Sibelius: Symphony No. 3 in C Major, Opus 52

Symphony No. 3 in C major, Opus 52

Jean (Johan Julius Christian) Sibelius was born at Tavestehus (Hämeenlinna), Finland, on December 8, 1865, and died at Järvenpää on September 20, 1957. A letter from him, dated September 21, 1904, closes with the remark, "Have begun my Third Symphony." He promised the premiere to the Royal Philharmonic Society, London, for March 17, 1907, but the score was not ready. He finished it that summer and conducted the Helsingfors (Helsinki) Philharmonic in the first performance on September 26. Pierre Monteux led the first San Francisco Symphony performances in January 1942; the only subsequent performances were given in November 1994 under Herbert Blomstedt’s direction. The score calls for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings. Duration: about thirty minutes.

Salome and the Symphonia Domestica of Richard Strauss, Ravel's Alborada del gracioso and his Introduction and Allegro, Schoenberg's Pelleas und Melisande, the Scriabin Divine Poem, Debussy's La Mer and his first book of Images for piano, Mahler's Sixth Symphony and Kindertotenlieder, the first books of Iberia by Albéniz, Rimsky-Korsakov's The Invisible City of Kitezh, the Opus 23 Preludes by Rachmaninoff, Elgar's Introduction and Allegro for Strings, The Kingdom, and the fourth of his Pomp and Circumstance marches, Puccini's Madama Butterfly—that was new and recent music in 1907. How unexpected the stubborn anti-Romanticism of the new Sibelius symphony must have been to the audiences that first heard it in Helsingfors, Saint Petersburg, Birmingham, and London. To many it must have been puzzling and annoying. After all, even Sibelius's recent music had been lush in sound and grand in rhetoric—the Symphony No. 2, first heard in 1902 and now beginning to make a reputation for its composer throughout Europe; the Violin Concerto, launched in its final form in Berlin, 1905, with Carl Halir as soloist and no less a musician than Richard Strauss conducting; and Pohjola's Daughter, first played in Saint Petersburg in 1906.

During the next decade many composers would hear a voice summoning them to a leaner life. Sibelius heard it sooner. Twenty years later he would heed whatever voice told him to spend what turned out to be the last third of his life not composing at all. In any event, in 1904, at the age of thirty-nine, he began work on a classical symphony: "Since Beethoven's time all so-called symphonies, with the exception of those by Brahms, have been symphonic poems. In some cases the composers have given us a program or have at least suggested what they had in mind; in other cases it is evident that they were concerned with describing or illustrating something, be it a landscape or a series of pictures. That does not correspond to my symphonic ideal. My symphonies are music—conceived and worked out as musical expression, without any literary basis. I am not a literary musician: For me, music begins where words leave off. A symphony should be music first and last. . . . I am particularly pleased to see it explicitly stressed that my [symphonies] are founded on classical symphonic form, and also that wholly misleading speculations about descriptions of nature and about folklore are being gotten rid of.

"Sibelius's principal target was his slightly senior contemporary Gustav Mahler. The two composers spent some time together in Helsingfors in 1907, and it was in response to Sibelius's saying that what he valued in "the essence of symphony [was] severity of style and the profound logic that created an inner connection among all the motifs" that Mahler pronounced his oft-quoted creed, "No, a symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything."

Sibelius once wrote: "Homer and Horace had a significance in my development that I cannot value highly enough." He may have meant the two names to stand together for what he got out of his Greek and Latin studies at the University of Helsingfors, but actually his music is often interestingly nourished by the tension between the Homeric and the Horatian, the epic and the classical sides of his temperament. Nor are those tensions always resolved. His symphonic poems, he maintained, were quite different from his symphonies; yet, at its Stockholm premiere in 1924, his Seventh Symphony was billed as Fantasia Sinfonica, and it took Sibelius another year to make up his mind to acknowledge that work as a real symphony.

The Third Symphony of Sibelius is about the pleasure of making music. Certain pieces by Beethoven are tours de force in composing interestingly, even dramatically, with the most neutral materials imaginable. The Triple Concerto and the Consecration of the House Overture are two unpopular examples and the Emperor Concerto is a popular one. The Sibelius Third is part of this tradition. Its chief traits are modesty and energy. The orchestration, for 1907, is unassuming. The basic, very "classical" sonority is that of strings and woodwinds, and one seems to hear more of the soft-edged flutes and clarinets than of the sharper double-reeds. The horns and drums are busy, but the trumpets and trombones intervene rarely and economically. The first movement has not one half-dozen measures of fortissimo, the second none at all, and the third only two measures before the last minute of peroration.

The first movement throws three ideas at you in quick succession—the subterranean march of cellos and basses, the swingingly syncopated contribution of the violins, and the jaunty woodwind tune whose sixteenth-notes will dominate the movement more than any other single element. D.F. Tovey writes that "a very typical feature of Sibelius is the emergence of a long-drawn melody from a sustained note that began no one can say exactly when." Such a melody soon provides contrast after the propulsive vigor of the first half-dozen pages and it offers, as well, fascinating tension between its expansiveness (it unfolds for fifteen measures before dissolving into scurrying sixteenths) and the rigorous economy that keeps it circulating about just four notes through most of its length. The coda is a surprise, and I shall not describe it except to comment that the final "Amen" cadence—plain forte, not emphatic enough for fortissimo, nor ready for the pathos of piano—is especially characteristic of this symphony.

There is no real slow movement, though the second movement—Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto—brings contrast and repose. Its key, G-sharp minor, is fresh, and remote from any of the places the first movement has visited. In character, the music suggests one of those wistful Schumann or Brahms intermezzi that are neither slow nor quick. Sibelius plays enchantingly with the metrical ambiguity of the melody. After the two-note upbeat, where do the stresses fall on the next three notes? Are the six beats in each measure to be heard as three times two (ONE two THREE four FIVE six) or as two times three (ONE two three FOUR five six)?  As so often with what seem to be either/or questions, the answer is "both." Not only can you reverse your own hearing of the melody much as you can make the tick-tock of clock change step, but Sibelius also calls in the basses ever so softly to contradict the flutes and clarinets or the violins in their rhythmic reading. And those basses, though they hardly rise above mezzo-forte, want very much to be heard.

Which brings me to another aspect of Sibelius's classical symphonic style. There is no imagery and no drama—except that of the musical events themselves—for you to lose yourself in. This is like Haydn. You can't do anything with it except listen to it. Just before the end, and just for a moment, the conflict of two-against-three becomes troubling rather than charming, and this ambiguous, discreetly mysterious movement ends on a curiously inconclusive note.

The finale is restless. The tempo changes all the time, sometimes abruptly, sometimes gradually. At moments, Sibelius can hardly crowd as many notes as he would like into each measure; at others, he will take time to stand still on a single note, or a pair, or a trill, or an intricately figured chord. Fragments whisk by, some so fast we can hardly apprehend them. Bits of the first two movements whir across the landscape. Shadow becomes substance. Again I quote Tovey: "Then comes the one and all-sufficing climax. All threads are gathered up in one tune that pounds its way to the end with the strokes of Thor's hammer."

—Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music

Recordings: Herbert Blomstedt conducting the San Francisco Symphony (Decca)  |   Osmo Vänskä conducting the Lahti Symphony Orchestra (BIS)  |  Colin Davis conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO  Live)

Reading: Jean Sibelius, by Erik Tawaststjerna, in English translation by Robert Layton (University of California Press)  |  Sibelius, by Andrew Barnett (Yale University Press) | Sibelius, by Robert Layton (Schirmer Books)  |  The Cambridge Companion to Sibelius, edited by Daniel M. Grimley (Cambridge University Press)  |  The Symphonies of Jean Sibelius: A Study in Musical Appreciation, by Simon Parmet (Cassell)