Spring Symphonies: 49/60 - Sibelius: Symphony No 4

I'm pretty convinced that this work is not just the finest symphony that Sibelius wrote but one of the finest symphonies written. It surpasses virtually anything written in the 20th Century for it's utterly uncompromising adherence to the idea of absolute music (music with no story or pictorial associations - just music) and concentrated modernism.  It is, that said, a desperately emotional work of depth and power and yet written with great economy.  It’s an austere canvas where musical moods are crafted at the most minute level and yet have the most tremendous effect.

It is to be judged only on its effects I think and so no biographical details in this piece you can go elsewhere for those.

The music begins with a deep rocking figure which is as deep as an ocean, it immediately fades away to yield space for a solo cello.  The melody is touching but almost completely lacking power.  The strings join in - the exotic harmonies here set a tone of the ill-aligned symphonic framework for this work: it’s spirit is out of kilter and full of remote dissonance.  A climax yields barking and growling brass against that deep bass pedal note which seems as it intones to go on forever.  The vistas here are unresolved but expansive.  The horns provide something like a familiar scale, which trumpets and brass contort.  We still haven’t got much in the way of melody, direction or energy.  The music seems to be dwelling on the same material repeating it with claustrophobic instance.  It is unlike any other first movement I’ve heard.

The music picks up a certain momentum with trembling high strings figures which bounce around cautiously and taking their chance burst into a brighter moment which is immediately contorted into the darker malaise. There is some brighter in the outlook for a moment  - but as it becomes more convincing the structure and flow just decays and crumbles away beneath it.  The movement simply cannot or does not sustain itself.  It is almost contrary to our understanding of music in marking the passage of time - we are robbed of that experience if the process becomes so lacking in definition as to be transparent.  We don’t need much - with our sophisticated brains which can make patterns and fill in gaps - but Sibelius starves us.

The scherzo has a Allegro molto vivace marking but a gait which is lumbering, spasmodic, undecided and distinctly awkward.  The musical episodes fit only in a world of 20 second attention spans and inconclusive endings.  It is like Nielsen’s last symphony without no sarcasm or circus.  There are times where the weight of the music cannot find it in itself to dance.  It is I think like a tremendously serious dancer who knows all the technique but can’t hear the music: earthbound……………..one might even swear the composer just cant even be bothered at the end when the music just finishes.

The slow movement of this work is at it’s emotional heart and even after 30 years of acquaintance the sincerity of it’s utterance leaves me so sad.  This is Sibelius at his most sombre - even such music as the Death of Melisande or his Swan of Tuonela haven’t reached these despairing depths.  The movement begins with flutes over low strings - fragmentary melodies are picked out against simple ascending and descending scales in lower strings.  Horns provide no clarity where this music is going.  It is such a thin and gaunt landscape, punctuated by remnants of music once complete but now shattered.  There is a fabulous beauty in all this too.  The celli find a tune in this and begin to corral the composer’s thoughts.  Those fragments come together very slowly and the music pauses on the brink of coherence - but some other idea shimmers across the sky.  The celli reinforce their hand and a full blown medley is uttered for the first time after four minutes of exploration - nearly half the movement.

With growing coherence and candour the music picks up it’s step and launches with an exquisite pairing of oboes keening a pulse.  A glorious hymn rings out - the sky is ablaze with it’s incandescence, I think we all know this will not be the a happy ending through.  The elaboration continues with growing uncertainty, the celli try again.  The whole orchestra fills the air with the bold utterance underlined by brass and drums.  The music fails to move onwards, it has had its say and it drifts like smoke on the breeze until it fades to nothing.  It is an object lesson in the nature of glorious certainty.  It is the human condition writ on a page of staves.

The final movement is one of the most chilling in music.  It starts in a jaunty style, the first minute has that dislocated tread we have heard before.  The xylophone makes a odd appearance, there are solo strings, muted horns and all means of interjections.  The music moves to a quiet tremolo figure with winds moving over the top sometimes to alarming effects.   There is some whooping and yelling in this movement which is more animal than we have heard before.  The music moves to rocking strings with horns over the top, a descending figure moves us closer to a whisper and into a formless place.  The strings climb upwards with a rising figure.  There’s an alarm from trumpets and drums with pizzicato strings to add to the disjointed feeling of feverish speed against static melodic fragments.  A throbbing pulse emerges which should be enough - but as we have heard in all the movements melodic flow is rare in the symphony.  The passage is aborted but there is movement of sorts now.  Back to the scampering figure and much seems to be built on firmer territory this time.  But the music starts to wobbly precariously as brass interjections, string figures become disconnected and unhinged.

The die is cast now - the descending figure has more vehemence this time.  The winds have no traction.  The end is out of an Edgar Allen Poe poem. The music decays to astonished vulnerable figures in a bare nightmarish sonicscape: it is hopeless.  The strings descend, with no will to rise, further still to a bass shudder where they are grounded.  The lone wind voices are isolated in the stark cavernous void - they ask the question and no answer comes but weak string responses.  A blunt rebuttal from block string chords interrupts, as if a higher power is bringing things to a necessary end.   There is no further question, no sense of existence or time or music. Seven times the strings intone and then there is silence.

Herbert von Karajan said this work was one of a few which left him utterly bereft and exhausted.  He championed it in Germany when it was regarded as bizarre new music.  I don’t think anyone wrote anything quite as desolate and almost barbaric until much later in the 20th century.  The unique sense in which music can take us to places that real life should not is part of it’s enduring fascination and comfort.  It is - in Goethe’s proposition - to help us learn about ourselves. That this symphony exists at all is a mark of a wonderful but troubled man who wished to share a vision with us.  I find no comfort here - there is not one shred of it.  It is cold and as merciless as our lives when we strip them down.  But it only from there that we can build.

Here's Karajan - it's supreme champion


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