Jean Sibelius, (Finland; 1865-1957 Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52, Composed 1907
I will start by sharing two comments from Jean Sibelius concerning his Symphony No. 3 in C Major, Op. 3 that will be performed on Thursday, the 11th of August, by Maestro Michael Stern and the MMF Orchestra. They may be fun to remember as you read this blog and certainly when you listen to the work in person at the concert.
“After hearing my third symphony Rimsky-Korsakov shook his head and said: ‘Why don’t you do it the usual way? You will see that the audience can neither follow you nor understand this.’ And now I am certain my symphonies are played more often than his.” (1940)
“The third symphony was a disappointment for the audience, as everybody was expecting that it would be like the second. I mentioned this to Gustave Mahler, and he also observed that ‘with each new symphony you always lose listeners who have been captivated by prevues symphonies’.” (1943)
The Russian and the Bohemian/Austrian composer were right on. Sibelius did not follow his known stylistic path in the 3rd Symphony and the first audiences were not enthralled by the changes they heard. Change is always challenging, isn’t it? After the almost wild first symphony that came as a shock to Finish audiences, followed by the second symphonic work that was filled with pathos and tragedy, the pared down, more concise, classical piece was a complete surprise. What do I mean by concise, pared down and classical?
By concise, I mean Sibelius introduced fewer thematic materials than in his first two symphonic offerings. For example, in the first movement the main thematic material is made up of a few related motifs that eventually become one as they are altered and expanded. The theme is rhythmically “disciplined” rather than wildly varied. In the second movement the whole of the movement is elaboration and repetition of one dance melody. The third movement primarily concerns itself with passages of repeated Allegro (fast) notes with no real departure from this one thematic core.
Pared down? This symphony is in three movements not the usual four, although the finale combines two distinct sections. The orchestra has a lighter timbre. Sibelius uses fewer instruments for this work. There is no tuba, no harp, and fewer multiples. He said that he was happy to have only fifty musicians play this symphony.
By the word, classic, I refer to clarity: clarity of form, such as the use of sonata parameters, ie: exposition, development, and recapitulation found in the first movement. There is no programmatic context. This is clean, pure music looking back to Haydn and Mozart. There is clarity of sound. The thick Bruckner and Wagner texture is not heard. The Romantic excess of Mahler and Richard Strauss is missing from the composer’s work. There is a spare, open “Mendelssohnian” instrumentation that pervades the whole of the 3rd symphony.
Let me describe this work for you. As I mentioned above this is not program music….not a Symphonic Poem (Sibelius wrote many) such as Sibelius’s most famous work, Finlandia: his forceful, ode to his native Finland that is descriptive, nationalistic, and clearly meant as a plea for independence from Russian dominance. If you have, perchance, never heard it; it is a must. Look up its history!
But as usual I digress...too many interesting facts always pop into my ramblings. The symphony was written between 1904 and 1907. Adam Neiman’s notes in the program describe the work perfectly. For the first movement, he says, “The first movement is a tapestry of buoyant folk dances, pastoral melodies, triumphant chords, and relentless forward momentum…” Cellos and basses play out the first theme. A flow of strings and then winds converse freely. Sometimes in brief exchange, sometimes in prolonged conversations as they introduce new materials. Or is there more than one basis musical thought? Listening carefully, it becomes apparent that the music is from one source and is developed and varied so that eventually in Sibelius’s words, “the pieces fit in a mosaic.” Listen to the special bucolic timbre of the woodwinds as they play the idiomatic folk melody. The second movement, Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto, (Slowish, at a walking pace, with motion, somewhat fast) is as Adam wrote, a “nostalgic song.” I feel that it should just be heard, not analyzed by me beyond pointing out the restrained, almost shy, melancholic mood and the repetition of the hypnotic graceful waltz-like theme. The third movement has been criticized as too short. Neiman says that “it welds” the materials. Sibelius had an answer to his critics. He said, “No statue has ever been erected to a critic.” Seriously, the impact of this short two-part movement, a Scherzo (It. joke) that is reminiscent of Mendelssohn’s mercurial fairy music in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and an Allegro, (fast) final section, delivers a most powerful final punch. Here is another quote from Sibelius, as he described the movement: it is a “crystallization of thought from chaos.” Surely you will hear a short reprise of the beautiful second movement set against the sprightly scherzo as the movement begins. The chaos Sibelius refers to appears briefly. He goes about interlocking his mosaic pieces once again. Now a hymn/prayer swells out of the middle of the movement, first played by the violas. Sibelius may have wished to include this prayer in an oratorio he never actually wrote. Here in the final measures the hymn emerges joyous and triumphant as a brilliant Amen.
A few paragraphs about Sibelius’ life should be included. The background adds to the understanding of his music. Sibelius was born in 1865. As a young man he became “hooked” on composing music. He was proficient as a violinist. He auditioned for the Vienna Symphony but was not accepted. He then traveled to study in Germany. He returned to Finland. He received a grant from the Finnish Government that allowed him to continue his career as a composer without financial worry. He also became well respected as a conductor. Unfortunately from his youth, Sibelius was addicted to overspending and to alcohol. Both of these habits escalated as he grew older even as his fame spread through Europe. From the early 1900s he became popular and critics took notice of the growing catalogue of his works. By the 1920s he was a national icon. You will remember I mention Finlandia. It became the unofficial Finnish national anthem. He first conducted this work at a concert to raise money for a new press release. In actuality, it was secretly a work written to raise money for establishing a free press, affirm patriotism, and denounce Russian tyranny in Finland. Sibelius suffered from depression and his inability to stop drinking. He toured Europe and even conducted in the USA in Connecticut. The final years of his life, he lived quietly (for the most part) at his country home, Ainola. He built the home and moved there the year that the Third symphony was written. Ainola was named for his beloved wife, Aino. They lived there most of their 65 years marriage. They had six daughters! Sibelius stopped composing and only edited and corrected his works for the last 30 years of his life. He worked on an eighth symphony which he burned. His wife wrote the he had an auto da fe at the country house, and destroyed many works in disgust due to his inability to stop drinking. She wrote that she left the room as he threw the compositions in the fireplace as she could not look. He died in 1957 of a brain hemorrhage. He completed seven symphonies, a large number of symphonic poems, a violin concerto and choral and song works.
Sibelius’ works show tremendous development of thematic material and great skill in harmonic settings. He merged his thematic cells into cohesive statements while using settings that included classical forms and beyond. As noted earlier, Sibelius’ music is rich in folk references and inspired melody.
Adam Neiman has included Tchaikovsky’s, Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 33. On the program for the 9th of August. The Russian composer reached back to the world of Enlightenment in this work. The wish to bring music to the common man was basic to this period. It is an elegant, refined, melodic composition. It is not heavy with Baroque counterpoint, rather it is an appealing gracious piece inspired by the period of Enlightenment. The look to the past is a wonderful pairing with Sibelius’ Symphony No. 3. as Sibelius looked back to a simpler, more elegant music than the heavy romanticism of his contemporaries. Enlightenment in music meant music for all, not just for the educated and wealthy. Tchaikovsky turned back the years and left us a piece of consummate beauty. Sibelius looked back to Haydn and Mozart at the beginning of his mature musical period. He rejected the bombast and overly emotional musical atmosphere that surrounded him and went his own way toward a new expressive style. The concert begins with Grieg’s “Holberg” Suite for Strings, Op. 40 that celebrates his native land, Norway, continues with the ornate, refined idioms of Tchaikovsky’s look to the past, and concludes with the Sibelius work that uses both Grieg’s folk connection and Tchaikovsky’s salute to earlier musical times as the basis for his Symphony No. 3. I hope you will find the similarities and dissimilarities on the concert “menu” intriguing, stimulating, and beautiful! It is grand music we will hear in the final concert of the MMF 2018 season. Enjoy!
I have loved commenting on this wonderful season from Fran’s Corner. Until next year!!!!
- Fran Rosenthal