Sibelius’s 7 | Symphony Studies Nos. 22–28

by Glenn on December 25, 2015

I am reading through Michael Steinberg’s book, The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide, which consists of short descriptions (edited versions of program notes he wrote over the years for the Boston and San Francisco Symphony Orchestras) of 118 select symphonies written by 36 composers.

In his introduction, Steinberg reports some difficulty deciding which symphonies to exclude. He regrets that no works by the sons of Bach, among the first symphonists, were included. Neither was  Symphony No. 3 “Organ” by Camille Saint-Saëns, a favorite of mine. I surmise that this collection is his estimation of the 118 best symphonies and not the 118 most popular as I’ve got to believe that the Saint-Saëns has been performed much more than, say, Walter Piston’s Symphony No. 6, which makes the list. (I’m looking forward to hearing it.)

My initial intent solely was to read the book. Nancy and I attended a concert by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra some years ago and the Playbill (San Francisco Symphony, Vol. XIII, No. 1, 99th Season, September 2010) had an interesting article by Steinberg titled, “Why We Are Here,” dealing with music of “the concert hall, that music we have never managed to agree on a name for, neither ‘classical’ nor ‘serious’ serving quite convincingly …”

His argument:

“Musical heaven [however one defines it—he referred to the Mahler Ninth, which endeared me to him] … is attainable. It offers three sorts of pleasure or delight or nourishment—sensuous, intellectual, and emotional.”

Finding pleasure in this kind of music, though, requires the hard work of listening—paying close attention—often more than once to the same work.

Here was my favorite paragraph in the article:

“The designer who wired us for ambiguity blessed us at the same time with appetites both for complexity and simplicity, with a lust for solving problems, with delight in looking for the secret door, with the sense to realize, sometimes, that surfaces are only surfaces, with the joy of knowing that next time we hear the Mahler Ninth we shall hear and understand more and be moved that much more.”

I liked his writing and wanted to read more. This book was a Christmas present last year.

I began by reading some of Steinberg’s essays about the Mahler symphonies, most of which I am pretty familiar with. I have been obsessed with the music of Gustav Mahler for some time and since this book covered all ten of his symphonies  (not including the technically-not-a-symphony-but-could-be-considered-one Das Lied von der Erde), I thought that was the place to start.

It occurred to me that Mahler exists in a context and this book would be a great way to try to understand better where Mahler’s music came from, what else was going on contemporaneously, and what has happened since. Many of the symphonies that Steinberg includes I know pretty well, but a significant number I have either avoided (see Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique) or never heard. I realized the book would be interesting when I knew the work, but less meaningful if I hadn’t heard the piece that was described—something like reading an article about the Mona Lisa without ever bothering to look at it.

And so I decided to turn this into an extended reading and listening project that will take well over a year to complete. (When attending college is your full-time occupation, you don’t realize how much you can accomplish in a short period of time and what a gift it is to make learning the focus of your life. Now as a person committed both to paying the bills as well as learning, it’s harder to find blocks of time to concentrate.)

Every time I read one of Steinberg’s essays, I then listen to the work he has described (sometimes more than once). I am trying to pay attention as I listen and to reserve judgment about the piece for farther down the road, in other words not to decide too early whether or not I like it, but first of all to understand why this particular work makes the list. To his credit, Steinberg avoids the evangelistic impulse. He is more of an apologist. You understand what he likes about a particular work and not why you should like it.

I can’t imagine I will enjoy Mahler any less when this is all over, but I may discover other heavenly works along the way. (I think I already have with the Sibelius Fifth.)

I am now saving the Mahler symphonies for the end of this project as a kind of grand finale, not that I won’t listen to any of them right now if I decide to or if, for example, they show up in Symphony Cast. In fact, I usually listen to Mahler’s Fourth at some point in late December for the silly reason that it includes sleigh bells and somehow feels preparatory for the annual New Year’s Concert by the Vienna Philharmonic. At any rate, the Mahler symphonies will be my aural reward at the end of the journey, which I am finding happily also has a number of delights along the way.

So far, I don’t feel judgmental about any of the music Steinberg has included (although I certainly prefer some over others), with the exception of the afore-mentioned Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz, which, in my mind, glorifies drug use and celebrates evil. It creeps me out and it’s not for me.

* * *

I recently finished reading about and listening to the seven symphonies of the Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius (1865–1957), who is so beloved a figure in his home country that his birthday is a national holiday.

Including Sibelius, now, I have been introduced to or experienced anew 28 different symphonies by the composers Sir Edward Elgar, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Franz Joseph Haydn, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Franz Schmidt, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Sir William Walton, including the complete symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven.

For the seven symphonies of Sibelius I decided to listen to a boxed set of the complete symphonies by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein.

I bought this collection used from Music Millennium here in Portland.There were no liner notes, but I think these were recorded in the 1960’s. The performances are certainly full of life if the actual recording technology and practice of the 1960’s, at least in this case, lacks some warmth. Energetic string playing sounded a little strident. And has some compression been added to these recordings?

As I listened, I decided that I will have to return to these seven symphonies again soon. They are worth considering as a body of work. Two of them—Nos. 2 and 5—were familiar to me, but the others felt brand new. I’m not sure what I think about some of them. What I observed is that we’ve come a long way from Haydn. More on that later.

First impressions of the Sibelius cycle:

These are relatively compact works. Two symphonies on one CD. You don’t see Gustav Mahler doing that—he’s kind of a one symphony on two CD’s kind of guy. In contrast with Mahler, Sibelius follows the less is more dictum as it applies to composition.

Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Opus 39
fp: 1899 | 1900 (revised version)

The second movement is gorgeous with kind of an homage to (or at least sounds a bit like) Tchaikovsky. This first symphony at times feels derivative, but in the later symphonies you hear sounds that it seems like John Williams has channeled here and there. Interesting to hear Sibelius find his voice as he goes along so that the one who was influenced becomes an influencer.

The third movement is highly fragmented and motivic and jarring until the trio which comes from a completely different aesthetic.

The end of the symphony defies conventions.

There is something kind of raw and fierce about the NYPO under Bernstein, although some of that could be the recording quality.

The opening of the fourth movement is Tchaikovsky-esque, again, but then there is the composer of Finlandia there, too. Ah, what a soulful tune that comes out.

According to Steinberg, Sibelius was an admirer of Bruckner’s music:

“Bruckner’s Third Symphony, which Sibelius heard Hans Richter conduct at a Philharmonic concert, made a stunning impact. … Though their artistic temperaments were vastly different, Bruckner’s voice would never be altogether absent from Sibelius’s music.”

It will be interesting to know, when I get into the symphonies of Bruckner that Steinberg includes, if I can make that connection.


Symphony No. 2 in D major, Opus 43
fp: 1902

I was surprised by how familiar and affecting this symphony was.

Steinberg includes the story of Axel Carpelan to whom the Second Symphony was dedicated. Carpelan was an interesting figure. As the Sibelius biographer, Erik Tawatsjerna puts it, “As far as most people were concerned, he was a hypochondriac who had done little with his life, had precious little money, and eked out a lonely bachelor existence in lodgings in Tampere.” But he and Sibelius became friends.

My favorite anecdote from Steinberg is when Carpelan, who I think at this point had never actually met Sibelius, recommended that the composer go to Italy to improve his composing skills: “Everything there is lovely—even the ugly.” Carpelan found some donors to send Sibelius, but Carpelan, himself, had never been and I don’t think ever went there himself.


Symphony No. 3 in C major, Opus 52
fp: 1907

Interesting how little emotional demand this music makes of you, unlike Mahler who puts you through the ringer. This is music for listening and not for emoting. Mahler’s 6th Symphony was first performed the same year as this one. They could not be farther apart.

As I listened, I thought, Sibelius is the anti-Mahler or, perhaps, an antidote (if you feel like you need one).

Steinberg describes this symphony as “a marvel of neoclassicism, though it has never been burdened with that label.” In describing the late-/post-Romantic era in which this symphony was written, Steinberg notes that “many composers would hear a voice summoning them to a leaner life. Sibelius heard it sooner.”

Steinberg captures this symphony so well:

“There is no imagery and no drama for you to lose yourself in except that of the musical events themselves. This is like Haydn: you can’t do anything with it except listen to it, and it is meant for people who really listen.”

Here is what Sibelius wrote:

“My symphonies are music—conceived and worked out as musical expression, without any literary basis. I am not a literary musician: for me, music begins where words leave off. A symphony should be music first and last.”

It’s fitting, at this point, to mention Mahler again when discussing Sibelius. They were contemporaries who had interacted on the nature of symphonies. From Tom Service in an article from The Guardian:

“In 1907, Mahler met Jean Sibelius, whose symphonies are the polar opposite of Mahler’s: compressed, distilled, self-referential. The composers discussed the meaning of the symphony. Sibelius admired its ‘profound logic and inner connection’. Mahler completely disagreed: ‘A symphony must be like the world,’ he said. ‘It must embrace everything.'”

Symphony 4 in A minor, Opus 63
fp: 1911

The Fourth Symphony immediately feels darker and heavier. Perhaps No. 3 was an appetizer where No. 4 is a main course. This is dark and bleak music. Steinberg notes this is “the extreme point Sibelius reaches as a composer of problematic ‘modern’ music.” I love this metaphor: “It is the rare Sibelius composition whose alcohol and sugar content are zero, though the Symphony No. 4 comes as close as any.”

I was fascinated by the bell controversy that Steinberg goes in some detail to describe. There appears to be some sort of disagreement whether Sibelius meant deep, tubular bells or glockenspiel. That’s quite a difference and not the kind of thing you think should be left ambiguous. Bernstein goes for the tubular bells which I liked. So stark and commanding when they enter the picture. I don’t think a glockenspiel would improve anything.


Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Opus 82
fp: 1915 | 1916 (first revised version) | 1921 (final revised version)

This symphony was written for Sibelius’s 50th birthday celebration. Oh, how much joy and life there is in this symphony after the despair of the Fourth.

My first acquaintance with this symphony was years ago through a classical music magazine that included a CD with excerpts of reviewed works. The finale of this Fifth Symphony, if I’m not mistaken, was conducted by Leonard Bernstein.

Hearing this last movement again, in full, was emotional. It is the simplest of little motifs—I guess we could call it an ostinato, but the layers going on above it are wonderful.

I have listened to this symphony two additional times since. The first was a performance with Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic on its Digital Concert Hall. The Berlin Philharmonic continues to amaze me with its absolute meekness, which should not be confused with weakness. This is strength under control—great power submitting to the authority of a conductor. When the Berlin Philharmonic cuts loose, it’s something else. But they are phenomenal in the quiet passages, especially when the wind soloists can shine.

I wanted to check my impressions of the recorded sound of the Bernstein performance so I listened to another recording on CD—this one with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Colin Davis. Wow, what a difference thirty years makes in how recordings sound. Where the Bernstein sounds like it is coming through a tunnel right in front of you, the Davis sound is wide and envelops you. It’s a remarkable difference.


Symphony No. 6, Opus 104
fp: 1923

Sibelius reminds me of Vaughan Williams, not because their music sounds alike, but because their vision for what a symphony is seem to align. Rather than a personal expression (like Mahler) it’s the expression of an idea. Sibelius has a sense of proportion. Or perhaps it’s just that this symphony sounds sort of modal.

Steinberg maintains, “This is as strange a symphony as I know, and there are few after Schubert I love so much.” The Sixth includes “one of [Sibelius’s] chillingly detached endings.” I’m not sure I heard it as strange. I will be listening for that quality next time.


Symphony No. 7, Opus 105
fp: 1924

At just 22′, this symphony is one movement and more or less an ascension. A quiet opening, some tempo in the middle, building intensity, and a solemn ending that manages to be both satisfying and not—sort of a question mark.

* * *

And then Sibelius was done. He wrote his symphonies over a 25-year period of his life—similar to Beethoven’s symphonic production. For Sibelius, though, he makes the decision to stop composing and for the last 25 years of his life didn’t write any music.