Sibelius Symphony no. 1 in Em, op. 39

performed by the Gothenburg Symphony under Neeme Järvi
(below is Järvi with the Orchestre de Paris)

 Quite a nice first symphony, from a composer whom I’ve come to really enjoy. He has a distinct voice among the late Romantic composers that I have acquired a fondness for, but it’s only in his first two symphonies that this Romantic Russian-ness oozes out of his music, and I admire greatly his exploration into other, very new styles and ideas in his later symphonies.

This symphony premiered on August 26, 1899, with the composer  conducting the Helsinki Philharmonic Society. This original version was lost, and the composer made some revisions, which survive today in the version that is now performed.
I have looked through many Sibelius cycles:
  • Jarvi/Gothenburg
  • Karajan (and Okku)/Berlin
  • Gibson/Scottish National Orchestra
  • Rattle/City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
  • Bernstein/NY Phil.
  • Vänska/Lahti
And I honestly can’t decide which is ‘better’. My first experience with Sibelius was Sir Simon Rattle’s cycle, and I quite enjoyed it, but many others have found fault with it.
I’ve already discussed Sibelius’ second and third, and I must say, I favor those other two more than this one, perhaps, but the opening movement of this piece is stunningly breathtaking. It is just the kind of sprawling, expansive, soaring drama and intensity that I love from a Romantic symphony, but also with its moments of tenderness and contrasting tension or quiet build or pause. (I was watching another of those UE Mahler interviews, this time with Manfred Honeck [I’m pretty sure] and he talked about climaxes in Mahler not always being just the loud parts. It may not apply as much with Sibelius, but there is certainly drama and tension and spellbinding music all over the place, not just where it’s loud and exciting).
As I mentioned in my article on Sibelius’ second symphony, I was shocked to find that a Finnish composer’s symphony no. 2 with such a reputation for nationalistic and independent fervor sounded at first (fifth? Eighth?) like he was channeling Tchaikovsky.
This is obviously not at all a bad thing musically, but it was perhaps the association the composer wanted at the time. It may also be my unprofessional ear making a tenuous association.
I don’t hear it as much in the first symphony, but the first movement at least plays this out. It opens with a clarinet solo, then fades out while a tremolo on strings washes in and begins the main theme of the movement, which is stunning. It’s all the things I mentioned earlier, but has a Northern European…. Something to it. (I always feel it’s something about the expansive, cold geography and the weather that make Norwegian pieces sound Norwegian and Finnish pieces sound Finnish. Not sure why, but they do, and) This one does. This movement has it’s quiet, trinkly middle bit before it breaks out in an almost cheery triumphant sort of passage, but it doesn’t last. The piece ends on pizz strings, which I’m also a sucker for. It is a perfect example of how a dramatic, gripping climax doesn’t have to be a gigantic thundering final cadence from the whole orchestra, but just a small pluck of a few strings to punctuate a mesmerizing end.
The second movement is generally more peaceful. It’s a teeny bit shorter (depending on your recording), and is the slow movement, quiet for most of the piece. I find it to be a relatively pleasing but not stunning melody, simple, straightforward, but by no means a favorite passage of music. It does build dramatically toward the end and develops quite some tension. There’s kind of an unsettled, rushed, drive propelled by the strings, backed by low brass that feels much more like the first movement in its drama, before it rather abruptly calms down and returns back to it’s pleasing rocking melody as before. It sounds more beautiful this time around. This movement also comes to a quite close as it fades away.
Third is the fast, energetic scherzo. This also, somehow, feels very Finnish. While the movement certainly has some interesting things going on, like some interesting rhythms where there’s 2 against 3 beats (hemiola?), I find this movement, while fun and energetic (if not a bit busy), to be somehow a bit awkward or clunky. Perhaps my first thought when I hear ‘scherzo’ is a Brucknerian powerful, very triplet-y driving kind of symphonic engine, but this movement still IS in keeping with the rest of the symphony. And again, I feel if I were asked, that I would say this sounds like, if not a Finnish, at least a Northern European, scherzo. The sound of the orchestra, the focus of the melody, how it’s voiced and treated, the quieter bits, the whole thing is very Sibelian (that should be a word). Also of note is that, perhaps suitably, this relatively more bombastic, all-over-the-place movement is the only one in the entire symphony that ends ‘traditionally’ with anything resembling a big loud commanding finish.
The fourth movement begins in a somewhat melancholy drama reminiscent of the first movement, quietly, and the flutes enter, almost as if weeping. It then gets its feet. A rhythm begins to build quickly, and before you know it, this movement is going. It’s dramatic, suspenseful, commanding, and confident. This is a much larger-scale movement to me than the middle two, as the case usually is in symphonies, even though it isn’t really much longer than the first two. It just has a larger scope. It feels like a logical progression to get here in the fourth movement. 12 minutes passes quickly. There’s a lot going on here, and it’s intense, not just because of fast, loud, passages, but because of the range of emotion it expresses and how it keeps you on your toes. About four minutes from the end of this movement is where this symphony begins to reach its conclusion. You can feel it all drawing to a close, the credits are starting to roll, and all the emotions of the entire symphony get distilled down to one complete whole, to be seen from the perspective we have right here toward the end, looking back at the entire piece rather than independent sections or excerpts. It’s all come together and everything has its place. At least for me. The movement sounds like its over, but the dramatic punctuated rhythm from the beginning of this movement takes one last bow, or perhaps he won’t let it end that cleanly and has to have the final word. Timpani and brass roar out the final chords of the piece, but there again, the final say is given by two plucked strings that hang in the air over the cliff that the entire symphony built it up to, and that’s it.
My question is this: is there anything in these symphonies that one could pull out from this symphony, extract like DNA and say ‘Look, this is the stuff that he will use to write his third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh symphonies. This is the kernel of his artistry.’ Sibelius’ later symphonies are drastically different than these first two. While he confidently and masterfully expressed his ability to craft a Romantic symphony. He clearly has the talent and the insight to do it, but it feels like just the beginnings of what he is capable of, and the second symphony grows from the first one, and it is nearly perfect. After that, however, it’s almost as if he had exhausted that late Romantic style symphony, had nothing else to say in that idiom, so moved on to other things. Beginning with his third symphony (also wonderful), they are drastically different in style, while still maintaining a characteristic quality of the composer, if that makes sense. So back to my question: is there something concrete, some evidence that a critic or avid listener of the time could identify and say ‘there is a unique voice here’ or something less cliche? Or the other way around, and perhaps more realistic, could one, after listening to things like his third and seventh symphonies, look back and find them somehow rooted in these early two works?
I don’t know, but regardless of style, idiom, agenda, or narrative, Jean Sibelius wrote seven masterful symphonies full of character. This marks the finish of the first three, and we have four more to go.
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