Why You Should Go to Seattle Symphony’s Three-Week Jean Sibelius Festival
Photo by Brandon Patoc Photography
By Reuven Pinnata| Arts Editor
Originally published in the March 2015 issue.
What does the music of Finland’s greatest composer have to do with us who live in the Pacific Northwest? More than perhaps one would initially have guessed.
Seattle’s music scene is home for legendary musicians such as Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix; its alternative, countercultural style is already well-known. But many great aspects of this city have gone unsung, in my opinion. When I think of Seattle, I think of its proximity to just any beautiful landscape you can dream of; for instance, the seductively hazy glimpse of Mount Rainier you gaze at longingly as you drive by on I-5. This is where we who live in the Pacific Northwest have a greater opportunity to identify with Sibelius’ music better. His music can be likened to a grand, eloquent billet-doux to the natural landscape of his home country, Finland. And the best of its natural landscape is similar to ours—the majestic mountain ranges, the lush evergreen forests, the scintillating open waters.
It is extremely fortunate for us then that the Seattle Symphony, under the baton of Principal Guest Conductor Thomas Dausgaard, is holding a three-week festival this March to celebrate Sibelius’ musical legacy. It will mainly consist of his seven symphonies but will also include his other works as well. Whether you’re planning on attending or just mildly curious, this guide is just for you.
Finlandia, Op. 26, No. 7 (March 12 & 14)
What better way to start than with the piece which was allegedly so politically dangerous that its title had to be changed under the censorship of the Russian Empire? The piece begins slowly with brooding horns and timpani, creating the impression of a coming storm, and then bursts forth into an invigorating, heroic march. Perhaps the most famous part is its hymn-like middle section, which later was adapted into one of Finland’s most important national songs.
Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39 (March 12 & 14)
Sibelius began his symphonic journey with the traditional Romantic idiom. The first movement recalls a picture of monumental struggle—I always think of scaling a mountain every time I hear its main theme—only to be met with the open-field serenity of the second. The third movement is a strong scherzo, and the fourth returns to the atmosphere of the first, alternating between stormy and solemn passages, exiting finally with the flourish of tragic grandeur that is the unmistakable stamp of a Romantic symphony.
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43 (March 12 – 14)
In this symphony, Sibelius’ gift for musical interconnectedness became evident. The calm three-note motif with which it opens later becomes the heroic statement of the last movement. The first movement starts with a pastoral picture of an idyll, not unlike a mythological forest, but before long a harsher second theme thrusts in, setting up the narrative of struggle of the whole symphony. Just like Finlandia, this symphony was taken up by the Finnish people as a symbol for their battle towards independence.
String Quartet in D minor, “Voces intimae” / Sonatina in E major for Violin and Piano, Op. 80 / Piano Quintet in G minor, J. 159 (March 15)
Sibelius’ chamber works are often overshadowed by his large-scale works, which means that this is quite a rare opportunity to hear a selection of his smaller compositions. The string quartet itself sounds unmistakably Sibelian, with all of its trademark elegiac austerity and emotional turbulence.
Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52 (March 19 – 21)
With this composition, Sibelius began a more explicit experimentation with the symphonic form. The symphony consists of three movements instead of the usual four and is developed in a remarkably different way. The phrase ‘less is more’ seems to be his guiding principle; in terms of length and overall effect, the Third is smaller yet more economical. It is also much more rhythmic: the first movement is elegant and good-natured, although not without some grander moments, and the second movement is an ice-clear, waltz-like nocturne. The third movement brings resolution, combining aspects of the previous movements, resolving into an affirmative, flourishing finish.
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47 (March 19 – 21)
Now there are not enough superlatives for me to describe this piece of work. If Sibelius had composed this single work alone, I still would consider him a genius. When you listen to the first movement, think of the wildest, most beautiful creature your mind can conjure up, dancing in pure snow amongst dark trees. The third movement, finally, becomes the apotheosis of this image, beginning with rapid, bellicose timpani rolls, joined soon by the most fiendishly athletic violin passages you can imagine. From the first moment the dark, melancholic violin solo awakens amidst passages of tremulous strings, you know you are in for one of the most spiritual musical experiences of your life.
Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63 (March 19 – 21)
The Fourth is an even wider break from his previous works. There seems to be no struggle, heroism, or clarity—just desolation, defeat, and lethargy. When you listen to it, notice how the music keeps trying to resolve into a major key but is constantly deferred. Even in the finale, things seem to deteriorate more; the symphony does not end in a flourish but dies away slowly, almost in a state of anonymity and confusion. Personally, this is for me Sibelius’ most inaccessible work, but it is still a towering achievement—a bleak, moody one at that.
Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82 (March 26 & 28)
The Fifth seems to be everything that the Fourth is not; Sibelius seemed to have emerged triumphantly out of something as he composed this work. In fact, emergence seems to be the right word to describe this symphony. The first movement starts with a horn call which, just like the opening motif of the Second Symphony, contains the seeds of the entire work. The third and final movement of the symphony sees the fledgling take flight as a full-grown bird, and this is true in several ways. This movement contains perhaps Sibelius’ most famous melody, which he himself called the “swan hymn,” written to proclaim his love for these wild birds, and just like a swan, it nobly and grandly soars over the music. This symphony may be the perfect soundtrack to your most glorious hike.
Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op. 104 (March 26 & 28)
If the Fifth is about ascent, the Sixth is about descent. In this symphony, Sibelius seemed to have planted his feet back on the ground; it is a wholly different adventure altogether. He himself said that it reminded him of the “scent of the first snow.” Indeed, the symphony is much more sedate and never launches itself into some grandiose, stratospheric statement. Instead it takes you for a walk through a beautiful landscape that feels both mysterious and natural at once. Imagine getting lost following a trail through a forest because that is what this symphony sounds like.
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105 (March 26 & 28)
Sibelius’ seventh and last symphony is unique in many ways. First of all, it only has one movement; it is the summation of the economics that we have seen developed ever since the Third Symphony. It begins, appropriately enough, with something that sounds like an ending: a billowing, dramatic climax. But it only serves to mark the beginning of the unleashing of Sibelius’ creative genius; themes, ideas, and movements blend together into one endless, highly concentrated stream of sound. Then, as if for one last mischievous trick, the symphony ends with a light sweep—and disappears.
Now because reading about music cannot beat the experience of actually listening to it, here is a list of recording recommendations that you can prepare yourself with. After all, one of the great joys of great music is that its beauty deepens over repeated listening:
- Symphony No. 1, Leonard Bernstein / Wiener Philharmoniker (Deutsche Grammophon)
- Symphony No. 2 / Symphony No. 7, Leonard Bernstein / New York Philharmonic (Sony BMG)
- Symphonies Nos. 1 – 7 / Kullervo, Sir Colin Davis / London Symphony Orchestra (LSO Live)
- Symphonies Nos. 4 – 7 / The Swan of Tuonela / Tapiola, Herbert von Karajan / Berliner Philharmoniker (Deutsche Grammophon)
- Symphonies Nos. 5 – 7 / Tone Poems / The Oceanides / Finlandia / Tapiola, Paavo Berglund / Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra (EMI Classics)
- Sibelius / Nielsen: Violin Concertos, Cho-Liang Lin (soloist) / Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor) / Philharmonia Orchestra of London / Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra