JEAN SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 2 in D major, op. 43

Jean Sibelius was born in Hämeenlinna (then known by the Swedish name Tavastehus), Finland, on December 8, 1865, and died at Järvenpää, near Helsinki, on September 20, 1957. Sibelius completed the Second Symphony early in 1902 and conducted the first performance on March 8 that year at Helsinki. The score calls for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings.

It comes as a surprise to learn that a composer renowned as a nationalistic hero in his homeland was not a native speaker of the language. Sibelius was born to a Swedish-speaking family in a small town in south central Finland and only began to speak some Finnish from the age of eight. He entered a Finnish-language school at eleven, but not until he was a young man did he feel completely at home in the language.

Musical studies began with the violin and soon he aimed at a career as a professional virtuoso. But in 1885, after an abortive attempt at legal studies, he pursued composition with Martin Wegelius in Helsinki. Further studies in Berlin introduced him to the newest music, including Strauss’s Don Juan at its premiere. He was usually in debt, apparently unable to avoid financial extravagance in the German capital, and already drinking heavily, a habit that remained with him. After his return to Finland in 1891 he composed the choral symphony Kullervo, which was so successful at its premiere in April 1892 that he was immediately established as a leading figure in Finnish music, a position that was never seriously challenged thereafter.

The following seven years saw the composition of a series of scores for dramatic production, a failed operatic attempt, and—most important—a group of purely orchestral scores, En saga and the four symphonic poems about Lemminkäinen, a character from the Finnish national epic Kalevala. These culminated in his First Symphony, composed evidently in part as a musical response to Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Symphony. During this period, too, Sibelius had opportunities to appear as a conductor, both at home and abroad, through the good offices of Robert Kajanus, conductor of the Finnish National Symphony and an enthusiastic supporter of Sibelius.

Sibelius’s most famous single work—the one now known by the title Finlandia—and the first of the symphonies that reveals the true nature of his art, the Second, both saw the light of day during a period of great patriotic fervor in Finland, when many of the composer’s compatriots sought to create a nation that was both culturally and politically independent of Tsarist Russia, with which Finland shares a long border.

An admirer, one Axel Carpelan, a neurotic hypochondriac who loved Sibelius’s music, had suggested Finlandia as a good title for a work and also proposed that Sibelius compose (among other things) a symphony, which would be the Second, a violin concerto, and a string quartet. Best of all, he found two Swedish patrons who agreed to put up a sum of money sufficient to allow Sibelius to spend some time during the winter of 1900–01 in Italy, where he worked steadily, produced some small pieces, and sketched ideas for a treatment of Don Juan, though some of this material later ended up in the Second Symphony. While passing through Germany, he met Richard Strauss, who formed an extremely favorable opinion of the young Finn: “Sibelius is the only Scandinavian composer who has real depth,” he wrote in his diary.

When the new symphony was finally finished, Sibelius conducted four successive performances in Helsinki on March 8, 10, 14, and 16, 1901, with a sold-out auditorium for each performance. His friend Kajanus wrote an enthusiastic essay in which he interpreted the symphony as a political statement, with the Andante expressing “the most broken-hearted protest against all the injustice that threatens at the present time,” while the scherzo “gives a picture of frenetic preparation,” and the Finale moves to a “triumphant conclusion intended to rouse in the listener a picture of lighter and confident prospects for the future.” These ideas were surely the writer’s own; Sibelius himself never authorized them, nor spoke of a political content in the work, though under the circumstances, it is quite likely that many of his countrymen responded to it in much the same way Kajanus did.

The Second Symphony is expansive and spacious. What makes it characteristic of the mature Sibelius is the way it grows from small musical motives, as short as a few notes, or a characteristic chord progression, into a vast architectural structure, and does so with a kind of fluidity, as if the symphony is congealing out of the northern mists. Still, while “mist” might be a suitable metaphor for some of the later Sibelius symphonies, the Second begins in a sunny D major with figures that are more evocative of the forests (especially in the rich echo by the four horns of a little turn figure first presented by the woodwinds). It has a feeling of expansive openness, partly generated by the spacious time signatures that Sibelius often uses (the Symphony opens in 6/4; 12/4 in the slow section at the center of the scherzo; 3/2 for the Finale). Although Sibelius’s music could hardly sound more different, at least one writer has produced an entire book hailing him as the true successor of Beethoven in shaping his magnificent musical edifices through the development of a handful of purely abstract musical ideas—with results that seem far too expressive to be abstract.

Sibelius arranges this four-movement symphony to fall into two parts. The bright mellowness of the opening movement is shadowed by the minor-key second movement, which unfolds some of the same musical ideas. Sibelius directly links the last two movements. The furious, mysterious, driven scherzo pauses for the oboe’s contrasting, sustained melody, and this eventually broadens the ending of the movement into an anticipation of the triumphant Finale, building it out of what might have seemed the ashes of the dark parts of the scherzo to the brilliant and heroic close. —© Steven Ledbetter