Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Reading Sibelius' 3rd

Deep-throated basses and cellos, in octaves, emerge from nothing with a crisp, jaunty theme in C major. Horns and violas join in, then violins. Flutes and oboes add a second, dancelike idea. The strings kick up their heels in a moment of folklike revelry. Horns shout out an exultant fanfare. All this happens in the first minute and a half. And that's just the First Group!

After a brutally blunt key change, the cellos sing a graceful "second theme" against a droning background with gently ticking violins. Then the lower strings begin what threatens to become an endlessly bustling pattern. Bits of previously-heard themes begin to float around. The violins announce one more lyrical theme. Then the exposition ends with a pause, followed by the violins and basses simultaneously playing ascending and descending scales, give or take a few chromatically added notes. It's a moment of almost frightening austerity, like a forked line drawn across an otherwise blank piece of paper.

The music has entered a frozen waste where all creation seems to hold its breath. The flute is the first creature to stir, quoting fragments of the bustling string pattern heard earlier. This pattern starts to move around among various sections of the orchestra, mostly of the stringed persuasion, while fragments of the other themes circulate like bits of separate conversations overheard on a constantly shifting breeze. What I have roughly designated as the "second theme" is the first to emerge intact from this chaos, still backed up by the bustling figure. The music seems to be trying to make a decision between e minor and C Major. After a passage of growing intensity, the jaunty opening theme arrives with the beginning of the recap. This time the bustling figure becomes the background for a review of the main themes, ending with a pizzicato version of the forked-line scale passage.

The last two minutes of the movement, then, are a coda, beginning in a slower tempo and with an entirely new theme. The nobility of this passage is breathtaking, like the farewell scene at the end of an epic movie. The movement ends with a touching triple-Amen in which the e minor/C Major dilemma is finally settled in favor of C.

Movement II, Andantino con moto quasi allegretto, begins with droning horns, plucked strings, and a delicately dancing pair of flutes. This dance becomes the main theme of the refrain in which a lonely sense of melancholy is wedded to a graceful dance full of lithe energy, wit, and pleasure. At times one can even sense a bubble of laughter floating deep in the dancer's belly, buoying him (or her) up but never breaking forth. The cellos introduce the melody of a mournful first episode in which, for some time, the woodwind choir has a sort of group solo.

After one last sigh from the cellos, the dance-refrain returns in a varied form, with a background of pizzicati and changes of key and instrumentation. The pizzicati continue into the second episode, also featuring rushing woodwind figures and thoughtful hesitations. Then the dance-refrain comes back for a third run, with both darker shadows and brighter highlights than before. The winds and strings answer each other back and forth in a brief but deadly-serious coda.

The third and final movement consists of a scherzo and a finale dovetailed together. Inspired perhaps by the finale of Beethoven's 9th, its opening is sprinkled with themes quoted from the earlier movements. The true scherzo theme isn't introduced until after the 1-minute mark. After this point we are mainly tantalized by partial glimpses of it, and the sense that its separate motives are growing together like different parts of an organism, or like patterns found throughout nature in varied scales and combinations.

The chorale-like theme of the finale emerges from this crysalis around 4:20 (in the performance referenced below). This stately theme, first introduced by the lower strings, completely takes over and drives the remainder of the movement to ever higher realms of nobility and victory. Within it the conflict between e minor and C Major, or (put another way) between F-sharp and F-natural, plays out all over again. You may start to wonder how long this can go on. The answer is limited only by one's attention span and the ability of the orchestra to repeat the chorale theme louder and more triumphantly than before. But just when you are beginning to sense this, Sibelius abruptly (not to say arbitrarily) ends the movement with a brassy, descending C-major triad. And that's as close to a resolution of the eternal conflict as we are likely to get, according to Sibelius at least.

The work I have been describing is the Symphony No. 3 in C, written in 1907 by Finnish composer Jean (or Jan) Sibelius, and first performed later that year. It splits the difference between the Romantic warmth of his earlier symphonies and the chilling spareness often noted in his later ones. Neither too hot nor too cold, it's just right.

Click here to see a Youtube playlist of Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting, and the Swedish Radio S. O. playing, this exquisite symphony. My only complaints are that (1) the sound is slightly muffled at the beginning of each video, and (2) the first movement is split between two videos. Other than that, it's an exciting account of a symphony I have loved almost as long as I have been reading symphonies with my ears. Here, for your immediate listening pleasure, is Movement II:

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