Symphony No. 1 in E Minor

Jean Sibelius

Born December 8, 1865 in Hämeenlinna, Finland; died September 20, 1957 in Järvenpää, Finland


As the 19th century was about to turn into the 20th, Finland was engaged in a struggle for survival. For much of the century, she had been an autonomous grand duchy of the Russian empire, but still enjoying relative freedom. But in the 1890s the government of Czar Nicholas II began to lean heavily on its northwestern neighbor. In February 1899, the Czar issued the infamous "February Manifesto," which stripped the Finnish parliament of many of its powers. Finland's new Russian governor-general proclaimed: "Russia's integrity and interest demand that Finland, governed with a firm hand, should be gradually reconstructed so that . . . it should be readily recognizable as Russian."

The Finnish people chose to fight back not with guns but with passive resistance and music. And luckily they had the perfect man for this strategy: the formidable young composer Jean Sibelius just coming into the height of his powers. Like most artists, Sibelius was not a political man, but he was a fierce Finnish patriot. He was happy to write music that would serve as a rallying cry for his fellow citizens (Finlandia being his most overt political statement), and he was just about to unveil his most ambitious new work: his First Symphony. Premiered under his baton in Helsinki on April 26, 1899 and then toured by the Helsinki Philharmonic to Scandinavia, Germany, and the Paris World Exhibition in 1900, it declared to the world that Finland had a culture worth fighting for.

This symphony is surely one of the greatest first symphonies ever created. About this time, Debussy had declared the symphony a dead form, and Richard Strauss was preoccupied with descriptive tone poems. But Sibelius firmly believed that the classical four-movement symphony, with its drama growing out of the pure manipulation of musical elements without the underpinnings of a storyline, was alive and well. He later declared: "For me music begins where words cease . . . The germ and fertilization of my symphonies have been solely musical." With each of his seven symphonies, he would explore a new world, becoming progressively more original in his voice and his methods of construction.

In his First Symphony, Sibelius began firmly in the late Romantic tradition, but gave timeworn musical gestures a new orchestral sound and a virile Nordic intensity all his own. We hear this immediately in the first movement, which has a beginning like no other. Over a drum roll a clarinet sings a lonely song, bleak as Finland's rocky coast. It is the work's core theme. As the tempo accelerates to Allegro energico, the violins transform it into a theme of vehement defiance. Soon this theme is shouted out by the full orchestra, echoed by the roar of dark brass that will become a Sibelian trademark sound. The music then subsides into a scampering, folkish woodwind dance, led by two flutes over shimmering strings and harp. Over this the oboe sings a variant of the lonely clarinet song.

Powerful dark Sibelian brass carries this music seamlessly into a stormy development section based largely on the scampering woodwind theme. Eventually, the violins, over whirlwind of ascending and descending scales, cry out the second half of the defiant theme and, again seamlessly, waft the music into the recapitulation. The movement's close is stunning in its originality.

There was one Russian Sibelius truly admired: Tchaikovsky. In 1894 and 1897 he had heard the recently deceased composer's Pathétique Symphony in Helsinki and been deeply moved by it. "There is much in that man that I recognize in myself," he admitted to his wife. And there is much of Tchaikovsky's spirit in both the Andante second movement here and the finale. It opens with a lovely rocking melody for the violins and cellos, romantic and wistful. This is followed by an episode in which two bassoons, abetted by other woodwinds, engage in a dark duet; Sibelius described them as instruments with a particularly Finnish sound. When the romantic melody returns, listen for the wild swirls of flute, clarinet, and bassoon that accompany it. This is an episodic movement full of passionate, tempestuous excursions, though it ultimately returns to the repose of the romantic theme.

Bruckner was another composer who impressed the young Sibelius, and the third-movement Scherzo has the pounding energy of Bruckner's scherzo dances, energized by the exciting conflict of cross rhythms. This music is suddenly stopped in its tracks by sighing horns, introducing a haunting trio section in a much slower tempo. Enigmatic and wonderfully scored, this is one of the First's finest passages.

The finale initially returns us to the world of the first movement. Once again we hear the melancholy clarinet theme, but now it is sung passionately by the strings. As the Allegro section begins, Sibelius substitutes a choppy, fitful theme for a conventional melody — a kind of theme Tchaikovsky also favored. But Sibelius more than compensates with his gloriously romantic second theme, richly sung by violins and rhapsodically accompanied by the harp. After a turbulent development, it is this magnificent melody that carries the Symphony to its grand conclusion, ending with a final Sibelian surprise: two delicately strummed pizzicato chords.

Instrumentation: Two flutes, two piccolos, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp and strings.


Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2014