Sibelius Symphony no. 4 in Am, op. 63

performed by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä, or below with the Helsinki Philharmonic under Leif Segerstam

Det är synd om människorna
(One feels pity for human beings).

August Strindberg

(cover image by Radek Grzybowski)

Well, we saw Sibelius a few days ago for the first time in too long, but now we’re getting back to the musical form for which he is most famous, the symphony.

We’ve done the first three, out of order, and it would be sacrilege to have a Finnish symphony series and not include the Father of Finnish music, or whatever you want to call him. This is by no means his most famous or most performed symphony (that would have to be 1, 2, 5, or 7), and maybe if we really wanted to do something memorable I should have featured the fifth, but no. 4 is next in line, so that’s what we’re doing.

As the opening quote suggests, it’s a dark work. When asked once about the symphony, Sibelius quoted Strindberg’s statement above. There’s not a lot that’s positive about that statement, no matter how you look at it, and the first bars of this symphony will show you that it’s a pretty fitting quote.

The work was completed in 1911, and premiered on April 3 of that year by the Philharmonia Society (later to become the Helsinki Philharmonic) under the composer’s baton.

I feel like it’s been a while since we looked at the background of a work and said, “Here are the reasons this work sounds so (something),” and we’ll have a chance to do that today. I hope you’re already listening to the work as you read, because the bleakness comes potentially, depending on who you ask, from a number of areas.

First, there’s the idea that many associate with Mahler (this symphony is contemporary with his final works) of a sense of impending doom or tragedy, the horrors of the First World War that was to begin in just a few years. Harold Truscott is quoted on Wikipedia as saying that “This work … is full of a foreboding which is probably the unconscious result of … the sensing of an atmosphere which was to explode in 1914 into a world war.” That’s a nice thought, for sure, but maybe more convenient in retrospect than reality.

Secondly, there’s mention by Erik W. Tawaststjerna (that’s not spelled wrong) of psychoanalysis. The work was indeed composed in a time when people like Sigmund Freud were very interested in the subconscious and all that. Tawaststjerna calls it “one of the most remarkable documents of the psychoanalytical era,” and even Sibelius referred to it as “a psychological symphony.”

Those two more abstract, nebulous influences aside, there were more real traumas or influences that affected the composer’s life.

First was a surgery in Berlin in 1908 where he had a cancerous tumor removed from his throat. The operation apparently was a success, but he lived in fear of death for years afterward. One thinks again of Mahler and a rather gruesome, bloody medical situation he had where he almost died, just prior to his fifth symphony. So that’s a very real trauma, an understandable one for sure.

Lastly was a more musical crisis, one in which Sibelius was confronted with the changing tides of the musical world, especially in mainland Europe, people like Schoenberg, Stravinsky and other modernists whose perceived progress challenged the Finn’s style. As you likely know, and as we shall eventually see of Sibelius’s later works, he never went down that path. He even said once to a friend that the fourth symphony

“…stands as a protest against present-day music. It has absolutely nothing of the circus about it.”

So he was against those developments. Fine. But with the world soon to erupt in war, recovering from a very serious health scare, facing the change in direction of music, and even the development of psychoanalysis (in fact, Sibelius’s brother Christian was a psychiatrist and one of the first to discuss psychoanalysis in Finland), the composition of a bleak symphony like this may not be so surprising.

So back to that opening.

It’s a slow first movement, beginning with dark, somber cellos, basses and bassoons. It’s like the far-off rumble of thunder, big meaty dark storm clouds rolling in. There’s a cello solo here, and the music really does seem to develop and grow in waves, layers that build on each other as the work expands out.

This is an incredible sound, one for which Sibelius is very well known. But instead of the crisp, icy cold, clear strength of the first three symphonies (even with their heavier moments), this first movement is being painted not in whites and sky blues, but dark grays and near-black blues. Throughout the billowing darkness of the first movement, the only real glimmer of hope is some beautifully angelic writing for horns (and occasionally trombones), like small rays of sunshine breaking through the thick cloud. They’re removed from the entire rest of the tapestry of the work, like everything clears away to let them deliver their hopeful proclamation. In that way, it sounds triumphant, and each of these appearances does seem to bring along a slight change in mood, a clarinet solo, or dialogue with oboe.

The interesting thing that I don’t want to forget to mention (and you can find a bit more about this from the piece’s Wiki article) is Sibelius’s use of the tritone as a motif throughout the work. It serves as the work’s center, and as a source of conflict, creating both dissonance and resolution. The opening phrases show us this with the line the low voices carve out with a static low C acting like a lifeless but persistent ostinato.

The first movement ends in stillness, and we have a very brief scherzo-type movement, which in the larger scheme of this entire work, seems like nothing more than an aside, a tangential thought. The movement has some bounce, and despite the optimistic opening, has some darkness of its own. However, what you’ll notice is that the conflict here isn’t resolved. It’s not a convincing move away from the bleakness of the first movement. There’s some very typical Sibelian sound here, but ultimately, we don’t reach a conclusion before the movement is over. That’s not a criticism; I think it’s very effective, but it’s by far the shortest movement of the symphony, less than five minutes in a symphony of about 40 minutes in performance. It sounds like we’re getting somewhere important, but the movement ends practically mid-phrase, bringing us to the third.

This is the longest movement of the symphony, and perhaps its heart. Like the first movement, there is a general dark pall over the movement, but there are also some beautifully poignant string passages, and those angelic brass chorales. This is again writing that strikes us as unmistakably Sibelius, a kind of chilly sorrow that penetrates the soul with a simple, melancholy line from cello or bassoon. It feels like this is the place where Sibelius is really letting the emotions sink in, where we can savor the bleakness in all its glory. It’s undeniably beautiful, but equally bleak.

You’ll notice some similarities to the opening movement that make this really feel like the core of the symphony, the central focus around which the rest of the piece moves, and it is unabashedly, heartbreakingly raw. I love me some Mahler, don’t get me wrong, but for dark, somber slow movements, Sibelius knows what he’s doing here.

It too ends in stillness, but the finale comes to life with the most energy we’ve heard since the fleeting scherzo. The clouds seem to have evaporated now. We have a much brighter cello solo, and viola, and even chimes from glockenspiel, so maybe… we’ve made it through.

I don’t want to spoil the end, but the work doesn’t end nearly so optimistically. There are bleats from clarinet and other things that sound pastoral and warm, communicating that the worst might be behind us.

But this is what you should know about music theory here. I might be oversimplifying this, but the work is in A minor. An A minor chord is made of the notes A, C and E. An A major chord is A, C# and E. The difference between a major and minor chord is just that semitone in the middle, the C or C#. So as optimistic as this work seems to be, to move away from the bleak A minor into A major, we need that C#. However, the single persistent tone that pervaded the first movement was C. A tritone again reappears here, between A and E♭. Wikipedia says:

The bitonal clash between A and E in the finale’s recapitulation leads to tonal chaos in the coda, in which the rival notes C, A, E and F (that is, the interlocking tritone pairs C-F, A-E) each strive for ascendancy in a series of grinding dissonances with many clashes between major and minor thirds.

So it’s not really necessary to understand all that to appreciate the work, but it’s fascinating how Sibelius is able to connect the entire work with this idea, and still use it to create the conflict that makes the finale so thrilling. The way this is resolved (or not) speaks in not only an emotional but also a musical language to tell us what Sibelius really thinks and feels, and it’s a masterful close.

So that was certainly no earth-shattering analysis of this very deep, moving work, but coming to appreciate this symphony as more than just the ‘dark symphony’ of the composer’s output has been very rewarding. It is, I guess along with the third and sixth, one of the composer’s least-performed symphonies, but it is a magnificent, powerful work that draws you in more and more with each listen.

After seeing Mielck and Melartin, we finally have Sibelius himself, and we’ll be hearing his influence in the next symphony in our series later this week, another of Sibelius’s few students, so do stay tuned for that. Thank you so much for reading.


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