Sibelius: Night Ride and Sunrise, Opus 55 │ Symphony No. 6, Opus 104

Jean (Johan Julius Christian) Sibelius was born on December 8, 1865, at Tavestehus (Hämeenlinna), Finland, then an autonomous Grand Duchy within the Russian Empire, and died at Jarvenpää, Finland, on September 20, 1957. He composed Night Ride and Sunrise in 1908, completing it in November that year. The first performance was given in Saint Petersburg in January 1909 under the direction of Alexander Siloti, to whose wife the score is dedicated. The performance was a very bad one, with Siloti making some brutal cuts as well as ignoring Sibelius’s highly specific directions concerning tempo relationships. It was one of many enraging experiences Sibelius suffered with conductors around this time. The first and only performances by the San Francisco Symphony were in April 2000, under the direction of Paavo Järvi. The score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns (doubled if possible, for the climax of the Sunrise), two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, tambourine, triangle, bass drum, and strings. Performance time: about fifteen minutes.

Sibelius made his first plans for his Sixth Symphony in 1918 but completed the score only in February 1923, conducting the first performance himself on the 19th of that month in Helsinki. It was the last time he conducted in Finland. The first American performance, on April 23, 1926, was given by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski conducting. The San Francisco Symphony first played the work in February 1952, when Sir Thomas Beecham conducted. It was performed here most recently in November 2003, under the direction of Sakari Oramo. The score calls for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, timpani, harp, and strings. Performance time: about twenty-eight minutes.

Night Ride and Sunrise comes from the beginning of the six-year span leading up to 1914, the year Europe went up in flames, a span that was the most amazing in the history of Western music, one in which composers as diverse as Bartók, Berg, Busoni, Debussy, Elgar, Falla, Fauré, Ives, Kodály, Mahler, Nielsen, Prokofiev, Puccini, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Reger, Schoenberg, Scriabin, Sibelius, Strauss, Stravinsky, and Webern gave us some of their greatest music. For Sibelius himself, these were the years of the Fourth Symphony and the beginning of the long labors on the Fifth; The Bard and The Oceanides as well as Luonnotar, a tone poem for soprano and orchestra, which is his most powerful vocal work; of Rakastava, that too-little-known masterpiece for strings and percussion; and the string quartet he called Voces intimae. It was the time when he had found his voice, one of the most powerful and individual on our musical landscape.

But if Sibelius had found his musical voice, he had also come close to losing his voice in the literal sense. The persistent pain this dedicated cigar-smoker felt in his throat turned out to be caused by a malignant tumor. Surgery in Helsinki was unsuccessful, and Sibelius submitted to a second operation in Berlin. It was a grim experience, physically and emotionally, and even after the removal of the growth the doctors’ prognosis was gloomy. But they were wrong. Jean Sibelius was an incredibly tough organism, and he survived his tumor by forty-nine years. After a short period of grumpily endured abstinence, he even returned to his black cigars. (Almost as bad as the abstinence was the transitional period of putting up with a lighter brand of cigar.) But he had faced death, and it is no wonder that much of his music from this time is dark and overlaid with  sinister shadows.

Sibelius could never be persuaded to write an autobiography, but he talked a lot, and to a lot of people, and not without seeming contradiction. Thus, for example, he told his biographer Karl Ekman that the idea of Night Ride and Sunrise had first come to him at his first sight of the Colosseum in Rome as far back as 1901 when he was working on his Second Symphony, but very late in his life, talking about the tone poem with his secretary, Santeri Levas, he associated it with a nocturnal sleigh ride from Helsinki to Kervo on which he saw an incredible sunrise: “All of heaven was a sea of colors, shifting, flowing, and producing a most inspiring sight until it all ended in a growing light.”

Like his Roman experience, the magical sleigh ride took place years before Sibelius turned those experiences into music. Sibelius’s most exhaustive and important biographer, Erik Tawaststjerna, perceptively suggests as well “that joy at the prospect of the arrival of each new day was highly congenial given the psychic shock of his operation.” That fits well with what Sibelius told yet another writer, Rosa Newmarch, his first advocate in England. Talking with her in 1909, he expressed concern whether he had done well to give the work the title he had chosen. In Tawaststjerna’s words, would it not “lead people to expect the kind of pale program piece that had gained currency in Joseph Raff’s day, whereas his real intention had been to conjure up the inner feelings of an ordinary man riding along through the darkness of the forests. He is glad to be close to nature; he is awed by the moment of stillness at dawn; he is full of gratitude and joy at the sight of the sunrise.” (Joachim Raff—1822-82—was a prolific German composer several of whose eleven symphonies include a set devoted to the four seasons).

As the title promises, Sibelius begins with the Night Ride. On the surface, this resembles one of Schubert’s galloping 6/8 finales (the Death and the Maiden and G major quartets and the C minor Piano Sonata, for example), but it is a gallop with a difference. The differences begin with the dissonant, startling beginning with its snarl of brass and scream of woodwinds, all against a backdrop of forcefully rhythmic percussion. The galloping music this introduces is put forth with a wonderful sense of flickering light and shade—greatly varied dynamics, subtle shifts in the orchestral texture, fascinating colors (when the strings, for example, are directed to play near the bridge so as to produce a chillingly glassy tone), all of it ranging across wide harmonic territory. Even the melodic shape shifts constantly.

The most basic possible description of Night Ride and Sunrise would say that the work is in two sections, one for each of the two topics in the title. That would be right as far as it goes, but it really does not go far enough, for the genius of the work is most vividly manifest not only in the awe-inspiring Sunrise, but also in the way Sibelius gets from one part to the other. The string gallop recedes into the background, now being heard as an accompaniment to broadly striding melody phrases heard first in the woodwinds; moreover, each measure of the Night Ride music is now just a single beat, one of four in each measure, of a much slower tempo. (Here is where Siloti wrought havoc in the premiere by speeding the whole section up violently.)

Now Sibelius moves by degrees into a true slow movement (Largo). We hear passionate cries from the strings, and the silence of dawn is broken by the isolated calls of the coming day’s first birds. And then, in music scored with the utmost subtlety, Sibelius evokes the sunrise and the first spreading of light. It is, need one add, the pale light of a northern morning. In an extraordinary way—only Sibelius could have done this—the music combines glory with reticence and mystery. I am always reminded of the shuddery line by Eichendorff that Schumann set so hauntingly in his “Zwielicht”(“Twilight”): “Stimmen hin und wieder wandern”—“Voices shift and echo here and there.” Events and textures pile up in a way Sibelius would revisit fifteen years later in the fearful yet equally mysterious closing pages of his Seventh Symphony. The strings finish with a grand crescendo, but what is left is the gray sound of a low, bunched chord of bass clarinet, bassoons with contrabassoons, and horns, pianissimo.

As the 1920s dawned the sorely battered Finnish people were just emerging from a time of devastating troubles. The subjects of Russia’s former Grand Duchy of Finland had paid an appalling price for their newborn nation. Russia’s 1917 February and October Revolutions had initiated Finland’s move towards independence, but the 1918 eruption of a brief yet catastrophic civil war had intensified old hatreds, as wartime acts of terror hardened into political suppression and retaliation after the battles had ended. More than twenty thousand people—including children and teenagers—perished in prison camps in the aftermath. Only with the end of World War I could the long process of healing begin, as Finland transformed itself into a modern presidential republic.

Cultural monument or not, Jean Sibelius had not been immune to the civil war’s depredations. After Järvenpää, the location of Sibelius’s country home Ainola, was overrun by troops, the Sibelius family spent two months housed as refugees in a Helsinki hospital, where food shortages were so acute that Jean lost over forty pounds. Yet peacetime presented but scant improvement to the aging composer. Although the young Sibelius had blazed as a beacon for Finnish resistance during the “Russification” of Finland in the early years of the century, he was uneasy in the new republic. Particularly distressing to the native Swedish-speaking Sibelius was the anti-Swedish temper of the time, as was the fervent ryssänviha,or hatred for all things Russian. Increasingly he felt out of step with the aggressive modernism of contemporaries such as Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Even the Finnish epic Kalevala, so stout a foundation for much of Sibelius’s creative career, had been co-opted by extremist political factions. His private life offered little consolation: enormous debts, marital strain, and the deaths of both dear friend Axel Carpelan and brother Christian darkened his moods yet further. He sought refuge in alcohol.

Work offered some relief, but his creative output was limited mostly to lighter fare and the functional pieces that he, as the country’s national composer, was expected to provide. Those helped to pay off debts but brought him little artistic satisfaction. The awkwardly antiquarian Autrefois, written for the 1919 inauguration of a Helsinki art gallery, bears sad witness to a stagnating talent. “If only Autrefois were good—but it isn’t. Oh, woe!” wailed Sibelius in the privacy of his diary.

Yet all was not lost. The wild cranes on their autumn migrations still filled the skies over Ainola, their seasonal reappearance an affirmation for an artist who found elemental spiritual truth in the natural world. The composer of Pohjola’s Daughter and the Fourth Symphony was by no means a spent force. Great music still lay within him: the Sixth and Seventh symphonies, incidental music to Shakespeare’s The Tempest,and that haunting evocation of the northern wild, Tapiola of 1926. After that, a rapid decrescendo ending in silence for the long years remaining until 1957 and his death at ninety-one.

Sibelius first mentioned the Sixth Symphony in a letter of May 20, 1918 to Axel Carpelan:

The Sixth Symphony is wild and passionate in character. Gloomy with pastoral contrasts. Probably in four movements with a finale, which will build to a gloomy, wild romp of the orchestra in which the main theme disappears.

If nothing else, Sibelius’s description points to the lengthy gestation that the Sixth would require. There is nothing whatsoever in the finished work even remotely suggestive of a wild, passionate romp. Quite the contrary: the Sibelius Sixth is transparent, pastoral, lyrical, and notably even-tempered—a sanctuary fashioned out of music. Sibelius’s “extraordinary ability to reaffirm a deep faith in humanity and life’s vitality” permeates the symphony, in the words of biographer Glenda Dawn Goss. To this day the Sixth remains the least known (or understood) of the seven symphonies, and yet for those who make its full acquaintance, the Sixth may become the most cherished of them all.

Its closest companion is the classicist Third—another lesser-known Sibelius symphony—but overall the Sixth stands apart, unique, enigmatic, and compelling. Its four movements correspond quite neatly to their traditional counterparts, even including a scherzo in third place, but the movements themselves resist neat pigeonholing into the usual array of forms such as sonata, ternary, rondo, and the like. It avoids large-scale symphonic gestures in favor of sustained passages fashioned out of small cells of material that are often treated polyphonically, almost in the manner of Renaissance composers such as Palestrina. Its tempo markings reflect a slightly cool overall temperature: Allegro molto moderato, Allegretto moderato, Poco vivace, with only the finale’s Allegro molto breaking away from all those careful qualifications: very moderate, moderate, and somewhat. The orchestration follows suit with a resolute move towards the center: mostly strings and winds, restrained brass, prominent harp, atmospheric timpani, and the throaty purr of the bass clarinet, making its sole appearance in the Sibelius symphonies.

Even though the Sixth is typically identified as being in D minor, the work is actually in Dorian—a sound steeped in spiritual tradition and, to modern ears, evocative of antiquity. (To find a D Dorian scale on the piano, play all the white keys from D to D.) The first movement in particular contrasts the medievalist Dorian with that most elemental of modern scales: C major, characteristically found in relatively upbeat passages.

The symphony doesn’t so much start as it drifts into earshot. The second violins are in the midst of a gently staggered descending Dorian-mode scale, soon enough joined by violas and first violins with lines of their own—some upwards, some downwards, but all versions of the same scale. Leaps are discreet and infrequent. At just about the one-minute mark, the oboes enter with scales of their own, followed by the flutes with something entirely different—a melody in thirds that outlines an obvious and exposed leap. At this point the winds—supported by sustained horns and subtly shimmering timpani—take the lead, their down-cascading figures answered by upward arcs in the strings. The temperature warms. A strangely out-of-place C-sharp arises in the low bass, held under a vaguely dissonant sustained chord. As it fades, the harp emerges with a simple accompaniment in C major, while the winds state a bubbling theme that has impressed some commentators as the primary theme of a classical sonata form, others as the secondary theme, and still others as a variant of materials already heard. Labels notwithstanding, the movement has now settled into a genial, almost bucolic C major.

Before long, however, all that C major gives way to harmonically adventuresome passagework, initially in the winds, then in spiccato strings (i.e., played with a lightly bouncing bow) and densely polyphonic as instrumental groups lob materials back and forth. Eventually it all levels out to the original D Dorian—now noticeably leaning towards F major—in what could be considered a recapitulation of sorts: the flute melody from the beginning is restated in no uncertain terms. A joyous climax leads to a darkly indecisive passage that culminates in a powerful, seemingly final cadence in bright C major. But that’s not the end: after a pause D Dorian quietly reasserts itself, bringing the movement to a hushed and tranquil close.

In place of the usual slow movement, the Sixth provides a downright chipper Allegretto moderato. As is usual with late-period Sibelius, the structure defies easy identification—it displays variation-like qualities to be sure, but classical theme and variations it is not.  What can be said is that it falls into five sections; the first three are increasingly elaborate versions of the same materials, the fourth provides atmospheric contrast, and the fifth briefly recaps the opening materials.

The first three sections do not follow each other in turn so much as they accumulate, each section adding itself to its predecessor, the whole becoming steadily denser and more rhythmically complex. However, the underlying themes remain the same throughout: a slow descending scalar passage answered by a jumpy, almost dance-like melody that leads to faster ascending scales. The fourth section provides an abrupt contrast by way of shimmering soft notes played mostly in the strings with woodwind interjections. (For aficionados of musical snow flurries, this is a passage to treasure.) Then comes a tempo primo and four bars of utterly unsentimental wrap-up, ending on a matter-of-fact minor chord.

The third movement comes closest to traditional symphonic form by being a recognizable scherzo, even down to the usual tripartite layout of scherzo-trio-scherzo. Whirring and energetic, the Poco vivaceis the most immediately approachable movement in the symphony, but nonetheless it asserts its right to be enigmatic by way of its middle or “trio” section, a near-minimalist essay in static rhythm and languid harmonic changes.

The finale, marked Allegro molto, establishes a heraldic mood from the onset. The first of the movement’s three broad parts begins with a noble theme that is stated, answered, and passed about from strings to winds until coming to rest in a clear cadence. The second part follows immediately: brighter, faster, more energetic, and characterized by rhythmic urgency and dancelike figurations. Eventually it gives way to the third part, a return to the original materials, but now stated with more elaborate underpinnings and given an overall freer rein. One might expect such a passage to lead to a brilliant conclusion, but instead the music fades out to an extended coda—one that can be thought of as applying to the entire symphony, and not just to this movement alone. Those sinuous Dorian-mode scales of the symphony’s opening return, and after they resolve into utter simplicity, the violins end the work on a D-natural that fades away to inaudibility.

When asked about the Sixth Symphony, Sibelius tended to contradict himself; he invoked the scent of new snow, suggested that it is overall a poem, even implied that it holds undercurrents of rage and passion. But Sibelius knew that, in the end, his was just one voice among many: “The final form of one’s work is, indeed, dependent on powers that are stronger than oneself. Later on one can substantiate this or that, but on the whole one is merely a tool. This wonderful logic—let us call it God—that governs a work of art is the forcing power.”

Michael Steinberg (Night Ride and Sunrise) and Scott Foglesong (Symphony No. 6)

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.

Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony’s program book and Chair of the Department of Musicianship and Music Theory at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

More About the Music
Recordings: For Night Ride and Sunrise—Osmo Vänskä with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra (BIS)  |  Paavo Järvi conducting the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic (Virgin Classics)  |  Colin Davis conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (RCA)  |  Alexander Gibson conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Chandos)
For Symphony No. 6—Osmo Vänskä with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra (BIS)  |  Herbert Blomstedt conducting the San Francisco Symphony (Decca)  |  Colin Davis conducting the Boston Symphony (Philips)  |  Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)

Reading: Sibelius: A Composer’s Life and the Awakening of Finland, by Glenda Dawn Goss (University of Chicago Press) | Sibelius, by Andrew Barnett (Yale University Press)  |  Chapter 5 “Apparition from the Woods: The Loneliness of Jean Sibelius” from The Rest is Noise, by Alex Ross (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)  | The Master Musicians: Sibelius, by Robert Layton (Schirmer Books)  |  Sibelius, Volume III, by Erik Tawaststjerna (Faber Books)