Sibelius - Symphony No.2

Perhaps no composer is so strongly associated with nationalism as Jean Sibelius, author of the intensely patriotic Finlandia. Nor is this association undeserved, for Sibelius was deeply involved in the struggle to keep Finland free from the rule of Tsarist Russia. More than one of his works was banned by the authorities because the populace found it too inspiring. Even when he was not explicitly protesting oppression, Sibelius wrote music strongly tied to his homeland and its traditions, exemplified by works such as Kullervo, Lemminkäinen, and the ebullient Karelia suite.

Yet contrary to the assertions of some writers, nationalism did not rule the composer's life. The Second Symphony serves as an example: the major themes were developed during a stay in Italy, and several were originally conceived for a tone poem to be based on Dante's Divine Comedy. One of the most picturesque melodies is a bassoon duet that appears near the beginning of the symphony's second movement, which had been intended to represent Death's visit to Don Juan's castle. Yet the style of the symphony is so unmistakably Sibelian, so inescapably Finnish, that perhaps the critics can be forgiven for seeing it as one more expression of the indomitable nature of the tiny nation that has insisted on maintaining its identity in the face of a seemingly endless parade of would-be conquerors.

The Second Symphony was an instant success with the Finnish audience, and established Sibelius as a major composer. But listeners outside Scandinavia were less receptive, and it took some time for it to become the most popular of his symphonies. Even as late as 1940, for example, Virgil Thomson (himself a Romantically-influenced composer) called it "vulgar, self-indulgent, and provincial beyond description." Self-indulgent it may be, and perhaps earthy, but it is hard to call a work provincial when it has so thoroughly captivated music lovers worldwide for nearly a century.

Ever since the first performance of Sibelius' Second Symphony in 1902 the work has excited the curiosity of music-lovers and musicologists alike. What does the work 'mean'? Surely an artistic utterance as powerful and dramatic as this Symphony must have some 'programme' or 'message' behind it? Perhaps the 'message' was at first intelligible only in Finland, for the work was greeted enthusiastically there but was accepted abroad only reluctantly and gradually. It was as if the meaning' was like a puzzle, the solving of which was necessary before appreciation might be attained. To clear this barrier, a noted ambassador of Sibelius' music, the conductor Robert Kajanus, constructed a programme for the Symphony based upon political upheaval and Finnish patriotism, but since Sibelius vehemently denied any such intention, we need not examine it. It would be obvious anyway: the ultimate triumph of Finland's independence over immense difficulties. Although Sibelius denied any overt meaning, he did not deny that there may have been some programme, but in the absence of any guidance we have to assume that the work is an exercise in pure composition.

It seems incongruous that so apparently nationalistic a work should have been composed far from the lakes and forests of Finland. Sibelius spent the winter of 1901/2 in Italy, in a small villa near Rapallo, devoting himself to the composition of this Symphony. It is also remarkable that this work, which commentators like to think of as having been created in a surge of white-hot, original thought, derives a significant amount of its material from aborted subjects as far from Finnish nationalism as Dante's Divine Comedy and a planned tone poem on the story of Don Juan. We may only guess at the compositional processes by which Sibelius transformed such diverse ideas into the unified structure that became his most popular symphony.

The form of the first movement has exercised critics for decades. Is it, they ask, something entirely new or an individual approach to first movement sonata form? The first theme on woodwind takes the music into A major by the 18th bar, which is unusually early for a movement of this length to attain the dominant. However, such freedom is part of Sibelius' language; the real test of concentration comes as apparently disconnected themes are presented, then worked upon, and become unified only in the recapitulation. Individual it may be, but it is still recognisable as sonata form. There are few formal puzzles in the rest of the work, but the musical language of the second movement is stark and challenging, with huge anguished climaxes growing out of the ominous footsteps of the opening.

By making the Scherzo contiguous with the finale Sibelius creates a remarkable structure which builds step-like via quieter sections into one of the most devastating affirmations in music. A Trio led by hesitant oboe breaks the headlong rush of the Scherzo and, later, gathers about itself formidable excitement at the approach of the finale. The first notes of the swinging theme, D E-F#, invert the oboe's opening phrase in the first movement, and it is this triumphant theme that survives vast plains of hypnotic musings before reaching its victorious destination.

It is conducted by Nicholas Zaklama.

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