sibelius’ 150th

Happy Birthday, Jean Sibelius! I love the symphonies of Sibelius (with the possible exception of No. 2, and that’s only because of the endless scale patterns that annoy me to play – I love listening to it), and I have since before there was ever an inkling that I’d make music my profession. NPR has celebrated by digging into its archives and finding interviews with Michael Steinberg covering each of the symphonies. Each one is just a couple minutes long, and Steinberg has a way of talking about music that is both erudite and easy to understand – a rare combination!

My own favorites?

  • No. 5 – I cry during the great ‘swan’ motif every single time I play it.
  • No. 3 – Such a Haydnesque, and light piece, as Steinberg says, a “U-turn from what came before”.
  • No. 7 – Who knew a C major scale could be so beautifully evocative?

As for No. 6 – It is growing on me, I’m looking forward to returning to it this season. The Oregon Symphony is performing Sibelius’ Sixth Symphony in February, with guest conductor Robert Spano (and Joshua Bell as violin soloist, playing the Bruch Concerto No. 1). We last performed this enigmatic symphony with Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu, who described it as the most classically ‘Finnish’ of the symphonies.

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You can listen to the entire series of discussions here.

symphonic desert island list

CK Dexter Haven is one of the classical blogosphere’s most respected bloggers, and he’s always got something interesting to say – and lots of inside scoop on the goings on at the LA Philharmonic. This past week, Mr. CKDH was on a long drive to the Santa Barbara wine country when he came up with a cool game – here are the rules from his post:

  • You can only pick one symphony per composer
  • You must choose numbered symphonies 1 through 9 only.  No Symphonie fantastique, Symphony of Psalms, Symphonic Dances, etc.
  • Once you choose a numbered symphony, you cannot choose another similarly numbered symphony by a different composer (i.e. no choosing both Beethoven’s 7th and Sibelius 7th).
  • Use only current numbering conventions; so if you were to pick the New World Symphony by Dvo?ák, you’d have to put it in the 9th Symphony spot, not the 5th Symphony where some folks 50 years ago may have put it.
  • Bonus point for including symphonies by composers who actually composed at least nine numbered symphonies.

As noted by Tim Mangan in his list, there have been a couple of adaptations of the ‘rules’. Alex Ross proposed no Beethoven symphonies. Tim Mangan suggested that compositions without numbers might be ok, too. I’m thinking of my choices as I type this post, so I’m not sure which rules I’ll abide by at this point…

So, without further ado, my picks:

  • Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 1 I know, it’s a strange choice, but it’s a lovely symphony that one almost never gets to hear performed. I think I’ve only done it once in my 20 years with the Oregon Symphony, twice at most. I’d rather play it than 4, 5, or 6 any day, just because it still has a touch of the novel to it.
  • Ives – Symphony No. 2 I actually had to engage in an internal debate before I wrote this one down. I’m not a fan of Ives’ music, for which I don’t really have an intellectual basis. However, his 2nd really is a huge statement by a composer hitting his stride as he assimilates the European tradition (it really sounds a lot like Brahms, one must admit) and puts his own American stamp on the form.
  • Copland – Symphony No. 3 I have to admit, I have had a lot of ambivalence about Copland’s music after a surfeit of exposure during the first few years of my orchestral career. But there is something about the Third Symphony that haunts me. Its power, its delicacy, and the virtuoso demands it places on the ensemble. Plus, the Oregon Symphony is releasing its new recording of the Third on the Pentatone label on February 1st.
  • Vaughan Williams – Symphony No. 4 I have a soft spot for this angry and devastating work, as it was part of our critically-acclaimed Carnegie Hall debut concert at the Spring for Music festival back in 2011. At the Oregon Symphony we’ve so far played Nos. 4 and 5. I’m curious when our next encounter with RVW’s symphonies will take place…
  • Sibelius – Symphony No. 5 This symphony makes me cry every time I perform it. That magnificent ‘swan’ theme that bursts from the ground like a volcanic eruption at the work’s climax sends chills down my spine every single time. I just wish that the last chords of the piece didn’t so easily ruin an otherwise awesome performance. I pity any conductor that has to make sense of the ending and how to pace it. And audience members that clap one chord too soon…
  • Dvorak – Symphony No. 6 This symphony was a revelation to me when we first performed it with Carlos Kalmar in the past season or so. There is so much Dvorak that is so good, but not performed with any degree of regularity. I would happily put the Cello Concerto, Carnival Overture, and New World Symphony aside to play some of his lesser-known masterpieces, like this one.
  • Shostakovich – Symphony No. 7 Talk about a world within a symphony. Shostakovich plays cinema verité director in his harrowing description of the siege of Leningrad. It was hard to figure out which Shostakovich symphony to pick for which number, in the end I went with the one that I have not yet performed, in the hopes that it might hasten that coming to pass…
  • Schubert – Symphony No. 8 “Unfinished” Schubert’s symphonies suffer to almost the same degree as those of Dvorak. We only hear 8 and 9 with any regularity. His Nos. 4 and 5 are wonderful, classically-inspired works that are also a delight to perform. But the Unfinished is such a gem in its compressed form (which is a relief compared to the ‘heavenly’ length of the Ninth), and has such facile and heartbreaking melodies that I had to include it.
  • Mahler – Symphony No. 9 This is how one takes their leave of the world, with a sprawling, elegiac utterance of such depth and sincerity that it simply takes one’s breath away. It’s perhaps the only suitable bookend to Beethoven’s Ninth – putting resignation and sorrow in the place of triumph and joy.

My honorable mentions (omitted only because of the need to follow the rules): Beethoven 9, Shostakovich 8, Sibelius 4, Dvorak 7, Mahler 5, Mozart 39, Strauss Don Quixote, Lutoslawski 3.

This was a really fun mental exercise, and I must thank CKDH for his instigation of this blog meme! Well, done, Dexter!

sibelius & mahler

[In October 1907] Sibelius met the composer Gustav Mahler, who was visiting Helsinki. The two colleagues noticed that they had experienced the same phenomenon: with each new symphony both of them always lost listeners who had been captivated by the previous symphony.

But they disagreed about the essence of the symphony as a musical form. “I said that I admired its strictness and style and deep logic, which requires that all its motifs must be linked to each other,” Sibelius recollected later. “Nein, die Symphonie muss sein wie die Welt. Sie muss alles umfassen,” answered Mahler. (“No, the symphony must be like the world. It must encompass everything.”)


I love both Sibelius’ and Mahler’s music, their symphonies especially. But, I have lately (with the reading of the excellent new Mahler biography by Jens Malte Fischer) decided that Mahler’s own comment about what the symphony should be is actually somewhat ironic. I’ll explain. I believe that Sibelius actually did what Mahler intended in the literal sense. His symphonies are profoundly influenced by nature – nature without man, I’d say. Just the vast expanses of green forests, blue skies, and white snow of his beloved Finnish landscapes. Mahler, on the other hand, I believe, illustrates the interior world of man’s psyche – more specifically, Mahler’s own. And this is where the power of each composer’s works lies. Sibelius depicts the majesty, power, and awe-inspiring beauty of nature with such vividness – that the power of his orchestral climaxes are almost unbearable, like trying to look directly at the bright, midday sun. Mahler, on the other hand, finds equally powerful climaxes, but they are triumphs and tragedies of the human spirit, not of the physical world.

What do you think, and what are your favorite moments in Sibelius’ and/or Mahler’s symphonic output?