White-Hot Conviction Propels Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony

Courtney Lewis, Conducting ElectricityLeave a Comment

Last year I made the decision to take a break from conducting over the summer of 2017. The previous few seasons had been exhausting as I flew constantly back and forth between New York, Jacksonville and other cities. A conductor’s primary task is to inspire orchestras and I was aware that the well from which such inspiration is drawn was beginning to run a little low. So between the end of May and September I conducted only one week and spent time in Madrid and Barcelona, two of my favourite cities.

My plan worked, and I find myself restored and tremendously excited about the season ahead with the Jacksonville Symphony. We really do have an embarrassment of riches this year with some of my favourite music: Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, Nielsen’s Fourth, Elgar’s First, Beethoven’s Third, Bruckner’s Seventh, and an enormous chunk of Wagner’s music drama Götterdämmerung, all with an array of world-class soloists and singers ranging from Jonathan Biss and Anthony Marwood to Christine Brewer and Renee Fleming.

Even with this abundance of masterpieces, I found myself repeatedly drawn to the music of one composer, Jean Sibelius. A long-time hero, I’ve known his music well since I was a teenager, but haven’t conducted much of it until recently. Not quite by design I suddenly found myself preparing a great deal of his music for the first time: the Second and Seventh symphonies in Jacksonville, the Violin Concerto with which we opened the season two weeks ago, his Lemminkainen Suite and terrifying and mysterious last orchestral work Tapiola with the Ulster Orchestra a few weeks ago, and his Fifth Symphony, with which we begin our Masterworks series next week.

Jean Sibelius lived from 1865 to 1957, although he completed almost nothing after the premiere of his Seventh Symphony in 1924, succumbing to the ever-tighter grip of alcoholism. The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians summarizes his contribution to music as “distinguished by startlingly original adaptations of familiar elements: unorthodox treatments of triadic harmony, orchestral colour and musical process and structure. His music evokes a range of characteristic moods and topics, from celebratory nationalism and political struggle to cold despair and separatist isolation.” He is, like so many composers of his generation, a Romantic, writing about the struggle of human existence. Yet where he veers far away from his contemporaries Mahler, Strauss and Elgar is in his use of harmony and form.

What’s musical form? Well, think of it like a carafe into which you pour wine. The musical notes are the liquid, and the form holds them together and displays them, like a carafe. Sibelius reached his musical maturity at a time when the predominant compositional trend was ‘maximalism’: everything as big as possible. Think of Mahler’s symphonies which all use huge orchestras, often last over an hour and deliberately paint as extreme an emotional landscape as possible. As Sibelius matured he found himself out of step with this trend, writing increasingly compressed symphonies that invent entirely new forms. When listening to his works we often have the impression that the shape of each piece has grown out of the musical notes, like watching a cell divide and grow under a microscope.

Sibelius wrote his Fifth Symphony between 1915 and 1918. It was a commission from the Finnish government to celebrate the composer’s 50th birthday. The commission came at a difficult time for Sibelius, who had spent nearly thirty years in the public spotlight. Now he found himself getting bad reviews due to the stylistic differences between his own music and that of the avant-garde. He began to feel eclipsed as a contending modernist by the bright stars of Schoenberg and Stravinsky.

But in April 1915 he confided in his diary: “This morning I saw a flock of sixteen swans – one of the greatest impressions of my life.” Sibelius lived in a house called Ainola (named after his wife), on the edge of a forest, an hour’s drive north of Helsinki. In one of the larger rooms there still hangs a portrait of flying swans. This image would later inspire the theme that drives the apotheosis of the Fifth Symphony.

After its 1915 premiere, Sibelius remained unhappy with the symphony, revising it extensively and combining the original first two movements into one. The resulting movement is a technical and psychological tour de force. As you might remember from the Seventh Symphony, Sibelius’s way of moving through time by combining different speeds of music is extraordinary. The first movement is a gradual transformation from the hollows of slow and sombre music to a vivid scherzo that becomes more and more hectic as it approaches its thrilling end.

The second movement seems simple after the first. It’s a quiet mediation between the drama of the first and last movements. We hear a theme played quietly in pizzicato strings, inspired by the swans that will make a much grander appearance in the finale. The movement is a set of variations.

The finale is triumphant, piecing together moments from earlier movements. Sibelius once described the process of bringing all these threads together, writing in his diary in April 10, 1915: “Spent the evening with the symphony. The disposition of the themes. This important preoccupation with its mystery and fascination. As if God the Father had thrown down pieces of mosaic out of the heaven’s floor and asked me to solve how the picture once looked.” The picture is finally solved and we hear the majestic theme Sibelius imagined as he saw the sixteen swans fly.

The symphony ends in a startling, unusual way. After the harmonic richness and fluctuations of speed, Sibelius chooses to conclude his work with a series of powerful but stark chords in the orchestra, oddly separated in time so we are left holding our breath, unsure when the next will strike. When the work ends, everything is suddenly over, and we are left with a peculiar feeling of being pulled back into the drama of the symphony that has just finished.

So what is it about this music that makes it so peculiarly individual and moving? The music gains great power from the strength of its logic. Logic isn’t something we normally think of as emotionally powerful, but all the greatest symphonic music has a sense of growing organically from its first note to its last – think of Beethoven’s Fifth or Bruckner’s Seventh in which we can follow a single idea as it grows. Then there’s its brevity: Simon Rattle has described the Fourth Symphony as Wagner’s Parsifal stuffed into a trash compactor, lasting twenty-five minutes instead of five hours.

Sibelius achieves his expressive goals with the traditional building blocks of tonal music: triads and diatonic melodies that could be played on the white notes of the piano. He isn’t interested in stretching harmony to its limits like Mahler and Strauss, but of making familiar chords sound entirely new. There’s a very famous line of conversation between Sibelius and Mahler that illustrates this. The two met in 1907 when Mahler went to Helsinki to conduct some concerts, and Sibelius presented his latest ideas about “severity of form” and the “profound logic” that should connect symphonic themes. “No!” Mahler replied. “The symphony must be like the world. It must be all-embracing.” This seems to disparage Sibelius, but for those of us who love his music, it’s a calling card. We often leave Sibelius’s music feeling fresh and revitalized. As much as I love Mahler’s music, the same cannot often be said of it. Sibelius’s use of familiar harmony gives his music a sense of honesty and wholesomeness while the power of his forms lets us travel in a kind of ergonomic, lightweight body armor.

Finally, there’s the white-hot conviction that lies behind Sibelius’s best music, especially from the Fifth Symphony onwards. Sibelius was aware that he was taking a lonely road, against the maximalism popular in Europe. His journey would end with Tapiola, a depiction of the northern forests that is often interpreted as a metaphor for suicide. But the Fifth Symphony is his most triumphant, affirmative late work, a testament to an individual’s endeavor to recreate the shape of symphonic music in an entirely modern and uncompromising way. Perhaps its this sense of individual struggle against prevailing trends – of asking the deepest philosophical questions within a rigorous and tightly-organized structure – that makes his music so popular in Britain and North America. Certainly for me there is no other composer who so uniquely satisfies both the head and the heart.

So, if you haven’t already I’d like to invite you to begin your own relationship with Jean Sibelius’s music. If you already have, the opportunity to hear the Fifth Symphony will be its own advertisement. I look forward to seeing you in Jacoby Hall on September 29 and 30.


Reprinted with the kind permission of The Florida Times-Union.

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