COMPOSER: Jean Sibelius
BORN: December 8, 1865, Hämeenlinna, Finland
DIED: September 20, 1957, Järvenpää, Finland
WORLD PREMIERE: Helsinki, March 8, 1902
INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flues, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 trumpets, 4 horns, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, strings
ABOUT THE COMPOSER:
Sibelius wrote his first two symphonies while the Russian Empire was trying to take political, social, and linguistic control of Finland, which was an autonomous duchy under the control of the Tsar. Sibelius’s patriotic music, including Finlandia, played a role in the success of the Finnish resistance. Although he denied that his Second Symphony was one of these patriotic works, most of his fellow countrymen – the musicians among them, at least – felt otherwise.
WHAT YOU’LL HEAR:
The first movement is a cheerful sonata-allegro form, lushly orchestrated. The woodwinds play the first theme, a jaunty dance, answered by lush chords in the horns. The strings make a passionate outcry, then build in rising pizzicato to the second theme, a high, sustained note in the woodwinds that ends with oscillating eighth notes and a downward leap. The development section begins with it in the solo oboe, followed by a struggle for it to survive among jagged leaps in the other winds and restless burbling in the strings. A brass chorale makes the transition to the recapitulation, which is rather free, with new orchestrations and some re-ordering, but all are still recognizable and the movement ends with the calm chords of the opening.
It is difficult to hear the minor-key Andante movement as anything other than a roman à clef: a programmatic piece with an undisclosed program. A mysterious pizzicato in the basses leads to a troubled melody in the bassoons; quiet sections alternate with frantic scrambling and crisis-points interspersed with silences, brass chords, and a hint of Finlandia. The main melodies were drawn from works Sibelius began and then abandoned: the bassoon melody was for a tone poem, the subject of Don Juan, and a major-key melody that comes after a long grand pause, and later returns in minor, was labeled “Christus” in Sibelius’s sketches. We will never know what meaning, if any, they had for him in this work.
The third movement, in Bb major, is marked vivacissimo: “as fast as you can go.” The strings scrabble and scratch in twisty eighth-note figures while the woodwinds play slower, sinuous melodies above them. The contrasting section – this is a scherzo and trio in the Beethoven tradition — is truly startling: a much slower tempo, an unrelated key, and a lovely, cantabile melody that vanishes all too quickly as the mad scramble of the scherzo returns. An unexpected reprise of the trio functions as a lead-in to the last movement and is marked “attacca.”
The fourth movement is a sonata-allegro form in which a triumphant D-major do-re-mi theme (closely related to the mi-fa-sol theme that opened the first movement), punctuated by a trumpet fanfare, overcomes a D-minor second theme. But this is not a Beethovenian triumph of light over darkness: the second theme is a charming folk tune in the woodwinds, floating over wave-like ripples in the cellos, that is also interrupted by the trumpets, this time with a somewhat threatening martial tattoo. All three themes compete and overlap in the development, but gradually come together in the recapitulation where, unlike the first movement, they appear in their proper order. The D-minor second theme metamorphoses into major, helped by the trumpets, and the piece ends with a tremendous D major chord.