Sibelius - Symphony No. 1
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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
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.
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.
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,
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