Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39 (1899/1900)

Composed: 1899–1900
Length: c. 40 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (both = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, triangle), harp, and strings

Actually, Sibelius’s first symphony is Kullervo, Op. 7 (Kalevala, 1892)—‘Symphony for Mezzo-soprano, Baritone, Male Voice Choir, and Orchestra’—that he started to write while studying in Vienna in 1891. Although its premiere in Helsinki was a triumph, Sibelius, being aware of its technical shortcomings, withdraw the work after a few repeats and did not allow any further performances during his lifetime. Today it has become a repertory piece with more than a dozen recordings.

In the early 1890s Sibelius experienced what can be called a ‘Wagner crisis.’ Having a plan for an opera (‘The Building of the Boat’ from the Kalevala) in mind, he undertook a voyage to Bayreuth and Munich to see Wagner’s operas in the summer of 1894. He was overwhelmed by the greatness of Tristan and Parsifal and came to the conclusion that perhaps he ought to give up composing altogether and take a job in a factory, as he wrote to his fiancée Aino Järnefelt. The opera plan was not realized. An overture, from 1893, originally conceived for the opera, then became part of the Lemminkäinen Suite, Op. 22 (‘The Swan of Tuonela’).

After having somewhat recovered from the hypnotic influence of Wagner, Sibelius wrote to his bride filled with new optimism: ‘I have found my old self again, musically speaking. Many things are now clear to me: really I am a tone painter and poet. Liszt’s view of music is the one to which I am closest. Hence my interest in the symphonic poem.’

The musical world was divided between supporters of the absolute music that was Beethoven’s legacy and those who believed that the future of music lies in Wagner’s musical drama and Liszt’s symphonic poem, in which literary and musical traditions united. Thus it was logical that Sibelius, after having renounced his opera plans, turned to the symphonic poem and wrote, in 1895–97, the Lemminkäinen Suite (the first version of which was entitled “Symphonic Poems to Motifs from the Lemminkäinen Myth”). But it is revealing that the Lemminkäinen Suite consists of four works relating to each other as the four movements of a symphony. Although identifying ‘a tone painter and poet’ in himself, Sibelius was (maybe subconsciously) heading towards the symphony.

The time of the symphony came in 1898–99. Late in his life, Sibelius explained to his German biographer Ernst Tanzberger the difference between his symphonies and symphonic poems as follows: ‘My symphonies have always been purely musical, when it comes to their birth and conception. When I am composing “symphonic poems,” things are of course completely different.’ In reality, there was in Sibelius’s world an ever-ongoing dialogue between these two generic principles; the dialectic relationship between symphony and symphonic poem was gradually evolving towards a synthesis.

The First Symphony is in four movements that are in ‘normal’ order. Sibelius now fully accepted the legacy of Beethoven and Bruckner, the two masters under whose the spell he had been a decade earlier in Vienna, but there is also a lot of Tchaikovsky (‘There is much in that man that I recognize in myself’) and touch of Borodin in it, and the Finale makes a concession to the Lisztian tradition by its subtitle ‘Quasi una fantasia.’

The first movement has a slow introduction (Andante, ma non troppo) in which a solo clarinet, supported by timpani alone, intones a quiet melody reminiscent of an ancient incantation. This extraordinary opening of a symphony also has a structural function beyond itself: it contains the seeds of the most important themes of the work and returns forte on the strings over a brass support at the beginning of the Finale. The following Allegro energico is a sonata movement. The second movement (Andante, ma non troppo lento) begins as a lullaby on muted strings and returns, after dramatic developments, to the same melody at the end. The third movement (Allegro) is a hammering Brucknerian scherzo with a contrasting trio section in which the horns and flutes evoke a Romantic forest scene. The Finale (Quasi una fantasia) has an introduction that shows the opening of the first movement in another light, and after that two themes are put against each other, one aggressive (allegro molto) and the other elegiac and festive (andante assai), a valediction to the 19th century, as it were.

Published in LAPHIL PRESENTS, October 2007, p. 63

About Ilkka Oramo

Professor of Music Theory, emeritus
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