i. Allegretto – Poco allegro
ii. Tempo andante, ma rubato – Poco allegro
iii. Vivacissimo – Lento e soave
iv. Finale: Allegro moderato – Moderato assai
It’s only just over sixty years since the death of one of the twentieth century’s great composers, Jean Sibelius; beginning as a major participant in the nationalist movement amongst composers such as Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Grieg and Smetana, Sibelius followed the former two in producing a symphony cycle which transcended its origins and developed into a universal utterance of huge importance in the history of music.
His early musical development centred round the violin, and he became proficient enough to audition, luckily for us unsuccessfully, for the famous Vienna Philharmonic whilst studying composition in Vienna with Robert Fuchs. Composition rapidly became his chief interest, and in 1892 he achieved success and popularity with one of his very first compositions, the large-scale choral and orchestral work Kullervo, based on legends from a Finnish epic poem, the Kalevala, which was to continue to inspire him. A stream of overtly nationalist compositions followed, including the Karelia Suite, Finlandia, the symphonic poem En Saga and the Lemminkainen Suite, which comprises four Legends based, once again, on the Kalevala and including the magical Swan of Tuonela.
Despite the fact that he resented the hegemony Russia held over Finland at the time, Sibelius’s early compositional influences were the Russian masters; there was more than a whiff of Tchaikovsky and Borodin in the First Symphony, but the plain fact is that within his first decade as a composer Sibelius’s voice had already become uniquely his own. A number of mature tone poems followed, including The Oceanides, an atmospheric seascape, and the Suite: Pelleas and Melisande, of which the first movement has been familiar since the fifties as the theme music of Patrick Moore’s The Sky at Night. In 1905 he completed the final revision of his Violin Concerto, which has taken its place amongst the half-dozen greatest of all violin concertos. Throughout this time the symphony cycle developed through the popular Second and Fifth, the trenchant Third, and the esoteric Fourth and Sixth towards the wonderfully compact Seventh (1924), which has even been described by more than one commentator as the finest 20th-century symphony. Nothing remains of work on a rumoured Eighth Symphony.
In 1926 perhaps his finest tone poem, Tapiola, arrived, and then – silence. Rather like Rossini before him, for the last thirty years of his life until his death aged 91 in 1957 he wrote virtually nothing, living with his wife Aino on their estate, Ainola, in Finland, watching his reputation ebb and flow and occasionally involving himself in recordings of his works, particularly those made by his finest exponents at the time, Robert Kajanus, Serge Koussevitsky and Sir Thomas Beecham. Photographs of the composer range from the dashing good looks and flamboyant moustache of his early career to one taken only days before his death portraying suitably granitic features.
Stimulus for the Second Symphony seems to have begun in the late autumn of 1900 when a friend recommended that Sibelius take his family to Italy for a change of scene, and provided the money too. The friend was one Baron Axel Carpelan, who reminded Sibelius of the inspiration both Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss had found in Italy. The family took a mountain villa in Rapallo and Sibelius found the location a haven of peace; here he sketched some of the material of the symphony, including the main theme of the slow movement, and the Andante’s second theme came to him while he was visiting Florence, suggested by the legend of Don Juan / Don Giovanni. Indeed for a while he considered making what we know as the second movement of the symphony into a tone poem inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy.
In the event, he set to work on the symphony in earnest when the family returned to Finland; it was finished in early 1902 and premiered to great acclaim by the Helsinki Philharmonic in March, the composer himself conducting. Where the First Symphony had evoked the wintry landscapes of Finland, the Second was bathed with a touch of Italian warmth; although some saw it as another burst of Finnish nationalism, Sibelius denied this – he felt that he had poured his soul into the symphony. Always given to revising his work, Sibelius tinkered a little with the Second, and the final version was given first in Stockholm in November 1903. The reception was again very enthusiastic.
The work begins memorably, with strings expressively intoning a phrase based on a three-note ascending motif, shortly accompanying a perky oboe tune which turns the three-note motif on its head, horns replying, as they do many times in the work, with noble restraint. The second subject again utilises the descending three-note motif, this time still more romantically. The motif appears in numerous guises, in fact, all through the symphony. The development takes us into dramatic territory, sometimes mysterious, sometimes menacing, sometimes more overtly tempestuous, then the recap and coda bring us full circle, the opening theme disappearing into calm.
Sinister timps introduce basses and then cellos, who begin the Tempo Andante with an extended passage of mysterious pizzicato, from which the bassoons emerge in octaves to take us into more grotesque territory, their material once again beginning with the ascending motif. Events take a more urgent turn, signalling the arrival of the strings, and shortly we are propelled into trenchant, almost tragic territory. The second subject feels on the face of it to be more peaceful – indeed Sibelius here wrote ‘Christus’ in the original score – but there is huge regret there, which quickens into rage, the coda only partly assuaging.
The Scherzo bursts into life like a machine gun, then seethes its way towards climax after climax, the three-note motif still in evidence. A pastoral trio section led by the woodwind with horns and bassoons accompaning calms the mood, but then the scherzo blazes again. As it burns itself out the trio returns, but this time tumultuously makes its way directly into the glorious D major opening theme of the finale – and there is the motif again. Brass, timpani and double basses growl in sinister fashion underneath and horns comment nobly.
Shortly the second theme opens out the textures and lets us nurse a degree of optimism, but then violas and cellos set out on a bleak F sharp minor ostinato, softly accompanying a world-weary woodwind figure above them; the change to major will be majestic next time. We gradually return to the opening grandiosity, but back comes the viola/cello figure which rumbles away for many bars, now in D minor, this time gradually adding woodwind and basses, with desolate strings and later trumpets above. Horns intone an insistent syncopation and timpani a different one, while trombones gradually add a dotted, fanfare-like figure, the whole building through a huge crescendo towards the final conclusive change to D major. At long last the sun bathes the closing bars, with the entire orchestra at full tilt in a blaze of glory. As Robert Kajanus wrote: The last movement develops towards a triumphant conclusion intended to rouse in the listener a picture of lighter and confident prospects for the future – at present a much-needed sentiment!