Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Sibelius: Fifth Symphony

Forget the snotty music critics who berate Sibelius as a simpleton who wrote "insufficiently complex" music. I consider him a truly gifted composer who can create a wide range of emotions in his beautiful, grand and all-too-brief symphonies. In this journey of mine through my dusty classical music collection, Sibelius is turning out to be one of my most pleasurable discoveries.
Paavo Berglund and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 3 in C major
Symphony No. 5 in E flat major

EMI Records, 1988
Sibelius began his Fifth Symphony in mid-1914, and while the work contains overtones of war and gloom, the key themes of this symphony are optimism and triumph. It's interesting to note, however, that Sibelius wasn't happy with the original version, completed in mid-1915, and he reworked this symphony over the next year--and then reworked it yet again in 1919. Clearly, just because a symphony sounds triumphant doesn't mean the composer felt particularly triumphant while writing it. Apparently Sibelius wasn't entirely satisfied with his creation.

Listener notes for Sibelius' Fifth Symphony:
1) The first movement starts out sounding like something Bruckner would write, a likely reason why critics (at least the critics who fancy themselves in the vanguard of "radical" classical music) excoriate this symphony.

2) But when you hear the first movement morph from those Bruckner-esque major chords into a tense and creepy passage featuring the bassoon solo over shimmering strings (starts at about the 6:00 mark in Track 4 on this CD and runs to about the 7:00 mark), you can tell that there's more to Sibelius than meets the ear. This passage, and the next several minutes that follow it, show an underappreciated aspect of Sibelius' music: he takes you to many more emotional places than Bruckner, and he does it with subtlety, smooth transitions and without beating the listener over the head (unlike Mahler, for example).

3) The first movement ends in a moment of intense triumph. It's hard to believe Sibelius originally wrote this work in 1914-1915, not only given the outbreak of World War I. It's even more hard to believe he wrote this work during a period when much of his income was cut off. According to the liner notes accompanying this CD, royalty payments from German music publishers had been the largest source of his income at the time.

4) In the second movement (at the 1:33 mark in Track 5), listen for the flute and oboe duet. At first, I thought for sure that the flute made a bad mistake, but then the same dissonant note occurs ten seconds later at 1:43, then again at 1:58, and then again in a variety of forms throughout the movement. It's a strange-sounding motif, and it takes a few listens to get used to it.

5) What do you think of the ending of the second movement? Can you even call that an ending? It's as if the work just peters out, the musicians turn the page, and then "okay people, time for the finale!"

6) Admittedly the third movement contains some schmaltzy french horn chords (an example occurs at 1:15 in track 6, and then an even more schmaltzy example occurs at the 2:00 mark), but we should at least give Sibelius credit for massaging that motif into various keys and forms later in the movement. He could have just left that theme hanging there in its original form and gone for a cheap Bruckner-esque thrill (after all, triumphant major chords played by French horns is a common feature of every Bruckner symphony).

Instead, Sibelius builds this theme into the fundamental fabric of the movement. For example, you'll hear the oboe and woodwinds pick up this theme in a minor key at the 5:00 mark, and then the trumpets pick it up still later in a major key but with creepy, gloomy undertones. Finally, the entire orchestra tackles a variation of the theme near the ending.

7) I'd love to hear your impressions of the very end of this symphony, where the orchestra plays six final chords, separated by what feels like artificially and uncomfortably long rests. Do you consider this an unusual artistic device that serves to build tension? Or is this just cheesy? I'll admit that I sat up and took notice when I first heard this atypical ending, but it's my view that Sibelius sacrificed some of the sincerity of this symphony by giving it a gadget of a conclusion.

A final note: I've provided links on Amazon here and a graphical link below to a highly-regarded box set of all of his complete symphonies (there are seven) as well as all of his tone poems, suites and incidental music.

Please take a look at my other blogs!
Casual Kitchen: Cook More. Think More. Spend Less.
Quick Writing Tips: Short posts on writing, twice a week.

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