Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Sibelius: Symphonic Beginnings, part 2

Young Sibelius

Now to look at the beginnings of the last three symphonies. The Symphony No. 5 was the first one in which Sibelius started to have doubts about his status as a modernist after the premiere of pieces like the Rite of Spring by Stravinsky and works by Schoenberg and Debussy. The opening is fresh and springlike. It uses a tympani pedal, like the First Symphony, but over that horns, oboes and flutes add upward leaping layers of sound. The key of E flat major is clear, but with just as much subtle divergence to be interesting. For example, the flutes and oboes outline the dominant of the dominant (F7), but that is over a tonic pedal and then the passage repeats with tonic harmony. Here is the opening page of the score:

And here is how that sounds:

Sibelius said about his Symphony No. 6 that it always reminded him of the scent of fresh snow. It was completed in 1923 and, for the first time, there is no key indicated. Think of it as being in the Dorian mode (on D). The opening is, of course, different from all the other symphonies. It starts with something very like a fugue for high strings:

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

I say "very like" because, as always with Sibelius, if you look a little closer you see that he has modified the "language" considerably. There is a "subject" in the second violins that then appears a fourth higher in the first violins, but in both cases, it is harmonized with another voice, something that would not happen in a fugue. There is a "countersubject" that is vaguely like the subject, but upside down and this appears in the violas and divisi first violins. It is all really too amorphous to have much of the feeling of a fugue. Pace the composer, what this reminds me of more than fresh snow is perhaps something by Gorecki or Arvo Pärt. It has an almost liturgical feel. Let's have a listen.

The Symphony No. 7 is generally considered to be in C major and that final cadence (yes, we will talk about endings soon as well) is a hard-won cadence to C. Here is the opening page and continuation:

There are certainly elements there we have seen before: the tympani, low strings, layers--but the effect is utterly different. This is a bit like a Satanic version of Bach's Dona nobis pacem. After that initial G in the tympani, the opening phrase outlines a tritone: A to E flat. These notes bracket C a minor third on either side. Then the harmony moves to F, the subdominant. But this opening is harmonically very ambiguous, something you see a lot in symphonies by other composers, but not by Sibelius. Now let's listen to a performance. Again, you just need to listen to the first couple of minutes to compare it to the other openings:


vp said...

Given your apparent dislike of Wagner, you missed a trick here! The sudden chromaticism is a reference to Tristan, which is then immediately repudiated by the "pure spring water" of the woodwind parallel fourths!

vp said...

I should clarify that the preceding comment was referring to the opening of the seventh symphony.

Bryan Townsend said...

I am certainly aware that people have talked about this opening, with its unusual chromaticism, as being a reference to Tristan. And, as a matter of fact, the Tristan chord does appear, spelled differently, in measure 3. Both Shostakovich and Debussy have quoted the opening melody of Tristan in a more obvious way. Thanks for reminding me!