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Sibelius (1865-1957) – Symphony No. 2
Now, here’s a question. In music, which matters more – form or content? We could argue the toss ’til the cows come home, but we’d never resolve it. Why? Because we are all different. We all listen with both our minds and our hearts, but the proportions vary between individuals. Even those who claim to be “all heart” have some regard for form – they can’t help it, because the human brain is inherently fascinated by puzzles and patterns. That much is fairly obvious, but it prompts a more interesting proposition – that to be admitted into the hallowed halls of the “greatest”, a musical work must excel in both content and form.
That’s one reason why Sibelius was a writer of great music. The content of his music was governed by two factors. Firstly, in the late 1800s, Finland’s struggle to escape the Russian yoke inspired the young composer to express the vital Finnish mythology (notably the Kalevala) through melody deliberately voiced in natural Finnish speech-rhythms and inflections.
Secondly, there was the profound and extensive influence of Nature, to which Sibelius made countless references: “Nature is [a] coming to life: that life which I so love, . . . whose essence shall pervade everything I compose”. Bearing in mind the highly distinctive qualities of both speech and Nature in Finland, “all” it needed was someone capable of expressing them musically to ensure content of distinction. That “someone” was Sibelius.
His formal distinction had rather more mundane beginnings. Like Tchaikovsky, or indeed Mahler, Sibelius was sensitive to criticism and, much more to the point, severely self-critical. As early as 1892, the successful premičre of his epic Kullervo Symphony prompted Robert Kajanus to ask for another symphonic work, to appeal to general listeners without overstretching their powers of concentration and understanding. Clearly, Sibelius took this as a roundabout way of telling him that Kullervo was an over-ambitious, confusing sprawl, because he immediately retracted it.
That might have seemed a simple knee-jerk reaction, were it not for what happened next. He produced a string of works – including the Four Lemminkainen Legends (1893-9), Finlandia and the First Symphony (1899) – that were all far shorter and much more tautly constructed than Kullervo. Sibelius had quickly cottoned onto the fact that formal discipline lends strength and clarity. However, before he was done he would take it much further than that.
Initially, this formal path would lead to his nature-inspired vision of “a profound logic creating a connection between all the motifs” (conversation with Mahler, 1907). Ultimately, it would arrive at the miraculous Seventh Symphony (1924), in which he achieved his real ambition – the fusing of form and content into an organic, natural unity, which also provides the perfect answer to my opening question.
The Second Symphony (1901-2) was effectively his first major step, although it’s the change in content that’s the more immediately striking. Seemingly at a stroke, all evidence of the influence of the likes of Tchaikovsky and Dvorák is vanquished. It’s as if he’d distilled his materials, leaving nothing but pure, unadulterated Sibelius – music of sinuous sensuality and stark austerity, ice with fire glowing darkly from deep within, “running water” ostinati, craggy outcroppings of declamatory brass, a still-unique sound that electrifies the receptive spine.
This symphony’s sumptuous sounds, lush lyricism and powerful passions are entirely sufficient to satisfy even the most sensual soul – pushing Sibelius’s formal advances, which if anything are rather more radical, firmly into the background. Whilst this is arguably their proper place, we shouldn’t under-estimate their contribution to the music’s impact. Given half a chance, this music will also send any self-respecting set of pattern-loving synapses into transports of ecstasy, because there is an astonishing amount going on just behind the fabulous façade of this, one of the Twentieth Century’s most lovable works.
1. Allegretto. Sibelius doesn’t so much adapt sonata form as turn it completely inside-out, making it doubly cunning to start so simply, with hesitant dancing phrases gently urged along by the strings. After a pause woodwind introduce the second subject, a group of motives dominated by an extended, intense declamation. Expectant pizzicati usher in the development – or is it a third subject? Well, that depends on how you view the rich, oscillating phrase and spiky woodwind theme emerging against the background of the “urging” motive; but either way, Sibelius has blurred the boundary.
Two developmental phases follow, both initiated by the “oscillating” theme on solo woodwind. The first involves the “oscillating” and “spiky” themes. The second embroils the first and second subjects, culminating in an intense crescendo to a truly remarkable climax: in which all “three” subjects coalesce sequentially into, well, a “tune”! Traditional analytical development has been supplanted by synthetic development.
The music relaxes into what is generally called the “recapitulation”. Certainly, the two main subjects reappear – only not one after the other, but together in counterpoint. This sounds like more development. Sibelius has blurred the boundaries again. By now, we should expect the coda to involve only that “third” subject. And so it does, until the final, fading bars, which are filled by the “urging” theme – and the “spiky” theme!
2. Tempo andante, ma rubato. This movement is often interpreted as a potent expression of the conflicting forces of Nature, but there is an alternative view – that it’s something of a “political” statement, a tussle between (in the blue corner) the first subject, representing Sibelius’s radical new approach, and (in the red corner) the second subject, representing his reactionary old habits. It seems as if Sibelius is trying to describe what was going on inside his head as he determined his new departure.
The seemingly endless, blindly stalking pizzicato certainly sounds like the stirring of a force of Nature, but is in fact the gestation of the bassoon’s song. This undergoes a series of increasingly agitated mutations, arriving at a massive, craggy climax. Following a portentous pause, the second subject is a tender, fully-fledged, distinctly more traditional melody, whose noble progress is interrupted but briefly by a malcontent bass variant.
The first subject responds with a bizarre processional – presaging Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin – leading to an even more forceful craggy climax. Now, when the second subject returns, it is at first beleaguered by harsh interjections from the radical faction. Unfazed, it rises steadily to an impassioned, luxuriant climax, but is eventually undermined from within by that “malcontent”. The coda muses nostalgically on the “old” then, suddenly, vigorously shakes itself down – and ends emphatically on a fragment of the “new”!
3. Vivacissimo – 4. Finale: allegro moderato. Sibelius’s “scherzo” seethes with energy, the cataracts constrained only by the guiding banks of slower-moving phrases. In complete contrast, the tender “trio”, flower-like, blooms and grows from a languorous solo oboe theme. Although the “scherzo” is repeated, Sibelius alters those “guiding” phrases, introducing a new rising figure on horns. At this stage of the game, dare anyone deny the possibility of a common origin for all these materials? Back in 1902, the “scherzo” repeat would have been expected to end the movement. If the return of the “trio” raised a few eyebrows, then what happens next must have elevated them out of sight.
Of course, the idea of linking two movements was old hat, but the way Sibelius did it was utterly new. It’s as if we’re the Pevensie children opening the wardrobe door – in the blink of an eye, our familiar surroundings evaporate, and we’re in the strange, dizzy world of the finale. Yet, as it progresses, it turns out to be not entirely unfamiliar: the overall ground-plan follows the third movement’s pattern, even unto the “surprise” ending!
Boiling up to the brim of the melting-pot, Sibelius’s Big Tune comprises a succession of seemingly independent motives, a glorious “patchwork” in the manner of the first movement’s climax – in fact its bold first phrase is a metamorphosis of the symphony’s opening “dance”. The second subject’s meandering march gradually gains momentum, sufficient for a brief climax before dissolving into ghostly anticipation.
Slowly, the wick under the melting-pot is turned up yet higher, a garnish of prickly woodwind adding piquancy to the Big Tune’s impassioned reprise. The meandering resumes, but this time gathers momentum sufficient to substantiate the ghost – and it’s precisely here that a second wardrobe door is flung open, filling our world with blazing light!
And what musical material is the source of all this luminous splendour? I wish I could tell you. However – even after all these years – my pattern-loving synapses are still working on it! Part of my problem is that this coda always inflames the hedonistic synapses, and – well – you just have to give in to those, don’t you?
© Paul Serotsky, 2006 .

© Paul Serotsky
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