Jodi Gustafson listened to all seven of Sibelius's symphonies and shares her appreciations and insight into each one.
See each reflection for a recommended recording, or listen to them all in order via the Spotify playlist below.
Symphony No. 1 in e minor, Op. 39
Ah, youth. This symphony is a culmination of Sibelius's early period romantic, human, searching. It begins and ends in mystery: the opening of the first movement is a melancholic clarinet line over rolling timpani; the theme gazes unflinchingly at the misty orange horizon. There is great excitement, conflict and discovery throughout this opening movement, and it's easy to hear the composer's love of the natural world at work. The second movement is a gorgeous harbor, and the third hurries toward the reappearance of the opening theme, expanded and intensified, in the strings at the beginning of the fourth movement. When it was over, I had the sense that the struggle had receded for the time being, but real resolution wouldn't come until after a farther horizon.
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43
Patriotism? A good mood? Sibelius composed most of this symphony in Italy. He'd just been well-received in German musical society and was able, for the first time in years, to devote himself to full-time composition. The opening, ascendant string motive is hopeful, joyous. As the piece progresses, we hear Sibelius musing on the struggle for supremacy between death and resurrection; he'd recently seen Mozart's Don Giovanni, and was interested in Death's appearance to the title character. This battle culminates in a sweeping hang-glider of a romantic theme that lifts off at the beginning of the fourth movement and then dips and soars toward a glorious arrival announced by the brass. Many refer to this as his "Symphony of Independence," written during a time of Russian oppression of Finland. Sibelius' reaction to that characterization has been a matter of some debate, but whether he meant it as patriotic or not, it is some seriously glorious music.
Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52
Compose yourself. The third symphony, which had a long gestation, represents a compositional turning point for Sibelius. This is much more restrained, structural writing than the two symphonies that preceded it, with lighter instrumentation and a less Romantic style. Those agitated strings of the first movement rush headlong toward optimistic themes expressed by flutes and cellos, and the movement ends with a gracious conversation between brass and string motives. As I listened to the second movement, I closed my eyes to see Fräulein Maria and young Kurt move gracefully through a solemn folk dance in a cosmic courtyard. The third movement culminates with combined agitated strings and regal brass.
Symphony No. 4 in a minor, Op. 63
Dark. It's dark. In 1910, when Sibelius started work on this symphony, he had recently completed an arduous, two-year course of treatment for a tumor in his throat. He was also under continuing attack from the European musical intelligentsia, Russian oppression of Finland was intensifying, and he had just toured the pre-WWI German empire. He was wrestling with large questions, and it shows in a darkly-colored, brooding piece of symphonic writing. Sibelius denies that he was writing about particular experiences, but was instead "pondering over the most important problems of existence: life and death."
Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82
It's better to light one candle... While devastating most of Europe, World War I also created a more personal consequence for Sibelius: his income from performances and publishing around Europe was no longer certain. As a result, he had to write a number of smaller works, largely for piano, to supplement his income. This provided a respite from the turmoil of the world, but postponed his work on the Fifth for a while. He had an idea in his mind of an optimistic work that expresses ideas of regeneration and rebirth after suffering. He spoke of "This life that I love so infinitely, a feeling that must stamp everything I compose." And so he wrote the ebullient, soaring E-flat Major, commissioned by the Finnish government to be presented at a concert on his 50th birthday in 1915, a national holiday. He remained engaged with this work after its premiere, putting out revised versions in 1916 and 1919.
Symphony No. 6 in d minor, Op. 104
Clearly, there's been Scandinavian influence here. Sibelius describes this symphony in two ways. In 1943 (20 years after its premiere) he said: "(It) always reminds me of the scent of the first snow." He was reacting to the elaborate, extravagant compositional styles of some of his Russian contemporaries. The dynamic contrasts of this work aren't as sweeping as those in his own Fifth symphony, and the brass is tightly controlled. "Whereas most other modern composers are engaged in manufacturing cocktails of every hue and description, I offer the public pure cold water." In 1955, however, he remarked, "Rage and passion (...) are utterly essential in it, but it is supported by undercurrents deep under the surface of the music." Rage and passion under new snow: you just can't get more Scandinavian than that.
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105
Sacred Music. Originally conceived as a "symphonic fantasy," the Seventh is contained in one movement. Arguably, all of Sibelius's orchestral career appears here in microcosm; both the Romanticism of his early writing and the Classical mastery of his later work are in evidence. Conductor Osmo Vanska is a well-respected interpreter of Sibelius, and so I'll leave the last statement to him: "Number six is autobiographical. An aging man feels his own incapacity. The ideals are there, but he cannot reach them. The seventh forms a pair with the sixth. But it is not autobiographical. The ego is left behind, and things are seen from the point of view of humanity. The composer turns his eye away from himself towards higher powers. Number seven is sacred music."