Nordic Spin: Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony

Winter landscape outside Helsinki (from Alex Ross)
The winter landscape outside Helsinki (from Alex Ross)

Listen carefully to the way Jean Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony begins. An expansive opening motive, quiet, awe-inspiring and mystical, sets the entire mighty symphony in motion. The Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) famously insisted on periods of prolonged silence when he was working. Appropriately, the opening of the Fifth almost seems to emerge from the bleak, desolate stillness of a Scandinavian forest. The tympani’s roll from B-flat to E-flat, taken by itself, would suggest a simple dominant to tonic in the symphony’s home key of E-flat major, but the music never quite arrives at this convincing resolution…There’s more left to be said.

You may notice this pattern repeating as the first movement unfolds. Every point of arrival opens up a new door of uncertainty, building tension and plunging us into increasingly frightening territory. At one point the tonal center evaporates completely and the solo bassoon wanders, lost in a sudden, ghostly sea of atonality (6:43). Sibelius’ Fifth breaks down traditional Sonata form, leaving development which is more circular, a phenomenon which musicologist James Hepokoski describes as “rotational form.” Could this altered sense of time be vaguely influenced by Nordic seasonal cycles, where a low midnight sun in the summer transitions to dark, gloomy winters?

Following its completion in 1915, Sibelius revised the symphony. (“Never write an unnecessary note,” he said. “Every note must live.”) The revision included the bizarre and unprecedented innovation of splicing together the end of the first movement and the beginning of the second, creating an uninterrupted symphonic arc. Alex Ross describes this moment (around 9:25 in the clip below) as “a cinematic ‘dissolve’ from one movement to another.” What follows is a thrilling feeling of gradual acceleration and crescendo, as if the brakes have been suddenly cut loose. 

Listening to this symphony, I’m always struck by a visceral sense of spin. This sensation is first apparent right after the expansive opening as the motive takes shape before our ears (0:14), as if composing itself and searching for a way forward. In this passage you’ll hear the motive passed between groups of woodwind instruments. Do the voices of the instruments suggest distinct personas?

Listen to the first movement and see if you agree with me about the sense of spin…motion which never arrives anywhere definitive until the end of the movement. This is Leif Segerstam conducting the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra:

Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 82

[ordered_list style=”decimal”]

  1. Tempo molto moderato – Allegro moderato (0:00)
  2. Andante mosso, quasi allegretto (14:32)
  3. Allegro molto (23:57)


At first, you may hear pastoral sounds of the nineteenth century in the second movement-maybe even a nod to Beethoven. But there’s something more ominous lurking beneath the surface, evoking the twentieth century and a world on the brink of war. Consider this movement’s sense of flow and development. Pay attention to the pizzicatos and the contrasting, static, sustained pitches in the woodwinds, with all those strange “wrong” notes hanging over. Notice the way empty musical “space” is filled with increasing complexity and embellishment as the movement unfolds.

Rising out of the trembling iciness of the final movement (music which occasionally brings to mind John Adams’ 1978 minimalist masterpiece, Shaker Loops) is the distinctive “Swan Theme” (25:14). In the recording above, listen to the way Segerstam brings out the deep, organ-like bass notes and notice the hypnotic way they fit together with the horns. The symphony’s transcendent, heroic climax comes with the sudden turn to C major (26:07). It’s a brief but significant moment, which sticks in our minds long after it has passed.

The iconic “Swan Theme” plays an important role in the conclusion of the symphony; but in these final bars, it seems to be surrounded by ambiguity. Before we get there, we experience a hint of the opening of the first movement (30:22), as if to remind us where we’ve been. How do you interpret the end of the piece with its strange silences? Is it even important to try to sum it up in words, or to assign emotional labels to something which transcends description? If you feel inspired, share your thoughts in the thread below.

Come back on Friday to hear echoes of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony in music written in 1990 by contemporary Danish composer Poul Ruders.

Recordings, old and new

I’ve noticed that this piece can sound quite different, depending on the interpretation. Here are a few recordings. Let me know your favorites:

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2 thoughts on “Nordic Spin: Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony”

  1. I love Sibelius music, please find hereafter my preferred recordings (I own all)
    (unordered list)
    – Leonard Bernstein – New York Philharmonic (Sony)
    – Leonard Bernstein – Vienna Philharmonic (DG)
    – Sir John Barbirolli – Hallé Orchestra (EMI/Warner)
    – Sir Colin Davis – Boston Symphony (Decca)
    – Sir Colin Davis – London Symphony (RCA)
    – Herbert von Karajan – Berliner Philharmoniker (DG)
    – Herbert von Karajan – Berliner Philharmoniker (EMI/Warner)
    – Paavo Berglund – Bournemouth Orchestra (EMI/Warner)

  2. Not yet having listened to the Sibelius Fifth Symphony recorded by Leif Segerstam and the Helsinki Philharmonic as I only came across this a few minutes ago and the time is now 12:28 AM, Saturday, September 6th, 2014, I leave off for now in great anticipation … Having listened to “Tundra” of Ruders, I was not particularly moved nor did his “sound piece” remind me much of Sibelius. That said, I’ve no doubt Ruders is a masterful composer with a definite Scandinavian “face”, musically. This work of less that 6 minutes seems to float off somewhere … Since Ruders is born in 1949, we might hope for more from him in the future or in the context of “present” composition! tbc. (Prior to listening to Sibelius Five of Segerstam, I wish to mention a British conductor who had a marvellous feeling for Sibelius, Anthony Collins, who recorded the Second Symphony of Sibelius in, I believe, London, and brought some of the brilliance and majesty of love from his obvious love of this work to his wonderful reading …) Having just listened intently to the Sibelius Fifth Symphony recorded by Leif Segerstam and the Helsinki Philharmonic, I am at once inspired due to hearing it yet again! However, I realised whilst listening to the first movement that comments about its “nordic spin” were interfering with my quiet world of connection with this great work — having been in very close touch with the Fifth for over 25 years. That said, there is a definitive difference in the interpretation Segerstam and his Helsinki players bring to the Symphony. I know from having been on Finnish soil several times in the depth of Winter, that the Finnish have a much different “way” of performing any work of Sibelius. Performances are much “slower” in tempi in general, and Segerstam, if one has seen or met him (as was my privilege in Helsinki at the Sibelius Academy of Music) is a huge man — round and Santa Claus looking with huge legs which pants cannot completely conceal before reaching his ankles. HIs rotund presence seems, to me, to dictate some of his perceptions vis a vie tempi. This is NOT a criticism, but an observation based on in-person up-close-to-him study … His presentation of the multi-faceted emotional range within the Fifth Symphony is grand and large. This is not to suggest it is wrong! It is Finnish! ~ born of living in this great land of rugged landscapes ~ frozen in its snow forlorned Winter’s which last forever … The sun goes down by 2:00 or 2:30 PM every afternoon in Finland’s Winter. The midnight sun which Timothy Judd refers to, may well have influenced some of Sibelius’ emotional portrayal’s in the context of his first movement? I truly believe Sibelius is such a Giant in the Compositional Circle of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven,Brahms, Schubert, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and others, that to try to “pin” him down vis a vie a “Nordic Spin” in motion for his first movement is devaluing to his genius, and THIS IS GENIUS! The overview of his messages are humanitarian in every describable way. To try to use language in the written word to paint a portrait of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony is really most difficult!! As a musician who has had a 50 year love affair with the music of Jean Sibelius, and had the great privilege of meeting all five daughters of the Composer on their father’s Centenery, December 8th, 1965, in the birth-house of this Master in the depth of the Finnish winter, I am convinced the Fifth Symphony is above written interpretation but is meant to be FELT and to feel the nuance’s, innuendo’s, scintillating crescendi during bowed whirls of pending climax to come, and heartfelt romanticism, all of which mean the world to this musician ~ especially at this time in my musical journey and Life. Segerstam brings his own “brand” of “Sibelius-ism” to this performance and there can be no doubt he is undeniably convinced his way is the Only Way! I respectfully submit, it is NOT — after living and breathing the Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic interpretation of the 1961 Deutsche Grammaphon recording for years upon years!! There is, for this Violinist, a connection between Karajan’s presentation of Sibelius Five and the historic performance of Jascha Heifetz’s Sibelius Violin Concerto recorded with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Walter Hendl, Conductor. There is far too much to discuss with colleagues about this, but not near enough time nor space on this site to present it. Let it be known that I believe and have believed the Finale of Sibelius Five ends in undeniable triumph over all Evil and BAD of the human condition. Sibelius reveals his absolute belief in the GOOD of Human-kind with his triumphant Finale and who can ever question the Finale’s final chords? The spacing of those final chords have been discussed millions of times in millions of conversations amongst so many musicians and conductors including avid Sibelius listeners/fans, that one cannot fathom it all! Let us just keep the Big Picture in mind: Jean Sibelius had a grand view of Life; of Music; of Nature; of enjoying his friends, many of whom were artists, architects, even beer drinking buddies of his, and for his family. He LIVED while on Earth for his full 92 years. He loved walking 2 miles every day on his large farm in Winter. Knowing a bit about his life gives perspective about, perhaps, his greatest Symphonic work and about the jewel in the Sibelius Crown of Composition, his Violin Concerto. Having performed and recorded this “Jewel”, I can attest to its value and to its challenges — having called it the Sibelius Violin “Monument” in my last article for Illinois ASTA following my return from Helsinki in mid February,1999! I know from the ‘horse’s mouth’ that, “No one else should play the Sibelius Concerto except …” And I suggest those who might read this hazzard a guess as to WHO uttered these words!!! Thanking Timothy Judd for this wonderful treat to be able to hear Leif Segerstam with the Helsinki Philharmonic on the first Saturday in September, 2014, just 100 years following the outbreak of WWI, I remain ~

    Musically yours,

    Elisabeth Matesky

    (Internationally recognised Violinist/Performing Artist: recording – television – film / Artist Teacher: violin – chamber music – orchestral repertoire / Composer-Arranger – solo violin/ Expert – string bowing / Musical writer – speaker )


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