MORNING at 2 am, in the quiet of the night,
I put on a CD of Sibelius' Seventh Symphony and shut off all the
lights in my room. What proceeded is a wholly personal experience
which I do not ask you to understand; I only ask that you listen.
Deep in the darkness, at the height of Sibelius' last completed
symphony, I was delivered into a mountainous haven of musical ecstasy.
So utterly absorbed was I that I thought I saw pinpoints of light
in my room. Perhaps I was dreaming, half-asleep, maybe even delirious.
In any case, I have always imagined these were stars before my eyes,
and have called them as such.
Four years later,
I bought this illuminating (if incredibly expensive) book entitled
The Sibelius Companion* and inside, between pages 239-270,
was an introduction to the manuscript and compositional history
of the Seventh Symphony. Reading this, I was fascinated to find
the author describing Sibelius' sketches for a never-realised multi-movement
tone poem called Kuutar ("[Feminine] Moon Spirit"). One of
the themes of this work is related to material from the opening
"Adagio" section of the Seventh Symphony. This was called Tähtölä
- "Where the Stars Dwell". My memory leaped four years back
and my jaw dropped.
was originally planned as a three-movement work. Evidence also suggested
that at one point, the composer was considering four. Sibelius planned
it alongside the composition of the Fifth
and Sixth Symphonies, which were also the final homes for material
from Kuutar. Although his first mention of the Seventh occured
in December 1918, the source for its material has been traced back
to around 1914/15, the period of the Fifth Symphony.
its final home key of C, the Symphony existed in embryonic form
in the key of D. There is something about C that is very primal,
as if it is the "mother" of all keys - it is in a sense the simplest,
and in this way all other keys are organic variants or descendants.
There was a time
when composing in C was considered fruitless - it had "nothing more
to offer." But in response to the Seventh, the English composer
Ralph Vaughan Williams declared that only Sibelius could make C
major sound completely fresh. Peter Franklin, writing of it in the
Segerstam/Chandos cycle, calls the apocalyptic conclusion "the grandest
celebration of C major there ever was."
abandoned the multi-movement plan in favour of a continuous single
movement in 1923, and the Seventh was completed on 2nd March 1924,
75 years ago. Except that it wasn't then considered a "symphony".
It was premiered in Stockholm in the autumn of 1925 as the Fantasia
sinfonica or "Symphonic Fantasy". The composer grappled with
the name (and its subtitles) for quite a while, and only on February
25, 1925, with the publication of the score, did he finally direct
the publisher, Hansen, to title it "Symphony No.7 (in one movement)".
At some point, Sibelius
seemed to realise that what he had created was perhaps what he had
always sought in symphonic thought: total unity of musical expression
based on the organic development of the briefest of material. With
his penchant for the fusion of motifs and movements (eg. Second
and Fifth Symphonies), the highest form
of these techniques must be a single stretch of music completely
based on the development of a single theme or motif. This is exactly
what the Seventh is.
SYMPHONY in C, Op. 105, can in fact be analysed into four parts.
Many CD recordings of the work make this clear by dividing the 20+
minute work on four tracks. But to understand this unique model
of symphonic thought, one must see beyond what can be articulated...
someone writes about my music and finds, let us say, a feeling of
nature in it, all well and good. Let him say that, as long as we
have it clear within ourselves, we do not become a part of the music's
innermost sound and sense through analysis ... Compositions are
like butterflies. Touch them even once and the dust of hue is gone.
They can, of course, still fly, but are nowhere as beautiful ...
To understand a flower,
you can cut it up and label the parts. But once you have done that,
it is dead, dissected, no longer growing, no longer meaning. The
key Sibelius was pointing out is to listen without analysing, understand
The Seventh Symphony
is the apotheosis of Sibelius' symphonic thought. Its unfolding
and culmination is wrought with so much finality that one cannot
blame Sibelius for being unable to complete another symphony after
it, even though he lived for another 33 years. Pestered by supporters,
fans, critics and conductors alike, Sibelius struggled with his
Eighth Symphony through the 1930s and probably the 40s. In 1945,
he even said that he had "finished [it] many times", but was unsatisfied
seemed to come to terms with the fact that he could not improve
on the symphonic perfection of the Seventh. The score of the Eighth,
in whatever form it may have existed, was destroyed in the flames
of his fireplace around the mid-1940s.
WITH a soft
stroke of timpani, the Seventh Symphony rises from the darkness.
A rising C scale enigmatically ends on A-flat. Mists float by, the
woodwind, like some primeval bird, greets the barely-lit dawn. Strings
shimmer, nostalgic yet urging gently forward. Light fills the sky,
but it is neither night nor day. Surging from the undercurrents,
the great trombone theme surfaces and fills the universe with a
grand evocation of infinity. An urgent development section follows,
full of moving strings, distant winds, cries of life, pulsating
rhythms of nature.
The development of
the material is tightly concentrated, leading suddenly but inevitably
into the second appearance of the trombone theme, dark, solemn with
the enduring force of life. Ominous winds swirl, stir and growl
in the background. As this passes, the mood flows into a pastorale-like
sequence. The alpine trombone theme finally achieves its highest
being in its third and final appearance. Where one might think it
could not become more awesome, it does - the strings swell, the
winds billow with understated power before it then roars into being.
Raising a great storm of brass and strings, the symphony seems to
struggle in its birth, life and culmination all at once, driving
vast galaxies of intense energy.
Suddenly, we seem transported beyond all that has transpired. Ecstatic
violins soar higher and ever higher, penetrating the blackness beyond.
As if returning to the dawn-touched opening, distant horns reveal
a quiet flute solo - is this not the mythic call of the opening,
seeming to speak to us from another time, another space?... It is
the same voice, the hymn of the trombone in another form, the same
musical material that has gone on before, transformed. The breathing,
living nature that does not know ending. In all times past and to
come, it forms and transforms, never stagnant, always dynamic.
And yet always the
same - wherever the Symphony goes, it remembers the essence of its
birth. Thus, ultimately we return to the beginning - C major. The
Symphony gathers its orchestra for one final paean to universal
life itself - every instrument joins in "the grandest celebration
of C major there ever was". Except the clarinets, 1st and 3rd
trumpets (playing E and G), the entire orchestra, layer by layer,
hymns the note C at every octave. Delivered from mortal bonds of
earthly understanding, rising above mountains we cannot conquer,
gathering with the force of revolving planets, thrust into the chordal
Om of the universe, to where the stars dwell.
Kari. "Sibelius' Seventh Symphony: An Introduction to the Manuscript
and Printed Sources". Trans. James Hepokoski. From The Sibelius
Companion. Ed. Glenda Dawn Goss. Greenwood Press, Connecticut,
1996. US$85.00+... but it was worth it. From Amazon.com
Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase thinks that he isn't likely to live
to see the year 2057. [Sigh]. Nevermind, there's still 2007 and
2015 - see you in Finland!
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