The Symphonic Poems: Formal Strategies

Formal strategies in the symphonic poems of Sibelius are many (it is, in fact, surprising how different his works belonging to this vast category are between themselves). Instead of trying to draw a comprehensive map of methods and procedures that Sibelius uses to create form, I shall concentrate on a couple of features characteristic of this group of works, and to some extent, perhaps, of his symphonies as well. For practical reasons examples come from a single work, The Bard, but there is no doubt that at least some of the principles discussed also apply to other works.

Motif and Form

One of Sibelius’s basic methods in creating musical meaning, I believe, is an interactive relationship between motif and form. That is to say, a motif, understood as the smallest meaningful musical unit or gestalt, not only determines the form (among other elements) but is sometimes also determined by the form, since what belongs to the substance of a motif—its pitch content and rhythm—sometimes does not suffice to identify two events, albeit identical, as instances of the same musical entity.

A couple of examples from The Bard op. 64 (1913) might illustrate the point. The few introductory bars of this work constitute a kind of warehouse of motifs out of which most of the thematic material is drawn. One of these motives is the descending minor second G♭–F, part of a subdominant-supertonic progression, in the upper voice of the harp (bars 3–4, see Ex. 1).

Example 1. The Bard, mm. 3–4.

The descending minor second, G♭–F, is then encountered at the beginning of the thematic fragment of the violins in bars 10–13 with a slightly modified rhythmic structure and in a changed metric position starting with an off-beat (Ex. 2).

Example 2. The Bard, mm. 9–19.

How can we be sure that these two descending minor seconds are instances of the ‘same’ entity? We cannot until they are positioned one upon the other in bars 38–39 (Ex. 3).

Example 3. The Bard, mm. 36–39.

In this case, identity is confirmed by two instances of the same substance, originally apart in time, now sounding simultaneously. This means that the G♭– F minor second of the harp from the introductory bars—not, for example, the one from bars 10–11 immediately preceding the thematic fragment, nor just any descending minor second, of which there is no shortage in this diatonic modal style—is used as a tile in building up the thematic fragment of the violins.

A still more striking example of this method of strengthening a motivic relationship by syntactical means is the use of the opening clarinet motif B♭–D–E♭ in bars 1–2 (Ex. 4), imitated immediately by the harp in bar 2.

Example 4. The Bard, mm. 1–4.

These are the only occurrences, in the whole work, of this motif in its original or immediately recognizable form. A clear reference to it, however, is the D♭– E♭ ascending major second of the clarinets in bars 49–52 (Ex. 5).

Example 5. The Bard, mm. 49–52.

‘Why is that?’ one might ask because in the latter gesture nothing remains of interval content of the opening motif, and rhythmically it is even more dissimilar, except for the use of long sustained notes. In this case, the variant’s relationship to the model is based on other factors than its diastematic and rhythmic substance. First, nowhere else, except in these two places, do the clarinets have an independent melodic line; elsewhere they are used to double chord notes of the strings (Lento assai) and to colour melodic lines of other instruments (Largamente). Second, the clarinet motif and the harp motif, with its characteristic G♭–F descending minor second, which appear successively in the opening bars, are here positioned one upon the other. Third (and this is perhaps the most decisive criterion), the combination of these two motives has the same function that they have in the introduction: they mark the beginning of a section. After the Poco stretto, we are back at the first tempo, and the new section is essentially a modified recapitulation of the introduction. Thus, the weakness of the kinship based on substance, on the diastematic and rhythmic structures of the two variants, is compensated by their analogous syntactical position, which guarantees that their relationship becomes musically real.


The Bard also offers another kind of strategy, on a higher level, based on anticipation and retrospection. The G♭–F melodic progression, already referred to, gave us an example of a situation in which a relationship is first hinted at, but left open until it is confirmed at a later stage. In such a case, time is reversed, as it were; what comes later influences the interpretation and the apperception of what went before. This strategy is also used to give formal units a meaning that they would otherwise lack.

Bars 1–11 of The Bard’s opening section (Lento assai) are in most analysis considered an introduction, followed by the main theme (Tanzberger 1943: 78, Collins 1973: 279, Tawaststjerna 1986: 248–249, Howell 1989: 242–243).[1] From the listener’s point of view, the introductory character of this segment, as it evolves in time, is more an impression than a firmly established fact. This impression is, in the first place, due to the mosaic-like structure of the segment, which only introduces tiny motivic elements; as long as the listener does not know what follows, the structural function of the segment remains inconclusive. That it is an introduction only becomes manifest in the following segment (bars 10–20), which introduces the ‘main theme.’ The appearance of the theme, or rather a thematic fragment, marks the first important formal articulation and gives meaning to the previous segment, now understood as an introduction because the theme is carefully constructed by using the mosaic pieces in that segment.[2]

The beginning of the scale fragment in bars 10–11 (see Ex. 2) seems to be derived from the ‘string counterpoint’ of the violas in bar 3 (Ex. 6); this connection, though obvious at first sight or hearing, is confirmed later, in bars 36–37, where both motivic cells are positioned one upon the other in exactly the same way as the two instances of the G♭– F cell, already discussed, in bars 38–39.

Example 6. The Bard, bar 3.

The rest of the main theme (A♭–G–B♭–C–D♭, see Ex. 2) is essentially a retrograde, with an interpolated G natural, of the upper voice of the harp’s ‘ritornello’ (D♭–C–B♭–A♭) in bars 5–7 (Ex. 7).[3]

Example 7. The Bard, mm. 5–7.

This method of using pieces of mosaic from an introductory section to assemble a theme or themes of the main section is familiar from Sibelius’s other symphonic poems. It is encountered as early as in En saga op. 9 (1892, rev. 1902; see Murtomäki 1990: 193), as well as in several of the later tone poems, notably in Lemminkäinen’s Return Op. 22 No. 4 (1895, rev. 1897, 1900) and Pohjola’s Daughter Op. 49 (1906). In each case, the thematic material of the main section gives the stumbling opening section, with its short motifs, the meaning and function of an introduction. A close connection between the introductory motifs and the thematic material also ensures the music a formal character that is more of a logical than of architectural nature. As a consequence, the divisibility of the music into sections and segments is a less important feature than the intimate inner ties between motifs and themes. In many cases, this technique leads to an overlapping of sections and segments in such a way that it may be difficult to decide where one section ends and the next begins. This is what Gerald Abraham (1952: 21), in connection with the symphonies, called ‘telescoping.

There is another example in The Bard of a case in which subsequent events significantly alter the understanding and, in fact, the meaning of previous developments. The short Poco stretto episode in the midst of the Lento assai (bars 42–48) has proved to be difficult to understand. It has been characterized either as a ‘subsidiary theme’[4] or given no label at all. Collins (1973: 280) speaks noncommittally of ‘a new (shimmering) string texture,’ and Howell (1989: 248–249), significantly, does not comment it at all in his otherwise detailed description of the work’s form. The thematic content of the Poco stretto, with its descending seconds and a leap of a third (B–A♯–C♯–B), is closely related to the main theme, and may undoubtedly be regarded as one of its variants, as Tawaststjerna (1972: 331) has remarked. But it is a very different variant from those in the Lento assai,[5] since it also adopts some contrasting features, such as the fervent, restless mood created by the tremolo and the striving towards F# major. In spite of these contrasting features, it can hardly be regarded as a genuine second theme. To serve this purpose it is too subservient and, above all, too inconsequential, like a shudder that shakes the orchestra for a while but fades as soon as it arises.

The connection of the Poco stretto episode with the main theme, however, is not restricted to its melodic substance, the leap of a third surrounded by descending seconds. They are both preceded by the harp ritornello, with the sole difference being that the harp’s cadential motif in bars 8–11 is replaced, before the Poco stretto, with two fermate, further emphasizing that the section has reached its end and that something else will follow. This means that the syntactical position of the Poco stretto is comparable to that of the main theme; functional similarity, once again, strengthens a kinship that is also based on a resemblance of melodic substance.

Although both substantial and functional properties clarify the relationship of the Poco stretto episode with the surrounding Lento assai, the listener still gets an impression that there is something extraneous about this episode. Because it does not seem to be a genuine second theme, it does not really match the expectations of a musical mind seeking to understand its role in the context of the work as a whole. It remains more or less an unanswered question, which tends to increase tension. This tension is not resolved until the second main section, Largamente (bar 82 on), which serves a double function. It is, in the first place, a real contrast to the Lento assai, both in its inner and outer dimensions, but at the same time gives a posteriori an intelligible meaning to the Poco stretto episode, which is now understood as an announcement or foretelling of a subversion about to come. And the Largamente proves to be a real subversion that shakes the calm, narrative tone of the Lento assai, with which it nonetheless shares many substantial features either directly or via the Poco stretto episode.

First, the motif of the Largamente (bars 84–85) has been derived from the tremolo theme of the Poco stretto, by a change in order of the first two notes, as mentioned by Tawaststjerna (1972: 331), which involves the tritone E– A♯; incorporated in the original form of the tremolo theme in Lydian E♯ major, the tritone gains a more prominent position as a framing interval (D♭–G). Second, the Largamente motif is first handled in sequences, in exactly the same way as the tremolo theme. Note also the final leap of a fifth, not included in the main theme, which these two variants have in common. The tremolo theme and the Largamente motif are thus bound together by both substance and technique. In following variants, the sequential chain continues, but the motif is now extended with prefixes and suffixes. This technique, again, is derived from the treatment of the main theme, and, as a consequence, the extended variants of the Largamente motif form a synthesis of the main theme and the tremolo theme.

Instead of a mere contrast to the Lento assai, the Largamente section gathers elements from both Lento assai and the Poco stretto episode by which it is foreshadowed, and adopts the double character of contrast and development. This kind of ambiguity seems to be one of the predominant features of Sibelius’s strategy of form. Units that create form, be they tiny motifs or entire sections, are seldom just what they seem to be at first sight. Forthcoming events may change their meaning by adopting some elements of their substance, by using similar techniques of treatment, or by assuming a syntactical position that unexpectedly reveals unforeseen formal connections.

Relationship to tradition

The study of formal strategies within a single work and without reference to its historical connotations only gives a limited picture of their meaning. What is the relation of The Bard to Runeberg’s poem of the same name? The composer, when asked, denied any relation between the two; but Tawaststjerna (1986: 247) firmly believes that there is one, and gives both the relationship and the composer’s reaction a psychological interpretation. Yet it is difficult to show where the connection lies because it is not supported by the form. Runeberg’s poem, which describes Bard’s life from cradle to grave, has eleven stanzas, of which five are dedicated to Bard’s childhood, three to his life as a poet, two to his aging and death, and one to his reputation (see Castrén & Belfrage 1938: 200). There seems to be no hint of this structure in Sibelius’s composition. On the other hand, one of the composition’s most important structural elements, the refrain, is alien to the poem; and the use of a refrain (the harp ritornello) was probably one reason why Sibelius called The Bard a ballad when writing to Tangzberger (1962: 169): ‘The Bard, so to speak, tells an ancient Nordic ballad from the Viking age.’ In addition, Sibelius gave his composition the rubric ‘Tondichtung’ or tone-poem, which links it to the tradition of the symphonic poem. From the point of view of genre traditions of 19th-century music, these two labels are contradictory, because the ballad and the symphonic poem belong to entirely different lines of development, formally characterized by the sonata form and the lied form, respectively (Dahlhaus 1973). In this particular case, the contradiction is resolved by the fact that The Bard really seems to incorporate elements of both traditions. The tradition of the ballad is referred to not only by the refrain but also by the intimate narrative tone of the work, while its intricate motivic technique and complex structure rather evoke the tradition of the symphonic poem. The ambiguity, characteristic of many individual elements and sections of the composition, thus has a counterpart in The Bard’s relationship to past traditions.

One question remains unanswered, however. What did Sibelius actually mean by ‘The Bard, so to speak, tells an ancient Nordic ballad from the Viking age?’ Does the composer tell a story about the Bard, as Runeberg does in his poem, or is it rather the Bard, who tells some unspecified story to a small group of people gathered around him? In other words, does ‘The Bard’ in Sibelius’s sentence refer to his composition of that name or rather to the mythic figure of a poet who carries the memory of his community in his mind?


[1] Tanzberger counts the bars without the off-beat (1–10) and calls them ‘Einleitung (Harfenvorspiel).’ Collins divides the first section (Lento assai, bars 1–81) into seven ‘sentences’, of which the first (bars 1–11) ‘is a virtual miniature of the entire work.’ Howell describes bars 1–41 as the first subsection and divides its beginning, mainly on the basis of harmonic development, into three segments (bars 1–4, 3–7, 8–11), followed by a fourth segment (bars 10–20), which ‘concerns motivic rather than harmonic development.’
[2] Motivic thinking, the ars combinatoria, was evidently a major concern in Sibelius’s creative process. One of the most eloquent descriptions of this process is found in his diary entry of 10 April 1915, which refers to his Fifth Symphony: ‘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 from 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!’ (Tawaststjerna 1978: 55).
[3] ‘String counterpoint’, ‘ritornello’, and ‘main theme’ are labels given by Tawaststjerna (1972: 328–329) to the various ingredients of the opening section. In the English edition of his book (1986), the description ofThe Bard is somewhat shorter.
[4] In Tanzberger’s analysis, the ‘Seiten-Thema’ runs from bars 42 to 52, encompassing everything between rehearsal letters C and D (Tanzberger 1943: 48).
[5] The first of these variants consists in two fragments (bars 27–33 and 36–39), in the opposite order as compared to their original appearance. The second fragment (bars 59–68) is the most expansive form of the theme and belongs to the varied recapitulation of the Lento assai after the Poco stretto episode.


Abraham, Gerald (1952). Sibelius. A Symposium. London: Drummond.
Castrén, G. & Belfrage, S. (1938). ‘Kommentarer till dikter I–III, andra häftet,’ inn Samlade skrifter av Johan Ludvig Runeberg, G. Castrén and M. Lamm (eds.), Stockholm:
Collins, M. S. (1973). The Orchestral Music of Sibelius, diss. The University of Leeds.
Dahlhaus, Carl (1973). ‘Zur Problematik der musikalischen Gattungen im 19. Jahrhundert,’ in W. Arlt et al. (eds.), Gattungen der Musik in Einzeldarstellungen. Gedenkschrift Leo Schrade, Bern: Francke.
Howell, Timothy (1989). Jean Sibelius. Progressive Techniques in the Symphonies and Tone Poems. New York & London: Garland.
Murtomäki, Veijo (1990). ‘Sibeliuksen En Saga: Muodon ja ohjelmallisuuden ongelma,’ in K. Kurkela (ed.) SIC 3 (= Sibelius-Akatemian Vuosikirja).
Oramo, I. (1982). ‘Jean Sibeliuksen sävelruno Bardi,’ in Musiikki 12 (3), 171–193.
Tanzberger, E. (1943). Die symphonischen Dichtungen von Jean Sibelius. Würzburg: Triltsch.
– (1962). Jean Sibelius. Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Härtel.
Tawaststjerna, E. (1972). Jean Sibelius III. Helsinki: Otava.
– (1978). Jean Sibelius IV. Helsinki: Otava.
– (1986). Sibelius. Vol. 2. London: Faber & Faber.

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Proceedings from The First International Jean Sibelius Conference, Helsinki, August 1990, ed. Eero Tarasti. Helsinki: Sibelius Academy, Department of Composition and Music Theory, pp. 150–157. Updated in December, 2010.

About Ilkka Oramo

Professor of Music Theory, emeritus
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