The Sibelius Symphonies: Notes from the Conductor

With Principal Guest Conductor Thomas Dausgaard at the helm, the Seattle Symphony celebrates the 150th birthday of famed Finnish composer Jean Sibelius with performances of all seven of his symphonies, his Violin Concerto, "Finlandia," and much more, this month. Dausgaard has tremendous affinity with Sibelius’ music and is a noted interpreter of these works. Read on for his thoughts about each symphony.

Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39

The first symphony gives me associations to what could be the legend of a tragic hero. After a mysterious and quietly foreboding introduction, our hero sets out optimistically with a folk-like tune. But it is as if he runs into difficulties: threatening music gathers momentum against his optimism during the four movements, and towards the end it turns catastrophic. Unusually, for all its passion and excitement, the symphony ends in a slow tempo, resigning at the last moment to a soft pizzicato. The whole work is an emotional drama playing on our imagination through a highly evocative orchestration: woodwinds tempt us with elfin-like atmosphere, horns evoke romantic feelings and the brass threatens us in a powerful voice reminding me of the God of the Old Testament. The harp takes us into a state of trance, and percussion creates terror as well as pagan ecstasy. With the danger of generalizing, these instrumental characteristics feature in all of his symphonies.

Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43

Following the tragic end to the first symphony, No. 2 ends triumphantly. From the searching beginnings of the first movement, through the almost confessional moments of the slow second movement to the triumphant clone of hymn and medieval dance which characterizes the finale, even this symphony ends in a slow tempo, but with no hint of resignation; the deeply felt joy at the end of the journey is so powerful that it feels as if the sun is shining from two sides. Getting there, the journey has taken us through nightmarish and mad music in all movements, and in the third movement. I imagine that its frenetic sounds could have been inspired by the flickering of northern lights.

Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52

When you listen to No. 3, it is as if making a similar journey to No. 2, just inwards. Finding those overpowering emotions from the inside, somehow with less outward effort. Or, imagine surviving outdoors in a cold winter: you have to spend less energy to make it through. Similarly, this music is condensed to its bare essentials and the overall shaping is effected by merging the last two movements into one. There is Swedish style folk music (Sibelius was of Swedish-speaking heritage), a general sense of playfulness and caprice, chorale melodies and a use of silences anticipating the ending of the fifth symphony. An important element for Sibelius when creating his wonderfully long lines is his use of accelerando, sometimes over very long passages. In this symphony it is particularly prominent in the exhilarating way the finale builds up: once it has hit its final joyous and quasi-religious hymn-theme, this is repeated with ever more forward momentum. It ends in a prophetic unison, bathed in sunlight like No. 2, but as if on a sparkling frosty day.

Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63

Sometimes called "the bark-bread-symphony", referring to the culinary limitations at the time of its composition (1910-11), there is a strong underlying darkness and mystery in this work. Overall, I hear in it a longing for childhood and playfulness in times which are very serious. The very beginning of the symphony sounds to me like a painful birth, or perhaps like a slowly drawn-out "big bang"; gradually it gives way to high-voltage music of sneering brass and screaming high violins, alternating with blissful passages, which could rock a child to sleep. In the quiet third movement Sibelius' language becomes more modernistic: fragmented, constantly at the risk of disintegrating, and with a vague sense of tonality. Should we try to understand it as the alienation you can feel in the world of grown-ups, or leave it to speak directly to our subconsciousness? In the finale he adds the "childish" instrument of Mozart's Magic Flute: a glockenspiel. But, like in the second movement, the music soon grows out of this childhood-attempt, and it turns angry, dark and hopeless. It is no fun growing up!

Sibelius worked simultaneously on Nos. 5, 6 and 7, and when performing them together they seem to fertilize each other. An arc of tension is built when you realize that the final chords of No. 5 are only intermediate, No. 6 takes on a role of a more intimate central section and No. 7 becomes even more charged with a sense of unavoidability and of being a "universal" statement following all the kinds of music we have lived through in Nos. 5 and 6. A mini-opera without words!

Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82

Though this symphony went through four years of very painful process of revision, it is one of the most life-affirming creations of Sibelius. It has an inner momentum – most of the first movement is one huge accellerando – it has heroic outbursts as well as tender folk-tune-like themes, and it ends in the most original way with shattering gaps of silence between a series of gigantic chords. The sonorities he finds in the orchestra are larger-than-life, and the way he constantly varies the musical material has made this work an inspiration for generations of composers. Sibelius compared the way he would like his music to unfold to the organic growing of a tree, and this masterwork is a great example of just that.

Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op. 104

By Finns considered the most "Finnish" of his symphonies. Though at times very wild (the Ugric gene in the Finnish people!), it is dominated by a sense of "being." Probably inspired by the folk-music-use of the traditional Finnish plucked instrument, the "kantele," a harp gives the music a special color, as does the dark bass clarinet which only appears in this symphony in the whole cycle. A "Swedish style" modal hymn dominates the finale and takes us to delirious and ecstatic heights; even so, the work ends quietly and very beautifully on a two-note motive: D–E–D, which when spoken in Swedish can sound like "det är det" which means "that is that" – no room for any superfluous sweetening in this symphony! Sibelius sums up No. 6 like this: "It reminds me of the scent of the first snow. Rage and passion are essential in it."

Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105

Even more condensed to its absolute minimum is his last surviving symphony, so much that it is shaped into one continuous movement of just 20 minutes. It is as if all inner power has been gathered out of which the music can spring. There is a particular harmonic tension in this work, where long held chords very slowly change, giving me the impression of planets circling indepently and just occasionally finding "harmony." No more so than at the very end, where a painfully long held dissonance finally releases – not unlike the ending of Bach's St. Matthew Passion. There are definitely also other religious connotations in this work, through its extended hymn-like passages and through its original use of the principal trombone; three times it chants to us in its God-like fashion, giving us hope and telling us of a better world.

Posted on March 5, 2015

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