Sunday, April 13, 2008

Reading Sibelius' 5th

Jan [or Jean] Sibelius (1865-1957), the dean of Finnish fine-art music, composed the Fifth of his seven symphonies in 1915, then extensively revised it until it was published in 1921. In its final form, it is such a masterpiece of the symphonic art that, when I presented my analysis of it in an upper-level theory class in college, the prof declared that she was going to have to revise her low opinion of Sibelius (based mainly on his nationalistic tone-poem Finlandia). For me, the Fifth is only the most extroverted and accessible of a consistently marvelous cycle of symphonies by a wholly individual creative artist who, inexplicably, gave up his art when he still had nearly three decades to live.

The Fifth Symphony in E-flat, op. 82, begins with a courageous horn phrase over a kettle-drum roll. The horn's melody is quickly taken up by the woodwinds, altered, and extended in a manner less like the thematic development or variation typical in classical music than a process of evolution or organic growth - like a seed sprouting into a stem, branching, growing, spreading, diversifying. As often throughout Sibelius' music, so in this movement there is often a sense of several things going on at one time, of contrasting types of material slowly accumulating in separate bundles and eventually being combined in a glorious synthesis, and of complex rhythms and changing tempos deftly handled. The texture is fairly light until the opening horn-call returns in glory, and Sibelius pulls everything together in a spectacular fashion, with the music accelerating continously over the span of about one-third of the movement. (I think, in the 1915 version of the symphony, this section constituted a separate "scherzo" movement based on the themes of the first movement. Combining the two movements is the stroke of genius that really makes this Symphony.) The movement concludes in a thrill of triumph.

Movement II is a medium-speed "slow movement" haunted, or perhaps obsessed, by the five-note rhythm at the spine of its main theme, which undergoes a series of transparent variations. Again, you sense that the real story is happening in the background, where several musical lines are moving around at different speeds. Speaking of speeds, Sibelius was a composer who had no compunction about raising and lowering the tempo, even in a set of variations. But the only part of this movement that is likely to make you uncomfortable comes around the eight-minute mark, where the "stuff that was going on in the background" comes to the fore in a momentary flare-up of brassy dissonance.

After the slow movement dies away, Sibelius wraps everything up with a stunning Movement III. I won't bother you with tempo markings, because there are so many of them. I love this movement so much that I wrote a poem about it. I'm in tears right now as I listen to it. It opens with a racing theme that, one again, has "other stuff" happening beneath it, stuff in which I have always sensed a certain menace. Then comes a very strange but gorgeous, broad, romantic theme, stretched out over an accompaniment so noble that many hearers mistake it for a theme unto itself. Both themes are repeated in a varied form, beginning with muted strings playing so softly that you can forget about listening to this piece on your car stereo. As the second theme comes to its almost gushy conclusion, Sibelius signs his name, using a turn of melody that seems to turn up in all of his symphonies. Then he launches into a GIGANTIC coda where, in contrast to the first movement's five-minute accelerando, he decelerates continuously for three solid minutes; and yet, somehow, the intensity of the music only grows. It grows and grows and grows, until you can hardly stand it, and finally explodes into a remarkable series of closing chords separated by long pauses. So don't be too hasty with the "stop" button! There isn't another symphony ending like it.

IMAGES: Sibelius in 1891, 1910, 1918, and 1923. Interesting looking guy, wasn't he? EDIT: In the video below, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts a Swedish performance of the finale to this symphony.

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