The Seven Voyages of Sibelius: An Appreciation of His Symphonic Cycle

About a hundred years ago, when symphony orchestras still drew large—and young!—audiences, Sibelius’ music featured on many programs, particularly his series of romantic-modernist symphonies. Not since Beethoven and Brahms was a composer’s voice so naturally attuned to symphonic thought, yet without making the listener feel the heavy lifting of contrapuntal development and sonata form. Like his contemporary, Gustav Mahler, Sibelius began with both feet planted firmly in the late Romantic period, yet with each symphony, he ventured further afield into the thickets of Modernism—on his own terms. Sadly, though his music is still often played by orchestras around the world, the average listener knows little of his music beyond orchestral hits like Finlandia, Valse Triste, or an excerpt from a longer suite, The Swan of Tuonela. His symphonies are often seen as derivative of Brahms or Tchaikovsky by some, while others find them too thorny or difficult (particularly the later ones). Many people would much prefer to hear something more familiar and toothsome and call it a night. 

The truth lies somewhere in the middle: Sibelius wrote music that is at once memorable and tuneful, yet always explores new ideas while constantly rethinking his approach to writing music. For this reason, he never wrote the same symphony twice, at times following his music into dark forests which even he found too forbidding to explore twice. Perhaps this is why his final symphony, the Eighth, was burned in a fit of despair, even after promising the first performances to numerous conductors. Some artists can never find the ‘skeleton key’ that unlocks each new work, and have to ceaselessly reinvent the wheel—or in this case, remake both key and door—to get inside. Perhaps there’s something about the symphony itself that encourages this approach, as it never really took shape until numerous composers—Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven—spent decades in busy experimentation. What we call the symphony is largely the result of Beethoven’s “improvements,” giving it the expected four movements: an Introduction/Development, a slow movement, a scherzo (fast, humorous, quirky movement), and the finale, which brings the work to an acceptable, and often profound, conclusion. Yet we even see Beethoven puzzling over his invention, such as in the Fifth Symphony, when the third movement seems more of an introduction for the finale, and in the Sixth symphony, where a fanciful program about nature trumps accepted form.

The same is true for Sibelius, who after writing two four-movement symphonies, experimented with a three-movement work, went back to four (in his oddest symphony), then revised another four-movement into three, wrote another four movement work (still odd), and with the ultimate snub to tradition, wrote a one-movement symphony that concluded in a mere twenty minutes. Of course, form ultimately says little about the work itself, but it reveals the composer’s ceaseless question, “how can I make this symphony speak? What is its essential contours, its shape, and its character?” Not every musical idea fits neatly inside a four-movement structure, while some ideas, admittedly, aren’t symphonies at all. Sibelius struggled with this while composing his last symphony, at one point tossing up his hands and calling it Fantasia Sinfonico No. 1 (would that there had been a No.2!). His lost Eighth Symphony might have been stranger still, but perhaps frustrated with his inability to reconcile his imagination with accepted theory, he destroyed the entire work. Luckily, he still left us the canon of seven imperishable symphonies, that despite the vicissitudes of time and taste, remain cornerstones of the orchestral repertoire and some of the greatest masterpieces in the Western musical tradition. What follows his a brief appreciation for each work, both as a unique composition and one piece in the vast tapestry of Sibelius’ thought.

For those new to Sibelius, I suggest listening to them in this order: 2, 5, 1, 6, 7, 3, 4. Four great versions of the entire cycle include two mid-priced sets by Kurt Sanderling with the Berlin SO (an $8.99 download) and Osmo Vanska with the Lahti SO ($7.99), as well as Colin Davis’ Live LSO cycle (about $20) and Leif Segerstam’s Danish SO series ($9.99). Sanderling and Segerstam represent a more old-school approach, stressing the rich, Romantic Sibelius. Vanska, on the other hand, prefers a more Modernist Sibelius, and tries to tone down the Romantic rhetoric, often speeding up passages considerably to view them from another angle. Davis lies somewhere in the middle—usually more fierce and clinical than Romantic, but still not afraid to emote. You can also find great single disc collections of the symphonies cheaply, notably the Petri Sakari series with the Iceland SO on Naxos (which you can download individually for $5.99 on Google Play, or a few bucks more on Amazon).

Symphony No.1 in E minor, Op.39 (1899)

The Schoenberg scholar Rene Leibowitz once called Sibelius the “worst composer in the world,” which is clearly the “worst” hyperbole in music criticism. Of course, this is a mere hatchet job against a composer who refused to become a textbook Modernist, yet whose works reached a larger audience and doggedly refused to retire. Chief among his “sins” in his First Symphony, an out-and-out Romantic masterpiece in the shadow of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth, Brahms’ Third and Fourth, and any of Bruckner’s Symphonies (perhaps the Seventh, especially). Sibelius had difficulty approaching a symphony, and instead, slowly bided his time writing programmatic music—works for theater, suites, and symphonic poems. His semi-abortive attempt at writing a symphony occurred early with Kullvero, a massive five-movement work with chorus and soloists that he called a symphony, but later retracted. Of course, after Mahler’s Second and Eighth, it seems to assume the mantle just fine. However, as he didn’t call it a symphony, we’ll let it pass aside for now, though it’s a tremendous score in its own right.

As a warm-up for the First Symphony, Sibelius wrote a four-movement symphonic suite called the Lemminkainen Legends (The Swan of Tuonela is the second movement). This is almost a symphony in all but name, but after a few listens remains more episodic and piece-meal (though a work of genius throughout). The First Symphony is carved from the same material as the suite, and indeed, is clearly programmatic in some fashion: the rhythms, melodies, and pace of the work suggests some external source, to the point that you can almost see the choreography lurking in the background. The fourth movement, in particular, sounds like a ballet score along the lines of Swan Lake. While the symphony is somewhat derivative in form (four movements) this fourth movement is more in the form of an elaborate fantasia, and has puzzled critics, some of whom find it uninspired. Yet even in the previous movements, Sibelius is exploring new ground: note the opening of the symphony, when a lone clarinet intones an epic, lonesome solo with a backdrop of brooding timpani. This theme later opens the finale, though announced in full strings (and interestingly enough, opens his last orchestral work, Tapiola, though in an almost unrecognizable form). The first movement is a high-water mark for the late Romantic era: brilliant orchestration (including a deftly used harp, which he abandoned for decades afterwards), gushing melodies, and a constant sense of forward movement that reminds one of Beethoven.

The slow movement is arguably the highlight of the work, and is deeply programmatic: indeed, if divorced from the symphony it could almost be a symphonic poem. It opens with a sweetly melancholic tune, reminiscent of love music, until a stormy middle section intrudes, suggesting a hero rescuing his beloved from an isolated tower defended by all manner of furies. This movement, too, resembles a ballet with almost deliberate start-and-stop effects, as well as themes that seem to illustrate characters and scenes. The drama fades into a distant memory of the love theme before, quite abruptly, the “machine gun” rhythm of the scherzo intrudes. It’s a wonderfully modern twist on a Romantic symphony, slightly Brucknerian, but doesn’t sound like anything written in 1899. More conventional, perhaps, is the meltingly gorgeous trio that gives a respite to the hard-driven drama of the scherzo.

We then come to the finale, which intones the motto theme from the beginning with alarm—as if terrible events are about to unfold. It’s a wonderfully exciting movement, full of toe-tapping rhythms and breathtaking changes of tempo. The highlight of the movement is a new love theme that first emerges quietly, then is screamed out Tchiakovskian fashion by the entire orchestra. Slowly, the finale dies out, passion spent, and fades into the merest pizzicato. While many would dismiss this as a fledgling work, or a trivial throwback to the Romantics, it remains a powerful work of genius and one of the best first symphonies ever composed (fit to stand just a step behind those of Beethoven and Brahms—though maybe shoulder-to-shoulder with Mahler).

Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 43 (1901)

To most people who know Sibelius even tangentially, this is the Sibelius symphony. His one big hit, at once the quintessential Romantic symphony and a surprisingly modern one, it remains one of the greatest symphonies ever written. Why greatest? For three reasons: one, it marries traditional form with clever innovation; two, it abounds in themes and melodies that all seem to have purpose and work together; and three, it sounds familiar but like nothing composed before it. You couldn’t call this symphony “Tchiakovskian,” or “Brucknerian,” though at times it comes close to being “Brahmsian”—perhaps the key of D, like that composer’s Second Symphony. In that sense, there is something relaxed and pastoral about this symphony, which steps away from the sturm und drang of the First Symphony. Instead, we get a broad, cheerful opening theme with chirping winds and glowing horns. At first, the symphony sounds a bit neo-classical (ahead of its time, as usual), but it gradually relaxes into a more Romantic, driven mood. The first movement is a model of action and concision: everything seems built on what went previously, and the motto theme resurfaces again and again, as if by a hidden logic. It opens much as it began, and leaves you smiling and only dimly aware of how much has occurred in a mere 10 minutes.

The second movement is similar to that of the First Symphony, in that it seems to record a secret drama which we can only dimly make out through the musical mists. However, it’s an improvement on the earlier symphony in that it seems less episodic and more symphonic (thought-out). It opens with an almost sinister, or perhaps nocturnal, pizzicato motif, which introduces a gloomy bassoon solo. Everything unfolds from this rather Gothic opening, and the drama never slacks, though it goes through arresting peaks and valleys. The third movement is almost a mirror-image of that of the First, with another “machine gun” opening string motif, though this one is more fleet and less Brucknerian. It dashes along beautifully, before an arresting trio (signaled by a theme with a repeated one-note melody) intrudes.

However, instead of ending the movement and writing the traditional finale with a slow introduction, Sibelius has the scherzo build to a towering climax which leads straight into the finale and its shattering main theme. The theme, which is impossible not to hum for the rest of the day, comes close to those of Beethoven’s Ninth and Brahms’ First, yet has more of a revolutionary character. As this symphony was composed amidst Finland’s struggle for independence against Russia, it’s not hard to get carried away and see this movement as a more symphonic “Finlandia.” The movement is jaw-droppingly brilliant, with all the orchestral fireworks you can imagine, including a rising and falling theme (first on low strings, later joined by winds) which provides the backdrop for another big theme, this one reaching a climax unparalleled in orchestral literature (though Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy comes close). Some critics have suggested that this movement’s journey to climax is less a musical and more an outright erotic experience, and it’s hard to disagree. Yet everything ends beautifully in a golden sunset of orchestral fire, and leaves no doubt that Sibelius had written one of the first masterpieces of the fledgling 20th century.

Symphony No.3 in C, Op.52 (1904)

No one expected Sibelius’ next move as a symphonist, which even today has many audience-goers scratching their heads. Having written two gloriously attractive Romantic symphonies, Sibelius no longer had anything to say in that idiom. A new century with new ideas emerged, and like any serious musician, he listened intently. While he rejected some of the more severe musical developments that would lead to Serialism and Atonality, he found much in common with figures like Busoni who championed “New Classicism” and its return to the music of the past. At this time, much early music (pre-Bach) attracted the interest of scholars, and composers realized that their musical legacy stretched all the way back to figures like Palestrina and Machaut. Like Sibelius, Stravinsky followed his own branch of this movement, moving from the shock value of The Rite of Spring to the seemingly naive—though cleverly spiced—tunes of Pulcinella, an arrangement of Italian Baroque tunes for a neoclassical ballet. However, this ballet and Stravinsky’s style change didn’t occur until 1920—a point when Sibelius had almost retired from composition. Even Prokofiev didn’t write his throwback Classical Symphony (No.1) until 1916. So what was Sibelius thinking, writing an emotionally cool, yet richly orchestrated symphony in three movements, none of which seemed to “do” anything but explore new musical realms?

The first movement opens with a jolly, bouncing theme in the cellos and basses, behind which the other strings and winds emerge like the sunlight through a cloudbank. This movement has a deeply pastoral character, much more so than the Second, and at times seems to simply record the landscape of a bracing day in the country. After the sunny opening, however, a darker theme emerges, which the orchestra explores at some length. The theme sounds philosophical, almost like a man or woman wrestling with his/her mortality in the isolation of the mountains. A later, dramatic moment with pounding drums and shrieking woodwinds surrounding a broad, heroic theme suggests a crisis has been reached—or surmounted. After this the movement returns to the slow, nocturnal silence of a countryside untainted by human contact. The effect of this movement, and indeed, the entire symphony, is one of clarity and purity. It just sounds “clean” for lack of a better word.

The second movement is nothing short of magical: perhaps his greatest slow movement in that it is slow without being at all Romantic. It opens with a wistful, charming theme on flute, which becomes the true song of the movement, bolstered by gentle pizzicato. Interpretation of this movement fosters some controversy among Sibelius conductors: an earlier age took this movement at a good clip, making it sound less like a slow movement than a kind of Intermezzo. The music supports this, and as long as it’s not too fast, it still sounds oddly mysterious. More recent scholarship suggests it should be taken much slower—indeed, almost glacially slow, so that the theme creates more of a mood than a melody. Whereas Kurt Sanderling in his great performance takes eight and a half minutes, Osmo Vanska takes about twelve! The difference is telling, as it changes the feeling of the entire movement from sunny, yearning optimism to an almost brooding, nostalgic longing. However you hear it, there’s something mystic about the spareness of the melody and Sibelius’ scoring. This is truly 20th century music that owes little to what came before. It remains one of my favorite pieces by Sibelius, somewhat akin to Valse Triste in character, but more searching and memorable.

The finale is a strange amalgam of finale and scherzo, with shifting moods and a more wide-eyed approach to the music. It resembles (mostly) a sunnier version of the first movement, though as the movement progresses it gets increasingly dramatic, resembling the propulsive rhythms of Beethoven’s Eighth symphony (esp. the finale). Yet the language remains distinctly Sibelian, which is a strange mixture of new and old; that is, the language is new but the sounds are “old,” as if straight from Middle Earth. This is the first of his symphonies to truly speak in his own language, without borrowing from the vocabulary of previous composers. Few concert-goers will appreciate such a subdued and eccentric masterpiece, but anyone who can close their eyes and simply explore the sounds will visit a very beautiful and exotic world.

Symphony No.4 in A minor, Op.63 (1910)

The most startling change in Sibelius’ symphonic language occurred not from 2 to 3, but from 3 to 4, though there are subtle signs that the same personality is behind each work. What startles listeners on first blush is the work’s intensity: it’s a bleak, almost pessimistic work, full of craggy vistas and desperate drop-offs. The work reflects Sibelius’ thoughts as he survived a bout of throat cancer and had to give up many staples of his earlier life. Clearly, the subject of this symphony is death and, in a sense, rebirth, though it’s hardly of Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration variety. That said, it’s an incredibly beautiful work, with haunting melodies and spare, yet original orchestration. In some ways, this work is a spiritual godfather to many of Shostakovich’s later symphonies, notably Nos. 5, 6, and 8, though I doubt he would acknowledge or appreciate the comparison. In four movements, the work adopts some traditional hallmarks of the symphony, but never sounds orthodox in a single movement. Each chapter of this troubled work is a completely novel experience—all the more so in 1910—that continues to speak with a bracing ‘modern’ voice. For Sibelius, this is his Rite of Spring, a high-water mark in his music that definitively set him on the path toward the Seventh Symphony and Tapiola.

The opening is unlike anything else in music until that time (only the opening of The Rite of Spring or La Mer is comparable). A bleak, almost dismal theme that fades into a dejected cello solo, which for all its despair is quite lovely. It seems like a true cry from the depths, from a soul that has been beaten down past repair. Gradually, the orchestra takes up this cry, and we get a moment of hollow catharsis. The momentum is shattered by a rising horn theme with hammering timpani that silences the world like an eclipse. The rest of this movement is resigned, often seeking and finding small moments of beauty, though these are quickly blown aside by the winds of ‘fate.’ I always imagine someone sifting through the ruins of a once-great city, its towers shrouded in smoke and fog; something important is here, just impossible to find, and yet the searcher goes on searching, in the dim hopes that he will uncover its secret.

The second movement is a slow, yet mysterious scherzo; it has a playful character, yet one with more than a hint of menace. At first listen this might sound meandering, as if Sibelius is merely doodling musical notes. Yet everything is tightly argued, and themes emerge through the mist, again suggesting a seeker in quest of answers. A question mark seems to hang over each movement, always ending inconclusively, even when hope seems to glide within reach. Ironically, this movement is full of almost Mendelssohnian wind-writing, suggesting a world of fairies without humans to play tricks on. The final few minutes of this piece becomes more sinister, with muttering basses and troubled strings. It’s all a precursor for the emotionally shattering third movement.

The third movement opens with a tentative theme, like a child hesitantly asking a question of an enraged parent. As confidence grows, the theme assumes greater prominence, its pleas becoming more and more desperate—and beautiful. After a brief climax, the cellos introduce the main theme, one of tragic nobility and resignation. This reaches a harrowing climax where death seems to win, to block out all thought of hope or redemption. But the music isn’t over, and there’s still the finale to contend with. The finale is by far the oddest moment, a mercurial piece which is impossible to nail down. Is it almost jolly? Or is it gallows’ humor? However you hear it, the piece reminds me of a postapocalytpic Mendelssohn, with chirping winds and dancing strings, as well the tinkling of a glockenspiel (though some use tubular bells). It manages to be both eerie and charming at the same time, and suggests that life continues, in some form, long after death (or what seems like death). The ending is particularly cryptic: the music slows to a crawl with some very otherworldly wind writing, a descending string figure, and blasts of brass (it has a bit in common with the second movement of Nielsen’s Sixth Symphony—another macabre joke). Then a questioning flute asks questions to the strings, which reply in hushed tones before drawing out a final, fateful whisper.

Symphony No.5 in E-flat, Op.82 (1915/1919)

Though each symphony has its individual glories, if pressed, most music lovers would count the Fifth as Sibelius’ greatest symphony (and so would I). With the last two, Sibelius seems to turn his back on popular acclaim and any audience he had built up since his early tone poems. Here, there’s more an attempt at a reconciliation; he seems to be asking himself, “how can I write in a universal language without compromising my own language and style?” You can hear the bleakness of the Fourth in patches, as well as the playfulness and mystery of the Third. Yet what also comes through is the sheer melody and boundless optimism of the First and Second. However, unlike any of these symphonies is the Fifth’s power: it strides forth with boundless energy like a force of nature. In the gloomy days of WWI and a sense of global despair, Sibelius rallied forth, offering his most ‘masculine’ music to date. The sheer elan of this piece mirrors what his contemporary, the Danish Carl Nielsen, was writing at the exact same time (1916) in his Symphony No.4, “The Inextingusihable.” However, while Nielsen plumbs darker depths in his journey to victory, Sibelius remains among the clouds, diving beneath them only once or twice to survey the craggy landscape. But most of this music, including the strident first movement, is that of an eagle ascending the heavens.

The first movement opens with a famous theme which sounds like an invocation. The music goes from strength to strength, moments of fear and doubt swept aside by heroic determination. What is most startling about this movement is its beauty; everything sings, everything proclaims itself as music, and not just mood or mystery. After the Second, this is a return to the healthy, folk-inspired sources of the Kalevala or perhaps simply the natural landscape of Finland itself. It seems to exhale fresh air and speak in the old tongue—but with a decidedly modern accent. Perhaps the movement’s most unique quality is that it seems dramatic without a lot going on; much of it has a pastoral character, yet it’s in constant motion, and the dark clouds never mask the sun for long.

The second movement is a deceptively simple theme and variations on a charming theme, not unlike that used in the slow movement of the Third Symphony (and both symphonies are in three movements). It also employs a pizzicato backdrop and seems to breathe the simpler air of forgotten times. The movement gets slightly agitated toward the middle, as dark thoughts intrude, bur racing strings quickly carry us out of harm’s reach. At the very end, a more questioning theme is taken up by the orchestra, as if to suggest that something much larger and forbidding lies ahead. Yet the main theme returns in the strings, soothing our troubled spirits as an oboe sings us to sleep.

The finale is the true show-stopper here, opening with racing strings in the most manic footrace imaginable. It’s Mendelssohnian scherzo music but much less effete (which I mean as no disrespect to the German composer), with relentless, almost maniacal energy. A minute into the piece the tuba theme emerges, which Sibelius called the “swan theme,” after seeing the flight of swans near his house. It’s probably the single most gorgeous inspiration of the composer’s life. Instantly memorable, it resounds like a waterfall tumbling from the heights. Flutes join in, and basses rumble triumphantly in the background to celebrate its arrival. Yet we’re only two minutes into the movement—it can’t be over yet!

And so the scherzo-ish music returns, becoming more hushed and mysterious. He draws this out for some time, increasing the drama, the anxiety, until the swan theme returns on a flute, yet very gently, as if scared to awake sleeping passions. Ah, too late—the strings take up a secondary theme en masse, and the orchestral slows to a crawl: time stops, and only the theme remains, slipping into a minor key, as if brooding on a forgotten sorrow. We suddenly find ourselves in a world resembling the slow movement of the Fourth Symphony. Yet before it can become too oppressive, the swan theme returns in its happier guise, as if tolling us back to life. It becomes darker—all sense of hope more distant—but the strings rouse themselves for a final assay. A terrible struggle ensues, as if the music is going to be swallowed up in a vast abyss. Yet the brass shine through, becoming increasingly triumphant in their yelps. The timpani pound home the victory, and then—silence. Several repeated notes by the orchestra sound, each one a possible ending to the symphony, before it crashes together in a final resolution. A strange ending to a symphony, leaving us to wonder what kind of victory it actually was...

I should mention that this symphony gave Sibelius no end of trouble, as he originally composed a four-movement version which sounded a lot less sure of itself. Indeed, it seemed like an attempt to crawl up from the grave of the Fourth Symphony, but without the unbounded optimism of the first movement. He spent years retooling it into a three-movement version, and hearing them side by side, the final version is an amazing testament to his powers of revision as much as composition. He left a lot on the cutting-room floor, and the symphony went from a powerful, ambiguous statement to an immortal work of art. “Worst composer in the world” indeed!

Symphony No.6 in D minor, Op. 104 (1923)

For most orchestra-goers, this is still Sibelius’ least-known symphony, and for some, his least-loved (along with the Third and Fourth). Why, I simply can’t imagine. For me, this ranks with my very favorite, wrestling with the 2nd and 5th for the honor. Moving away from the epic utterance of the Fifth, Sibelius sought to simply write music again: direct, passionate, and invigorating. To this end, he simplified his musical language once more, but also looked backward, incorporating a softer, more ‘Romantic’ tone in the melodies and the orchestration (which includes a harp for the first time since the First). It’s one of his shortest symphonies—next to the Seventh—but never seems to lack incident or insight. It’s a deep work, full of almost Eastern wisdom that seems bottomless: you can listen to this work a hundred times and catch something new, all the more so when you hear new interpretations of it. This work almost seems conductor proof, as I’ve never heard a bad version of it; it always ‘sounds’ in anyone’s hands, but at the same time, different conductors pull out different moods and experiences from the same notes. Perhaps like Nature itself, it peers into you as you peer into it; what you see reflects who you are and what you feel. This is as true for the conductor as for the listener.

The first movement opens with a gentle, bittersweet theme all in the strings. Indeed, this is a string-heavy work, often in dialogue with the winds; brass and drums are reserved for the odd moment, yet they make telling additions to the argument. How anyone could ignore—or be indifferent to—the beauties of the first movement defies the imagination (though Rene Leibowitz probably managed it). It’s all delicacy and charm, yet utterly without artifice; nothing sounds composed or contrived, like an old fairy tale that you don’t remember hearing for the first time. The music, like the story, has always been there, part of the natural fabric of the universe. Perhaps this sense of ‘naturalness’ prompted some critics to call the work uneventful, non-dramatic, or even insufficiently symphonic. They’re trying too hard: just listen and the music makes sense.

The second movement is more of the same, with a slight scherzo-ish character combined with a slow movement. Yet there’s no romantic sentiment here, just ease and charm. The same is true for the third movement, another scherzo with high spirits and more than a shade of mystery. This movement, more than the rest, reminds me of the incidental music Sibelius wrote for Shakespeare’s The Tempest in 1925. I almost wonder if a few aborted sketches for this symphony wound up in the music. Either way, this is music that sounds like late Shakespeare, full of beauty, wonder, and mortality. And music, of course; The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s most musical plays, full of dances and songs, and perhaps writing the Sixth Symphony was a prelude to tackling this daunting play.

The fourth movement goes a step beyond the previous three: opening with a quiet, reflective theme, it quickly assumes a ‘racing’ atmosphere—a mad dash through a murky landscape. Indeed, the spirit of this finale reminds me of two works in particular: Nightride and Sunrise, as well as the final movement of the Lemminkainen Suite, Lemminkainen’s Homeward Journey. Sibelius loved to depict flight, the heedless, desperate race on foot or on horseback with enemies just on your heels. Sibelius lets the orchestration rip a bit here, introducing more brass and percussion than anywhere else in the score, including one truly thunderous climax about five minutes in. The racing resumes, though less and less frantically, until a new episode appears: a rapturously beautiful theme that is almost as Romantic as anything in the finale of the First. Yet this quickly dies down into a subdued ending, which fades into nothingness—quite differently than the famous ending of the Fifth!

Symphony No.7 in C Major, Op.105 (1924)

His final symphony proved his most innovative and most emulated, particularly among English composers. While other composers, notably Saint-Saens, had collapsed the four-movement symphony into two (his “Organ” Symphony), no one had considered making a one-movement symphony that only loosely followed the traditional arrangement. Indeed, while this symphony does have some elements of the slow movement, scherzo, etc., they’re easily missed, and the music seems to ebb and flow by its own logic. On first hearing, it does sound more like an orchestral fantasia, though it also seems dense and abstract, suggesting a symphony much more than a tone poem. This is the irony of Sibelius in a nutshell: it’s such an easy work to listen to, yet for many, it’s so hard to grasp. It takes repeated, thoughtful listens to discern its structure and themes, and unlike previous symphonies, it’s harder to ‘see’ a program inside it. This might be his most successful attempt at writing pure, abstract music (along with the Sixth) that simply exists as music. It’s no wonder he labored over it and fretted about what to call it for so long. Whatever his initial misgivings, the work is indeed a symphony, fit to stand by the previous six, and probably pointed the way to future experiments in his Eighth, which he sadly destroyed in a fit of despair.

The Seventh is the hardest to write about in a coherent manner, as it seems to inhabit the same rich, yet shadowy world as Debussy’s Jeux or Scriabin’s Prometheus. It opens with a sublime invocation, much darker than that of the Fifth—a rising series of notes more than a theme per se. The orchestra then plays a shimmering theme that reminds one of ocean waves lapping over a distant and forgotten shore. For the first ten minutes or so, the piece proceeds with beautiful half-melodies, almost like scattered pieces of a vast tapestry. This leads to a growing sense of climax, as the mood darkens, a portent of things to come. Themes from the beginning resurface, calmer and consoling; the overall impression is a journey spent watching the shifting clouds above one’s head, now parting, now bubbling over with rain. The orchestration is more varied than ever, with spectral string runs rising over rich brasses and clear-toned flutes. However, the mood never quite settles, and just when you think you land someplace safe (or dangerous), the terrain shifts once again.

About eighteen minutes in, we get an almost triumphant climax, though this quickly settles down to nervous chatter among the woodwinds. Then the big moment occurs: the brass intone the arrival of something divine. The strings begin a rising figure, over and over again, higher and higher, until the music reaches a breaking point. Here we get the most mystical music he ever penned; it sounds like a vast sea of stars, with galaxies spinning wildly about. A grand climax shatters the moment, and we’re falling, gently, back home. It’s as if we suddenly saw everything, glimpsed a small piece of the entire universe, and then were rudely shoved away. A return of the opening theme of the symphony, passion spent, almost like a lullaby on the flute. Another grand climax mounts, but almost immediately fades, as if the vision is too far away. And then...silence.