Symphony No. 2 in D Major, op. 43

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          The compositions of Jean Sibelius constitute a case study in the capriciousness of musical taste and the power of the artistic avant-garde.  Pigeonholed by many as primarily a Finnish nationalist, whose dark, remote music was a shallow representative of Romanticism’s last gasps, Sibelius was nevertheless deemed the champion of American and British conservative musical tastes between the world wars.   Typical was Olin Downes, music critic of the Times, whose relentless public support of Sibelius bordered on sycophancy. Likewise, Koussevitsky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, programmed a cycle of Sibelius’s symphonies, and dogged the composer to finish the eighth—which he never did.   But, those who favored the avant-garde of Stravinsky, Schönberg, and company—and that included most of continental Europe, and American intellectuals—were scathing in their contempt.  One respected and well-known critic entitled an essay about Sibelius,  “The Worst Composer in the World.”   These controversies, and Sibelius’s life-long struggle with alcoholism and depression no doubt played a signal part in his composing nothing of significance from the nineteen thirties until his death in 1957 at the age of 91.

          But tastes change, and the current crop of composers and scholars now take a more balanced view of Sibelius’s compositions.   His seven symphonies enjoy renewed respect, although the ever-popular second symphony has long been a repertory standard, and--other than the evergreen Finlandia—is his most popular work.   It is not incorrect, of course, to recognize the deeply informing rôle of nationalist Finnish elements in his music style.  He consciously and assiduously studied and absorbed the musical and literary heritage of the Finnish culture and adroitly folded them into a unique personal style.  He was completely taken by the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, and early on his musical style reflected these cultural elements, from his melodic choices to the stories behind his tone poems.   His symphonies are large soundscapes that surge and ebb, whose melodies often appear first as small kernels of a few notes whose significance is easily overlooked.  But, as the music unfolds and these bits of melody appear in a kaleidoscope of identities, they meld together into great torrents of themes.  Sibelius was a master of orchestration, and most listeners easily accept the inevitable comparisons to the bleak, cold, primæval landscapes of Finland.

         Finland for centuries had been under Swedish hegemony, and then in the nineteenth century under Russian control.  Many still remember Finland’s heroic stand against the Soviets early in WWII (although their later coöperation with the Nazis troubled some).  Sibelius’s second symphony depicts, indeed, a defiant and bold stand for Finnish independence during its struggles with Russia around the turn of the twentieth century.   Composed in 1902, the symphony is usually understood as a gesture of defiance in the face of the Tsar, although the composer never suggested this view.  The first movement opens quietly in a fashion typical of the composer’s style—no big tunes to hear and remember, but, as alluded above, just some little fragments that gradually assemble themselves.  Then the process reverses itself, and the bits close the movement peacefully.   The second movement is a slow sonata form that begins with a remarkable pizzicato section in the cellos and double basses, followed by a somewhat sinister theme in the bassoons. In a fashion traditional from Mozart on we next hear a lyrical contrasting theme in the strings.  Most symphonies use a brisk dance form for third movements.  Here Sibelius begins with energetic string figurations that soon are followed in the middle sections by a pastoral oboe solo.  Then, as usual in these matters, the string section returns.   This movement is blended right into the beginning of the famous last movement, one almost universally loved—well, at least known—by music lovers everywhere.   Clear themes prevail, the most familiar one being the ascending three note stepwise motif.  The movement closes heroically with a huge statement of this melody, with the complete brass section taking the lead.  The careful listener will note that this little theme has appeared in many guises throughout the whole work.   This is typical of Sibelius’s craftsmanship and integrated approach to composition.   In many ways this glorious finale affords the composer the last laugh over his “sophisticated” detractors.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan