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Andrew

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

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We'll see if I'm narrowing things too much, by starting a thread on a specific composer.  But I feel more coherent if I write my thoughts down, and I thought it would be fun to enter my jottings as I listen to Symphonies 1-7.  I'll also try to find a good rendition on YouTube of each symphony to share.

Since I first dug into classical music in the 1990s, I've been fascinated that a composer with such talents would basically stop writing music for the last 30 years of his life.  Reading Alex Ross' excellent-if-dense overview of 20th C classical music, The Rest Is Noise, it seems we largely have clinical depression (maybe bipolar disorder?) and alcoholism to blame for Sibelius' three-decade silence. 

I'm curious to learn more of his life and have one of his bios on my Amazon wish list.  What little I know impresses on me that he was a complicated chap.  Like many upper-crust Finns, Swedish was his first language.  But like many Finns of his generation, he became passionate about his country's fight for independence, and apparently didn't mind when his 2nd Symphony and his short piece Finlandia were appropriated for patriotic aims.  Alas, he didn't conduct himself courageously during Finland's collaboration with Nazi Germany for most of WW2, something that apparently filled him with self-loathing.

Anywho, on to my impressions of his first symphony, completed in 1899.  (And Evan, Michael, or anyone else, feel free to point out if I've missed the boat anywhere; music isn't my second or even third language.)  Right off the bat, it's obvious that were in Sibelius' sonic world, though I think I hear echoes of the second movement of Beethoven's 9th at the conclusion of Sibelius' first movement.  And more frantic segments of his fourth movement have a 19th C Russian air to them, perhaps Borodin in particular.

The first and fourth movements are by far my favorites, and honestly, the second movement didn't do much for me.  (This is typical for me; slow movements really have to wow me to leave an impression.)  I love the solo clarinet that opens the symphony.  In the third movement (Scherzo), I especially appreciated the opening pizzicato, and then the way the spry melody is carried by the kettledrums at the end.  But the fourth movement wowed me the most, with its rapidly changing moods:  from a folk dancy tune (somewhere between Dvorak and Bartok in degree of overt folksiness) to hymn-like reverence to lush emotive melody.  And I love its audacious conclusion: instead of the expected bombast, we get soft kettledrum followed by two plucked notes from the strings.

This leaves me quite eager to listen to the remaining six symphonies.  I really like the rendition of his First that I've linked to below, helmed by Estonian-American conductor Paavo Jarvi.  It's a live performance, so it's not perfect, but it's well-filmed, with nice long shots of the full orchestra alternating with close-ups of featured individual players.  And Jarvi is a very expressive conductor who seems to be having a merry time through much of this, while breaking an impressive sweat.

 

Edited by Andrew

To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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Really nice post on Sibelius, Andrew. I like a lot of his music, but I've never taken the time to learn much about his life -- so I find what you wrote to be really interesting. I do know that there is a nationalist/patriotic spirit in his music, but I wasn't aware of much else, including the fact that he didn't compose for the last 30 years of his life. It seems like he was very troubled. 

Very keen impressions of his first symphony. Yeah, I agree that the fourth movement is the best part of the symphony; it has so much character, it's dynamic, and the ending, as you point out, is nice. Not a bang, but a nice whimper from the strings. Portions of the movement sound heavily Romanticized to my ears -- a good indication that Sibelius was influenced by the high Romantic composers. I can hear a little Brahms in the opening and the early parts of the first movement (which, by the way, has some great melodies). 

I can't remember exactly when I first heard this symphony -- it was definitely decades ago, though, in a recording by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, coupled with Finlandia. A few years ago, I got the symphony cycle by Paavo Berglund and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra at a good price when Amazon had it on sale. It's really solid (plus it includes four of Sibelius' tone poems). When it comes to classical music by Scandinavian composers (among others), you can't go wrong with Paavo Jarvi, or his father, Neeme Jarvi. 

Looking forward to your thoughts on the other symphonies. Also, if you've not heard it yet, I recommend Sibelius' violin concerto. It's part of the main violin repertoire for very good reasons. 

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Thanks, Michael.  At least of the Sibelius music I've heard thus far, it seems you can draw a fairly straight line from 19th C Romantic compositions to his music: the tonality, melodious quality, and heart on sleeve emotionalism.  Watching and listening to this symphony, his mastery of orchestration also comes through, in allowing the brass, woodwinds, traditional strings, harp, and percussion to shine through at different times.

It's been years since I've listened to the violin concerto, so I'll add that to his symphonies for a re-listen in the coming weeks.  And thanks for the recommendation on a good recording of his symphonic cycle; I've got a birthday coming up, so I've added it to my wish list.


To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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23 hours ago, Andrew said:

Thanks, Michael.  At least of the Sibelius music I've heard thus far, it seems you can draw a fairly straight line from 19th C Romantic compositions to his music: the tonality, melodious quality, and heart on sleeve emotionalism.  Watching and listening to this symphony, his mastery of orchestration also comes through, in allowing the brass, woodwinds, traditional strings, harp, and percussion to shine through at different times.

All of the above, indeed! :) I forget off-hand which movement it is, but there's a section in which the harp gets its moments of glory ... or its 15 minutes of fame ... and it's really enjoyable to hear. And Sibelius really proved how skilled he was at orchestration in his very first symphony. 

I don't know if the Berglund/Bournemouth cycle is still in print (if you happen to buy CDs still, as opposed to downloading digital files), but it's definitely worth listening to or even obtaining if it's at a good price. 

For a long time, Sibelius' violin concerto was my favorite in the repertoire ... until I heard Shostakovich's 1st v.c., and that instantly became my #1. 

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I didn't know Sibelius' 1st symphony, so that was really nice to listen to. I think your analysis is spot on, Andrew; there's definitely a Beethoven influence, and I heard a strong nationalistic influence as well, which is what gives it such a distinct character (as contrasted with some other first symphonies--Dvorak, Nielsen--who are clearly copying earlier masters in theirs).

I actually really liked the pulsing crescendo of the 2nd movement; I thought Sibelius did a great job of controlling the mounting tension until it exploded through the orchestra. You're right about the effectiveness of the ending; I can think of a lot of pieces that end softly, but not many that have a huge chord followed by two quiet notes, almost as a sort of reaction to that chord. I also liked how the first movement laid out most of the themes and orchestration techniques that would come back through the symphony.


"Anyway, in general I love tragic artists, especially classical ones."

"Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning."

- Pope Francis, August 2013 interview with Antonio Spadaro

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