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Symphony No. 3

About the Work

Sibelius
Quick Look Composer: Sibelius
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Osmo Vänskä, conductor / Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony, plus Sibelius and Aho Apr. 24 - 26, 2014
© Peter Laki

After his epic Second Symphony-a work of grandiose proportions widely interpreted as a major patriotic statement-Sibelius ostensibly changed his course, writing his Third as an avowedly classical work. The Third used a smaller orchestra, with double (not triple) woodwind, no tuba or harps, and no percussion other than timpani. Sibelius insisted, however, on a large (and bottom-heavy) string section, recommending 12 first violins, 12 seconds, 8 violas, 8 cellos, and 8 double basses, emphasizing the dark sound he so often favored in his works. At the same time, he chose the key of C major, an unmistakable symbol of simplicity, and used the reduced format of three movements instead of four.

Sibelius achieved a unique effect by holding on to some fairly simple rhythmic formulas over relatively long stretches, making those formulas function like building blocks that, piled on top of one another, result in large-scale formal constructions. The opening theme of the first movement was described by leading Sibelius scholar Erik Tawaststjerna (and his translator Robert Layton) as "athletic" and "keen-edged;" it is introduced by the above-mentioned large complement of cellos and basses. This theme establishes the group of four sixteenth-notes as an important structural "building block" in the movement. Indeed, motion in sixteenths remains a constant element throughout, and it is contrasted to a lyrical cello melody that begins, pointedly, with a long note held for six and a half beats. In the development section, both ideas are combined as the solo bassoon plays the long-note melody against a busy sixteenth-note accompaniment in the violas. The movement, which is in a rather straightforward sonata form, surprisingly ends with a quiet coda in a slower tempo, as if the composer took a step back to reflect on all the previous activity.

The second movement is based on a melody that Baron Axel Carpelan, a close friend of the composer's, heard as "a child's prayer." Its four symmetrical lines are repeated several times in changing orchestrations, with only two brief interruptions: one of these resembles a slow chorale, the other, in a slightly faster tempo, evokes a distant fantasy world of fairy-tales. With the final recapitulation of the principal melody, we "return to Earth," in the words of French musicologist Marc Vignal, author of a comprehensive Sibelius biography.

Sibelius described the third movement of this symphony "the crystallization of thought from chaos." It begins rather tentatively, with an oboe solo interrupted after only three measures; the music gradually picks up momentum and segues into a scherzo-like section in a fast 6/8 time where, for a while, the playful string staccatos (short, separated notes) are set against memories of the second movement lingering in the flutes and oboes. The following section, if not exactly "chaos," is definitely hectic and agitated. But about halfway through it, a new theme appears that will come to great prominence in the ensuing third section of the movement. It is typical of Sibelius to interlock his successive sections in this way rather than separating them neatly. Thus, a hymn-like tune first played by the violas against the rapid staccatos of the violins, finally emerges as the glorious, jubilant melody that stands for resolution and provides the positive, life-affirming closure of the symphony.

When Sibelius conducted the first performance of the new symphony in Helsinki on September 25, 1907, he was so famous already that the stores sold "Sibelius cigars" with the composer's picture on the box. The concert program was made up entirely of Sibelius's recent works; besides the symphony, the audience heard the incidental music to Hjalmar Procopé's play Belshazzar's Feast, and the symphonic poem Pohjola's Daughter. The reviews, as might be expected, were enthusiastic, though some critics preferred the symphonic poem to the symphony. Yet at least one of them, Karl Flodin, predicted: "[The Third Symphony] can-and indeed, will-be understood in every part of the globe where people have a feeling for music in its newest and most sublime form."