Performance Friday, March 2, 2012 | 8 PM

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
In his native Finland, Sibelius is a cultural icon; worldwide, music lovers recognize him as among a handful of great 20th-century symphonists. His single-movement Seventh Symphony is a breathtaking work of vast musical vistas, and you can hear it with Lorin Maazel and the storied Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Also on the program: Sibelius’s First Symphony, with its echoes of Tchaikovsky, and the distinctively uplifting, grandly heroic Fifth.
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The Program

Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Op. 105

Reactionary or Prophet?

Sibelius’s contribution to our musical culture has always been hard to assess. His oeuvre, a unique amalgam of the old and the new, has inspired contradictory assessments by composers and critics. Virgil Thomson declared Sibelius to be “the opposite of an innovator. Whether good or bad, his music does not belong to our century’s concerns and worries … It represents the continuation of the 19th century in the midst of the 20th.” Yet in his 1934 Sibelius and the Music of the Future, composer Constant Lambert wrote that of “all contemporary music, that of Sibelius seems to point most surely to the future,” revealing a new “world of thought which is free from the paralyzing alternatives of escape or submission.”

Lambert turned out to be on the mark: As critic Alex Ross recently pointed out, numerous contemporary composers, from Kaija Saariaho to John Adams, have been “paying heed to Sibelius’s thematic deliquescence, his ever-evolving forms, his unearthly timbres.” Sibelius did not get to see this prophecy fulfilled; though he lived 33 years after completing his final symphony, it was not quite long enough. His loyalty to the tonal system and his lonely grandeur were never hip enough for the modern-music crowd, though his works were always popular with orchestras and the general public.

Less is Much More

Especially influential in contemporary music composition is Sibelius’s ability to build epic structures from tiny motifs, a technique that began with Beethoven but reached an apotheosis in Sibelius’s final symphony, the Seventh. In this single-movement symphony in C major—the most primal of keys—everything evolves from a few thematic scraps, building through what musicologists view as hidden fragments of traditional symphonic form (scherzo, slow movement, rondo) toward a final upward sweep. Seldom has so much been generated from so little.

Is it a Symphony?

The piece is so unlike a conventional symphony that Sibelius himself called it a “Symphonic Fantasy” at its 1924 Helsinki premiere. A year later, when the work was published, he decided it was a symphony after all, and dubbed it the Seventh. He struggled for years with a possible Eighth Symphony, much as he had labored over the Seventh, but the latter turned out to be his symphonic swan song. In frustration and something near despair, Sibelius burned the incomplete Eighth and only wrote one more work, the bleakly poetic tone poem Tapiola.

Sibelius at the Summit

After the Seventh, Sibelius felt isolated, out of fashion, burned out—his “prestige at rock-bottom,” as he put it. Yet the Seventh is a work of great confidence and affirmation. From the first quiet timpani rolls under misty scales—essentially the same opening as the First and Fifth symphonies on this program—the Seventh sounds like a summing up. The hymn-like motifs, shivering strings, ambiguous wind chords, and ephemeral dances—all growing organically from one another and coalescing during climaxes into a great trombone anthem— sound like procedures from earlier Sibelius symphonies but miraculously distilled.

At the end, a final dance dissipates into a serene coda, where the crystalline scoring enlarges and the chamber-like sections of the orchestra come together in a hymn that reaches for infinity—a sublime conclusion to Sibelius’s symphonies. No wonder he couldn’t write another one. In Lambert’s words, “The spiritual calm of this work is the climax of the spiritual experience of a lifetime.”

—Jack Sullivan

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation


Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 82

About the Music

Sibelius was working on his Fifth Symphony during the same period that he was launching the Seventh, and many of the Seventh’s innovations are anticipated in the earlier work. In the Fifth, there is no longer any question of formal and emotional originality. The musical discourse consists of a subjective, associative stream of thought which, far from a throwback to 19th-century structures, creates its own fluid sense of form. With its granitic loneliness and freedom, the Fifth is neither modern nor Romantic, but simply Sibelian.

Writing from Moods

The process of composing the Fifth was as unusual and complex as the symphony itself. Sibelius’s method was to begin with what he called “moods,” then progress to the shaping of ideas (“forging”), and finally to piece these together in ways often quite different from the initial conception. 

In this case, Sibelius successfully premiered the symphony in a celebration of his 50th birthday, then yanked the work out of circulation to make it “more earthbound, more vivid.” In 1916 (in another successful premiere), he performed the more condensed version (with the first two movements now fused into one), then during the Great War insisted on revising that version as well. By the time the final version was completed in 1919, the exultant ending—which Sibelius added almost as an afterthought—could be conveniently interpreted as a statement on the restoration of peace and the liberation of Finland.

Adventures in Form and Feeling

The first movement is unique in its evolution and structure. Originally written as two movements, it is a striking example of Sibelius’s “telescoping,” a method of continually condensing and intensifying material until it takes on stronger, more concise shapes and shadings. In the final version of the Fifth, Sibelius combined the first movement and scherzo: Three groups of themes are laid out, then repeated with greater urgency and developed. When the pastoral wind theme heard in the opening bars suddenly erupts in a majestic climax for full orchestra, we think a full-blown recapitulation is underway. Instead, the music begins gathering speed toward an exhilarating built-in scherzo based on fragments from the exposition.

The melancholy Andante, in simple variation form, is a much-needed contrast, but the Finale again presents the listener with an adventure in form and feeling. The movement opens with a windswept northern landscape of tremolo strings, then explodes into a heroic brass motif against a serene cantilena melody. These ideas broaden and build toward a point of almost unbearable tension, then suddenly thin out in a stark series of chords, a fusion of exaltation and understatement unique to Sibelius.

—Jack Sullivan



© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 39

A Final Flowering?

Sibelius’s First Symphony was premiered in Helsinki by the composer himself in 1899, the same year as Finlandia. The work is conventionally regarded as a talented but tradition-bound early work offering little evidence of Sibelius’s mature symphonic style. Lambert declared the symphony to be “the final flowering of the late-19th century … constructed for the most part on recognized lines.” Eugene Omandy, who recorded the symphony in 1932 (the first time, according to Ormandy, a Sibelius symphony was recorded outside Scandinavia), stated that the work was “still under the influence of Tchaikovsky … It is a healthy thing for a first symphony to recall the past, and Sibelius does so gloriously.”

Glimmers of Something New

That these views are more than a little oversimplified is suggested right away by a long, lonely clarinet solo accompanied by the barest timpani rolls—an introduction that could only have been written by Sibelius. Equally striking and individual is the withholding of any further mention of this bleak idea until the Finale, where it assumes tragic dimensions. To be sure, this work is full of youthful zest, more so than the other six symphonies, but its energies have a distinctly Sibelian way of suddenly dissipating into woodwind attenuations (as in the first statement of the big romantic tune in the Finale) or odd silences. 

Much of this epic symphony, in fact, is given over to a struggle between late–19th-century lyricism and the more nuanced musings that were to characterize Sibelius’s mature sensibility. This dramatic tension is surely more descriptive of the symphony than viewing it as simply as throwback to the previous century.

Remarkable Variety

The key to this work is its remarkable variety. Its E-minor tonality and the austere plucking that close the first and last movements give the symphony a dark frame, but the piece is full of mercurial shifts and shadings, sudden outbursts of joy and despair.

The orchestration, cast in Sibelius’s unmistakable northern mold, offers an array of colors and effects. The composer’s distinctively stormy strings, granitic brass choirs, and croaking tuba are apparent, but so are more delicate colors, including an exceptionally expressive use of the harp. In the intricate syncopations of the second theme of the first movement, the bardic plucking that introduces the two main tunes of the Andante, and the passionate glissandi rippling through the cantabile melody of the Finale, the harp becomes the most enchanting of Sibelius’s northern lights.

Scudding Clouds and Dying Light

Despite the profusion of memorable tunes, the coloristic aspects of the First Symphony have most inspired the prose of commentators. Composer Arthur Shepherd was reminded in the first movement of “scudding clouds in a wind-swept sky, with screaming gulls rudely tossed from their course.” For Paul Rosenfeld, the slow movement evoked “the pathos of brief, bland summers, or light that falls for a moment, gentle and mellow, and then dies away.” Sibelius’s admirers have always regarded him as a conjurer of elemental states, and this early work is no exception.

As for the Finale, it has so many divergent elements and moods unpredictably bolted together that it feels like a self-contained tone poem. Beginning with a wrenching string statement of the opening clarinet theme from the first movement, it unveils a free-form discourse that includes a series of recitatives, a mysterious repeating motif, a churning fugato, and a swelling cantabile for strings that is one of the lushest melodies Sibelius ever wrote. All of this concludes, like the opening movement, with two simple, mournful pizzicato notes.

—Jack Sullivan



© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

The Trustees of Carnegie Hall gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman in support of the 2011-2012 season.

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