Jean Sibelius on Symphony @ 7

Jean Sibelius in 1913(Photo: Wikipedia)
Jean Sibelius in 1913(Photo: Wikipedia)

Beginning this evening, I’ll be featuring the symphonies of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.  For the rest of this week, we’ll be hearing Nos. 1 through 4, and next week (leaving room for our Monday Mahler series), 5 through 7, plus the 4 Legends of the Kalevala to wrap up on Friday.

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) is Finland’s greatest composer and one of the great symphonists of the 20th century.  The seven symphonies appeared between 1899 and 1924, and in each one Sibelius showed a progressive development in in his conception and ideal of symphonic form.

It was not the more extreme break with tradition as represented by the more radically modern composers of the early 20th century such as Arnold Schoenberg or Igor Stravinsky, but a more subtle refinement of the Romantic ideals of the late 19th century without completely abandoning classical forms.

For Sibelius, the artistic expression of his inner vision involved a strong feeling for the world of nature.  Indeed, it is one of the first things you may sense when listening to his music.  And yet, it is not tone painting in the more traditional manner of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, or even Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony.

The first two symphonies show the Russian influence of Peter Tchaikovsky, but Sibelius’ own unique voice is also already present.  It’s right there in the plaintive sound of the lone clarinet that opens Symphony No. 1 in E minor that we’ll hear this evening on Symphony @ 7.  From Symphony No. 3 on, however, he moves toward a kind of paring things down to their essentials.  The music becomes more concise and yet is still powerfully expressive.

In the famous meeting between Sibelius and Gustav Mahler in Helsinki in 1907, they shared their vision of what the symphony should be.  When Sibelius expressed his ideas about the “severity of forms” and the “profound logic” that should connect symphonic themes, Mahler responded, “No!  the symphony must be like the world.  It must be all-embracing.”

Clearly, they went their own ways in artistic terms, for Sibelius’ symphonies tended to get progressively shorter and more condensed (the final one is about 22 minutes in a single movement) while Mahler’s remained on a massive scale (most are well over an hour long).

Join me this evening  as be begin our musical journey with Jean Sibelius on Symphony @ 7 at the same time we wind down our Monday Mahler series on Classical 101.