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Sibelius - Symphony No. 1

Try to imagine for a moment that you know nothing of Sibelius' mature music - nothing of his ideal of the seamlessly integrated, leaner and fitter symphony (the diametric opposite of Mahler's “symphonic worlds”), nothing of his technique of starting out with the bits and bringing them together (“synthetic”, as opposed to the traditional “analytical”, development), and nothing of his startlingly personal orchestral palette with its whirrings, shimmerings and glacial granite. From this position of blissful ignorance, what would you make of the First Symphony? It is, after all, often dismissed as “negligible, but nice” in relation to his mature symphonies. 

It was completed in the last year (or next to last, depending on your “religion”) of the 19th. century, when its composer was already 34. He had just been granted the state pension which freed him to compose full-time - or not, if he felt that way inclined (which apparently he didn't, for the last 26 years of his life). It shares qualities with Finlandia, which appeared that same year and whose inspiration was driven by a fierce patriotism at a time when Finland struggled against an ever-tightening political hug from the Bear in the East. 

First and foremost, you may be struck by something found in, say, the Fourth Symphony of Tchaikovsky, whose slavonicism was an explicit influence on the young Finn, or, more pointedly, the Ninth Symphony of Dvorak - and that is a preponderance of “good, red” (and, I might add, “juicy”) “meat”. This goes hand-in-hand with a melodic contour and expressive fervour that shout “Nationalist”. In this music, Sibelius is every bit as Finnish as Dvorak is Czech, and for precisely the same reasons. There's nothing wrong with that - even when his North Wind blows at its chilliest, we will know that within beats the warm heart of a composer who can (and very often did) write music to touch the simplest of souls. 

But equally impressive (if less sheerly entertaining) are the structural aspects. This is genuinely symphonic music, argued in a traditional manner, strengthening an already gripping narrative. It is cast in a conventional enough four movements, the outer ones being prefaced by an introductory theme, the contrasting treatments (the former lonely and folk-like on solo clarinet, the latter purposeful and assertive) suggesting a political motivation. This may extend to the whole work because, like Finlandia, it combines fighting talk, homespun nostalgia, and flag-waving. Sibelius' tonal palette is already unique - he is one of those very few with such an unmistakable “fingerprint”. 

I Andante ma non troppo; Allegro energico. The main sonata structure is launched by a thrilling of strings, its first subject craggy and ear-bustingly tempestuous, the second pointed in four-note woodwind phrases. After a busy, eventful development, the recapitulation arrives if anything with even greater force (the legendary LSO/Collins recording is a revelation here). 

II Andante (ma non troppo Lento). This has been described as a “Rondo”, but sounds more like a free Variation Form. Whatever, the sighing main theme has an extraordinary wistfulness, and is moulded and reshaped pliantly, rather than just decorated - although the “colour schemes” are a wonder to behold. 

III Scherzo (Allegro). Sibelius has twice warned against dawdling, so perhaps here he knows the difference between the “allegro” (meaning “cheerful”) he marks and the “presto” (meaning “fast”) he does not. As tympani announce the tricky opening figure, a little ventilation won't go amiss. The edginess is balanced by a fluid counter-subject, the two being cross-faded skilfully. Following the relatively relaxed trio, the scherzo is repeated more or less literally, but withthe addition of a short, sharp coda. 

IV Finale (quasi una Fantasia); Andante. With this title, according to received wisdom, Sibelius announced that he was doing something out of the ordinary. “Fantasia” is a modest claim for this bold extension of the ancient Binary Form. His [A1-B1]-[A2-B2] plus coda is a differentiated pattern curiously at odds with how his music was to evolve.  “A” and “B” are the two subjects, the first vigorous, the second one of those “big tunes” that most composers would give their right arms for (by the end of the Second Symphony, subscribers to that bargain would have two such tunes, but not the wherewithal to set them down!). The first pair (“1”) are expositions, the second (“2”) developments - “A” rising to a scintillating, electrifying climax, and “B” expanding lusciously. The pairs themselves make up a third Binary pattern - very neat. 

Switching back on our hindsight, it is tempting to see the First Symphony as “immature”. But, is it? Are Brahms' and Mahler's First Symphonies “immature” just because they moved on to greater things? Sibelius' First may not ooze the ground-breaking originality of his later symphonies, but it is still original - and it is as well bolted together as any contemporaneous symphony. Then again, hasn't he squandered enough tuneful material for three symphonies  - surely a sign of immaturity? Maybe, but if so, I think I'll side with immaturity this time!

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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