Symphony No. 5 in Eb Major, op. 82

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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 gasp, Sibelius was nevertheless deemed a champion by 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, Koussevitzky, 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, Schoenberg, 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, and his seven symphonies enjoy renewed respect.

          The fifth symphony was composed at a particularly crucial time in his creative life; his previous symphony had in his mind pushed the limits of modernity, and its dark and somewhat abstruse nature are evidence of his intent to create a progressive style of increased dissonance, innovative structure, and dense motivic textures.  It was a failure at the time.  The long and the short of it was, the important audiences and critics of Germany and France found it severely lacking in comparison with the far-reaching new compositions of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Richard Strauss, among others.  He had thought of himself as a leader in continuing to push traditional mainstream European composition gradually into the future, only to find out that complete revolution in style was far more popular and intellectually respectable.

          So, his fifth symphony represents somewhat of a deep breath, and a resolve to find his own way, which, of course, he did.  Finished in 1915 for the concerts given in celebration of his fiftieth birthday, it was immediately revised the next year, and even more so in 1919 (the latter version now being more or less standard).  It has four movements, but the first two are literally composed into each other, so they are heard as one.  Too much (largely inconclusive) musicological ink has been spilt trying to analyze the form of these one/two movements, so don’t try.  Rather, hear it as one long continuous movement that evolves gradually in a weft of ideas (don’t listen for too many “singable” themes) derived from the initial horn calls and others in the rippling woodwinds.  One can hear some folk-like elements as we go along, but the big thing is to listen for the masterly way that Sibelius manages a long and almost seamless (and difficult to pull off) transition into the second half (second movement?) scherzo-like conclusion.  You can spot the beginning of this final section by the trumpet solo that marks it.  Again, the novelty is the sneaky way that Sibelius challenges us to figure out whether this movement is two things run together, or one thing in a complex, innovative form.

          The second movement is traditional in that after the faster, dance-like section, there follows the expected slow contrast, but as occasionally with Brahms, Sibelius doesn’t make it too slow, so it’s rather a kind of intermezzo.  Here it takes the form of a set of variations—don’t expect to be able to discern each variation easily, but Sibelius does weave a texture that is always based upon the little five-note figure first heard tweeting in the flutes.  In the best Sibelian tradition, the last movement provides welcome clarity and uplift.   Those who appreciate his ever-popular second symphony, wherein one waits for the “big” glorious tune to finally appear in the last movement, will experience the same here.  Sibelius, if nothing, was a sensitive enthusiast of the flora and fauna of his beloved Finnish landscape—particularly the native waterfowl.   Tales about them, and his musical depiction of them, are a common element in his work, and in this last movement we heard the famous “swan” theme.  It splendidly evokes the migrating swans that appeared over his rural home, “Ainola,” deep in the Finnish woods.  After an initial flurry in the strings, the majestic swan theme rises out of the horn section.  Another ingratiating theme appears, and after some development, the movement and the symphony close on a rising tide of happy sound, the swans to the fore.  Six dynamic exclamatory chords end the work.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© William E. Runyan