Sibelius’ Sixth: “The Scent of the First Snow”

Sibelius_Symphonies_VanskaBeethoven’s great symphonic arc is a study in moderation. Beginning with the Third Symphony (the Eroica), Beethoven’s odd numbered symphonies can be described as heroic, monumental and groundbreaking. By contrast, the even numbered symphonies take a step back into a more intimate world of classical charm.

Listen to Jean Sibelius’ Fifth and Sixth Symphonies back to back, and you’ll hear a similar dichotomy. Sibelius began sketching both works around the same time in the summer and autumn of 1914. The stormy, heroic drama of the Fifth Symphony leads to this transcendent moment in the final movement. The Sixth Symphony, sometimes called the “Cinderella” of Sibelius’ output, is quieter and more desolate. It emerges out of a still, Nordic wood. In its final bars, the fourth movement’s joyful exuberance dissipates, and we’re left where we began…with a gloomy, desolate stillness, as a single lonely pitch fades away. Instead of progressing towards an ultimate goal, the Sixth Symphony explores a beautiful, but static sonic landscape.

“The Sixth Symphony always reminds me of the scent of the first snow,” said Jean Sibelius in 1943. The music is full of shimmering, bright colors as high strings blend with flutes, and occasionally harp. If any music can evoke the clear, blinding brightness of sunlight glinting off of freshly fallen snow, this is it. Out of nordic gloom and a sense of shivering mystery, there are bursts of joy, maybe even giddiness. (this moment in the first movement, for example). But there are also moments of darkness which pop up suddenly, without any warning. At the end of the first movement, we hear a noble proclamation in the horns and then a frightening moment of strange dissonance which grows into a musical thunderclap.

In this transition early in the first movement, listen to the incredible conflict and tension between the strings and tympani. The rising brass chord seems to bring us back where we belong. Late, towards the end of the symphony, listen to the way playful, frolicking music suddenly is overtaken by strange, sustained “wrong” notes in the trumpet.

Most of the Sixth Symphony inhabits the Dorian mode, which sounds like a natural minor scale, until you get to its raised sixth degree. This, in addition to the lowered seventh gives the music a completely different atmosphere from major or minor tonality. In some ways, it looks back to the floating, mediative sounds of Palestrina (1525-1594).

Here is Osmo Vänskä’s recording with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra:

  • Find Osmo Vänskä’s recording with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra (featured above) at iTunes, Amazon.
  • a recording with Leif Segerstam and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra.
  • a live performance with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Sibelius 5’s Evaporating Tonal Center

A part of the Sibelius monument in Helsinki.
A part of the Sibelius monument in Helsinki.

 

In Monday’s post, commemorating the 150th anniversary of Jean Sibelius’ birth, we listened to Leonard Bernstein’s live concert performance of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic. Returning to this music, I was reminded of that chilling moment in the first movement when the tonal center completely evaporates.

Virtually all music from J.S. Bach through Late Romanticism was tonal, built on relationships between a tonic (the key’s home base) and dominant. We naturally sense these relationships and the pull of a dominant (V) chord back home. For example, imagine how unfulfilled you would feel if the final resolution was missing from the end of Gee, Officer Krupke! from Bernstein’s West Side Story.  The music would be left hanging in midair.

As the twentieth century unfolded, this tonal center sometimes began to fray and disappear altogether. We hear tonality slipping away in the last Mahler symphonies (listen to the haunting Adagio from Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony), and in Debussy’s floating Eastern harmonies (listen to the dreamy Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun). When tonality completely disappears, it sounds like Arnold Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31In this music, all twelve pitches of the chromatic scale are treated equally and all sense of hierarchy is gone.

But let’s return to that frightening moment in the first movement of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony, written in 1915, when tonality briefly disappears. As the bassoon wanders through a desolate landscape, we hear wispy, ghostly spinning motives in the strings. It almost sounds like a distant howling wind. Moments later, the tonal center abruptly returns, but the shock of this passage (beginning around 6:43) remains with us for the rest of the piece:

Sibelius at 150

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

 

Tomorrow marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Jean Sibelius. Commemorative events are under way this week, from Sibelius’ native Finland to Minnesota.

Appropriately, the 11th International Jean Sibelius Violin Competition just wrapped up in Helsinki. The competition, open to violinists under the age of 30, has been held every five years since 1965. Listen to this year’s first prize winner, American violinist Christel Lee, here.

Recently, here at the Listeners’ Club, we’ve explored Sibelius’ Second Symphony and the tone poem, The OceanidesBoth posts featured conductor Osmo Vänskä’s landmark recordings with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra in the 1990s. In 2012, Vänskä began re-recording the Sibelius symphonies with Minnesota Orchestra. Briefly delayed by that orchestra’s 15-month-long lockout, the project is again in full swing.

Later in the week, we’ll hear Vänskä’s Lahti recording of Sibelius’ Sixth Symphony. In the meantime, here is a great live performance of the Fifth Symphony with Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic. I provided some background on the Fifth Symphony in this past Listeners’ Club post.

Do you have a favorite Sibelius recording? Is there one conductor who, in your opinion, really “gets” Sibelius? Please share your recommendations in the thread below. And don’t forget to explore the Listeners’ Club archive for other Sibelius posts.

The Oceanides: Sibelius’ Ambient Tone Poem

The Oceanides, Op. 73

When you think of ambient concert music that conjures up vast sonic landscapes, the name John Luther Adams may come to mind. Adams, an American composer and longtime resident of Alaska, was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his orchestral work, Become Ocean, premiered by conductor Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony in June, 2013. It’s music which unfolds slowly in rich, colorful waves of sound, evoking the eternal power, depth and cool darkness of the awesome bodies of water which cover seventy-one percent of Earth’s surface.

But Adams wasn’t the first composer to create an ambient sonic portrait of the sea. Listen to Jean Sibelius’ tone poem, The Oceanides, Op. 73, and you’ll get a similar sense of murky depths and mythological “Nymphs of the Waves” (the loose translation of the Finnish title, Aallottaret).

The Oceanides emerges from the depths of the orchestra, as rising and falling string lines wander in a daze. Flutes provide a playful splash of color. The dreamy serenity of the flutes’ opening motives would be at home in any hazy New-age composition. And while the motives develop (certainly at a faster clip than in the static Become Ocean), we are left with a feeling of the circular and timeless. In this excerpt, listen to the way the horns resolve, only to quickly move back to unsettled dominant territory and then dissolve into something new.

At moments, there are hints of that other piece about the ocean, Claude Debussy’s La mer, completed eight years earlier in 1905. But beyond a few passing similarities, Sibelius’ tone poem feels different than La mer. As with Sibelius’ symphonies, the music spins forward and develops, yet we quickly realize that there is no ultimate goal, just another icy, slowly changing landscape over an endless horizon. That’s the feeling we get from the long, endless series of waves in Become Ocean. The Oceanides has one climactic moment of resolution that feels strangely similar to the crest of one of Become Ocean‘s sonic waves. From there, the music falls back and we’re left with the unending expanse of the ocean.

  • Find Osmo Vänskä’s recording of The Oceanides with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra (featured above) at iTunes, Amazon.
  • The Oceanides underwent a series of revisions. Hear one of Sibelius’ earlier versions, set a half step lower in the key of D-flat.
  • Find John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Browse the Listeners’ Club archive and find other posts featuring Sibelius’ music.

Sibelius’ Second: Beyond Finnish Nationalism

Jean Sibelius completed his Second Symphony in 1902 at a turbulent moment in Finnish history. Amid a surge of nationalism and renewed cultural unity, a growing movement called for Finnish independence from Russia. As Tsar Nicholas II sought to suppress Finnish language and culture, Sibelius’ music played an important role in the cultural reawakening of his homeland.  Finlandia, the majestic nationalist hymn written in 1899 as a covert protest against Russian censorship, emerged as a defacto second Finnish National Anthem. A few years earlier, the Karelia Suite (1893) painted a mythic sound portrait and drew upon rough, backwoodsy Finnish folk elements. The same year, The Swan of Tuonela was inspired by the Kalevala, a collection of nineteenth century poetry which drew upon Finnish mythology. (The Swan of Tuonela was revised two years later and included in the Lemminkäinen Suite). Long dominated by Russia and Sweden, Finland would gain independence in 1917.

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

Some listeners have heard echoes of Finland’s struggle for independence in the Second Symphony. In 1902 the conductor Robert Kajanus, who championed Sibelius’ music and made the first recording of the Second Symphony in 1930 with the London Symphony Orchestra, wrote:

The effect of the andante is that of the most crushing protest against all the injustice which today threatens to take light from the sun (…) [The scherzo] depicts hurried preparation (…) [The finale] culminates in a triumphant closure which is capable of arousing in the listener a bright mood of consolation and optimism.

In 1998 conductor Osmo Vänskä suggested a similar, if more open-ended programmatic reading:

The second symphony is connected with our nation’s fight for independence, but it is also about the struggle, crisis and turning-point in the life of an individual. This is what makes it so touching.

But it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that Sibelius had none of this in mind when he was writing the Second Symphony. Despite the powerful nationalistic undertones of his smaller programmatic works, he seems to have approached the symphony as “pure music.” In his famous 1907 meeting with Gustav Mahler (in which Mahler declared, “A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.”), Sibelius seemed to be interested in the pure, formal aspects of the symphony. During their philosophical discussion, Sibelius told Mahler that he

admired [the symphony’s] severity of style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motifs…If we understood the world, we would realize that there is a logic of harmony underlying its manifold apparent dissonances.

We hear this sense of logical, organic development in the Second Symphony. It’s almost as if the invisible, creative powers of nature shaped and developed the work through the composer’s hand. The opening of the first movement emerges suddenly, even abruptly, out of silence. The first strong beats are literally silent rests, and the opening motive, set in 6/4 time, feels like a long upbeat leading to more silence. This ascending three note motive, first heard in the strings, is the seed from which the entire symphony grows.  A few moments later, the woodwinds add the next layer of development: a buoyant, dancing countermelody. Quiet pizzicati lead into an exhilarating and terrifying accelerando. Then, listen to the sustained woodwind note which rises out of the string texture here. This single tone (a half step higher) becomes the thread which leads into the quietly shivering passage which follows.

That ascending motive in the opening is imprinted on the DNA of the entire symphony. It comes back slightly differently in the second movement, becomes a swirl of energy in the third movement, returns in the bridge to the final movement, and then becomes a triumphant proclamation in the opening of the final movement, the Symphony’s climax.

But let’s return to the silence of the opening. Sibelius was a composer who lifted music out of silence. He required hours of uninterrupted silence to work. In the final years of his life, he descended into a permanent creative silence, unable to compose and eventually destroying sketches of a stillborn Eighth Symphony. The Second Symphony is filled with unsettling moments which abruptly trail off into silence. It’s as if the music is unable to shake off the reality of its silent opening beats. One of these moments comes in the Nordic gloom of the second movement where, just as we seem to be reaching a climax, a brooding brass choral is interrupted by a series of pauses. When this music returns later in the movement, the silence is filled with strangely static woodwind chords. A moment later, one of the movement’s longest pauses delivers us into a hushed new sonic world. Barely emerging from the silence, strings are joined by a glassy, meandering woodwind line.

For all of its dramatic motion towards the climax of the final movement, Sibelius’ Second often seems to struggle with resolution. There are moments where the music can’t quite sum up what it’s trying to say, as if the titanic forces unleashed are too big to wrap your arms around fully (this passage from the second movement, for example). The first and second movements culminate in chords which seem slightly brusk, coming and going too soon. Even in the final two minutes of the symphony, there’s a sense of unresolved energy, as the music reaches increasingly higher, striving for an ultimate, unattainable goal.

Recommended Recordings

  • Find Osmo Vänskä 1997 recording (featured above) with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Vänskä is re-recording the Sibelius Symphonies with the Minnesota Orchestra. Find the new recording, released in 2012 at iTunes, Amazon.
  • George Szell’s 1970 recording with the Cleveland Orchestra. This was his last recording with the orchestra.
  • Leonard Bernstein’s performance with the Vienna Philharmonic.
  • Gustavo Dudamel’s performance with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra

Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial

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On Easter Sunday, 1939, African-American contralto Marian Anderson gave a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It is remembered as a significant event which provided a glimpse of the powerful American civil rights movement to come. Twenty four years later, in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. would stand on the same steps to deliver his iconic “I have a dream” address. As Marian Anderson performed for a multiracial crowd of over 75,000 and millions of radio listeners across the country, the foundation of a long-established segregated society was beginning to crumble.

Marian Anderson’s legendary outdoor concert was born out of adversity. Although she would come to be regarded as one of the twentieth century’s greatest singers, segregation barred her from many venues throughout the United States. When she attempted to schedule a concert in Washington, D.C, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her to perform at Constitution Hall. A firestorm of controversy ensued and thousands of DAR members resigned in protest, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who wrote,

I am in complete disagreement with the attitude taken in refusing Constitution Hall to a great artist … You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed.

The District of Columbia Board of Education would not allow the concert to be moved to the auditorium of an all white high school. It was Eleanor Roosevelt, with the help of Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, who organized the now legendary outdoor concert.

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, here is Marian Anderson’s 1939 performance of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee at the Lincoln Memorial:

Watch this documentary to learn more about Marian Anderson’s extraordinary life and groundbreaking career.

Five Great Recordings

Christopher Rouse’s First Symphony

composer Christopher Rouse
American composer Christopher Rouse (b. 1949)

From the first, haunting strands of its spine-chilling opening, Christopher Rouse’s Symphony No. 1 inhabits a world of darkness and terror. Its titanic forces rise out of, and then sink back into, an atmosphere of seemingly perpetual gloom. It shows us the strange beauty embodied in brooding darkness, hopelessness and despair, and concludes without delivering the kind of reassurance we would like.

Completed in the summer of 1986, the work was written for the Baltimore Symphony and conductor David Zinman. Like Samuel Barber’s First Symphony and Sibelius’ Seventh, Rouse’s symphony unfolds in one movement, although it’s divided into sections which resemble traditional symphonic movements. If you’re not offended by the limitations of labels, you can put Christopher Rouse, who has served on the faculties of both the Eastman and Juilliard schools, into the neo-Romantic camp. His music alternates between tonality and atonality, occasionally hinting at the rebellious sounds of rock mixed with Mahler. A year before the First Symphony, Rouse wrote Bump, a piece inspired by a dream in which the Boston Pops was playing a tour concert in Hell and demons formed a Konga line.

Symphony No. 1 is filled with ghosts from the past. As Rouse explains:

In my Symphony No. 1 I have attempted to pay conscious homage to many of those I especially admire as composers of adagios — Shostakovich, Sibelius, Hartmann, Pettersson, and Schuman, for example — but only one is recognizably quoted (the famous opening theme from the second movement of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7, played both in the original and here by a quartet of Wagner Tubas). The work is scored for two flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), two oboes (2nd doubling both oboe d’amore and English horn), two clarinets (2nd doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons (2nd doubling contrabassoon), four horns (all doubling Wagner Tubas), three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (3 players), and strings. It is dedicated to my friend, John Harbison.

A few months ago, we listened to Anton Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. You can hear the majestic theme of the Adagio, which Rouse quotes, here. The short quote occurs towards the end.

Here is the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Alan Gilbert:

While Symphony No. 1 directly quotes Bruckner at 22:19 (indirect references also sneak in at moments like 2:04), the spirit of Shostakovich is never far away. Notice that the fugue beginning at 5:48 is built on the famous motive which outlines Shostakovich’s initials. There’s also the mournful flute solo at 2:54, which inverts and develops the half-step motive from the opening. Like Shostakovich, Rouse’s music seems to continually strive for an elusive goal; and, like most symphonies, it’s always looking for a way forward…a new door to open.

Notice the simple, repeated four note motive (E-G-G-E) which begins around 7:30. As this motive progresses, it morphs into three obsessively repeated notes. It feels dangerous and ominous, like a time bomb waiting to go off. The motive, which starts quietly, grows until it seems unmanageable, exploding into cacophony.

Then, in the middle of the piece, we suddenly enter a completely different world (12:22). The searching half steps of the opening are replaced with reassuring whole steps (14:27 in the bass). This music, built on triads and open fifths, seems to float, providing a dreamlike respite from earlier darkness. But it’s only temporary. Soon, the spirit of the opening angrily re-asserts itself (17:46) and we’re plunged back into darkness and confusion. At 22:31, listen to the trance-like repetition of those three notes we heard earlier, this time in the percussion. A solemn minor chord provides a backdrop throughout the symphony, and it’s present at the end, momentarily obscured by layers of passing dissonance (24:49). The hopeful E-G-G-E motive is heard as the symphony fades away into eternal gloom.

Tundra

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In 1990 the Helsinki Philharmonic commemorated the 125th anniversary of Jean Sibelius’ birth with the commission of Tundra, a short but powerful orchestral piece by Danish composer Poul Ruders (b. 1949). Wednesday’s post featured the dark, brooding sounds of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony. You’ll hear a similar icy, Scandinavian sonic landscape in Ruders’ Tundra. There are also direct echoes of Sibelius. Take a moment and listen to the Sibelius Fifth’s singular climactic event, the distinctive “Swan Theme” played by the horns in the final movement. A ghostly fragment of this theme surfaces briefly in Tundra. 

Following the Seventh Symphony, incidental music for The Tempest, and a few shorter works, Sibelius descended into a permanent period of artistic silence. Despite efforts to complete an eighth symphony, he would remain unable to write any music for the remainder of his life. Unable to access the source of earlier inspiration, Sibelius was left with the vast, inconceivable power of nature, as Alex Ross describes:

Suddenly dissatisfied with the fluid form that had evolved in the Fifth, he began to dream of a continuous blur of sound without any formal divisions—symphonies without movements, operas without words. Instead of writing the music of his imagination, he wanted to transcribe the very noise of nature. He thought that he could hear chords in the murmurs of the forests and the lapping of the lakes; he once baffled a group of Finnish students by giving a lecture on the overtone series of a meadow. Whatever he succeeded in putting on paper seemed paltry and inadequate.

Tundra’s massive layers of sound suggest a similar connection to the eternal hum of nature. This is Leif Segerstam conducting the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra: