Sunday, April 13, 2008

Reading Sibelius' 7th

Here's another freebie, once again due to two symphonies being on the same disk. (My recording is a Vienna Philharmonic performance conducted, again, by Leonard Bernstein.) Jan Sibelius's Seventh Symphony in C major, op. 105, isn't hard to fit onto a disk with another major work, since it consists entirely of a single, 24-minute movement. Within that span, however, there are changes of tempo, musical texture, and thematic material, with structures reminiscent of the movements of a classical symphony.

The one-and-only movement of this symphony begins with an ascending C-major scale in the low strings, which immediately veers off into other tonal territory. While Sibelius seems to grapple with the basic building-blocks of western music (structure, functional tonality, harmony vs. dissonance), the rest of us hear small ideas generating larger themes, loosely associated themes coalescing into a coherent whole, and a restless mind turning over an array of thoughts and feelings in the evening-time of life. (After this symphony, completed in 1924, and the tone-poem Tapiola, Sibelius never completed another major work before his death in 1957). Among the many ideas he uses, there are noble horn themes, tunes reminiscent of birdcalls, phrases of graceful wit and coarse humor.

The tempo gradually increases to a scherzo-like passage of frenetic chase music, which suddenly becomes a windswept lanscape against which we review previously heard themes in a more sombre mood. Brass chords pile up against the windy background, which then returns to the rushing chase music. Sibelius continues to make frequent tempo adjustments, often gradual ones, carrying forward the techniques he developed in his Fifth Symphony, while music suggesting a simple, country life alternates with more cosmopolitan strains, often heard in the horns. The horn theme grows in nobility and propels the music to a sharp climax.

Suddenly, like turning a corner, you are confronted by a string passage that makes you feel as if Sibelius is talking directly to you. The other themes come back more subdued, like unruly children who have now been chastened. From that point onward, the music swells quickly and briefly toward an unusual but affecting ending, and a final chord that not all sections of the orchestra seem to reach at the same time. Does it feel quite conclusive? I'm not sure. But, for better or worse, it concludes what Sibelius had to say about the symphony.

IMAGES: Sibelius in the 1930s, and in the twilight years of life. EDIT: So far, no luck finding a video of a complete performance of this work.

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