Jean Sibelius: Symphony no. 2 in D major, Op. 43

performed by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Simon Rattle (or below in an equally wonderful recording with the Lahti Symphony under Osmo Vänskä)

This one’s been brewing a while. It has been the most thorough preparation of any post so far.

I flew back to America last minute at the beginning of the month, and was only there a week. It’s a long haul, so I thought the plane flights would be a nice time to get a few listens under my belt while I couldn’t do any research online. I did get through a few listens, but zonked out and slept in and out through three of them. I was too lazy to get the iPod out and see where I was in the piece, so all I got out of those were a few stunningly beautiful passages. It was a busy week in America, and I knot had time to give Mozart Monday a quick half hour. It wasn’t until my return flight and airports and a layover that I was able to devote serious attention to this piece, and… My heavens is this not one of the most beautiful and amazing works I have ever heard. It is breathtakingly brilliant.

I don’t know where to start.

The first movement is very accessible. It’s dripping with a northern-European post romanticism reminiscent of Tchaikovsky (but I’ll get to that in a bit). There’s just so much stuff in this whole piece that I adore. There’s a bit early in the first movement where things calm down and the flute gets a small solo line. The bassoons echo it back in an amazing harmonic almost choral beauty. It makes me all goosebumpy.

To speak of the first movement is to introduce why this piece is so amazing. It’s a story; the whole piece has a narrative and it grows organically and unassumingly from three little notes in the first bars of the first movement. It has melodies and lyricism that feel like they’ve grown right out of the ground, planted in those opening bars. It feels like such a natural, organic progression to hear the piece develop in the first movement. These melodies grab you and don’t let go. Sibelius has a talent for melodies here like Tchaikovsky, just shimmeringly brilliant and moving.

The second movement is longer and maybe even more dramatic. It begins quietly and develops with a large amount of emotion and a tinge of tragedy or sorrow. It’s quite a large movement and expresses a number of emotions, but towards the end, reaches a fiery, almost angry climax before leading into the third movement, the shortest “vivacissimo”, an apt name. This movement also is dramatic and lively, but not void of emotional variation and feeling. Nothing here is one note (as the saying goes) or boring.

The fourth movement may be my favorite, as it’s kind of the culmination of the entire piece (obviously). This symphony has such a drama to it, almost like a ballet. There’s an “ad astra per aspera” feeling, calling to mind the underdog or a small individual or group, who through tribulation and experience and difficulty (the second and third movements) grows to become a grand, fully-matured hero. Through this piece, one is hearing the development and progress and tightly woven narrative of this (these) character(s) and everything comes together in success and triumph and celebration at the end. It is a journey, and just as with good character development, we come to know and sympathize with the protagonist from the very beginning, even fall in love with him/her and follow his story throughout this piece. It is emotional and moving, and one feels they have grown along with our hero.

This is an entirely different feeling from another symphony I really enjoyed a few weeks ago: Scott’s symphony number 1. It’s great writing, and has some direction, but it doesn’t read like a narrative, it doesn’t beg you to follow along in the story and experience it yourself like Sibelius does here. Rather, it plays out like an extremely well-executed writing exercise, with clever, pleasant writing and a balance and variety of textures and emotions, but not much to tie it together. Granted, Sibelius was already 37 when this piece was finished in 1902, only three years after Scott’s symphony was premiered in 1899 when he was still a child. So part of the feeling of this piece comes from maturity, and the political climate Sibelius was in at the time. I know nearly nothing of Finnish history, but this piece was written at a time when it was heavily controlled by Russia, and was vying for independence. There is debate over whether Sibelius intended this piece to be a nationalistic statement, but without knowledge of the circumstances, I must say the narrative I heard would certainly apply.

As for similarities to Tchaikovsky: I find it a bit ironic that a Finnish composer in the late romantic era living in a nation oppressed by the Russians would sound so… Russian. The things I love about this symphony are the things I love about Tchaikovsky’s symphonies as well: tightly written, endearing and emotional, identifiable motifs that form the structure of the entire symphony. They are strikingly memorable and beautiful, and are easy to recognize as they morph and reappear and become more familiar even through modulation and modifications. It feels like home, and it creates a warm, cozy feeling that makes you want to go back and listen all over again, just like you’d go back to read a book you loved from high school or catch up with an old friend. Maybe that sounds a little mushy or extreme, but my goodness do I love it. Not to come down on the Scott symphony, cuz it is nice too, but it does NOT have the logic and narrative structure that a piece like this does, and that brings it to an entirely new level of artistry to weave together 45 minutes of music that is not only beautiful, but tells a story. I absolutely love this piece.

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