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Symphony No. 5

Sibelius led the premiere of his protean, triumphant Symphony No. 5 in 1915 and, despite public success, twice withdrew and revised it before premiering the final version in 1919.

Jean (Johan Julius Christian) Sibelius was born at Hämeenlinna (Tavestehus in Swedish), Finland, on December 8, 1865, and died at Järvenpää, near Helsingfors (Helsinki), on September 20, 1957. He took the Gallicized form of his first name to emulate an uncle. Sibelius composed the first version of his Fifth Symphony late in 1914, introducing it on his fiftieth birthday, December 8, 1915, in Helsingfors. He conducted a revised version of the symphony a year later, also at Helsingfors, on December 14, 1916. Still dissatisfied with the work, he withdrew it for a second time, leading the premiere of the final version only on November 24, 1919 (see below).

The score of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony calls for 2 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The symphony is about 32 minutes long.

Sibelius celebrated his 50th birthday on December 8, 1915, with the first performance of his Fifth Symphony. Born in a quiet town in the interior of Finland, the son of a regimental doctor, he had begun writing music on a regular basis when he was 9. His earliest piece, for violin and cello pizzicato, was called Waterdrops, already displaying the fascination with and love of nature that forever remained a part of his life. As a young violin student he would improvise on the instrument while wandering in the woods or by the lake near his home; much later, during the years that surrounded work on the Fifth Symphony, he would make daily diary entries testifying to the beauties of the land near his country home at Järvenpää and which helped distract him from the atrocities of the war raging round him.

As a teenager Sibelius began playing violin in his school orchestra, also making chamber music with his brother Christian and sister Linda, who played cello and piano, respectively. A career in music was considered out of the question, and in May 1885 he enrolled in a law course at the University of Helsingfors (Helsinki), at the same time continuing his musical studies with Martin Wegelius at the Music Institute. He gave up law, leaving Finland for the first time in autumn 1889 for Berlin, spending a year there and then a year in Vienna, studying counterpoint, writing music, frequenting music circles. Meanwhile his music was being performed in Finland with increasing success. In the spring of 1889, in his last days as a conservatory student, he was hailed by the influential Finnish critic Karl Flodin as “foremost amongst those who have been entrusted with bearing the banner of Finnish music.” On April 28, 1892, the first performance of the 26-year-old composer’s eighty-minute symphonic poem Kullervo for soloists, male chorus, and orchestra proved something of a national event. Soon after this came the symphonic poem En Saga, written for Robert Kajanus, conductor of the Finnish National Orchestra; shortly after that came the music of the Karelia Suite, composed for an historical pageant at the University of Helsingfors.

Kajanus (1856-1933) was a champion of Finnish music and of his friend Sibelius in particular. Founder of the first permanent orchestra in Helsinki, and also one of Finland’s most important composers, Kajanus afforded Sibelius many opportunities to conduct; in 1900, on its first European tour, the Finnish orchestra under Kajanus and Sibelius performed in Paris, Stockholm, Göteborg, Malmö, Oslo, Copenhagen, Lübeck, Hamburg, Berlin, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, and Brussels. In the years following, Sibelius was invited regularly to conduct in Germany and elsewhere, both on the continent and in England. The First Symphony was completed in 1899, Finlandia in 1900; the Violin Concerto—the spelling-out of Sibelius’s never-realized hopes of becoming a concert virtuoso—was composed 1903 and revised 1905.

In 1904 Sibelius bought the land at Järvenpää, about twenty miles from Helsinki, where he built the villa in which he would live the rest of his life; the villa was called “Ainola” after his wife Aino, whom he had married in June 1892. The Third and Fourth symphonies were composed in 1907 and 1911, respectively. During these years, Sibelius’s life was shadowed by the threat of cancer: he underwent fourteen major operations before a tumor was finally located and removed from his throat, and his doctor ordered him to give up the wine and cigars he loved so much.

Professionally Sibelius was secure, with international recognition constantly growing and even reaching across the ocean: he received an honorary doctorate from Yale University in 1914, the same year of his only visit to America, and he conducted his newly composed tone poem, The Oceanides, in Norfolk, Connecticut. He was offered the directorship of the Eastman School of Music after the war, but he never returned to America, despite his popularity there.* At the same time, however, his financial situation was and would for a while longer remain precarious, even with the establishment already in 1897 of the state pension for life that was meant to free him from teaching and from churning out, simply to pay the bills, small-scale compositions which he resented as distractions from his concentration on larger works (though, with the outbreak of war, work on these smaller pieces also helped him turn his mind from the turmoil of current events). In any event, Sibelius’s 50th birthday found him, in Harold Johnson’s words, “unchallenged as his country’s greatest composer.” The date was celebrated as a national holiday, and he was lauded as “one of the richest spirits that were ever born in this country and the greatest creative power now living among us.”

[* It was aboard the S.S. President Grant on his return voyage from America that Sibelius learned of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand’s assassination at Sarajevo.]

In addition to the Fifth Symphony, the gala concert included The Oceanides and the two Serenades for violin and orchestra, Opus 69, with (future BSO concertmaster) Richard Burgin as soloist; the program was repeated three times for the general public. With royalty income from his German printer suspended due to the war, Sibelius was pressed to finish the symphony: “My relations with Breitkopf & Härtel are finished, and I have now composed minor pieces (about forty!) for Nordic publishers. This has disturbed my work on the new piece for the 8th of December. I hope that I will be able to finish it in time.” He made last-minute changes during the final rehearsal. Though the public responded favorably to the new symphony, Sibelius was dissatisfied and withdrew it, introducing a second, much-revised version a year later, on December 14, 1916. Still dissatisfied with what he had hoped would be its “definitive form,” he withdrew it yet again. At this point the composition of the Fifth Symphony becomes intertwined with that of the Sixth and Seventh symphonies, Sibelius observing in a letter of May 20, 1918, that “it looks as if I may come out with all three symphonies at the same time.” Actually, the Sixth appeared in 1923, the Seventh a year later; but the composer continues:

The Fifth Symphony in a new form—practically composed anew—I work at it daily. Movement I entirely new, movement II reminiscent of the old, movement III reminiscent of the end of the first movement of the old. Movement IV the old motifs, but stronger in revision. The whole, if I may say so, a vital climax to the end. Triumphal.

In its three-movement form (the stages leading up to the final version are not clearly documented), the symphony had to wait for its premiere until after the brutal civil war that kept Finland from political stability until the spring of 1919. It was given on November 24, 1919, and Sibelius must finally have been deeply satisfied, especially if he recalled the words he had entered into his notebook five years earlier, in late September 1914: “In a deep dell again. But I already begin to see dimly the mountain that I shall certainly ascend.... God opens his door for a moment and His orchestra plays the Fifth Symphony.”

Indeed, the Sibelius family was so jeopardized by the presence of Russian soldiers in the vicinity of Järvenpää that, with the help of the composer’s brother Christian, then a senior psychiatrist at a mental hospital near Helsingfors and who had the entire family diagnosed as borderline psychotic, and with a special pass somehow bearing the necessary signature of a Red commandant, they were moved with Kajanus’s assistance to the Lapinlahti (Lappviken) Central Asylum where Christian was on the staff. Sibelius lost forty pounds in the ensuing weeks as a result of wartime rationing. This was in February 1918.]

The symphony begins with music bearing out Cecil Gray’s report, following an interview with the composer, that for Sibelius

orchestration as a thing in itself does not exist; the idea that a musical thought might occur to him in the abstract for which he had then to seek a suitable orchestration, or, conversely, that he might conceive a colour-scheme and then seek for musical material in which to embody it—both are alike unthinkable to him in connexion with his own work. In other words, the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic material of his composition is intimately bound up, from the very outset, with the instrumental medium employed.

So, at the beginning of the Sibelius Fifth, the ear recognizes the various contributions to the orchestral texture without at first consciously thinking to isolate the individual sounds. Events proceed naturally and logically, as always with Sibelius, each instrument adding to the total effect: over the tonic-chord backdrop of drumroll and two horns, a melody emerges in the other two horns, followed by an echo in flutes, oboes, and clarinets against the added background color of bassoons. The melody, its rhythmically charged echo, and its various extensions provide the movement’s principal materials:

The strings remain silent for the first few pages, woodwind undulations and further drumrolls building expectation to prepare their first entrance. The atmosphere becomes increasingly ionized once the strings have entered, and they join with the winds in another rhythmically-activated idea. The music expands into and through a varied statement of the opening materials, after which the texture thins out for a mysterious, fugue-like string passage. Over this, a solo bassoon, sounding “lugubre” and “patetico, paves the way for a development-like section with a climax of its own, but which then turns into something rather unexpected: an Allegro moderato whose dancelike character stands in sharp contrast to what has gone before, even though its thematic materials are clearly derived from what we have already heard.

In the original form, in its revised version of 1916, and even as late as May 1918, the date of the composer’s letter quoted earlier, this symphony had four separate movements. Robert Layton writes that there was a short break indicated between the first two movements of the original score but that in the 1916 version they were played without pause. It is unclear just when Sibelius decided to combine the original two movements into the single movement we know today, but what happens in the music now is that a scherzo-like dance movement short-circuits the sonata-form scheme one might have expected and moves through several faster tempos to a final climax serving as recapitulation for the whole. In other words, Sibelius has taken his original two movements and reworked them, presumably with considerable alteration to the material of the first (“Movement I entirely new...”), into a single structure whose thematic content is now organically related.

Of the Andante, Tovey writes that this “little middle movement...produces the effect of a primitive set of variations...But it produces this effect in a paradoxical way, inasmuch as it is not a theme preserving its identity...through variations, but a rhythm...built up into a number of by no means identical tunes.” The movement starts as a simple idyll, the strings’ material initially changing character from subdued to animated over long-held notes in the woodwinds. A lively middle section (Poco a poco stretto) is filled with ominous undercurrents. One point worth making is that the writing for violins in this movement argues for the seating arrangement with first and second violins separated out to the conductor’s left and right, respectively.

The finale begins with a rush of violins and violas to which woodwinds soon add their chatter; once this subsides, a bell-like tolling figure emerges in the horns (or, to quote Donald Francis Tovey one last time: “The bustling introduction...provides a rushing wind, through which Thor can enjoy swinging his hammer.”). As the movement proceeds, these materials are shared by the other members of the orchestra. Following the Misterioso repetition of the agitated opening material, the tolling figure now heard in tremolo violas and cellos, a woodwind phrase from very near the beginning blossoms into the most overtly emotional material of the entire score. Trumpets take up the tolling motif. The texture thickens, filled with dissonance and accents placed at odds with each other. The final resolution—four chords and two unisons introduced after a sudden silence—is startling in its simplicity and spareness: “triumphal,” perhaps, but at the same time demanding an acceptance of forces not always within our control.

Marc Mandel

Marc Mandel, former Director of Program Publications for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, joined the staff of the BSO in November 1978 and managed the orchestra’s program book from 1979 until his retirement in July 2020.

The first American performance of Sibelius’s Symphony No. 5 was given by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra on October 21, 1921.

The first Boston Symphony performances of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony were given by Pierre Monteux in April 1922.