Sibelius: Symphony No. 5


“These symphonies of mine are more confessions of faith than are my other works,” wrote Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) in 1918, while working on his third revision of his Symphony No. 5. Always his own harshest critic, Sibelius struggled to give voice to his original musical conception of this strong, complex work over a period of six difficult years. Sibelius’ attempts to write a version of the Fifth Symphony that withstood his implacable self-criticism were hampered by personal problems and global upheaval. In the years 1910–14, Sibelius struggled with the desire to be perceived by the world as a “modern” composer, but at the same time he rejected the prevailing styles established by Debussy, Mahler, and Strauss.

Composing, frequently difficult for Sibelius even under the best of circumstances, was made even harder when the chaos and brutality of World War I engulfed Europe. In 1917, Finland found itself at war with Russia after its declaration of independence from that country. A Russian invasion of Finland (the fourth time in three centuries, with still one more to go in 1939) brought the conflict to Sibelius’ front door – literally. In February 1918 Russian troops arrived at Järvenpää (Sibelius’ hometown), shot his neighbor, and made two searches of Sibelius's house. Sibelius and his family fled to Helsinki and took refuge in a psychiatric hospital at which his brother was senior physician. Conditions there were grim: the composer's brother was able to keep the Red Guards from occupying his hospital, but there was so little food during his stay there that Sibelius, a large man, lost 40 pounds.

A year later, Sibelius returned home and resumed his life and work, including his third revision of the Fifth Symphony, which he described as “practically composed anew.” The Fifth Symphony, like many works of Sibelius, focused on the national pride of Finland through their natural surroundings, a not so subtle call on Finns to break the yoke of Russian oppression and fight back against their large and powerful neighbor from invading smaller, weaker countries (a seemingly favorite Russian pastime even today). The reworked symphony condenses the original four movements into three – Sibelius combined the first and second movements – and features a new finale.

The symphony opens in an atmosphere of mysterious beauty. In the first movement, tempo molto moderato, one might imagine time-lapse photography of wildflowers unfolding in a vast landscape, or as Sibelius wrote, “I begin to see dimly the mountain I shall ascend. God opens His door for a moment and His orchestra plays the Fifth Symphony.” A short melody in the horns later coalesces into a fully developed theme. At times the instruments seem to murmur to themselves; as the music progresses, the strings and brasses declaim bold proclamations. This is textbook Sibelius, featuring brief, fragmentary ideas that surface somewhat enigmatically from the depths of the orchestra.

In the Andante mosso, pizzicato strings and staccato flutes state the primary melody, while a group of woodwinds and horns sound a counter-theme of long sustained notes. These shimmering notes become a backdrop for several variations on the staccato main theme.

The Finale, Allegro molto, begins with little volume but much scurrying activity. Here the composer is musically depicting a bevy of swans (the national bird of Finland) on a large lake in the countryside preparing to take flight. Slowly the music builds and builds to a beautifully majestic theme in the horns (the swan theme), eventually culminating to a very triumphant end. The musical colors Sibelius paints for our ears are simply extraordinary. Sibelius himself writes of his motivation for the Finale, “Today at ten to eleven I saw 16 swans. One of my greatest experiences! Lord God, what beauty! They circled over me for a long time. Disappeared into the solar haze like a gleaming silver ribbon. Their call the same woodwind type as that of cranes, but without tremolo. A low-pitched refrain reminiscent of a small child crying. Nature mysticism and life’s angst! The Fifth Symphony’s finale-theme: legato in the trumpets!”

Program Notes by Luke Smith