Is anything more beautiful than the symphonies of Sibelius? Well, of course – from time to time. Two of these uplifting works are just over 100 years old, but they sound as fresh and bracing as the landscapes from which they were hewn.
Sibelius sketched ideas for his Third Symphony on a visit to Great Britain in 1904, where he met eminent musicians and critics. It was finally composed at his new country house, Ainola, not far from Helsinki, and was dedicated to the British composer Sir Granville Bantock. Such is its English influence that the first movement’s restless semiquavers are said to represent a musical impression of fog-banks drifting along the English coast.
The Third’s first movement is more “classical” than any other in his symphonies. It begins with an agitated motif that leads to a rollicking theme and horn calls before subsiding into rather frantic repeated notes over which a more haunting melody appears before being swallowed up by the fog. Semiquavers (quarter notes to some) swirl around together with fragments of themes before the clouds part and the movement concludes in a momentary blaze of light.
The second movement is an intermezzo, a symphonic waltz that shifts delicately between two and three in a bar in style reminiscent of a French courante. It has hints of nocturnal mystery and echoes of woodland scenes. The last movement combines scherzo and finale, so that the listener hardly knows where one becomes the other. A portentous theme gradually creeps into the violas, but only takes full shape towards the end, resolving in a blaze of C majorly triumph.
The Third Symphony was scheduled to be given its première in London, but this was cancelled because the finale was not ready. It was eventually first performed in Helsinki in September 1907. That same year Sibelius met Gustav Mahler when the latter visited Finland. The two composers met several times, often taking walks together during one of which a famous exchange over symphonic structure occurred. Sibelius recalled:
“I said I admired its style and severity of form, and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motifs… Mahler’s opinion was just the opposite. ‘No!’, he said, ‘the symphony must be like the world. It must be all-embracing.’”
Severity of form and logic characterises Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony, which he began at a time he was suffering from what was thought to be a cancerous tumour of the throat. He was also heavily in debt. The inspiration for the Fourth Symphony came from a trip Sibelius made with his brother-in-law to Koli, a remote spot in northern Karelia. His illness and worries, together with the imagery of a landscape in the icy grip of winter, may explain the symphony’s overall mood of bleakness or despair. And yet there are momentary glimpses of beauty, such as the solo cello’s cantilena in the first movement and the capricious nature of the last movement’s main theme.
The symphony employs the tritone, the most dissonant interval in western music. And throughout, the tonic chord of A minor is avoided, as if it were some unbearable truth. In fact it only appears at the very end of the symphony when the strings come to a rather abrupt end. Sibelius said these last bars should be played “As solemn as possible and without ritardando (tragic, without tears, definite).”
There are many fine recordings of Sibelius’s symphonies and it would require an essay to do them justice. But no review would pass over those of Sir John Barbirolli with the Hallé Orchestra made between 1966 and 1970. At the last concert Barbirolli conducted in Manchester, on 3 May 1970 just two months before his death, the programme included Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony.
Sir Colin Davis has spent a lifetime studying and conducting the symphonies. Recently live recordings were released with the London Symphony Orchestra, but it is his earlier versions with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1975-77) that remain in the memory. Reminded of their extraordinary impact, Sir Colin recalled “the excitement of the discovery of Sibelius” and with characteristic modesty put it down to “the indestructible power of the music”.