Symphony No. 5 (Sibelius)

The finale throws us into its hurly-burly almost immediately, with a whirlwind passage for the strings leading to one of the most famous of all themes in Sibelius’ music, that in which, as Donald Tovey famously described it, Thor swings his hammer….

Program note
JEAN SIBELIUS (1865–1957)
Symphony No. 5 in E flat, op. 82

Tempo molto moderato
Andante mosso, quasi allegretto
Allegro molto

The pitiless despair of Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony (1911) puzzled many of its first listeners. The work seemed an unlikely sequel to the gentle radiance of the Third (1907), yet its gaze into the abyss gave way, in the Fifth, to one of Sibelius’ most shining, life-affirming creations.

Early in 1914 he heard Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony for the first time. ‘This is a legitimate and valid way of looking at things, I suppose,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘But it is certainly painful to listen to.’ Yet we know that Schoenberg’s abandonment of tonality continued to fascinate Sibelius, for it suggested a ‘next step’ for his own work after the Fourth Symphony. (He expressed his admiration for Schoenberg publicly at this time.) But the Fifth Symphony tells us plainly that Sibelius could not adopt another’s solutions to the musical issues he confronted. While the Fifth is light to the Fourth’s darkness, a progression from doubt to belief (Sibelius’ admiration for Bruckner should not be forgotten here), it represents no shift in Sibelius’ compositional principles; he was not a man to change his ways so swiftly. An economy of orchestral resource, the building up of musical paragraphs by the development of tiny melodic fragments, the determination to create his own solutions to the problems of harmonic language and symphonic form – these were abiding features of his music from the beginning of his composing life. In fact of all the major composers of the last century he was the most solitary, methodical and purposeful in his stylistic development, taking only fitful interest in the work of his contemporaries. In Neville Cardus’ memorable description, Sibelius ‘sits alone in the house of music rather away from the hearth and the logs and the company; he says little, and sometimes by his taciturnity alone he makes an impression of deep thinking.’

He wrote the Fifth, one of the most popular of all his works, at a time of great personal difficulty. The Great War had broken out and, as a result, Sibelius had lost access to the revenue from his German publishers, Breitkopf and Härtel. To earn some regular income he wrote a great number of salon pieces for domestic performance, and had little time for other composing; the Fifth Symphony is his only major work of the war years.

Sibelius himself conducted the symphony’s first performance, at a concert given on 8 December 1915 to mark his 50th birthday. It was a jubilant event, treated almost as a national holiday, but Sibelius was unhappy with the work and revised it twice. In 1916 he joined the first two of the original four movements together, and he made further revisions before it was published in 1919.

The symphony begins quietly on horns and timpani. The theme we hear at this point is soon elaborated into a woodwind cadenza. At its conclusion the strings enter, and we seem to be moving gradually and inexorably into the landscape of the music until we come to the vista presented by a great tolling of the brass and the announcement of a jagged syncopated theme on the strings. Now we have reached the threshold beyond which the heart of the symphony lies. A mysterious, cloudy passage for the strings – over which the bassoon utters a sorrowful version of one of the main themes – leads to a burnished assertion by the trumpets of the very first theme of the symphony, shortly after which, with a change of time signature from 12/8 to 3/4, the mood changes to one of dancing lightness, in which the sound of the two flutes leads us on. Soon the music gathers pace and the strings take up the dance strain with increasing excitement until the brass join in for the final, sudden, invigorating climax.

The second movement is a set of variations not on a theme, but on a rhythmic pattern that Sibelius contrives to behave like a theme. The whole movement is a centre of calm, and even the passionate descending string tune that marks one of the most decisive transformations of the original idea is marked Poco tranquillo. Towards the end of the movement the brass toll out a reminiscence of their earlier, more excitable selves; this leads to a series of cloudy gestures which recall music from the earlier movement. But towards the end the mood changes to one of almost childlike serenity, which is carried through to the short, abbreviated, coda.

The finale throws us into its hurly-burly almost immediately, with a whirlwind passage for the strings leading to one of the most famous of all themes in Sibelius’ music, that in which, as Donald Tovey famously described it, Thor swings his hammer. It is a good example of how orchestrally conceived Sibelius’ ideas are. Played on the piano the tune would mean very little, but given out on horns with a high, syncopated woodwind counterpoint, it attains a unique nobility. After some woodwind carolling and a return to the gusty sounds of the movement’s opening, Sibelius prepares us for a return of the swinging horn theme. When this finally re-appears, it does so as a chorale that has to struggle through long pedal-points and changes of key before bursting into its sunset glory. These final minutes of the movement contain the richest orchestration of the whole work, but almost before we can register the fact, the symphony ends with six jubilant, adamant chords.

Phillip Sametz © 1995 / 2004

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