Sibelius’s Sixth and Seventh Symphonies: A Preview

Sibelius’s Sixth and Seventh Symphonies. On the surface, the two works are vastly different in all aspects. It is curious, therefore, to realize that Sibelius wrote them more or less simultaneously, and they share many musical bits between them.

More important, both are unqualified masterpieces of the Finnish composer’s final creative period. I love them both, but the Sixth remains one of my absolute favorite works of classical music (long-time readers will remember that in my very first blog post, I recounted my story of driving 500 miles to hear Osmo conduct the Sixth in his very first concert with the Minnesota Orchestra, long before he was appointed music director).

As Osmo and the Orchestra gear up to perform and record both works as part of the 2014-2015 season finale, I wanted to provide a preview to these stunning works.

* * *

In the mid-1920s, Sibelius was increasingly being labeled as a reactionary… something that made him bristle.

Composers like Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Bartok were making names for themselves by creating new harmonic languages, which were mostly alien to the Finn. Strauss and Ravel were taking orchestral color into unexpected worlds, in ways Sibelius never attempted. And so… yes, in terms of musical harmony his symphonies didn’t sound all that different from music of the previous century.

But to think of him as hopelessly old-fashioned misses the point. Both the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies certainly were different from their peers. They are prime examples of anti-modernism.

This is not to say that either symphony was simply a regression to an idealized past. Sibelius was creating his own musical revolution, but in a very different way—by playing around with form and structure. Specifically, they are triumphs of organic writing in symphonic form; they are intuitive, built on ferocious fidelity to their own internal logic, rather than any external compositional “-ism.”

In writing about them later, Sibelius pointed out that they were “Like water, which after a hard frost, crystallizes into beautiful ice flowers, according to eternal laws.”

And moreover, they are breathtakingly beautiful.

* * *

For me, the Sixth Symphony is a study of light—and more specifically, the particular qualities of northern light with its softer edges, brushed intensity and softer hues. Relative to painting, it is the light of the French Impressionists, rather than the Italian Renaissance.

The notion of light and luminosity is carried through by the symphony’s unique sound. Although the orchestra Sibelius calls for is slightly larger than those used for the famously compressed Third and Fourth Symphonies, he uses the instruments differently to create a sound that is every bit as intimate. It was, after all, in describing the Sixth Symphony that Sibelius gave his famous quote, “While other composers are serving up cocktails of every color, I’m giving my audiences pure cold water.” A harp adds to the shimmering tone, creating a feeling of fluid momentum that does indeed feel like the flow of icy water. The lower instruments are under-utilized relative to the higher ones, creating a more treble-heavy sound that soars and feels completely transparent.

But the luminous quality is also carried through the gorgeous lines Sibelius creates. In effect, it feels like the sacred music of Renaissance composer Palestrina, with a deeply felt spirituality driving the music forward.

But what makes the work so fascinating—and so difficult to pull off effectively in performance—is how undefined it is. It is music that simply refuses to be pigeon-holed.

For example, all its contours are soft. There isn’t a great deal of fast, agitated music, although the pace does quicken in parts, and there is even less slow music; the tempos stay largely constrained. In terms of dynamics, major musical themes are introduced not at forward-moving fortes or theatrical pianos, but at an indefinite mf or mp… somewhere in the middle.

Even the symphony’s key is somewhat undefined. The symphony is often listed in program notes as being in “D-Minor” but it isn’t—it’s written in D-Dorian (it’s the equivalent of playing a D-scale on the piano only using the white keys). Its tonality harkens back to the much older modal system of Medieval and Renaissance music, before the development of the major and minor keys familiar to us today. It’s a subtle difference, but this peculiar key gives the work a unique sound, and on a subconscious level keeps us listening for that missing C# as a final resolution.

The Sixth Symphony begins with gorgeous suspensions that delicately fall away from each other, slightly out of phase. I can’t imagine a more serene welcoming, capturing the pale Nordic light as it shines through a forest. It is restrained, and not overtly emotional, and captures a unique mood of… well, tranquility. But as the music progresses, there is another sense too—it feels stream-of-conscious. The bar lines, the notations, all feel like an afterthought in trying to express a free-flowing sense of repose and reflection.

The symphony is literally singing its own song, completely unconcerned about the constraints of the real world.

The lyricism swells and grows over time, with the piece seeming to move to a more substantial C-major tonality… but this firm tonality is an illusion. Ultimately, the music fades into a mere glow, and falls back to the elusive sound of D-Dorian.

The Second Movement is the work’s “slow movement,” but the music is hardly slow. It becomes even less defined as it moves along, with the underlying rhythm shifting between beats of three, six, nine, or twelve per measure—it’s like a waltz that keeps getting lost in itself. Again, it’s hard not to hear an orchestral echo of Renaissance polyphony, with a deeply-felt spirituality. Curiously, the reverie is interrupted by what feels like forest sounds in the woodwinds, as if birds are calling to each other and taking wing. It is an altogether magical moment, yet very hard to describe. For me, the image is that we’re in the glade of a sunlit forest, walking among the ruins of an ancient church… with groupings of songbirds darting among the vacant, moss-covered windows.

The Third Movement begins more playfully, with more active music than we’ve experienced before. It rushes along in a rising figure…. It almost feels like a folk dance. The music builds in power, rising to a rare moment where it actually feels loud, even conclusive.

But this is just a prelude to the energy of the Fourth Movement. In the finale, it feels like we might finally break free from the symphony’s elusiveness and restraint. The music becomes more assertive and forceful, containing hints of the fearsome storms Sibelius conjured up in Tapiola and his opening music for The Tempest.

At that point, however, Sibelius suddenly goes in a different direction… it is now dusk. The forceful music abruptly ceases, replaced by a stunning, hymn-like chorale led by a choir of strings with woodwind responses. It is a riveting moment; the hymn isn’t otherworldly ethereal, it is present, and among us. What’s more, the light that was all around us now fills us, lifting us into a moment of calm and understanding. It is a deeply spiritual moment, but only a fleeting one; slowly, the sound fades away, and in the end, the piece is brought to a hushed close by only violins, violas and the murmuring of the timpani.

It is a haunting moment, one that is elusive and vaguely unresolved… as befitting such an elusive work.

* * *

Even more remarkable from a structural point of view is Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony… a work wholly unlike any other.

Sibelius had always looked to integrating forms, ideas, even whole symphonic movements into each other… but the Seventh takes this to an extreme, creating a fully integrated symphony in a single movement. But Sibelius didn’t simply have themes or ideas run together, with a clear distinction between them. All of Sibelius’s themes are organically part of each other, fused together into a unified whole.

Ever since it was first performed, scholars have tried to pigeon-hole the work into a more traditional format, arguing that through deep analysis they can discern three, four or even five “movements” to the work. But the very fact that serious musicologists can’t agree on how many divisions the work has speaks to the level of integration Sibelius achieved. While there are no recognizable breaks, he has still managed to provide listeners with a slow movement, a faster scherzo movement, a sonata-form, a rondo, and of grand finale in a single span of music… all in a way that feels unified and seamless. In this, the Seventh is very different from other single-movement symphonies, such as Carlos Chávez’s Sinfonía India, and set a new standard of musical integration.

Perhaps the most astonishing way he achieves this is a brilliant manipulation of time; in fact, if the Sixth Symphony is about light, the Seventh is clearly about time.

Throughout the work, there are various musical activities going on at radically different paces, and yet all within an overall time-frame that unifies them all. Sir Donald Francis Tovey once wrote a famous assessment of the symphony, comparing the motion to traveling in an airplane. In the cabin of the plane, the passengers are able to move around, and act out their normal lives. But all the while, they are moving on a whole different level, carried on with incredible forward momentum on the airplane itself.  As the plane flies, it moves relentlessly forward while it slowly rises and falls on a much larger trajectory… to the point that the passengers stop being aware of the motion at all. But there is more. At the same time the passengers are moving and the plane is flying, there are even larger, deeper levels of motion happening around them, as the planet turns on its axis below them and carries them on its rush around the sun. Cycles of motion within cycles of motion, some so deeply buried as to be imperceptible.

This is the story of the Seventh Symphony. It is filled with patterns of motion that are deeply buried, yet at key moment break free and reveal themselves to the astonished listeners.

One example of this comes near the end of the symphony, with the final appearance of the trombone theme. The trombone has been a distinct, musical “landmark” throughout the work, but in this final entrance it is preceded by wildly swirling, frantic music that speeds almost out of control. Suddenly, the wild beat of the accompaniment resolves itself into the long, undulating pulse of the trombone’s theme. It’s like staring at a turbine or propeller, and watching it speed up to turn faster and faster… until suddenly the blur of motion resolves itself and appears to be a much slower and stately spin, as if the blades were spinning at one-tenth the time. Paradoxically, it is the rapid motion that creates the illusion of slow motion.

That’s what Sibelius is able to do… to play with time and motion until they are all revealed to be part of a single, larger pattern that we had not even perceived before. He has created the aural equivalent of an optical illusion. It a magical moment.

This moment reveals something else about the symphony’s structure, too—its structure is so thoroughly integrated that if one single note were displaced, the entire symphony would collapse.

But the Seventh Symphony isn’t just a marvel of musical structure, it is a joy to listen to. While the Sixth is serene and luminous, the Seventh is bold and heroic. It is a titanic struggle, played out over majestic themes that rise and fall in wonderful tension with each other that doesn’t slacken until the final note.


The final moment of the symphony is a powerful, ringing C-major chord… and this simple, much-maligned chord (probably the very first thing most of us leaned in piano lessons) has never sounded so powerful. Some listeners hear this as a final triumph that sweeps aside all the struggle that has gone before. Others hear it far more darkly, with Sir Simon Rattle saying “There’s no other piece that ends in C-major where you feel it’s the end of the world. Look at how carefully he orchestrates is so that it doesn’t sound like a victory, but as something you reach on the edge of death. You finally reach C-major – and it’s over. It should be a struggle for the strings to achieve this last note with their last bit of energy.”

Whichever your perspective, there is no denying the power of that final chord.

Hear them for yourself.



2 thoughts on “Sibelius’s Sixth and Seventh Symphonies: A Preview

  1. Pingback: Season Finale, Season Review | Mask of the Flower Prince

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