Sibelius 1 – at last.

I’ve written elsewhere of my discovery, courtesy of Wythenshawe Public Library, of Sibelius’ Symphony No 2, a revelation that made me want to become a composer and led to a lifetime’s admiration for and immersion in the work of the Finnish master.

Aged 11 or so, opportunities to hear more Sibelius were limited.  I had only pocket money, and this was the period when Sibelius’ reputation had not recovered from its slump in the 60s and 70s.  Performances weren’t common.

Someone once said that Sibelius was the first composer saved from obscurity by the long-playing record – the public had access to his music even when critics like Adorno derided it and conductors didn’t want to programme it.  Eventually, perhaps flush with birthday money, I went out and bought, without having previously heard it, a copy of the First Symphony.  This was surely a composer so good that his music demanded working through in a systematic way; might as well start at the beginning.

I’ve been lucky enough to conduct several Sibelius symphonies – Nos. 2 and 5 several times, No. 3 just the once – but the 1st eluded me until last Saturday.  Orchestras tend to want to play the popular ones, and the 1st is not a bums-on-seats piece.  Almost no one in the Halifax orchestra had played it before, and hardly any of them knew it.

Everyone I spoke to afterwards was blown away by its quality.

Sibelius is not famous for his startling innovation.  He isn’t a modernist, and it’s what he does with his – quite conservative – musical language that is distinctive, rather than the language itself.  The first two symphonies and the Violin Concerto which followed owe a lot to Tchaikovsky.  Nevertheless, the 1st is a richly enjoyable piece and, when you put aside its derivative aspects, points unequivocally forward to the mature composer.

The opening, in which a keening clarinet solo plays out over a timpani roll, is a new sound in music; utterly Sibelian, it places us in an unfamiliar landscape.  Similarly, the curious triplet rhythm of the first tutti statements has little obvious connection with received ideas of melody.  In the development section of the first movement there’s an extraordinary passage, the woodwind sliding chromatically downwards in turns over subterranean volcanic rumbles in the cellos and basses; extraordinary because it is mobile and yet utterly static at the same time.

This mastery of musical movement, so characteristic of later Sibelius and reaching its ideal in the 7th Symphony, is evident in the slow movement too, where a Tchaikovskian lament in muted strings over a harp pedal point grows quickly yet naturally into a full-blooded Allegro.  How does he do this?

The muscular scherzo, with battering-ram brass and timps sandwiching a trio section of surprising delicacy and tenderness, gives way to a finale which plunges us straight into a passionate restatement of the symphony’s opening clarinet theme.  The movement which follows alternates between a broad Slavic-Romantic Big Tune and shadowy quick music where the orchestra exchanges ideas in scurrying fragments.

One of these quick sections is brought to a halt by a gesture of brilliant simplicity – a high held note in the violins teetering downwards in a cascade of diminished-seventh semiquavers.  An orchestral full stop of the utmost confidence and panache.

Sibelius’s brass writing is of course wonderful; but he was not the first composer to write well for brass, and awesome as the rising blocks of sound are at the symphony’s conclusion, the thing which struck me was how much its emotional power derives from its economy.  It is a terse symphony with not a note wasted.  As always, Sibelius shows an acute awareness of how each part of the piece relates to and balances with the other parts.  Where other composers might have wanted to luxuriate complacently in their invention (a defining characteristic of both Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov), Sibelius’s economy makes every utterance vital.  You might say the symphony is laconic.

No sooner have we heard the finale’s yearning andante for the second time than, ruthlessly, a change comes over the music, a corner turned into a bitter wind, and we are back in E minor, heading for a conclusion we would scarcely have believed possible less than a minute ago.  The symphony’s abrupt close reminds me more of Brahms’ classicism (particularly the Fourth Symphony, and not just because of the shared key), than the Russian Romantics that are more obvious influences.

This surely is the key to Sibelius’s distinctive genius, and to the maturity which follows the Violin Concerto.  Sibelius is not a Romantic composer.

The question thus begged – what sort of composer is he? – is one for another day; although after nearly fifty years of enthusiasm I’m not sure it’s one I can answer.


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