Jean Sibelius

Symphony No. 6 in D minor, opus 104

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

Jean Sibelius' Sixth Symphony is a beautiful enigma. The subtlest and most lyrical of his seven symphonies, it is the least often performed. Yet it is a jewel of a work and one well worth discovering.

In the period from 1920 to 1923 when Sibelius was composing the Sixth, his world was again expanding beyond his rustic country house Järvenpää in the Finnish woods. World War I and the Finnish Revolution to free the country from the subsequent Russian Revolution had trapped him at Järvenpää with few outside contacts, often little food to eat, and occasionally police harassment. In 1920, the newly founded Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, offered him a handsome contract to become its first director. The composer gave it serious consideration, but finally turned it down, fearing it would interfere too much with his creative work. For the rest of his long life, he would elect to stay close to his Finnish roots.  

Sibelius was aware that he was out of step with the orchestral blockbusters of Strauss and Mahler that had recently dominated European music. Comparing his Sixth Symphony to them, he commented that instead of elaborate “cocktails” he was offering “a drink of pure spring water.” In this work, he reached back to the pre-tonal system of the medieval modes: scales shaped differently from the familiar major and minor and which still colored the folk melodies of many lands. The Sixth derives its themes and harmonies from the Dorian mode based on the pitch D; it is the scale one hears when playing all the white keys on the piano between D's an octave apart. The result is music that sounds simultaneously old and new — pure, mysterious, and not quite of this world.

By this time, Sibelius was constructing his symphonies according to his own formal principals. Instead of using traditional forms like sonata and rondo, he allowed his thematic material to dictate the form for each movement according to how it needed to grow. “I am the slave of my themes,” he admitted. All the themes in the Sixth tend to follow a common pattern: stepwise scales, first in a descending shape, later ascending.

In the first movement, the music begins with two sections of violins slip-sliding past each other down a modal scale; they are joined by other violins and violas. Renowned annotator Michael Steinberg has likened this to soprano voices singing in the motets of the Renaissance choral master Palestrina, whom Sibelius admired deeply. Gradually, the delicate sounds of oboes and flutes infiltrate the texture, and they begin to sing descending and ascending phrases antiphonally to each other, like Renaissance double choirs. A flurry of mysterious activity dominates the middle of the movement.

The second movement also begins mysteriously. After a rap of attention on the timpani, flutes and bassoons join together in tracing eerie slow scale patterns, their rhythmic pulse totally obscured. Over the course of the movement, the music gradually grows in speed and rhythmic complexity, leaving all traces of slow movement behind. This is music of delicate activity and shifting luminescent patterns rather than of clear-cut themes.

In movement three, Sibelius continues his exploration of rhythmic energy. Fast hopping rhythms give this scherzo music an airborne quality. Again the melodic ideas are simple rising and falling scales. Sibelius keeps shifting his instrumental colors like the prisms in a kaleidoscope, and at the end he finally unleashes the brass for the first time in this quiet work.

The finale opens like the first movement with violins singing a descending-scale melody; they are answered antiphonally by low strings on an ascending scale. The pace suddenly shifts upward to Allegro molto. This energetic music is repeated, gaining in force and confidence. However, its climax trails off abruptly for the return of the opening violin music. This too builds, but again Sibelius deflects the climax. He does not want a conventional ending. The tempo slows, and the violins and violas divide lushly, carrying us to their own climax of stinging harmonic power. The timpani rumbles, the violins sing a last descending scale, and the music fades out, maintaining its mystery and beauty.

Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2018