Spring Symphonies: 9/60 Sibelius: Symphony No 7

I started writing this piece after a long day at work, feeling tired, downbeat and pessimistic.  I was thinking about how uplifting this symphony has been to me over the years and I find the first six minutes some of the most intimate music that I know.  I even wrote I would give all of Mahler for those six minutes of Sibelius.

Re-reading it later I wondered how personal this reaction was.  Did everyone else get a strong wave of emotions when the great theme emerges from the trombones.  Does everyone or anyone get a great sense of homecoming when that music sounds out or greater sense of decay when at each repetition it is undermined or degraded?  I don’t know what your reaction is and in some ways it would be wrong to guess. I’m not even sure that in my thoughts on these symphonies are worth much if I lay down the emotional frame I have constructed over the years.  That’s all about me; too much about me.

When Sibelius writes we get an urgent sense of a great musician put his mind to describing something vividly pictorial or some deeply personal emotional state.  The former epitomised by Kullervo’s historic exploits, the snowy winds in Tapiola, the swans overhead in the 5th symphony, the death of Melisande etc.  And the latter shown in situations as varied as the abstract Fourth Symphony, the hypnotic Nightride, this symphony and the mystical sound world of Luonnotar.

Sibelius enjoys a great reputation nowadays - in the UK we have always been especially connected to his work.  The symphonies are mainstream in the concert hall and in recordings.  The Seventh is perhaps the least often played and maybe for many the least understood.  But as I have indicated, for me it has tremendous emotional impact.

It is a symphony in one movement though its sections are well contrasted they don’t conform to a symphonic model per se.  The opening is a series of oppositional motives some rising some forcing the movement back down, the overall sense is one of climbing towards some goal.  The writing is exquisite - often strings alone.  When brass join there is a steady swell to the most glorious orations in all of music - on trombones with chords in both winds and strings which shift to emphasise the music’s nobility (some say), I’d say humanity.

But it turns sour. and more austere - that’s the other side of humanity - still there’s an attempt to rise out of it, somewhat urgent at times, but striving upwards - always failing to hit the heights.  But Sibelius side-steps to a jollier place a rapid interplay between winds and strings in buoyant mood - which in the score looks like some of the simplest music you could make.  It’s a simple landscape - somewhat hollow.

But it is taken over abruptly by the strings to take us to the icy winds of Tapiola and the trombone theme reappears resisting these vicissitudes.  The climax is reached with more stoicism and the resultant triumph is more secure (we think).  But this is classic Sibelius - simple material woven in a series of delicate tapestries - some diaphanous glowing in sunshine, some impenetrable to the light, heavy and oppressive. The brass writing here is amazing. The cycling split strings remind us of the Third symphony under woodwind melodies which keen and shine.

The music has an air of desperation trying to hold onto lyrical figures that slip through its grasp.  The familiar is losing it’s grip. A single fragment keeps re-appearing but unable to progress until a forced climax descends into quacking winds.  With an astonishing facility Sibelius takes the cycling rhythm and it’s momentum into another upward journey to the trombone tune, his handling of the sheer inertia of the music is incredible, the harmonies fascinating too.  But this time the trombones are less ecstatic and music degrades horribly into a stasis - ended in a loud yelp on the horns.  The whole thing dissembles into an arid string landscape where the horns sadly echo on former glory, woodwind pick away at old tunes, a momentary waltz breaks out until even that disappears in a blazing final chord which seems to me to be as hollow as can be.  Others think this triumphant - I don’t feel it myself but to be sure a composer who can lead different people to opposite conclusions is hitting the right notes.  But going through it again I stand by my comment - I would give up all of Mahler for the first six minutes of this humane music.

Here’s Sir Simon Rattle with the Royal Danish National Orchestra to guide you through the ambiguity


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