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Symphony No. 1

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
In his mid-twenties Sibelius composed two large-scale programmatic works, more or less symphonic in structure. His 80-minute Kullervo, Op. 7, in five movements, calls for chorus, solo singers and orchestra in recounting the tale of the foredoomed heroes of the Kalevala, Finland's national epic. Another hero, Lemminkainen, is the focus of the Four Legends from the Kalevala, Op. 22, one of whose sections became on its own one of the composer's best-known works, The Swan of Tuonela. While Kullervo is sometimes called a choral symphony, and Sibelius remarked that the Four Legends might stand with his symphonies, he did not actually regard either work as a symphony. He was never averse to writing descriptive music, but he drew a firm line between such works and the idea of a symphony, which he felt must stand on its musical logic and not be encumbered by any programmatic burden. He maintained that whatever incidents or impressions may have suggested a symphony to him need not be of concern to the listener, even in such inherently dramatic and impassioned music as the work with which he began his cycle of symphonies at the age of 33.

Sibelius composed his First Symphony in 1898 and '99 and conducted the premiere in Helsinki on April 26 of the latter year. It has been suggested that he had not entirely found his own personal style as a symphonist in this work. Slavic influences are discerned here. The music has been called Tchaikovskian in general, and the first movement's principal theme even bears a resemblance to the corresponding one in Borodin's First Symphony. More than a few early commentators pounced on these elements as indications that Sibelius had indeed written a programmatic symphony; the respected British critic Rosa Newmarch declared it was "a symbolic picture of Finnish insurrection against Russian oppression." The composer's Finnish biographer Karl Ekman ignored the patriotic implications (though he would find plenty of these in the Second Symphony), but suggested a more personal kind of program: "a profound human document of the struggle of a soul full of conflict for its salvation." Sibelius calmly bore these interpretations and others, and determined to let the music speak for itself.

Apart from any programmatic connotations, the likenesses intermixed with the purely Sibelian traits in this work do have some significance in respect to the forging of a personal style. The First Symphony, produced in the penultimate year of the 19th century, has strong Romantic roots, but in this work Sibelius might be said to have taken leave of the old century as clearly as Beethoven bade farewell to the preceding one in his own First Symphony--not, in either case, in the way of abandonment or renunciation, but rather as an acknowledgement of having distilled from the past all that could be meaningfully utilized in setting off in new directions.

The first movement opens with a rhapsodically brooding clarinet solo against a soft drum roll, following which the strings come vibrantly alive to introduce the principal theme. The full-blown Romantic workout, with surging climaxes, might indeed strike some listeners as Tchaikovskian (and the theme itself has been likened to the one in the same position in Borodin's First Symphony), but the rhythms and textures are already quite distinctive, and the writing for the winds in particular is as characteristically Sibelian as anything the composer would write later.

Several commentators have assumed that the second movement is based on folk material, but it is original Sibelius in every phrase. The music bears a sort of kinship with the slow movement of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, and its coloring may evoke that of the Pathetique, but again Sibelius manages to establish his own emotional locale, and to evoke a sense of urgency without being especially plaintive.

The scherzo is straightforwardly rugged and outdoorsy. In a reversal of customary roles, the violins and violas produce rhythmic beats to set off the theme, which is actually played on the timpani. It is echoed by the lower strings and winds, then tossed back and forth among the timpani, clarinets and trombones. The trio is as openhearted in its nostalgic tenderness as the scherzo proper is in its gruff vigor, and the two elements combine for a brief but heady moment before the brisk conclusion.

The motif with which the clarinet began the Symphony is transformed into an impassioned outcry from the orchestra to introduce the finale, marked "quasi una fantasia." No other themes from the earlier movements are encountered, though some are hinted at. The overall impression is of a grand summing-up, emerging "bloody but unbowed" from the emotional turbulence of the preceding movements and certainly supporting Ekman's suggestion of the work's programmatic content. The soaring theme itself, derived from the opening material, is hymnic in the distinctive Sibelian sense. The harp, fairly prominent in all four movements, is especially effective in this one, evoking a sort of bardic presence.