Program Notes

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

COMPOSED: Also begun in 1918, completed March 2, 1924

WORLD PREMIERE: March 24, 1924. The composer conducted the Konsertförening Orchestra, at the Auditorium in Stockholm, Sweden

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—January 1941. Thomas Beecham conducted. MOST RECENT—February 2008. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted

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

DURATION: About 22 minutes

Symphony No. 7

THE BACKSTORY  In 1918, Sibelius was not only completing his Fifth Symphony and beginning his Sixth; he was also getting underway with his Seventh, which would ultimately bring his symphonic output to a close. Work proceeded in parallel for some while, but not until Sibelius signed off on his Sixth could he focus on his Seventh Symphony without distraction, which he did for a further thirteen months.

On May 20, 1918, he wrote a letter to an unknown recipient that relates, in somewhat telegraphic style, the formative stage of his final three symphonies. This document provides one of the earliest glimpses into the Seventh Symphony as a work-in-progress:    

My new works, partly sketched and planned. The Fifth Symphony is in a new form.…a spiritual intensification until the end. Triumphal.

The Sixth Symphony is wild and impassioned in character. Somber, with pastoral contrasts.…

The Seventh Symphony. Joy of life and vitalité with appassionata passages. In three movements—the last a “Hellenic Rondo.”

All this with due reservations...It looks as if I shall come out with all three of these symphonies at the same time.…As usual, the sculptural is more prominent in my music.…With regard to symphonies VI and VII, the plans may possibly be altered, depending on the way my musical ideas develop. As usual, I am a slave to my themes and submit to their demands.…These new symphonies of mine are more in the nature of professions of faith than my other works.

Sibelius makes clear that, when his Seventh Symphony was in its early stages, he sensed that it would comprise three separate movements. In the end, he brought everything together into a single movement lasting some twenty-two minutes. The form is not one traditionally associated with a symphony; in fact, Sibelius intended to title the piece Fantasia sinfonica. That’s what it was called when he conducted the premiere, and the first few ensuing performances. He changed his mind only shortly before the work’s publication, writing to the publisher Wilhelm Hansen, “Best if its name is Symphonie No. 7 (in einem Satze) [‘in one movement’],” thereby admitting it to the roster of his full-scale, “proper” symphonies.

Within that single, brief movement Sibelius’s music passes through eleven discrete sections marked with differing tempos. Some analysts, wanting to associate this piece more closely with traditional symphonic form, have linked some sections so as to suggest a four-movement piece. Thus viewed, the groupings tend to fall something like this:

I. Adagio—
II. Vivacissimo—Adagio—
III. Allegro molto moderato—Allegro moderato—
IV. Vivace—Presto—Adagio—Largamente molto— . . . with a coda consisting of Affetuoso—Tempo I

Other readings view the ultimate structure as an outgrowth of Sibelius’s initial three-movement plan. And yet, it seems somehow unnecessary to explain away, and in a sense undermine, Sibelius’s hard-won efforts to let this symphony flow according to its own will. The music commentator Donald Francis Tovey compared the experience of listening to Sibelius’s Seventh to the sensation of flying in an aircraft. “An aeronaut carried with the wind,” he remarked, “has no sense of movement at all. . . . He moves in the air and can change his pace without breaking his movement.” The musicologist James Hepokoski, author of the Sibelius article in the The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Second Edition), is a partisan of the four-section foundation, but he seems to find that aspect less important than the cohesive flow of this unusual work. “Its ad hoc structure,” he writes, “emerges link-by-link from the transformational processes of the musical ideas themselves—a content-based form constantly in the process of becoming.” Elsewhere in his article on the composer he proclaims the Seventh Symphony to be “surely Sibelius’s most remarkable compositional achievement.”

In this work, Sibelius essentially created a bridge between the disparate world of the multi-movement symphony and the single-movement symphonic poem, and he did it with music that is in turn lofty, serene, dignified, and passionate, music of unearthly beauty—a summit achievement near the end of a productive career.

THE MUSIC  The piece opens with a triple-beat on the timpani—an echo of the way he had begun the second movement of his Sixth Symphony. It is a call-to-attention; and yet, marked piano, it is a whispered summons, a way for Sibelius to advise us that, even when the ensuing symphony grows loud, we should be prepared for stillness to overtake the landscape without much warning. It is characteristic of Sibelius to reverse himself in such ways—to reach a dynamic climax only to pull back unexpectedly in volume, to achieve a rapid tempo and suddenly back away into something slower, to arrive at a place of transcendent peacefulness that transforms into a pang of anguish. Several themes play important roles in this symphony, one sometimes giving rise to another through related intervals or contours. They include a rising scale from the strings early on, and a descending response weaving gently through the woodwinds; a gleaming trombone solo of vast scope in the Adagio (a recurring section, its recollection helping ground the somewhat free-form structure of this symphony); a fanfare-like theme in the winds for the Allegro molto moderato section. Though unquestionably anchored in the key of C, Sibelius’s narrative is decidedly not that of a Classical symphony based on sonata forms and rondos and the like; the “Hellenic Rondo” he initially envisaged largely evaporated as he worked on the piece, just as had the “wild and impassioned” character he had planned for the Sixth Symphony. Nonetheless, the unrolling of the Seventh Symphony is clear to follow thanks to the specific qualities of its themes, the distinct flavors of his orchestral textures, and the defined character of its episodes.

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:Herbert Blomstedt conducting the San Francisco Symphony (Decca)  |  Leif Segerstam conducting the Helsinki Philharmonic (Ondine)  |  Neeme Järvi conducting the Gothenburg Symphony (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Simon Rattle conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (EMI)

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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