Sibelius’s 7: Pt. 2 Hanging around for more

by Glenn on January 3, 2016

Sibelius Symphony Haiku

Sym. No. 1
deepening darkness
soaring, soulful melodies
Tchaikovsky’s shadow

Sym. No. 2
the First’s counterpoint
Sibelius likes a great tune
a journey to light

Sym. No. 3
missing a scherzo
dances with pizzicato
strings and woodwinds shine

Sym. No. 4
modern, cerebral
is this going anywhere?
and then it’s over

Sym. No. 5
what a relief, this,
aspirational music
stays inside my head

Sym. No. 6
feels like film music
a lot of mezzo forte
cold, clear, and austere

Sym. No. 7
compact expression
saddest C major ever


It appears I have of late camped out on Sibelius a bit.

The rest of my symphony listening project beckons, but over the holiday from Christmas to New Year’s Eve I listened through the cycle of Sibelius symphonies again, this time with an added visual component. Since the Berlin Philharmonic gave a Sibelius cycle last year, I experienced it for myself through their Digital Concert Hall, which is a marvelous thing.

I know many people have mixed (or sometimes just plain strong) feelings about “watching” classical music on video. If the video is too much about the conductor it can feel a bit like enabling vanity or idolatrous conductor worship. I find, though, that an excellent video director can help you hear better or, at the least, differently. The flute solo, for example, gets an extra emphasis when you see the flautist playing it.

One interesting aspect of the BPO’s Sibelius Cycle was that the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies were performed together as though they were one work. Together they were played in under an hour. For perspective, Mahler’s Fourth (and shortest) Symphony takes just under an hour.

Part of the cycle included added content, Sir Simon Rattle talking with Vesa Sirén, a Finnish journalist and Sibelius expert. They had a fascinating one-hour conversation about the Sibelius symphonies.

A number of things stayed with me from the conversation (quotations are going to be at least reasonably close, but not checked for accuracy):

1. Rattle feels there is an English connection to the Sibelius symphonies. He refers to England as “West Finland” and thinks Sibelius’s music is difficult for Germans and German orchestras because it doesn’t follow the Austro-Germanic “way to compose.”

2. Rattle mentions Paavo Berglund as an important figure in his understanding of Sibelius. Berglund recorded the complete cycle with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

3. Rattle says Sibelius has the “Bruckner problem,” which is that he needs a lot of help from the conductor. My beloved Elgar gets mentioned as a composer who “sounds immediately,” ostensibly because he is orchestrated so well. For Sibelius, though, there are various interpretations. Without sounding condescending or judgmental, Rattle believes “it’s possible to have a staggering performance that doesn’t sound like Sibelius.” He mentions, in particular, a Leonard Bernstein recording of the First Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic that he calls “astonishing” and then adds, “I wouldn’t do anything like it.”

4. As a composer Sibelius was not an innovator. He “was happy to leave harmony where he found it.” He has a “debt to Romantic composers” and “didn’t take the twelve-tone path.” One thing Rattle said that I didn’t quite understand in the moment was that Sibelius was about “white heat” rather than “red heat.” He would expand the metaphor shortly.

5. Interesting to me that a conversation about Sibelius turns to Mahler, because of course, Mahler and Sibelius famously discussed the nature of the symphony. Mahler wanted his symphonies to be “like the world” with everything in it and Sibelius was after “a profound logic.” Rattle says “it’s not that black and white.” For him these are the differences:

A maximalist
A “red giant”
A minimalist
A “white dwarf”*



*Rattle explains his metaphor noting, “Small, with weight concentrated.”

Rattle says both composers are concerned with nature, but the difference is that Mahler is concerned with the person in nature while in the music of Sibelius there are no people.

I haven’t had the opportunity to listen to too many orchestra conductors talk about music, but it’s delightful to listen to Rattle. He is impressive without sounding like he’s trying to impress you. He offered some insights into the symphonies:

Symphony No. 1

Rattle notes the circular motion in the first movement which is “so typical of his (Sibelius’s) pieces.” He mentioned “off-kilter rhythms” and offered an injunction: “Don’t think of the rhythms impressionistically.” There is “accuracy in the blur … shimmer.”

Symphony No. 2

Rattle says this symphony is rhythmically very hard. I don’t recall if it was this symphony in particular, but Rattle mentioned that while Herbet von Karajan was an advocate of Sibelius, he wasn’t too careful with the rhythms. He shared the story of how he (Rattle) was trying to get the strings and woodwinds to play off beat from each other. The players protested that they had “always played it this way” and Rattle had to show them the score to get them to believe him.

Symphony No. 3

Something “totally different.” Rattle says you can see a metamorphosis of Sibelius’s style. The tone is classical, but the symphony is “concentrated, original, strange.” The symphony “builds up a huge head of steam, then it just stops.”

Symphony No. 4

Rattle heard this symphony later than the others. He says that Paavo’s performance of the Fourth helped him understand this symphony.
Mvt. 1: As though (Wagner’s) Parsifal is reduced and crushed into the greatest concentration.
Mvt. 2: All of Debussy’s harmony is put into a nutshell.
Mvt. 3: Everything Mahler did in his Ninth Symphony is in this 3rd movement.

Symphony No. 5

Rattle explains that accelerandos are hard with the Berlin Philharmonic. He admits, “We can rush like hell,” but otherwise the orchestra is “a heavy truck” and “getting faster in a controlled way” takes a lot of trust. He says this was the hardest of the Sibelius symphonies for the orchestra. He describes a kind of motion you want as if “you’re flying in the air … though you don’t understand how it happens.”

Symphony No. 6

“No Sibelius plays itself.” Here’s a paradox: “Some of the most violent music he wrote” and “reminds me of the smell of the first snow.” Because the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies were composed at the same time, Rattle performs them together with no gap.

Symphony No. 7

“The most miserable C major that ever existed.” He refers to this “despairing C major” at the end of the symphony as one of Sibelius’s original ideas.

* * *

It occurs to me that Sibelius is a singular figure in the history of classical music. He begins firmly in the Romantic tradition, sounding at times a lot like Tchaikovsky, particularly in his First and, sometimes, Second Symphonies, but he doesn’t do what a lot of composers do and really go to excess of anything (he is, after all, composing parallel with Mahler for a time). No excess in length. No exotic instrumentation. No big orchestras.

He is doing his own thing. He is a Romanticist with Classical sensibilities largely avoiding the path of modern experimentalism, especially serialism (although the Fourth has that “What is this?” quality that I don’t enjoy about a lot of modern music. Obviously time is passing and there are notes being played, but it’s really difficult for me to appreciate this music.

Music evolves. As listeners and performers we can get stuck at the place we enjoy. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.

By way of analogy, I think the same thing happens in jazz. Let’s say that it has origins in New Orleans, but it doesn’t stay there—either physically or stylistically. There is Chicago blues and then there is New York-style jazz. Then there’s the swing era (which I really like) and, eventually, we get to John Coltrane and beyond. This is a terrible summary, but the point is that at some point in the history of jazz there’s a kind you have an affinity for and it’s sometimes tough to listen to jazz past that point.

My favorite hours on KMHD are on Sunday morning with the “Trad (Traditional) Jazz” and “The Second Line” programs that feature music from or in homage to the origins of Jazz from New Orleans. I love this stuff, primarily because it’s so joyful. (I sometimes feel there is a mournful, angsty quality to worship these days and these programs steel me for and pick me up after church services.) I want to be the kind of person that likes John Coltrane, but I’m just not there (yet?).

In the classical world, I suppose you have to decide where the line of enjoyment ends. Is it with Mozart? Is it Beethoven? For me it’s tough to listen to much past Mahler, although I’m trying to branch out a bit.

I’m at a place where I have favorite Sibelius symphonies. The First and Second are very agreeable; the Third less so; the Fourth, Sixth and Seventh I have difficulty connecting with; and the Fifth is a new favorite symphony of mine. Sir Simon, though, is a like a parent talking about his children as he discusses these symphonies. He’s a little bit “I love them all, but each of them is unique.” So far, I’ve only managed to understand the “each of them is unique” bit although they are growing on me.

* * *

I’ve managed to listen to one more complete cycle of the Sibelius Symphonies: Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra.

I can recommend highly either the performances by the Berlin Philharmonic or the London Symphony Orchestra. The latter comes at a budget price, which is helpful. The Berlin Philharmonic is performing live.