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:

The Dead City: Korngold’s Psychological Thriller

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957)
Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957)

Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s 1920 three-act opera, Die tote Stadt (“The Dead City) opens in the rational world, but quickly dissolves into a dark dreamscape of hallucination.

Paul, the central character, is haunted by the recent death of his wife, Marie. Unable to move on, Paul is obsessed with a “Temple of Memories,” which includes paintings, photographs and a lock of his deceased wife’s hair. On the streets of Bruges he sees Marietta, a young dancer who resembles Marie. Paul believes that Marietta is Marie and invites her to his house. Marietta seduces Paul, singing Glück das mir verblieb. Mirroring Paul’s sense of loss, the aria’s words are tinged with sadness and loss…a sense of the fleeting nature of life and love. Bored and put off by Paul’s strange behavior, Marietta leaves.

Events of the second and third acts take place in Paul’s imagination. At the end of Act III, Paul dreams that he strangles Marietta with a lock of Marie’s hair, declaring, “Now she is exactly like Marie.” Suddenly, Paul awakens from his dream. Brigitta, the maid tells him that Marietta has returned to retrieve an umbrella she left behind. Shaken by the ghostly visions, Paul says that he will try to let go of the “Temple of Memories”, singing a reprise of “Glück, das mir verblieb.” Read the entire synopsis here.

Korngold was 23 years old when Die tote Stadt premiered simultaneously in Hamburg and Cologne (conducted by Otto Klemperer) on December 4, 1920. The opera remained popular with audiences until it was banned by the Nazis as part of the Third Reich’s efforts to purge music by Jewish composers. In the post war years it was neglected, fitting neither into the witty neoclassical style of Stravinsky nor the twelve tone world of Arnold Schoenberg. It remained almost forgotten until the mid-to-late twentieth century. In recent years it has seen a revival. Die tote Stadt may be heard as a continuation of the late Romantic harmonic language of Mahler and Richard Strauss.

Below is the powerful final scene, performed by Torsten Kerl. Throughout the opera, Korngold draws on key relationships, representing the living Marietta with five sharps and the dead Marie with five flats. Beginning around the 2:12 mark, we hear the descending chromatic “death” motive which occurs throughout the work. Notice the significant and jarring moments where Korngold chooses to lapse into spoken words. Listen to the way the music changes as the maid, Brigitta enters (5:12) and Paul awakens from his hallucination, singing, “Brigitta, you my old and faithful friend.” On the word “friend,” we’re suddenly transported to a new world as the harmony and tonal color shift.

Korngold’s Die tote Stadt confronts us with questions about holding on versus letting go, and the nature of memory. Are memories real or illusory? Despite this production’s bold “No Exit” sign, the final chord suggests a release of energy akin to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde…an ultimate, irreversible musical resolution which represents the end of tonal striving. It’s a final chord which simultaneously encompasses darkness and light: the widest possible range of the orchestra, from the depths of the woodwind section to the high, shimmering strings.

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:

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

  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:

When Less is More

UnknownThe best conductors know when to get out of the way. They have an intuitive sense for those rare moments when the music is cooking along on its own and they allow it to blossom. Expressive power grows from economy. The big gesture means more when it’s reserved for the right moment. On one level, conducting involves a mysterious “give and take” between the ensemble and the person on the podium. In physics and electrical engineering, a conductor is defined as:

[quote]an object or type of material that permits the flow of electric charges in one or more directions. [/quote]

In many ways, a similar process is occurring with a musical conductor, except with a different type of energy.

Fritz Reiner, the legendary music director of the Chicago Symphony in the 1950s and 60s, was famous for a small beat pattern, as this excerpt of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony shows. In Chicago, the result was laser precision and attention to the smallest detail.

Recently, I ran across this humorous clip of Finnish conductor and composer (of 270 symphonies and counting), Leif Segerstam leading the Gothenburg Symphony in the Alla Marcia from Jean Sibelius’s Karelia Suite. Watch what Segerstam does around the 0:28 mark and listen to the joy and freedom in the sound and phrasing of the orchestra. It’s a great illustration of the power of trusting and letting go: