Program Notes

BORN: December 8, 1865. Tavastehus (Hämeenlinna), Finland
DIED: September 20, 1957. Järvenpää

COMPOSED: Begun in 1918, completed February 1923

WORLD PREMIERE: February 19, 1923. Sibelius led the Helsinki Municipal Orchestra, in Helsinki

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—February 1952. Thomas Beecham conducted. MOST RECENT—January 2014. Osmo Vänskä conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, harp, and strings

DURATION: About 28 mins

Symphony No. 6

THE BACKSTORY  Jean Sibelius drew on the resources of both his own country—Finland—and other, more “musically central” lands during his formative years. He studied composition and violin at the Helsingfors (Helsinki) Conservatory and then received a grant from the Finnish Government that enabled him to take classes in counterpoint and fugue in Berlin. From there he continued to Vienna for further study of composition.

Armed with this internationally grounded technique, he turned his sights back toward his native country and, in the early 1890s, began writing works on Finnish folk legends. These quickly established him as the most important of his nation’s composers, a reputation that was absolutely clinched with the premiere of his stirring patriotic composition Finlandia in 1900. A year earlier he had unveiled the first of his seven symphonies. These would occupy him practically to the conclusion of his productive career, which ended in 1927. Then, at the age of sixty-two, he basically retired, and, despite persistent and hopeful rumors, he completed no more compositions in the three decades that remained to him.

The Sixth Symphony is quite unlike any of its composer’s other symphonies. Every work is unique, of course, but this one qualifies, like Toad Hall in The Wind in the Willows, as “very unique.” To begin with, it is the only one of the seven for which Sibelius did not provide a key designation. That is not surprising in and of itself for a work written ca. 1920; at that time, many composers were straying into the realm of key-free atonality that had recently taken over many musical domains. But that is not what was going on in Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony. In fact, this piece is firmly anchored in terms of harmony, but it is in neither a major nor a minor key: it is in D Dorian, signifying an arrangement of notes, centered on the note D, that is based on an old church mode and prevalent in many folk musics. Sibelius freely employs notes outside that group, to be sure, just as a composer writing in D major or D minor nearly always uses chromatic tones that do not belong to the elemental scales of those keys. But the notes of those scales—or, in this case, of the D Dorian mode—are the backbone of the piece, generating several of the most notable themes. The general sound of the D Dorian mode bears strong similarity to the key of D minor, but D Dorian includes a B-natural in place of a B-flat and sticks resolutely to C-naturals rather than allowing some to nudge upwards to C-sharps, which is what happens in D minor. You may encounter references that say this symphony is actually in D minor, but Sibelius never identified it thus, nor did any of the printed editions he sanctioned. Neither should we.

It is, moreover, a more consistently optimistic symphony than Sibelius usually offered. Certainly a sense of triumph is to be found in many works by Sibelius: think of the ecstatic spirit of liberation in the finale of the Second Symphony or the celebratory tolling at the end of the Fifth, to cite the two most adored of his symphonies. But these triumphs are hard-won; they typically follow sections given over to struggle or even despondency. In the Sixth, however, we look in vain for signs of these “negative” emotional states. There is no slow movement at all, and nearly every measure of the piece is cheerfully paced—moderately fast for the most part, but sometimes a bit quicker. The work’s conclusion, far from being triumphant, simply fades away into peaceful oblivion. One might well consider this Sibelius’s “Pastoral Symphony.”

The Sixth Symphony occupied Sibelius for more than four years. When he began it, in 1918, he was juggling several major projects, including major revisions of his Fifth Symphony, which was his principal concern through the end of 1919. In November 1920, he reported that he had again trained his sights on the Sixth, but it was really not until September 1922 that he seems to have settled in to work steadily on the piece, which, he noted in his diary, “must be ready by January.” His diary reveals that from then on he followed the rather neurotic pattern that was his custom when he was approaching the home stretch of a large-scale work; he loved the piece one day and doubted it the next, he had trouble concentrating, he worried about dying before he finished it, he self-medicated with alcohol. Finally, on January 14, 1923, he wrote: “Well, movements I, II, and III of Symphony 6 are ready. My tremor is bad and so are my nerves.” Finishing touches were in place by mid-February, and on the nineteenth of that month he conducted its premiere, gaining appreciative notices from critics even if the audiences were initially confused by how different this was from the Sibelius symphonies to which they were accustomed.

THE MUSIC  Right from its opening, the symphony declares its overriding posture of aristocratic grace, with strings winding in chaste counterpart of an almost neo-Renaissance cast before winds take over as if skipping cheerfully through a forested glen. At the movement’s end, the orchestra traces the notes of the D Dorian mode, which by that time is firmly fixed in the listener’s ear; and yet it is an ending that seems strangely inconclusive. The second movement begins with analogous inscrutability: a gentle triple-tap on the timpani, then a syncopated theme exhaled quietly by flutes and bassoons (perhaps a bit redolent of Tchaikovsky), leaving a listener wondering precisely where the beat falls. These movements are filled with the fingerprints of immediately recognizable Sibelian sounds and yet they inhabit an absolutely distinct emotional climate. Although not exactly aloof, they seem to float some yards above the ground rather than stand firmly anchored to Earth, about as close as Sibelius ever came to sounding like Vaughan Williams—an effect reinforced by the composer’s tendency to emphasize higher pitched instruments at the expense of lower ones. The second movement, like the first, ends without much warning, almost as if it were speaking a sentence and got distracted half-way through.

The third movement (Poco vivace) serves as a scherzo, again with rhythms sometimes seeming off-kilter. In general, fleet-footedness is not one of Sibelius’s hallmarks, and we should accordingly understand the finale’s tempo marking of Allegro molto as a relative description. Its opening theme seems more gracious than vivacious, but momentum does pick up as the movement unfurls, growing forceful and impassioned before everything drifts way in quiet contemplation.   

Shortly after the premiere, Sibelius spoke about his Sixth Symphony in an interview published by the Stockholm newspaper Svenska Dagbladet: “It is very tranquil in character and outline. . . and is built, like the Fifth, on linear rather than harmonic foundations. Furthermore, like most symphonies, it has four movements, which are formally completely free and do not follow the ordinary sonata scheme.”

“And do you think it will enjoy a great success?” the interviewer asked, bizarrely. “That is not for me to say,” responded Sibelius. “It has always been the case that with every new symphony I have written and had performed, I have won a new following but at the same time lost some of the old. In any case I do not think of a symphony only as music in this or that number of bars, but rather as an expression of spiritual creed, a phase in one’s inner life.”

James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is now also available as an e-book and as an Oxford paperback. 


Recordings: Symphony No. 6—Herbert Blomstedt conducting the San Francisco Symphony (Decca)  |  Osmo Vänskä with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra (BIS)  |  Colin Davis conducting the Boston Symphony (Philips)  |  Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)

ReadingJean 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 Andrew Barnett (Yale University Press)  | The Cambridge Companion to Sibelius, edited by Daniel M. Grimley (Cambridge)

(June 2018)

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