Jean Sibelius was born on December 8, 1865, in Tavestehus (Hämeenlinna), Finland, and died on September 20, 1957, in Järvenpää, Finland. He composed his Second Symphony in 1901-02, though relevant sketches date back to as early as 1899. The work is dedicated to Baron Axel Carpelan. It was premiered on March 8, 1902, in Helsinki, with the composer conducting the Helsinki Philharmonic. Theodore Thomas and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra gave the first North American performance on January 2, 1904. San Francisco Symphony audiences first heard the Second Symphony in December 1939, with Pierre Monteux conducting. Herbert Blomstedt led the most recent performances in April 2011. The score calls for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings. Performance time: about forty-five minutes.
Listening to Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2, which has long been a classic, we may not find the piece terribly shocking. But to ears not yet inured to its contours, it was daring indeed—a work that departed from the conventions of its genre not less than did symphonies by, say, Gustav Mahler, whose Fifth Symphony is its exact contemporary. It was, furthermore, a rarity of the most heartening sort: a brave work that nonetheless pleased audiences from the outset.
Finland was undergoing its share of turmoil at the turn of the twentieth century, beginning to buckle with nationalistic fervor against the yoke of its Russian occupiers. In the closing years of the nineteenth century, Finns were fired with excitement over homegrown culture—collecting traditional music and dance, delving into ancient Finnish legends, and returning to use the Finnish language. Sibelius was caught up with the artists and writers and musicians who were plying their trades in support of an independent Finland, and he turned out a hearty diet of patriotic and propagandistic compositions. A few of his successes from this nationalist period—the tone poems The Swan of Tuonela, Lemminkäinen’s Return, and Finlandia among them—began to earn him a reputation beyond Finnish borders.
Actually, not all of this famous symphony emanated literally from Finland; some of the composition was carried out in Italy. Thanks to benefactions arranged by Axel Carpelan, a Finnish man-about-the-arts and the eventual dedicatee of this symphony, Sibelius and his family were able to travel to Italy between February and April 1901, and much of the Symphony No. 2 was sketched in Florence and, especially, Rapallo, where the composer rented a studio. Aspects of the piece had already begun to take form in his mind almost two years earlier, although at that point Sibelius seems to have assumed his sketches would end up in various separate compositions rather than in a single unified symphony. Even in Rapallo he still seemed focused on writing a tone poem. He reported that on February 11, 1901, he entertained a fantasy that the villa in which his studio was located was the fanciful palace of Don Juan and that he himself was the amorous, amoral protagonist of that legend. He jotted in his diary the thoughts that accosted him at midnight: “Don Juan. I was sitting in the dark in my castle when a stranger entered. I asked who he could be again and again—but there was no answer. I tried to make him laugh but he remained silent. At last the stranger began to sing—then Don Juan knew who it was. It was death.” Then follow the notes that stand as the principal theme of the second movement of the Second Symphony.
As his work evolved, Sibelius seems to have sacrificed the Don Juan idea in favor of a very different concept: a series of four tone poems based on characters from Dante’s Divine Comedy. But, following his return to Finland in June, Sibelius began to recognize that what was forming out of his sketches was not a set of tone poems, but rather a full-fledged symphony—one that would exhibit an extraordinary degree of unity among its sections. With his goal now clarified, Sibelius worked through the summer and fall and completed his symphony in November 1901. Then he revised the piece profoundly, at last concluding work in January 1902.
The symphony’s premiere, two months later, marked a signal success (as did three further sold-out performances that week). The conductor Robert Kajanus, who would become a distinguished Sibelius interpreter, insisted that the Helsinki audiences had understood the new symphony to be an overt expression of the political conflict then reigning over Finland. “The Andante,” he wrote, “strikes one as the most broken-hearted protest against all the injustice that threatens at the present time to deprive the sun of its light and our flowers of their scent. . . . The Finale develops toward a triumphant conclusion intended to rouse in the listener a picture of lighter and confident prospects for the future.” Sibelius objected to this interpretation, preferring that no programmatic implications be attached to this work. Nonetheless, this symphony does seem to express something specific to the Finnish imagination. The composer Sulho Ranta (1901-60) spoke on behalf of his fellow Finns when he declared, “There is something about this music—at least for us—that leads us to ecstasy; almost like a shaman with his magic drum.”
A critic covering the work’s premiere expressed the opinion that Sibelius’s Second was “one of the few symphonic creations of our time that point in the same direction as Beethoven’s symphonies.” Some commentators have underscored the piece’s affinity with the symphonies of Brahms (particularly his Second, also in D major), while others find that especially the finale evokes something of Tchaikovsky. There’s truth in all of this, but in the end, Sibelius marches to his own drummer. Igor Stravinsky once heard Sibelius’s Second Symphony in the company of his teacher, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and reported that Rimsky offered a solitary comment after the performance: “Well, I suppose that’s possible, too.”
Defining Rimsky-Korsakov’s “that” is not so easy. Perhaps he was referring to the restless sense of duality seeming to govern this score. The pastoral sunshine bathing the first movement’s opening is soon swept away by icy winds; perhaps the opposite happens in the third movement, where what one might take as a flurry of snow yields to a shepherd’s call on the oboe—meteorological metaphors are practically de rigueur when discussing Sibelius. Bucolic sections are interrupted by passages that evoke grave concern, or even by terrible outbursts; and these, in turn, are confronted by suggestions of proud defiance and resolute confidence. Perhaps Rimsky was thinking of Sibelius’s distinctive orchestration. Some listeners find it thick and claustrophobic, but Sibelius was particular about its details, and it adds up to his musical thumbprint. Take his very typical use of the massed brass section, which often erupts in snarling crescendos, as it does prominently in the second movement. A report survives of a rehearsal of the Second Symphony conducted by Kajanus, at which only two of the three trumpets were in attendance, the third having come down with the flu. Sibelius stayed only briefly and then interrupted the rehearsal to take his leave, explaining to Kajanus, “I can only hear the trumpet which isn’t there and I can’t stand it any longer.”
But it seems more likely that Rimsky-Korsakov was struck by the elemental process of Sibelius’s musical architecture, which Burnett James describes succinctly in his book The Music of Jean Sibelius (1983): “Though a natural melodist, Sibelius does not invariably begin with broad melodic statements, at least in his larger and more complex designs. . . . More often he works from handfuls of thematic nuclei which by a subsequent process of organic growth and fusion evolve into complete structures. And this, of course, is virtually a reversal of the standard classical procedure where a theme or group of themes is first stated (exposition), then subjected to some form of extension or analysis (development), finally to be restated in their original form or a variant of it (recapitulation) within a general pattern of tonal and harmonic evolution. . . . But with Sibelius the whole does not exist until its basic parts, its active nuclei, have been brought together and placed in a new and unexpected relationship.”
This concept of parts and patterns is illustrated at the symphony’s outset, with the strings’ gentle riffs of repeated notes seeming to be mere accompaniment waiting for a theme to start above. That’s exactly what does happen; but as the movement progresses, we understand that the seemingly insignificant string figures were actually fragments that would later fall into larger formation. Some of these seeds may take the entire symphony to germinate and blossom: Those opening sounds of the first movement, tracing three rising notes of a scale, will come to full fruition in the grandly Romantic theme of the Finale.
—James M. Keller
This note previously appeared in the program books of the New York Philharmonic and is reprinted with permission. Copyright New York Philharmonic.
More About the Music
Recordings: Herbert Blomstedt conducting the San Francisco Symphony (Decca) | Osmo Vänskä conducting the Lahti Symphony Orchestra (BIS) | Mariss Jansons conducting the Oslo Philharmonic (EMI Classics) | Colin Davis conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO Live) | Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra (London)
Reading: Jean Sibelius, by Erik Tawaststjerna, in English translation by Robert Layton (Faber & Faber and University of California Press; three volumes, out of print but peerless) | The Music of Jean Sibelius, by Burnett James (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press) | Sibelius, by Cecil Gray (Oxford University Press)