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Sibelius (1865-1957) - Symphony No. 5

Mesmerised by the miracle of childbirth, humankind habitually expects “perfect” things - like this symphony - to have emerged fully-formed from their creative wombs. Whilst this may be the case for some musical masterpieces, the opposite is equally true of many others - like this symphony! 

Sibelius’s rise to fame was enviably, if not entirely, smooth. His native Finland had provided him with all he needed. The land and its legends served his unique style and sonorities. During the 1890s, whilst Russia sought to consolidate its dominion over Finland, Sibelius repaid his debt - with fervently nationalistic music that struck a singularly resonant chord in Finnish hearts. By 1900 he had been adopted as a patriotic icon and rewarded with a life pension. Everything in his garden was rosy. 

Well, so it seems. However, every silver lining has a cloud. Sibelius was plagued by self-doubt - even as early as 1890 public acclaim of his Kullervo Symphony didn’t dissuade him from dismissing it as technically inadequate. As time passed, he became ever more critical of his own work. This tendency came to a head in 1932, when he burnt the draft of his Eighth Symphony and lapsed into a terminal creative silence - presumably signalling the final triumph of self-criticism over creativity. 

In 1909, with Symphonies 1-3 under his belt, the cloud darkened for a different reason: a severe throat problem. His understandable fear that it might be cancer blighted his outlook, as is borne out by the grim edifice of the Fourth Symphony (1911). In the event his fears were unfounded, but for seven long years a ban on his beloved wine and cigars remained a nagging reminder of that “threat from within”. 

The Fifth Symphony was written and first performed in celebration of his 50th. birthday. True to form, he was not at all happy with his work. Over the next four years he dismantled and rigorously rebuilt it, the celebrated “telescoping” of the first two movements being merely the tip of a reconstructive iceberg. [1] You could say that it was a “difficult birth”, but well worth the pain for such a perfectly sunny and optimistic offspring. 

Well, so it seems. However, I suspect that lots of us hear the music that way because we’ve been “brain-washed” into it. [2] Influenced by traditional received wisdom, are we accentuating the positive and sweeping the negative under the carpet? After all, this is no product of those heady days of emergent Finnish patriotism: it was conceived in 1914, just as war was spreading through Europe. This “threat from without” must have compounded the continuing fears of that “threat from within”. 

Bearing that in mind - or at least ignoring the received wisdom - maybe we should harken a bit more closely to the music itself? My own attempts to peel off that perceptive patina convince me that the Fifth Symphony, arguably a taut Sibelian equivalent to the titanic turmoil of Mahler’s Sixth, is a work less of sunshine and optimism than of monumental struggle. 

1. Tempo molto moderato. Traditional sonata-form goes out of the window in this, one of Sibelius’s most truly “organic” movements. A horn sows a seed, that seed grows, and that growth spawns two parallel processes. The first works through Sibelius’s unique harmony and instrumental colouring, creating a vernal atmosphere that gradually becomes diseased by disturbing spectres. The second operates through line and rhythm: fragmentary materials evolving at a steady pace, set against an accompaniment that becomes more and more agitated. Individually these processes are potent enough, but they combine like saltpetre and sulphur. The inevitable explosion brings blessed release. The “quickening spirit” vanquishes the “forces of darkness”, bursting into the bracing air of the original scherzo materials, re-fashioned to propel the movement headlong to a conclusion of unalloyed triumph. 

2. Andante mosso, quasi allegretto is in effect a set of variations. What? Plain, old-fashioned variations? Not likely! The first distinct impression is of a tranquil but sturdy pulse, reminiscent of the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh. The second is that the pulsing theme overlays a slowly rotating chorale, like Bruckner’s combining of “sacred” chorale with “profane” polka. The third impression is startling: as the pulsing becomes more agitated, we realise that this “game” is being played to much the same rules as the first movement! However, now it’s much less clear-cut. Progression is less consistent, sometimes the pulsing theme slips into aching expansiveness and the agitation infects the chorale. Moreover, the crisis is abortive, and there’s no release, no triumph - the music just stops. If the first movement reflected the “threat from without”, then here Sibelius confronts the more insidious “threat from within”. 

3. Allegro molto. Will the finale overcome fear and reaffirm victory? The thrilling bustle of the opening theme, like troops busily preparing for battle, suggests a “yes!” that becomes utterly unequivocal when the “general” - a horn theme sometimes dubbed “Thor’s Hammer” - strides purposefully amongst his troops. Even the plaintive song that accompanies him expands into impassioned yearning. As an expression of optimism run riot, Sibelius here surpasses even Finlandia! But then what happens? The resumption of the bustle is subdued, the “general’s” reappearance ominously tentative. Leaden-limbed, the music struggles even to stand up. It’s only through sheer gut-wrenching grit, determination, and colossal force of will that it succeeds in unsheathing its sword of gleaming trumpets and wielding it aloft! And at that precise moment, the first of six hammered chords strikes, a sickening punch to the exposed solar-plexus. 

These chords are usually described as “exultant” or “enigmatic” - hardly mutually compatible terms. To these ears they are “victorious” - but the victor is undoubtedly Uncertainty. In his life, Sibelius felt threatened from without and within. In this music, he wages war on two fronts, and it is a war not yet won. 

[1] Hear it for yourselves! There is a highly recommended CD (BIS CD-863) of the Lahti SO/Osmo Vanska playing both the original and the final versions. 

[2] Brain-washed? Yes, by multitudes of writers - of reviews, record sleeve and programme notes. In short, people like me bent on telling you what to hear before you hear it. Don’t be swayed: by all means read my words, but above all listen to the music and decide for yourselves!
 


© Paul Serotsky 
37, Mayfield Grove, 
Brighouse, 
West Yorkshire HD6 4EE 


 

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