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Sibelius (1865-1957) - Symphony No. 7

So often does adversity transmute talent into greatness that we seem to consider it a general rule. Sibelius would be an exception to prove that rule. While still only 32, the Finnish government awarded him a pension for life, a year before he even began work on his First Symphony. That he went on to produce some of the Twentieth Century's finest and most original music says much for his strength of character in the face of enforced prosperity. Although his output was huge and varied, including much attractive lighter music, it is the seven symphonies which are regarded as the pinnacle of his art. His ideal was expressed in a reported conversation (1907) with Mahler, who saw the symphony as “like the world - it must contain everything”, while to Sibelius what mattered was “the profound logic creating a connection between all the motifs”. Although diametrically opposed, these are complementary rather than antithetical viewpoints,  each containing elements of the other. 

Sibelius, however, didn't pursue his ideal with anything like ruthless single-mindedness. Only in the Second, Third and Fifth do we trace a progressive refinement of his technique for “seamless transition” from one movement to the next. While composing the pastoral and euphonious Sixth, Sibelius was planning the Seventh. In a letter to a friend (1918), he made it clear that “profound logic” was far from top priority. The Seventh would be “about joy of life and vitality, with appassionato passages, in three movements, the last being a Hellenic rondo”. Maybe this was a Sibelian smokescreen, because what emerged six years later was well wide of his declared mark: in the Seventh, Sibelius integrated all the “components” of a symphony into one seamless span, with all the motifs closely interconnected. 

A bit like with Schubert and his Eighth, something of a myth has grown around Sibelius and his Seventh, a suggestion that the work was so “perfect” that  it couldn't be improved upon. Well, he did dabble with an Eighth, so obviously he wasn't entirely convinced that the Seventh was positively the end of the symphonic trail, nor must we forget the brooding magnificence of Tapiola, the greatest of the several works realised following the Seventh

How does one describe this astonishing work? Starting from the dominant G, strings climb through an octave and a half of the scale of C, the simplest of “melodic” ideas that generates half a dozen thematic elements, some of which derive from upward or downward cadences around the tonic . . . but, you don't really want to hear all this now, do you? Good, let's try another tack or two. 

For map-readers, the single movement falls into a broad ABABA+coda layout, as far as tempo and mood are concerned. The [A] sections and the coda are typically slow, while the [B] sections are scherzando episodes. The overall structure is signposted by recurrences of a noble solo trombone theme. For the poetically-minded, let's try an analogy: imagine going through wooded, mountainous terrain. Sometimes you're amid gloomy forest, sometimes bubbling streams sparkle in shafts of sunlight, sometimes you're gazing down into deep, verdant valleys, or up at lofty, ice-capped peaks (trombone solo?). But, you're walking, not tearing around on a motorbike, so the scene changes only very gradually from one awesome perspective to another - you can't tell just where one ends and the next starts, but you sure as hell know when to whip out your camera! Some describe the end as a “blaze of sound”, but it's more like a fierce sunset, a dark red heat bisecting frosted hillsides. Whether viewed as pure music, or as a “landscape”, there's a palpable feeling of integrity and implacable logic: Sibelius' life's goal achieved, I reckon. So, perhaps it's as well he did give up on his Eighth?

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


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