Sibelius Symphonies: A Preview

This weekend, Minneapolis is once again playing host to a Musical Event.

Osmo is coming home.

Yes… the Minnesota Orchestra’s former Music Director, who famously stepped down in the midst of the Orchestra’s ugly labor dispute, will be back at the newly-refurbished Orchestra Hall. But this isn’t just a regular concert—he’s conducting the music of Jean Sibelius, and Osmo’s interpretations of Sibelius are usually described by music critics with such words as “definitive” and “life-changing.” Plus, the music comes from their latest (and possibly, last) CD together, which just won a Grammy Award for Best Classical Performance. And Michael Henson, the Orchestra’s controversial CEO and President, just announced that he’s stepping down, leading to speculation that a Big Announcement will be made this weekend and Osmo will be back where he belongs. In anticipation of such an announcement, the community has rallied around a “Finnish It!” campaign to show support for Osmo by wearing Finnish colors and waving Finnish flags at the concert. Speculation is running wild about how the crowd will respond to seeing Osmo take the podium… and more important, how the crowd will respond to any announcement made about Osmo’s future.

That’s quite a lot for a concert to take on.

I’m looking forward to all the fuss as much as anyone else. And not for the first time, I wonder if someone is going to write an opera based on this whole sordid affair (of course, there are some noticeable parallels with Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos—although that was a comedy).

But at the end of the day, I want to keep in mind that this is a concert. And a concert of music I love, by musicians I love, led by a conductor I love. In fact, the whole reason many of us fought so hard over the last year and a half is so we could continue to experience concerts just like this one.

So before we get swept up with all the accompanying hoopla, I wanted to take a few minutes to reflect on the music itself—particularly since some of it will no doubt be unfamiliar.

* * *

Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony. Boy… what to say. When talking about this work, there are parallel dangers of saying too little and too much. And, in honesty, finding the right words.

Many people, myself included, think the Fourth is the greatest single work Sibelius ever wrote. And in fact, if he wrote nothing else, he would still be remembered as one of the 20th Century’s most important symphonic composers. And he would certainly be remembered as one of the century’s most relentlessly individual voices.

That said, the piece can be baffling, especially the first time through. At its premiere, the audience sat in stunned silence at its conclusion, unsure whether to applaud. Karl Muck, who led early performances with the Boston Symphony, remarked to the music librarian, “I’ve rehearsed this symphony nine times and given eight performances and I haven’t the faintest idea what the composer means.”

Frequently, the work has been written off as “dark.” Many would go further and call it “bleak” or “forbidding,” if marketers and editors didn’t strictly forbid those words in advertising copy or program notes.

I would disagree with this characterization, however. And not just because I want to rely on “happy talk” in program notes, but because I think bleakness misses the point of the symphony. After all, in one famous anecdote, Sibelius was walking with a friend through the woods when they came to a clearing, and a moment later the sun came from behind a cloud to set the morning mist ablaze with light. Sibelius grabbed the arm of his companion, and said “That, that… I have placed that moment in my new symphony.”

I think a better descriptor for the symphony would be “stark,” although I’m not convinced it’s much better. It is a prime example of Sibelius’s famous remark that “while other composers are serving up cocktails of every color, I’m serving pure cold water.” Upon hearing the work for the first time, one American writer wondered if the work had started out as a chamber work, so economical was it in terms of scoring and instrumentation. This is one Sibeilus’s greatest achievements—there is not a single superfluous note anywhere in the score. It is this economy of sound, texture, motion and gesture that give it its enormous power and impact. With no digressions or diversion, it is a marvel of quiet intensity that grabs your attention and refuses to let go. You are required to listen.

Many have noted that in 1910 when Sibelius wrote the work, he was at a particularly low point in his life. He had a cancer scare a short time before, bringing him face to face with his mortality. In the political realm, Russian oppression was increasing and there seemed to be little chance of Finland ever standing on its own feet. Also, financial and familial difficulties had led him to depression. Perhaps worse for an artist, Sibelius was feeling alienated; as he surveyed the musical landscape, he was realizing he was becoming more and more isolated from the currents happening in St. Petersburg, Berlin, Vienna, London and Paris. He looked at alarm at the new compositions coming from Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Bartók and wondered, “Am I obsolete? Am I… provincial?”

Too often, program annotators struggling with words to describe the symphony have gone the route of least resistance and said, “Sibelius was in a sad period of life and wrote a sad symphony as a result.” But again, this misses the point of the work entirely.

For all the reasons listed above, Sibelius was at a crossroads… and I’ve always seen the Fourth Symphony as a crossroads piece of art. It is a work that is not about strong statements or clear direction, but one that thrives on ambiguity in ways both clear and hidden. The Fourth is about questions… or more accurately, about questioning. And importantly, Sibelius doesn’t come to definitive answers over the span of the symphony. In truth, it’s not clear that he thinks the questions can be answered.

It begins with a rumination based on a tritone—an inherently unstable interval that for centuries was strictly avoided in composition (early music theorists termed it diabolus in musica—“the Devil in music”). While it’s hardly forbidden any more, the tritone still sounds odd to modern ears, and usually cries out for resolution—as in the first three notes in the song, “Maria,” from West Side Story. Sibelius begins the symphony rocking back and forth across this interval, setting up an instability that lasts for the rest of the work, obscuring tonality, and refusing to provide any solid ground for the listener. Over this rocking, a solo cello enters and plays a stark, reflective melody. And as it does so we realize something else… the rhythm is just as unstable as the harmony. The rest of the first movement continues in this vein, with music that is profoundly searching, but never stable. It isn’t disjointed so much that it’s unresolved, never definitively landing. It is clearly reaching for… something, and yet it isn’t entirely clear what it is reaching for. And then it… ends. It doesn’t conclude so much as it finds a balance point and steps aside. Its questions aren’t answered.

And so the second movement begins right where the previous one stopped. It is as if that pause created a new idea or suggested a new direction for exploration, and Sibelius immediately sets out to follow this lead. It is lighter, a someone bolder direction, but still clearly grappling with unanswerable questions. The tritone interval is again felt, suggesting ambiguity and a lack of resolve… perhaps this new direction is a dead end? As in the first movement, Sibelius simply closes off this new line of thinking without concluding it… as if brusquely closing a book.

And then, he presents a third movement that is absolutely astonishing.

Perhaps I can express the feeling I get while listening to this movement with an analogy that creeps into my own mind. My mental image here is that of a man sitting in relative silence, still consumed with questions, and surrounded by books and papers he has been fruitlessly examining for answers. It is late into the night, with the fire burning low in the fireplace, and even the streetlamps outside have flickered out. At this point he steps away from his materials, sits down hard in a favorite chair, rubs his hands over his face, and reflects. Not just on the questions he’s been worrying over, but on larger issues, such has his own approach to finding answers. And at that fine line between wakefulness and sleep, he dreams….

The third movement is the emotional heart of the work, and the music is haunting—as if Sibelius were hearing music from another realm. It is at this movement that it hits me… this symphony isn’t bleak, but rather introverted. And being an introvert myself, I get it at an instinctive level. The dark rumblings in the first movement and the strained merriment of the second are just a front that the composer was putting on in his public life; but here left alone with his own thoughts he is free to explore deeply and more honestly. The depth of his emotion here in this private moment is riveting. And, for me, nearly impossible to describe in mere words. Like the other movements, there is no final resolution here in the third—it too ends with a question mark.

The finale is a return to the public world, with music that is more externally focused… but with all the questions still unanswered. It’s curious—based on examples from other composers’ symphonies, and with a more hopeful start to the fourth movement, there is a sense that we are rising to some sort of resolution at last. Maybe even a triumphant conclusion like we have in Beethoven’s Fifth or Ninth Symphonies. But this is not the case. As the music winds toward that expected conclusion, it’s as if Sibelius has second thoughts, realizes the “resolutions” are not true, and steps back. The piece suddenly suffers a collapse of energy. In the final moments, there are a few attempts to rouse the music again, and each is ruthlessly cut short by the winds. Again with a gesture that surprises for its brusqueness, the symphony ends.

What to make of this ending, and by extension the work as a whole? Some more romantically-influenced conductors draw out the ending, heightening it so that it becomes apocalyptic (something akin to Mahler’s Sixth Symphony). There is an element of that to be sure, but I don’t know if that’s the message here. To me the gesture is more in line with a mid-life crisis, where you have a moment of doubt, fear, self-pity… and then realize, “Good God, no. Enough. I’m alive. I’m not going to find the meaning of life, or any metaphysical answers. But I can’t let his consume me.” At that point, so to speak, you close the book, turn off the light, and go to bed. You move on.

That’s the gesture here, too… at least for me.  As I said above, this symphony is simply about questioning. It is about the crisis itself, not the resolution. It makes no attempt to provide answers, or any sort of catharsis. Any “resolution” must by necessity happen offstage, in the minds of each listener individually. That is both the power and the challenge of this peculiar masterpiece.

It is worth noting that Sibelius did appear to work through his own crises that seem to hover over this work. Shortly after completing the symphony, he left behind this “dark” period on went on to create some of his most extroverted music, like the Fifth Symphony.

* * *

After taking up for my space than I intended to for the Fourth Symphony, it feels like I’ve overstayed my welcome to comment on the First Symphony. Perhaps this won’t be a problem, as the First is far more familiar to audience members. That in and of itself is somewhat peculiar—there are relatively few composers whose first symphony is beloved, popular, and critically acclaimed. Please raise your hand if you are a particular fan of the First Symphony of, for example, Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky or Dvořák. But even though the First Symphony is a relatively early work, it contains all the hallmarks of Sibelius’s genius. It was, in fact, one of the works that helped launch Sibelius’s career, and confirmed his as a hero in Russian-occupied Finland.

At the time Sibelius wrote the work, he was still enthralled with the idea of writing for the stage, and his symphony is nothing if not theatrical. This is clear from the magical opening. Almost imperceptibly, a drum roll begins, leading to an intensely lyrical, and wonderfully dramatic clarinet solo—this long dark melody sets the tone of the entire work (with apologies to the Orchestra’s wonderful clarinet section, I do wish I could hear Burt Hara perform this live). Many have heard in that solo the yearning of the Finnish people to be free of the Russian yoke, although Sibelius was ambivalent about applying specific descriptions to his symphonies. But whatever the story behind it, that clarinet’s song is breathtaking.

And just as it ends, the strings come diving in, signifying the new direction for the music. The gesture builds and builds, and erupts into an energetic wave of sound that sweeps everything before it. But as it the music unfolds you realize just what a genius Sibelius was—the material of this “new” section comes directly from that opening clarinet solo, but it so thoroughly transformed that it is almost unrecognizable. And so it continues throughout a development that crackles with energy, before ending in dramatic fashion.

The slower second movement takes all this in, and reflects on it. But as he did in the Fourth Symphony, Sibelius seems to favor asking questions rather than providing answers. The themes from the first movement tend to interrupt the second, creating an uncertain atmosphere. In a way, Sibelius seems to be wondering if he said too much in the first movement, and is gathering his thoughts about how to proceed.

In contrast, the third movement bolts out of the gate, brushing aside hesitation as it boldly makes its points. And yet for all the bravado, the third movement is enigmatic and somewhat disorientating. The tempos spin wildly from one to another, marked more by contrast than consistency. Dramatic gestures abound, but they are jagged and broken. Even the dynamics seem to shift at will, bouncing wildly from pianissimo to fortissimo and everything in between (as an aside, this is a perfect fit for Osmo, who is legendary for his ability to create distinctions between dynamic levels, making a mezzo-piano sound very different from a mezzo-forte).

But the wild ride isn’t over. The fourth movement starts with a dramatic re-statement of the clarinet solo from the first. But while the solo clarinet was lonely, this rendition is powerful and defiant. It seems like a call to arms… and indeed the rest of the movement bristles with conflict between agitated “battle music” and more lyrical sections. Many commentators have seen this as a metaphor for Finland’s hopes and aspirations as an independent nation, and the terrifying struggle it would undoubtedly take to make those dreams happen. Again, Sibelius wasn’t overly fond of these overly literal interpretations, but it is easy to see where such ideas come from. (As a note… perhaps for us in the audience, this is a perfect metaphor for the Orchestra itself, and a look at its struggles ahead.)

Once again, the symphony ends in astonishing fashion. Building to a powerful climax, it lands on an expected, suitably end-worthy E minor chord… but then, surprisingly, there are two more pizzicato E minor chords played in a hush. The effect is stunning, but seems to ask another unanswered question.

So many questions to answer. See you at the performances.

 

Xochipilli

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