picture then dissolves into a water-color, with flutes dancing against a shimmering backdrop in the upper strings and harp, giving a hint of sylvan magic. 

A startling accelerando follows — startling, because it ends in abrupt silence and a dismissive pluck on the strings.  The first movement is filled with wrong-footings and textural contrasts such as these, with a nightmarish episode suddenly giving way to a sunlit theme, or sudden thumps in the strings sending a gentle wind tune spiralling into chaos.  Right at the end, the heavy brass dissipate into two despondent pizzicato chords. 

Thus, in this opening movement, everything is in constant flux, each section as apparently ephemeral as the last, like stage-cloths lifted one after the other to reveal a different set.  Yet despite this elusive quality, the underlying design to the movement can be felt and the music makes sense, in its original way.

2.  Andante ma non troppo lento:  Pairs of strings and winds introduce the sighing tune that will haunt this movement.  The opening paragraphs flow like a ballet, full of constant movement and beautiful gestures, whether languid or fleeting.  A solo cello strikes a few graceful poses against two flutes swaying on the points of their shoes. 

The build-ups that characterized the first movement return as the material gathers weight and a storm-like urgency.  Peace is finally re-established as the strings lull us back to the soft mood of the beginning.  With so many moods traversed in under ten minutes, this is a remarkably intense movement.

3. Scherzo:  There are echoes of both Beethoven’s and Dvořák’s Ninth symphonies in this scherzo, with tribal drums and driving pizzicato strings that eventually give way to a waltz.  The characters in this movement wear both clogs and stilettos, moving between the woods and the ballroom.  A middle section introduces a note of hesitation and repose before the tuba’s uncouth interruption prompts a return of the opening dance.

4.  Finale (Quasi una Fantasia):  The pathos in the opening cry on the strings echoes the grief-laden world of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony (“Pathétique”) — this is, indeed, where Sibelius’s remark that “there is a lot of that man in this work” rings truest.  Whatever the Slavic overtones, this tune is in fact a version of the forlorn clarinet melody that opens the first movement, this time recast as a mass mourning. 

The tone remains subdued but tense as the suspense slowly builds.  Eventually, the waves crest in clashes of cymbals, rattling drums, and a dramatic free-wheeling descent in the strings — bringing to mind the “Fantasia” of the movement’s title.  Once you hear this, you can sit back and relish the fact that the biggest tune of the work is on its way.  It is unashamedly opulent, with the strings at their most unrestrained — and Sibelius at his most open-hearted.

The turbulence returns, however, with grim inevitability, this time even more exciting than before.  There is a wildness to the music now that competes with the big string tune when it, too, returns to the mêlée.  The question is which will win out in the end, the wild chase or the romance? 

Neither, as it turns out.  The romantic tune breaks down as the movement slows and turns a corner back into its tragic home key of E minor.  The path at the end seems to lead nobly upwards, but the drum-roll returns like a specter from the first movement and the music stops mid-air, halted, as it was in that opening movement, by two peremptory pizzicato chords.  It is this final gesture of bathos — and the symphony’s many unexpected twists and turns — that clearly signal Sibelius’s musical vision for the century to come.

Jonathan James © 2020