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:

The Triumph of Inner Voices

Conductor Sergiu Celibidache wants "More viola!"
Sergiu Celibidache wants more viola.

No, this post isn’t about following your intuition…today we’re talking about musical inner voices, those sometimes inconspicuous lines between the melody and the bass, which are often the essence of a piece’s drama. If you have any doubts about the importance of these lines, often played by violas and second violins in orchestral and string quartet repertoire, watch this short but funny clip of conductor Sergiu Celibidache rehearsing the Adagio from Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7. 

Ensemble playing is about teamwork and every part is essential to the whole. Let’s listen to a few orchestra excerpts, which are great examples of the power of inner voices.

Nimrod

Take a moment and think about all of your Facebook friends or cell phone contacts. Could you imagine music which would fit each personality? English composer Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) wrote a series of variations on this original theme, each depicting one of his friends. He assigned each variation a cryptic title, leaving audiences to guess who was being represented. The piece has commonly come to be known as the Enigma Variations. The variations run the gamut from lighthearted to fiery. One of the most famous and memorable parts of the piece is Variation IX, a moving chorale dedicated to Elgar’s publisher and close friend, August Jaeger. Listen carefully to the inner voices. Pay attention to the contour of the lines and the way they fit together. Listen for moments of harmonic tension:

Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” 

Tchaikovsky’s final work, Symphony No. 6 “Pathétique”, features a triumphantly rousing third movement, followed by a Finale which sinks into the deepest despair (Adagio lamentoso – Andante). What’s interesting is the way Tchaikovsky chooses to write the opening theme of the final movement. As a listener, you might make the logical assumption that the first violins play the prominent descending scale line (F-sharp, E, D, C-sharp, B, C-sharp). But the actual opening line for the first violins is B, E, G-sharp, C-sharp, E-sharp, C-sharp. It sounds pretty strange when played by itself. The second violin part has similar jumps. So who has the famous melody? It turns out that the melody and inner voices alternate back and forth between the first and second violins. Today the second violins in an orchestra typically sit next to the firsts, but in Tchaikovsky’s day, the seconds faced the firsts on the other side of the stage (where the cellos usually are now). Tchaikovsky achieved the nineteenth century equivalent of surround sound.

In this performance, conducted by Valery Gergiev, the second violins are seated across from the firsts:

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

In the final movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, a seemingly insignificant inner voice becomes the star of the show. Listen to the supporting voice at 1:11, which mirrors the top voice in contrary motion. As the development section begins, we hear it again (4:28), then more prominently in the trombones. Listen as this inner voice is transformed into a powerful, heroic proclamation played by the whole orchestra (5:28).

What are your favorite inner voices? Share your own listening suggestions in the thread below.