The press wrote of “Simon Rattle’s grandiose Sibelius cycle” when the Berliner Philharmoniker and their chief conductor performed all the Finnish composer’s symphonies five years ago. In a repetition of the project, the First and Second are now on the programme – decisively late Romantic works, whose expressiveness is likely to have been inspired by Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique, composed only a few years earlier.
Symphony No. 1 in E minor
Symphony No. 2 in D major
Introduction: 7:00 pm
Already at an early point in his career, when still Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor of the City of Birmingham Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle intensely explored all of Jean Sibelius’s symphonies; with the Berliner Philharmoniker, he last presented the cycle in 2010. Now the seven Sibelius symphonies are on the philharmonic programme once again – works in which the Finnish composer made use of techniques he had tried out in his symphonic poems reflecting on the Kalevala.
Sibelius transferred in particular to his symphonies without programme the rhapsodic basic character of those pieces circling around the myths and heroic sagas of the Finnish national epic – in the sense of a narrative, impromptu development of ideas. He at first stuck with the traditional four-movement form; particularly in the extremely melodic and emotionally deeply felt First Symphony one gets the impression that a moving story is being told in various characteristic tableaus. The introduction to the first movement is an elegiac cantilena in the solo clarinet that seems improvised and modelled directly on Kalevala singing; the song seems to bear witness to “ancient times”. The Second Symphony too is beholden to the typical Kalevala inflection, but the traditional and archaic aspect takes a back seat here, which explains why this is Sibelius’s most easy-to-grasp and cantabile symphonic work.
It was a long and, particularly towards the end, difficult road the symphony had to take from the middle of the 18th to the beginning of the 20th century. After the promising beginnings of Giovanni Battista Sammartini, Luigi Boccherini and François-Joseph Gossec and the heyday
of the First Viennese School, the genre reached a point of no return with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony which made the composing of symphonies seem obsolete, if not impossible. Those who nonetheless made the attempt – Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms or Anton Bruckner – found it difficult. Others sought their salvation in freer, often programmatic forms, which were given an initial impetus by Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique. At best, the symphony enjoyed a certain standing in the context of some national schools of the 19th century, such as can be seen in the works of Niels Wilhelm Gade, Antonín Dvořák, Alexander Borodin, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov or Peter Tchaikovsky. In the end, it is only in the symphonic cosmos of Gustav Mahler that the classical-romantic model ultimately appears to have survived. Anyone who subsequently held on to the four movement order of sonata form, trio, scherzo and finale, revealed himself to be either an eclecticist or Neo-classicist.
This is at least the image of the genre from a Central European point of view. From a broader perspective however, one can see that particularly in the years just before and after the First World War, the symphony had not at all gone out of fashion. Even if one limits oneself to composers whose names still have a certain ring on the concert stage, the list of symphonists is surprisingly long: in France there were Vincent d’Indy, Albéric Magnard, Joseph Guy Ropartz, Albert Roussel and Charles Tournemire; in Russia Reinhold Glière, Vasily Kalinnikov, Nikolai Myaskovsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Alexander Scriabin and Maximilian Steinberg; in England Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan-Williams; in the Czech Republic Josef Bohuslav Foerster and Josef Suk; in Poland Karol Szymanowski; in Denmark Carl Nielsen – and in Finland Jean Sibelius: the most significant symphonist of the early 20th century along with Mahler – even if this may initially sound like an exaggeration.
In order to understand Sibelius’ significance as a symphonist, one should in the first instance beware two (pre-)judgemental opinions: one should not view him merely as a Finnish national composer, and forget René Leibowitz’ defamatory description of Sibelius as “the worst composer in the world”. Sibelius’ music followed different rules and different routes to, say, Arnold Schoenberg’s serialist compositions, evolving from the classical-romantic models of melody and form. Anyone who only accepts this view would probably judge no differently to Theodor W. Adorno in his infamous Glosse über Sibelius in 1937: “As themes, some completely prosaic and trivial sequences of notes are presented, these sequences of notes are met with an early accident, like an infant that falls off a table and injures its spine. They cannot walk properly.” The idea that Sibelius’ symphonic concept should deliberately reflect the gradual process of learning to walk – a kind of “musical production while composing” or as Wolfgang Rihm expressed it, “music as a rambling form” – was alien to Adorno.
Sibelius’s First Symphony opens with an introductory clarinet solo that seems to have been improvised and modelled on the metrical inflections of the Kalevala verses. The finale is introduced by the same melody, but broadened and intensified on unison strings playing “largamente ed appassionato”. Tchaikovsky had already tried the same thing in his Fifth Symphony of 1888, while the Andante second movement’s oft-remarked resemblance to Tchaikovsky actually elicited a terse comment from Sibelius himself: “There is much of that man in me – but there’s nothing to be done about it.” The third movement’s vigorously dancelike melodic character, by contrast, suggests the spirit and rhythmic ingenuity of a typical Bruckner scherzo.
The Second is arguably the most lyrical of Sibelius’s symphonies. There is no slow introduction. It opens with a chordal accompanimental figure out which all the first movement’s thematic complexes are derived. Indeed the whole exposition, with its fantasia-like, rhapsodic structure, seems to unfold like a single, continuous process, which in the development section is subjected to explosive intensification and steered towards an extended climax. Sibelius then refrains from further build-ups, and – without a coda – the movement concludes on the same cadential accompanimental figure that closed the exposition. The dark sounds of flute and trumpet playing the main theme’s return in an unusually low register typify the widely expressive Andante, while the perpetuum mobile scherzo (with a pastoral trio section) displays great rhythmic vitality. In the finale, which follows without a break, a triumphant unison theme on strings generates a grand apotheosis, augmented by trumpetfanfares in the coda.