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.

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

Remembering Walter Weller

conductor Walter Weller (1939-2015)
conductor Walter Weller (1939-2015)

 

Austrian conductor and violinist Walter Weller passed away last Sunday at the age of 75. Weller was one of the last links to a Viennese musical tradition rooted in the nineteenth century.

Following in his father’s footsteps, Walter Weller joined the Vienna Philharmonic at the age of 17, eventually becoming one of its concertmasters. In addition, he performed as first violinist of the Weller Quartet. In 1966 he was asked to fill in on short notice for the conductor Karl Böhm. This launched a conducting career that included regular appearances at Vienna State Opera and Volksoper and principal conductor posts with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and the Scottish National Orchestra. In an article in Glasgow’s Herald Scotland, music critic Michael Tumelty said that Weller

had a seminal influence on the sound of [the RSNO] that extends to this day. He brought a depth and richness of sound that nobody else ever has.

Conductor Kenneth Woods offered this description in 2007.

Walter Weller leaves behind an extensive discography, ranging from music of Martinu and Suk to the complete symphonies of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Prokofiev. Here is his 2004 recording of Mendelssohn’s overture, The Hebrides, Op. 26, “Fingal’s Cave” with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Throughout the overture, we hear the windswept mystery of the remote Scottish islands Mendelssohn visited around 1829…the play of light and shadow on the water and the rugged cliffs surround Fingal’s Cave. This sense of mystery remains unresolved in the final chords. Weller’s performance comes to life with fiery excitement and also with incredibly soft moments of introspection:

Here is Walter Weller’s 2006 recording with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra of Beethoven’s overture, The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43. The overture opened Beethoven’s 1801 ballet score.

Here is the final movement from Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony No. 1 from a 1975 recording with the London Symphony Orchestra. It’s hard to imagine a more exciting performance. Listen carefully to the little interjections throughout this joyful whirlwind of a movement:

1965 Clip: Solti Conducts Wagner

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The young Sir Georg Solti’s interpretive power is on display in this electrifying performance of Siegfried’s Funeral March from Richard Wagner’s opera, Götterdämmerung (The Twilight of the Gods). The excerpt was apparently taken from a 1965 recording session with the Vienna Philharmonic. There’s a raw passion and edge-of-your-seat intensity in this playing that we rarely hear today.

I grew up listening to many of Sir Georg Solti’s excellent recordings with the Chicago Symphony. Solti’s performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with the Eastman Philharmonia was a memorable childhood concert experience. In his youth, the Hungarian-born conductor studied piano with Béla Bartók. Solti served as music director of the Chicago Symphony between 1969 and 1991 and remained the orchestra’s “Music Director Laureate” until his death in 1997. Over the course of his career, he won thirty-one Grammy Awards, more than any other recording artist.

As this clip demonstrates, a strict sense of rhythm and attention to the relationship of tempo to style seem to have been essential ingredients in Solti’s artistry. Solti’s interpretations were never fussy and always allowed the music to develop honestly.

To learn more about Georg Solti, watch this excerpt from Dudley Moore’s Orchestra! series and this documentary.

Additional Listening

Brahms’ Fourth: A Symphonic Swan Song

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Take a moment and consider the vast number of nineteenth century symphonies which, in one way or another, take an unequivocal journey from darkness to light. The long arc of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, with its transcendent final movement, is a perfect example. In the opening of the last movement of Beethoven’s Fifth, C minor turns into C major, and the trombones (who wait through the first three movements without playing a note) suddenly add a new, heroically transformative voice to the mix.

By contrast, Johannes Brahms’ final symphonic statement, the Fourth Symphony, takes a starkly different road. Its opening sighs (later echoed in the third of Brahms’ Four Serious Songs, Op. 121) suggest melancholy lament. The ferocious concluding bars of the fourth movement tumble towards a resolution punctuated by a stern E minor chord (listen to the way the music loses its balance at 39:22 in the recording below). The dark finality of that last chord rings in our ears after the music is over. “Is that it?” we ask, feeling almost cheated out of the transfiguration we expected.

But the thorny realism of Brahms’ Fourth leaves us with a strangely powerful feeling of catharsis. The music evokes a complex, indescribable range of emotions. For example, in the opening of the first movement, consider the emotional ambiguity of the chord at 0:10. We might expect a simple, straightforward E minor chord at this moment, but listen to the way one added pitch in the woodwinds creates something infinitely more complex, mysterious and ambiguous.

Like Beethoven’s compositional style, Brahms’ music develops through short motivic cells, evolving, sometimes struggling, and working out a way forward. This sense of constant development led composer and Wagner enthusiast Hugo Wolf to accuse Brahms of “composing without ideas.” But in his 1933 essay, Brahms the Progressivetwelve-tone innovator Arnold Schoenberg suggested that Brahms’ compositional style (regarded as “conservative” during his lifetime) anticipated the breakdown of tonality in the twentieth century. Regardless, even some of Brahms’ friends were befuddled by the symphony when it was first performed, encouraging him to discard whole movements and allow others to remain as stand-alone pieces. On October 25, 1885, when Brahms performed a two piano version of the Fourth Symphony for friends (prior to its first official full orchestra premiere), the critic and Brahms champion Eduard Hanslick, who turned pages for the performance, said,

For this whole movement I had the feeling that I was being given a beating by two incredibly intelligent people.

Listening to the first movement, you may sense mystery and danger lurking somewhere beneath the surface. The sudden, ominous moment at 3:05 ushers in quiet, spirited fanfares which grow into emphatic statements. Notice the way this music returns throughout the movement. In the development section it plunges deeper into mysterious territory (5:19).

You’ll hear moments of incredible contrapuntal complexity. In his book, The Compleat ConductorGunther Schuller describes the music which follows 3:05 as,

a multi-layered structure of such complexity that I dare say there is nothing like it even in the Rite of Spring; one has to turn to Ives’s Fourth Symphony to find a parallel.

Instead of triumphantly returning to the recapitulation, we tiptoe, holding our breath (7:18). The first movement, which began with a restless sense of melancholy, ends in stern, resolute E minor.

The opening of the second movement is built on the ancient Phrygian mode and also hints at C major, but listen to the way we’re quickly pulled from this “wrong” key back into E minor. As the movement progresses, the theme we heard first in the solitary horn solo grows in intensity and scale. At 20:13 listen to the standoff between the winds and the strings. One of the aspects which makes this moment so amazing (and typical of Brahms) is the way the strings overlap with the winds and respond in asymmetrical phrases.

Brahms’ third movement is not a scherzo, as we would expect, but is instead built on Sonata form. Listen to the conversations taking place between instruments (the inner voices and bass at 24:42). Also, notice the addition of the triangle. What personas are suggested by these sounds?

A marriage of Romanticism and classical form occurs throughout Brahms’ music. The fourth movement looks back to the Baroque era, employing a passacaglia. Thirty variations are built on this repeating bass line, adapted from J.S. Bach’s cantata, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150. As you listen, consider the atmosphere of each variation. Do you hear a sense of lament in the music, which was present from the beginning of the first movement?

Here is Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic’s legendary performance of Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98:

  1. Allegro non troppo (0:00)
  2. Andante moderato (12:50)
  3. Allegro giocoso (24:14)
  4. Allegro energico e passionato (30:22)

Notable Recordings and Links

Share your thoughts on Brahms’ Fourth Symphony and your favorite recordings in the thread below.

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:

Waltzing into a New Year

The Vienna Philharmonic began its tradition of performing an annual New Year’s Concert in 1939. Ever since, New Year’s Day and Strauss waltzes have become intertwined in popular imagination. In celebration of a new year, here is Johann Strauss II’s The Blue Danube from last year’s concert, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst. Austrian conductor Welser-Möst is currently the Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra. You may notice that in the Viennese style of playing waltzes the second beat comes slightly early and is stretched (One,TWO-three):

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Shaping a Film to Its Score[/typography]

If you’re a film fan, The Blue Danube probably brings to mind Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, a work he described as “a mythological documentary” and “a controlled dream.” The film delves into issues of technology and human evolution. In one scene a tribe of early hominids discovers that an animal bone can be used as a weapon as well as a tool. It’s a crucial moment of uniquely human ingenuity. An ape-man throws the bone into the air and it suddenly turns into a Pan-Am spaceplane, cruising to a space station which is orbiting earth millions of years later. Both the bone and the spaceplane represent technology. Have we really come so far?

Typically, composers write film scores after a movie has been made. 2001: A Space Odyssey may be a rare example of a film which was influenced by its music. Kubrick began working on the film with a “temporary track” of existing classical music. Meanwhile, the respected Hollywood composer Alex North began working on the score. It wasn’t until late in the process that North realized, to his disappointment and frustration, that Kubrick had abandoned the entire original score in favor of existing music, which included Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra and music by twentieth century composer György Ligeti. You can get a sense of what the movie would have been like with North’s unused score here and here.

In Kubrick’s film the grace and elegance of Strauss’s waltz accompanies spinning satellites:

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Like other aspects of 2001, there are many contrasting interpretations regarding how the music is functioning in the film. Clearly, Kubrick was looking for something more than background music. In many scenes dialogue takes a back seat to music and image. For a complete analysis of the role of music in the film, read David W. Patterson’s Music, Structure and Metaphor in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

[quote]Music in Kubrick’s films is used inventively and narratively and flamboyantly, causing the viewer to listen so that he can see. -Vivian Sobchak[/quote]