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Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Op. 105

About the Work

Sibelius
Quick Look Composer: Sibelius
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Vladimir Ashkenazy, conductor / All-Sibelius program May 29 - 31, 2008
© Richard Freed
When Karl Ekman was preparing his official biography of Sibelius, in 1933, the composer, then in his 68th year, wrote a statement for him that began, "Composing has been the main thread of my life, and it is so now." In truth, however, his creative activity had ended. His last significant works--the Sixth and Seventh symphonies, the incidental music for The Tempest, the tone poem Tapiola--had been produced between 1923 and 1926. He did compose an Eighth Symphony in 1929, but he was so uncertain of its worth that he not only withheld it from performance and publication but actually destroyed the manuscript without leaving a trace and refused to discuss it. Although he lived well into his ninety-second year, he composed nothing more but an inconsequential piece or two for unaccompanied male chorus; the Seventh was to be his final testament as a symphonist, and it is the most unusual as well as the most concise segment of the cycle it completed.

Throughout his life Sibelius was concerned with the development of new forms for the symphony. His first six symphonies differ from one another conspicuously in terms of structure as well as dimensions and content; two of them are cast in three movements instead of the usual four. The Seventh is the earliest significant example of a symphony in a single movement, and this form struck Sibelius himself as being so different from the norm that when he conducted the premiere in Stockholm on March 24, 1924, just three weeks after completing the score, the work was billed not as a numbered symphony but as Fantasia sinfonica. Robert Schumann affixed a similar title for a time to his own Fourth Symphony, whose four movements are played without pause and share common thematic material; he eventually decided to call the work a symphony, though, and so did Sibelius. Since the appearnace of this work Roy Harris, Samuel Barber and numerous other composers in both Europe and America have written notable one-movement symphonies. As in most of these later examples, Sibelius's Seventh contains contrasting sections that correspond more or less to the separate movements of a conventional symphony--though in this case the seams may be a bit less apparent than in the later such works. The four discernible sections here are: (1) a slow introduction in which the harmonic activity is of greater interest than the themes themselves, among which, however, is a trombone motif which is introduced when the peak of orchestral weight and tension has been achieved, and is to assume greater importance later in the work; (2) a restless section in which the trombone motif again appears at the climactic moment, as a sort of calming gesture; (3) a scherzo; (4) a glorious culmination in which the trombone motif dominates, with glowing string passages and blazes of brass color along the way. After a final statement of the trombone theme (which might be compared to the brass ostinato in the finale of the Fifth Symphony, though it conveys a higher level of both sobriety and exaltation) the work ends with the simplest gesture, rather in the manner of a benediction.

While these sections can be identified, the sense of continuity in this work is so seamless that it has been described as a sort of giant rondo. Some commentators have suggested that this music might have retained its original title because it appears to be more of a symphonic poem than a symphony. The point, however, is that it is one of those unexpected mutations which now and then change and broaden our notions of what a symphony can be, or ought to be. The frequent instances of uncertainty in labeling or classifying Sibelius's works have only served to emphasize the uniqueness of his style. In the concluding chapter of Music Ho! (called "Sibelius and the Music of the Future:"), Constant Lambert offered this explanation for the apparent failure of Sibelius's music to influence other composers of his generation:

It offers no material for the plagiarist, and is to be considered more as a spiritual example than as a technical influence. We are not likely to find any imitation of Sibelius's No. 7, such as we find of Stravinsky's Symphonie des Psaumes, because the spiritual calm of this work is the climax of the spiritual experience of a lifetime and cannot be achieved by any aping of external mannerisms.

It might be argued that there have been imitations, or attempted imitations, of Sibelius, but one cannot take issue with Lambert's characterization of this work, or with his premise that this composer's influence has generally been felt in terms of "spiritual example. As such, no other single work of his shines with the unique radiance of this final symphony, which indeed identifies itself unmistakably, in the English musician's happy phrase, as "the climax of the spiritual experience of a lifetime."