Saturday, September 19, 2009

Reading Sibelius's 6th

This is Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Swedish Symphony Orchestra in the first movement of Jean Sibelius's Sixth Symphony. Click the following links to see videos of the same folks performing Movement II, Movement III, and Movement IV.

The Finnish master's next-to-last symphony, and his last multi-movement one, was completed in 1923. Like some other great symphonists' sixth symphonies, it gets less playtime than some of the others. Nevertheless it's a powerful work that evokes its own spiritual world. The composer described it as having associations of "the scent of the first snow," of "rage and passion," and of "undercurrents deep beneath the surface." It is music in which one experiences the cold grandeur of the Nordic landscape, the fertility of natural life therein, and the oppression of human spirits that its long nights and deep shadows can bring. It has some unique touches that may leave you blinking in perplexity, if not gasping in shock.

Movement I, Allegro molto moderato, begins with a tenderly sad string passage dripping with romantic lushness. I like to think of it as a stockpot overflowing with fragrant steam. We begin to glimpse pieces of the thematic material Sibelius will soon knit into the symphonic whole. Presently the winds enter, starting with an oboe at 1'13" (going by the video above). Pay attention to the flutes at 1'23": the thematic fragment they drop into the cauldron will have the last word at the end of the movement. Just shy of the 2' mark, the horns and timpani roll out the red carpet for a passage in which strings and winds together start to work out some of the potential of that inchoate flute idea. At 2'38" the tempo picks up for a passage that every third film composer has plagiarized for the scene establishing Smalltown, USA as a bright, friendly place. In context, as the apparent opening of the Allegro proper following a slow introduction, it presents themes you expect to hear developed sonata-fashion. It's an expectation destined to be thwarted.

Bubbling with good cheer it may be, but this music is also fraught with Sibelius trademarks, including a rumble of menace below the surface. The sunshine soon goes in, replaced by a threatening, overcast passage dominated by the Dorian mode. By 4', the violins have begun a steady pattern of brisk, staccato notes that runs straight through long stretches of the movement, stretches in which the musical texture thins to this and little else. Contrasting remarks by the winds, a sweeping melody in the cellos, and the like take on a character as of objects seen against a homogeneous landscape, or of events taking place over a long span of time. Everything is a permutation of motives you heard at the beginning; for example, the flute idea I spotlighted gets turned every-which-way in these string musings.

The violins get a little less choppy at about 5'30", where we hear a cello version of the flute theme that strikes me as being an important event. Lyricism breaks in, an outburst of ecstatic splendor that restores some of the exuberance of the opening pages of the Allegro. Everybody backs off to make way for a majestic horn fanfare at 7'20", interlarded with echoes of the flute theme. Then, an unexpected attack of anxiety builds like approaching thunder to the movement's explosive climax. In the aftermath, a desolate unison passage seems to be searching for answers that aren't to be found. At 8'17" the movement is cast back upon the flute idea from its opening, and with a perfunctory blaze of brass and rumble of timpani it tries to bluff out a semblance of closing chords. But it doesn't convince itself, returning to the flute theme again and letting itself trail off into oblivion. It's a movement ending guaranteed to surprise and unsettle you.

Movement II, Allegretto moderato, begins with the timpani clearing its throat. Then the winds, gradually joined by the strings, begin a halting meditation whose icy sobriety seems unique in the literature of symphonic slow movements. Spare in its texture, uncompromising in its harmonic language, it generates a strange landscape for the imagination to explore. It is a landscape full of hard realities such as the frozen ground and the solid boles of trees, but also haunted by magical spirits - or perhaps only birds and furry beasts. Just when you make up your mind to be completely fascinated by it, it abruptly ends after only 5'35" or so.

The Scherzo, marked Poco vivace, is even shorter. It begins in an almost absurdly pedantic manner. Then it breaks out in rushing, dancing, hurtling liberation. Note the playful theme introduced by the flutes at 37". At 50" the pedantic music returns, perhaps struggling for dominance. It is destined to become mere accompaniment to a new theme, also laid down by the flutes at 1'10" in a discomfiting, off-the-beat manner. After a repeat of everything so far, the movement veers sideways into a coda whose brass-plated final bars furnish the symphony's most assertive closing chords.

The Finale, Allegro molto, begins with this symphony's one theme most likely to be experienced as a fully-formed, noble, romantic tune. This might keep you from noticing the unusual rhythm of its accents. After the timpani enter at 1'13", one might begin to visualize a strange scene in which thunder rumbles in the distance while, nearby, the sun goes on shining, the birds singing. At 1'45", Sibelius unleashes a dark-hued theme group of huge strength and vigor, like a savage, primitive dance. Shafts of light gleam into its shadows. After a gigantic statement of this theme at 4'42", another page is turned and we return to the slower, softer-natured opening theme. The music comes to a stand at 6'55". Then comes a new episode full of passion, luminous strings dialoguing with yearning woodwinds. Like a certain passage in the Seventh Symphony, there is a moment when Sibelius seems to set aside artistic pretensions and talk to us directly. It ends, along with the entire symphony, with the unbearable loneliness of a single violin note dying away over the echo of a last throb of the timpani.

I have described Tchaikowsky's Sixth as a "musical suicide note," and there is some evidence that its composer followed through on it. The symphony we have just read together is like the testament of an equally tormented soul who, nevertheless, chose to live on. It is like an anti-suicide note from someone who sees nothing but a living death ahead. Or, maybe you'll hear something different in it. Maybe you'll hear peace and acceptance at the end. But from the opening movement's ending, which refuses to live with a dishonest semblance of closure, to the fourth movement's final touch of desolation, I cannot help but hear this as a musical prophecy of its composer's final decades of creative paralysis and unrelieved bitterness. It is almost unbearably painful to listen to. But it is a great, powerful, deeply moving work, well worth reading with your ears, mind and heart.

1 comment:

Bettylou said...

I agree with you, Robbie. Can you tell me, might THIS be what's wrong with our latest version of the Lutheran hymnal? Maybe it's contributing to fewer people inspired to sing along on Sundays:

Here I've ad-libbed on the gist of what (you) Rev. Robin D. Fish, Jr. (LCMS) wrote: "Thirds have more color and offer the most vibrant effect of any harmonic system. . . Thirds are essential to make music as powerful as it can be. . . On the other hand, unexpected notes (dissonances) and delays in resolving them generate tension in the singers and listeners."

"I think the 'new' atonal serialism [such as in our Lutheran hymnal?] (deliberate dissonance to force congregations to sing in unison by preventing harmony?), at bottom, suggests to our souls a random universe where anything can happen, given enough time - a world in which meaning is imposed by the mind of the observer, by logic alone, without feeling."

"The ferventness is lost . . . Harmless music with vaguely psychoanalytical ideas: . . . please don't make us sit through it unless it brings us alive."

Amen. May I add: It is NOT LOGIC which gets us out of bed in the morning; only emotion is strong enough to move the physical body. Science indicates that every move the body makes must be fueled by some kind of emotion, whether sublime or not. Even anger will do the job if you can't reach any higher; at least it's better than the suicidal feelings of total lack of emotion.

Words need fuel to reach our souls such as old-time gospel two-part harmonies in thirds, though not often sung in churches lately. IMO they can give us more goosebumps (higher emotion, the Deity in us all, touching our hearts) than nearly any other music. Try these (criteria: the melody alone gives us goosebumps PLUS everyone already knows the words), and let me know what you think:

-- Be Still My Soul (Sibelius, Finlandia)
-- Shall We Gather At the River?
-- Sweet Hour of Prayer
-- God Be With You Till We Meet Again
-- Church In the Wildwood
-- Bringing In the Sheaves
-- How Great Thou Art
-- Just As I Am Without One Plea
-- Rock of Ages
-- The Old Rugged Cross
-- Take My Hand, Precious Lord
-- What A Friend We Have In Jesus
-- Blessed Assurance
-- I Was There To Hear Your Bornin' Cry
-- Morning Has Broken
-- Jesus Savior Pilot Me
-- He Leadeth Me
-- I Come To the Garden Alone
-- I Need Thee Every Hour
-- Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us
-- It Is No Secret What God Can Do
-- Brighten the Corner Where You Are
-- When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder
-- I've Got a Mansion Just Over the Hilltop
-- I Will Sing of the Mercies of the Lord Forever
-- From Greenland's Icy Mountains
-- I Love To Tell the Story
-- Pass Me Not, Oh Gentle Savior
-- Work, For the Night Is Coming
-- Come Into His Presence Singing Alleluiah (round)
-- Praise You Father, Bless You Jesus (round)
-- When the Saints Go Marching In I
-- I'll Fly Away Oh Lordy I ---> all three simultaneously; they harmonize
-- Swing Low, Sweet Chariot I
-- Count Your Many Blessings, Name Them One By One
-- In the Sweet By and By
-- Heavenly Sunshine
-- Burdens Are Lifted At Calvary
-- Take It To the Lord In Prayer
-- Standing In the Need of Prayer
-- The Love of God Is Richer Far
-- Create In Me a Clean Heart, Oh God (identical liturgy, but sung to tune by The Women Folk)
-- Come Lord Jesus Be Our Guest (same old table prayer, sung as a round to White Coral Bells tune)
-- Take My Life and Let It Be (to French carol, "Il Est Ne Le Divine Enfant?")
-- The Lord's Prayer (sung to Haydn's Serenata)