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Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82

About the Work

Sibelius
Quick Look Composer: Sibelius
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra Osmo Vanska, conductor/Lisa Batiashvili, violin Mar. 3 - 5, 2005
© Richard Freed
Sibelius completed the first version of his Fifth Symphony in 1915 and conducted the first performance on his fiftieth birthday, in Helsinki. A revised version was introduced a year later, and the final one was given its premiere on November 24, 1919, again conducted by the composer. The National Symphony Orchestra's first performance of this work was conducted by Hans Kindler on March 8, 1939; the most recent ones, on February 29, March 1 and March 2, 1996, were conducted by Elizabeth Schulze.

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For the last 53 years of his life Sibelius lived in a house he called “Ainola” (for his wife, Aino), in a lakeside forest setting in Järvenpää, about an hour's drive from Helsinki; he and his wife were buried on its grounds, and the house, preserved as they left it, is visited year after year by musicians and tourists. In one of the larger rooms hangs a painting of a flight of swans; it is said to have been the composer's favorite, and to be related to his Fifth Symphony. According to his biographer Erik Tawaststjerna, who had access to much previously unavailable material, Sibelius noted in his diary on April 21, 1915, that he had seen a flight of 16 swans—”one of the greatest impressions of my life!”—and responded with a “swan theme” that was to provide a sort of apotheosis for this work. But even with that apotheosis in his mind, the Fifth Symphony proved to be a somewhat problematic work for him. In the same month, he wrote,

Spent the evening with the symphony. The disposition of the themes: with all its mystery and fascination, this is the important thing. It is as if God the Father had thrown down mosaic pieces from heaven's floor and asked me to put them back as they were.

Sibelius's fiftieth birthday, December 8, 1915, was treated as a national holiday in Finland, and his Fifth Symphony, whose premiere he conducted in Helsinki on that date, proved to be eminently suitable to the celebration: a work characterized by clarity, and in substance a positive antipode to its austere and tragic predecessor of 1911 (though it may be noted that the composer had written, while at work on the Fifth in 1914, “My heart sings, full of sadness—the shadows lengthen”). It was warmly received by the audience, but Sibelius himself was less than pleased with it. A year later he introduced a revised version in which the first two of the original four movements were combined into a single one. He was still not satisfied, but further work on the score was delayed by health problems and external events of the final year of World War I.

In the year and a half that followed the Fifth Symphony's second premiere, Sibelius underwent fourteen surgical operations, the last a removal of a tumor in his throat. Then, in February 1918, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, Russian troops arrived at Järvenpää, shot one of the neighbors, and made two searches of Sibelius's house. Sibelius and his family fled to Helsinki and took refuge in a psychiatric hospital at which his brother was senior physician. Conditions there were grim: the composer's brother was able to keep the Red Guards from occupying his hospital, but there was so little food during his stay there that Sibelius, a large man, lost 40 pounds. Finally there was a German bombardment of the city, which he described as “a crescendo that lasted 30 hours and ended in a fortissimo —horrible but grand.”

When he was able to return home Sibelius not only resumed work on a second revision of his Fifth Symphony, but outlined Nos. 6 and 7 as well, reporting in May that “it looks as if I were to come out with all three symphonies at the same time.” That did not happen, but at least his final thoughts on No. 5 had crystallized. In the same letter he summed up:

The V Symphony in a new form, practically composed anew, I work at daily. Movement I entirely new, movement II reminiscent of the end of the I movement in the old, movement III reminiscent of the old, movement IV the old motifs but stronger in revision. The whole, if I may say so, a vital climax to the end. Triumphal.

When Sibelius conducted this version, again in Helsinki, in November 1919 (after yet again recomposing the final movement), he found no need for further changes. There did remain, however, some uncertainty regarding the number of movements in the work. In the letter just quoted he referred to four movements, but only by way of clarifying the sections affected in his final revision. Actually, the three-movement format of 1916 was retained, though the first of the two sections of the first movement was replaced with material that fits more seamlessly with that of the surviving second part: now, in place of what had been merely two interconnected movements, there is a single continuous one, an organic whole growing out of the simple four-note motif that opens the work.

The middle movement is a theme-and-variations, more or less in the character of Joseph Haydn's “not-so-slow” slow movements, though the substance and overall character are of course utterly and thoroughly Sibelian. The theme, initially stated by pizzicato strings, is simplicity itself, and the variations explore a range of varied moods whose emotional range might be described as centering on wistfulness. When those lengthening shadows mentioned in the composer's diary come into the picture they appear within a setting of conscious restraint.

The finale opens with a figure that has suggested to many commentators a whirring of wings, and to virtually all listeners a portent of something momentous. What emerges is the aforementioned “swan theme,” a spacious, chorale-like motif intoned by the horns and then taken up by the other brass in a golden glow. It is one of the most convincingly affirmative utterances in all of Sibelius's music, enveloping the listener in a feeling of radiant benevolence as well as the “triumphal” mood cited by the composer. At the very end are five oddly spaced chords—sometimes characterized as “hammer blows”—preceding the clearly final one. This gesture, with its conspicuous pauses, has struck four generations of listeners as “mysterious” or “baffling.” According to David Hall, one of our country's most respected authorities on Sibelius, the Finnish conductor Jussi Jalas, who was the composer's son-in-law, pointed out that the “mysterious” chords were derived from the overtones of the horn part in the “swan theme” itself.

[While material for the 1916 revision of the Fifth Symphony has not survived, listeners curious about the original 1915 version may investigate it among Osmo Vänskä's numerous BIS recordings of Sibelius's works with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra.]