Sibelius, Jean, SIBELIUS: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3 (Iceland Symphony Orchestra/ Petri Sakari) (Naxos: 8.554102),
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Symphony No. 1 in Eminor, Op. 39
Symphony No. 3 in Cmajor, Op. 52
The Finnish composerJean Sibelius was born in 1865, the son of a doctor, in a small town in thesouth of Finland. The language and culture of his family, as with others oftheir class and background at the time, was Swedish. It was at school thatSibelius was to learn Finnish and acquire his first real interest in the earlylegends of a country that had become an autonomous grand-duchy of the Tsar ofRussia in the period after the defeat of Charles XII of Sweden at Poltava in1709. Throughout the later nineteenth century there were divisions between theSwedish-speaking upper classes and the Finnish-speaking people, the cause ofthe latter embraced by influential nationalists, and accentuated by therepressive measures instituted by Tsar Nicholas II, before the revolution of1905. In this society Sibelius was deeply influenced by his association withthe family of General Jarnefelt, whose daughter Aino became his wife.
Nevertheless Swedish remained his mother tongue, in which he expressed himselfwith greater fluency than in Finnish.
The musical abilitiesof Sibelius were soon realised, although not developed early enough to suggestmusic as a possible profession, until he had entered university in Helsinki asa law student. His first ambition had been to be a violinist. It later becameapparent that any ability he had in this respect - and here his own violinconcerto would have offered insurmountable technical difficulties for him - wasfar outweighed by his gifts as a composer, developed first by study in Helsinkiwith Martin Wegelius, then with the pedantic Becker in Berlin and withGoldmark, and more effectively, with Robert Fuchs in Vienna.
In Finland once more,Sibelius won almost immediate success in 1892 with a symphonic poem, Kullervo,based on an episode from the Finnish epic, the Kalevala. Therefollowed compositions of particular national appeal that further enhanced hisreputation in Helsinki, including the incidental music to the student patrioticpageant Karelia, En Saga and the Lemminkainen Suite.
During this periodSibelius supported himself and his wife by teaching, as well as by compositionand the performance of his works, but it proved difficult for him to earnenough, given, as he was, to bouts of extravagance, continuing the practice ofhis days as a student. In 1896 he was voted the position of professor at theUniversity of Helsinki, but the committee's decision was overturned in favour ofRobert Kajanus, the experienced founder and conductor of the first professionalorchestra in Helsinki. As consolation for his disappointment, Sibelius wasawarded a government stipend for ten years, and this was later changed into apension for life. The sum involved was never enough to meet his gift forimprovidence, inherited, perhaps, from his father, who, at his death in 1868,had left his family bankrupt.
Sibelius continued hisactive career as a composer until 1926, his fame increasing at home and abroad.
The successful First Symphony of 1898 was followed by the still moresuccessful Finlandia. Busoni had tried to arrange the publication of hismusic by the benefactor of later Russian musical nationalism, Belyayev, on theplea that Finns were, in a sense, Russians, or at least citizens of a Russiangrand-duchy. This came to nothing, but publication by Breitkopf and Hartelensured a wider public abroad than provincial Finland could ever have offered.
The SecondSymphony, in 1902, won an unprecedented success in Helsinki. This wasfollowed by the Violin Concerto, a Third Symphony and, after anillness that put an end for the moment to any indulgence in alcohol andtobacco, a Fourth, with travel to the major musical centres of Europeand international honour. The Fifth Symphony was written during the war,after which Sibelius wrote only four more works of any substance, the Sixth andSeventh Symphonies, incidental music for Shakespeare's The Tempest and,in 1926, the symphonic poem Tapiola. An Eighth Symphony wascompleted in 1929, but destroyed. The rest was silence. For the last 25 yearsof his life Sibelius wrote nothing, now isolated from and largely antipatheticto contemporary trends in music. His reputation in Britain and America remainedhigh, although there were inevitable reactions to the excessive enthusiasm ofhis supporters. On the continent of Europe he failed to recapture the positionthat he had earlier known in pre-war Germany, in France and in Vienna. He diedin 1957 at the age of 91.
Sibelius completed hisSymphony No. 1 in E minor, Opus 39, in 1898 and it received its firstperformance in April the following year under the direction of the composer ina concert that also included his new Song of the Athenians, a work thatused a text by Viktor Rydberg and was seen as an immediate response to theRussianising policies of the Governor-General Bobrikov, who was laterassassinated by a Finnish patriot. The choral work and the symphony werewelcomed with equal warmth, although critics at once sought a possibleprogramme for the second of these, seeing it as a sequel to earlier orchestralworks of overt national programmatic content.
The first movement ofthe symphony starts with a long-drawn clarinet melody, over the sound of thetimpani. After this the strings enter, suggesting first the tonality of G majorrather than E minor. The introduction contains the seed of what follows in thetripartite Allegro, with its two subjects, the gentler second related tothe first. There is a central development and recapitulation, although thegreat sweep of the music may conceal the underlying structure. The poetic andstrongly felt Andante is again closely interwoven in its material, witha central contrapuntal episode for bassoons for which Sibelius claimed astrongly Finnish character, and a return of its intensely romantic first theme.
The Scherzo bursts upon the listener, its opening rhythm repeated withvehemence by the timpani. To this the central trio offers a tranquil contrast.
Influenced, perhaps, by the Symphonie pathetique of Tchaikovsky that hehad heard in Helsinki two years before, Sibelius uses the clarinet melody ofthe opening of the symphony to start the last movement, now entrusted to theviolins that impart to it a greater degree of poignant yearning, a feeling thatfinally prevails, before the resignation of the last chords.
In 1905 Sibeliusvisited England for the first time, at the invitation of Granville Bantock,through whose agency, and that of Henry Wood and others, his music had begun tocreate a very favourable impression both in the provinces and in London. Thecomposer was, in turn, favourably impressed by the English and the practicalresult of his brief stay was a commission from the Royal Philharmonic Societyfor anew symphony, his third, to be performed under his direction early in1907. In the event the work was delayed and was performed for the first time inHelsinki in September in a programme that included the symphonic fantasia Pohjola'sDaughter, music of more obvious contemporary appeal. It was introduced tothe St Petersburg public in November, when its first two movements, at least,pleased Rimsky-Korsakov, who commented on its difference from Russian music,although he added that the apparent originality might be simply superficial.
Glazunov had taken exception to the closing material, the sinister hushed andrelatively discordant scale in contrary