Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 5, Op. 82 (1915–1919)

Sibelius got the first ideas for his Fifth Symphony in the summer of 1914. His sketchbook and diary give a rare opportunity to follow the genesis of this work from July 1914 through the summer of 1916.

His compositional process typically had three stages. The first one was the stage of “moods.” In 1891, when planning his first large-scale symphonic work, the Kullervo Symphony, he wrote to his bride: “For my symphony, I have the moods, but not a single musical expression for them, yet.” This kind of a predispositional state was soon followed by the birth of concrete musical ideas, albeit diffuse, undefined and without any predetermined formal context. Then began the stage of “forging,” as the composer characterized the process of giving the original ideas a more and more clearly defined shape. Themes underwent transformation, and what was originally intended to be a theme of the first movement might later be transferred to the finale or vice versa: “I intend to let the musical thoughts and their development in my spirit determine the form” (July 29, 1914). Around this time, Sibelius got the first two ideas for his Fifth Symphony—a motive in stepwise motion, which became the woodwind theme of the last movement (m. 129ff) and the “swinging” theme with large skips, the finale’s most pregnant idea (m. 105ff). It is extraordinary how these two basic impulses of contrasting musical characteristics are bound together as subject and countersubject. The idea of putting them together probably came to the composer much later; that belonged to the third compositional stage, the ars combinatoria, which Sibelius described in his diary entry of April 10, 1915: “In the evening with the Symphony. The disposition of themes. This important preoccupation, which fascinates me in a mysterious way. As if God the Father had thrown down pieces of mosaic out of the heaven’s floor and asked me to solve how the picture once looked. Perhaps this is a good definition of composing. Per­haps not. How should I know!”

The maturation of the Fifth Sym­phony was an exceptionally lengthy process. Its first Performance was scheduled to take place December 8, 1915, to celebrate the composers fiftieth birthday. Sibelius worked feverishly during the summer months to complete the work, which was ready in time for the gala concert. But some weeks later, after the waves of celebrations had calmed down, he re-examined the score and his doubts grew into certainty: The Symphony was not as he wanted it, yet.

In January, pleading illness, Sibelius cancelled two performances that he had promised to conduct the following month in Sweden. The real reason—as he confessed in his diary—was his fervent wish to “give the new symphony another—more human—form. More earthbound, more vivid…. The prob­lem is that during the work I have begun another.” He distanced himself from the Fifth by working simultaneously on the Sixth Symphony, also begun in the summer of 1914. The war that was raging in Europe had seriously cut off Sibelius’s sources of income, and so, to defray his debts, during the following months he composed small piano and violin pieces as well as some Lieder and some incidental music for Hofmannsthal’s Everyman. The scheduled November performance of the new version of the Fifth Symphony was postponed. Sibelius finally conducted the second version in Turku, exactly a year after the premiere.

The major differences between the first and second versions were: 1) The Tempo molto moderato and the Allegro moderato, which in the first version had appeared as two separate movements, were merged together, and the Allegro moderato was expanded by 32 measures (Più presto); 2) The Andante mosso was almost completely rewritten; and 3) the E-flat minor episode at letter N in the finale was replaced by a vivace epi­sode in a major key; the Largamente assai, leading to the stretto culmination, was reduced by 14 bars, and the stretto itself was expanded from 16 to 32 bars. Of the six fortissimo chords at the end, only two were left.

Three years later, in 1919, Sibelius revised the Fifth Symphony once again. This final form is a synthesis of the two previous versions. Some of the changes made in the second version, like the melding together of what were originally the first two movements, proved to be definite. The third movement of the final version, on the other hand, is closer to the original; the E-flat minor un pochettino largamente was restored, as well as the 16-bar un pochet­tino stretto with its six concluding chords. The Fifth Symphony as we know it today premiered in Helsinki on November 24, 1919.

What is the place of the Fifth Sym­phony in Sibelius’s output? In his Fourth Symphony (1911), he had reached a “state of musical material” which he never surpassed; he had advanced to the frontiers of tonality and developed a structural thinking, which had close affinities with the most advanced techniques of “modern” music at that time. As far as harmony is concerned, the Fifth Symphony is more conventional. Formally, however, it is more advanced. Instead of giving up tonality, in which his thinking was firmly rooted, he concentrated on a specific kind of thematic transforma­tion, which has been characterized as the “domino” technique. From the Fifth Symphony onward, Sibelius’s tendency was toward fusion of themes, of formal units like the development and the recapitulation (which Gerald Abraham called “telescoping”) and of whole movements of the traditional symphony. A good example of this is the first movement of the Fifth Sym­phony, the final form of which is a result of melding together two move­ments conceived originally as separate entities.

Thus, the Fifth Symphony indicates a change of direction in Sibelius’s development, and it is not a triumph of conformism, as it has been seen by some critics for whom the state of har­monic language is the only valid meas­ure of what is advanced in music.

Liner notes for the recording Sibelius, Symphony No. 5, Pohjola’s Daughter. Esa-Pekka Salonen, Conductor, and the Philharmonia Orchestra, MK42366 (1987).

About Ilkka Oramo

Professor of Music Theory, emeritus
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