Sibelius: Symphony No. 3
Enjoy the concerts!
Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52 Allegro moderato Andantino con moto (draft version, world première performance) Moderato – Allegro (ma non tanto)
‘The symphony meets all the requirements of a symphonic work of art in the modern sense, but at the same time it is internally new and revolutionary – thoroughly Sibelian.’ (the music critic Karl Flodin, 1907)
In September 1904, when Sibelius moved to Järvenpää, plans for his Third Symphony were just beginning to take shape – although sever- al of the motifs themselves had been sketched several years earlier. On 1st March 1906 he wrote to Axel Carpelan that the symphony was almost ready, and he promised to conduct it for the Royal Philharmonic Society in London in the spring of 1907. The London concert had to be postponed, however, and he eventually put the finishing touches to the work in time to conduct it at the Great Hall of Helsinki University on 25th September 1907 – but only just: the orchestral parts for the end of the finale did not arrive until the last rehearsal.
Some of the thematic material originally planned for the symphony ultimately found its way into a wide assortment of other works, among them the piano suite Kyllikki and the string quartet Voces intimae. Conversely, some ideas are derived from works that would re- main incomplete – for example a Kalevala- based tone poem on the theme of Luonnotar (which eventually evolved into Pohjola’s Daughter). It is also possible that some of the symphony’s material originated in an abandoned oratorio project entitled Marjatta al- though – as Timo Virtanen has pointed out in his pioneering volume on manuscript study and analysis of the Third Symphony (Sibelius Academy, 2005) – there is no direct evidence to corroborate this. At this period of his career, with such works as the Swanwhite incidental music, the six Op. 50 songs or the symphonic poem Night Ride and Sunrise, Sibelius was moving away from Romanticism towards greater clarity and economy in form and sonority, and thus the Third
Symphony consciously avoids the opulence of, for instance, Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy (1905– 08) or Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (1906–07). The concise, regular, rhythmically disciplined theme from the cellos and double basses which opens the symphony sets the tone for a work which instead favours a tauter, more economical, ‘classical’ style – not a neo-classical pastiche but closer to the concept of ‘junge Klassizität’ (young classicism; a move away from the programmatic tendencies of the 19th century in favour of the melody and ab- solute music of Bach and Mozart) expounded by Sibelius’s friend Ferruccio Busoni. Formally the movement is as well-ordered and easy to follow as the first movement of a Viennese Classical symphony, bringing to mind Sibelius’s remark: ‘To my mind a Mozart allegro is the most perfect model for a symphonic movement. Think of its wonderful unity and homogeneity! It is like an uninterrupted flowing, where nothing stands out and nothing encroaches upon the rest.’
The slow movement’s ostensible simplicity conceals great subtlety of craftsmanship. Its theme – described by Carpelan as ‘wonderful, like a child’s prayer’ – is constantly and hypnotically repeated and transformed throughout this hybrid of variation and rondo form. After the first performance, this was the movement that the critics welcomed most warmly; Karl Fredrik ‘Bis’ Wasenius in Hufvudstadsbladet, for example, praised its ‘highly poetic theme of genuinely Sibelian origin’. But they were unaware that at a late stage in the process of composition – after the fair copy of the score had been sent to the copyist – Sibelius had in fact overhauled this movement; tonight’s concert features the first public performance of the draft version. The draft (marked simply Andantino con moto, without the mislead- ing quasi allegretto of the published version) is similar in overall concept and shape to the published version, but in the revision Sibelius made innumerable adjustments, refinements and changes of instrumentation.
The finale combines the functions of scherzo and finale into a single entity. Sibelius himself described this movement as ‘the crystallization of thought from chaos’. The ‘scherzo’ plays with a number of short motifs, blending and juxtaposing them in a seemingly endless variety of combinations. Ultimately a noble march theme emerges, tentatively at first and then confidently from the cellos. As in the slow movement, this theme is constantly repeated and transformed; it dominates the remainder of the symphony and increases in intensity all the way to the end of the work.
In 1938 the conductor and composer Heikki Klemetti reminisced about Sibelius’s own interpretation of the Third Symphony, comment- ing that it ‘was played in a vigorous manner, with markedly emphatic accentuation, so that it gave an impression of the heroic rather than pastoral’. Nonetheless, perhaps because of its classical clarity and lack of bombast, many crit- ics have fallen into the trap of dismissing the work as transitional or lightweight. Such a contention sits uneasily alongside the suggestion made by other commentators that the symphony has a religious dimension. Even Sibelius himself made several allusions to this effect: he mentioned to his son-in-law Jussi Jalas that the march theme in the finale should have ‘a religious character’, and told the painter Oscar Parviainen that this theme was a ‘prayer to God’. Moreover, the abandoned oratorio Marjatta was based on the Kalevala interpretation of Christ’s birth, burial and resurrection. But the fact remains that if Sibelius had really wanted to write a religious oratorio, he would have continued with the Marjatta project rather than disguising his intentions in a piece of absolute music. It should be emphasized that none of Sibelius’s numbered symphonies is programmatic and, in any case, the distance – both musically and psychologically – between the sources of inspiration and the finished com- position was vast.