Monday, March 24, 2014

Sibelius: Symphonic Beginnings

Sibelius having a weird hair day

The normal thing would be to just put up posts on each of the seven symphonies by Sibelius, but how dull is that? Listening through all the symphonies prior to starting these posts, I am struck by how remarkably differently he starts each symphony. For Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven a symphony essentially had to start in one of two ways: either with the first or main theme of the movement, in the tonic, or with a slow introduction that was harmonically ambiguous or unstable and amounted to a dominant upbeat. Exceptions to this, like Haydn's "Drumroll" Symphony that starts with a drumroll (of course), are so rare that they get special nicknames. But Sibelius is a genius at finding an entirely new way of beginning (and ending, but that's a different post) every symphony. Let's do a survey.

Here is the beginning of the Symphony No. 1. I didn't select the whole page because, apart from the first clarinet and the tympani, everyone has rests. Sure, start your First Symphony with a clarinet solo accompanied by tympani, I dare ya!

Click to enlarge
And here is how that sounds (you just need to listen to the first minute or two):


And here is the opening of the Symphony No. 2. This is all about meter and you aren't sure where the downbeat is for a while. The mood of this opening, cheerful and almost dance-like, is what really contrasts with the First Symphony. Here is what the score looks like:


And sounds like. Again, you only have to listen to the first minute or two to get the idea:


How about a funky, four-square lick in C major in the low strings? That's how the Symphony No. 3 begins:


And it sounds like this:


If you didn't know, would you even think this was the same composer?

A long while ago I wrote a post on the beginning to the Symphony No. 4 which has the most dramatic and eerie beginning of any of the Sibelius symphonies. It opens with a crashing, resonating segment from the whole tone scale for low strings. Go read the post for the details. And here is what that opening sounds like:


Next time, a look at the openings of the last three symphonies.

5 comments:

vp said...

Thank you for reminding me how much I live the Sibelius symphonies!

When you get to the Seventh, watch out for the Tristan reference!

Rickard Dahl said...

Sibelius has 7 amazing symphonies, each is unique in many interesting ways. This is the type of thing I think Mozart & Haydn were missing in their symphonies, basically more unique approaches. Ofc their possibilities were more limited because of instruments not being developed as much yet. And their harmonies etc. were also more limited. Plus it took Beethoven to get composers to take more interesting approaches. Haydn & Mozart were ofc great and wrote great music but in short lack the uniqueness of Beethoven and post-Beethoven composers.

Bryan Townsend said...

I don't think you can say that Haydn and Mozart are missing something we find in Sibelius--that is certainly literally true. But only in the same sense that Bach's keyboard concertos are missing things we find in Mozart's and that Palestrina is missing things in his vocal music that we find in Bach's. We have to be aware of history. What Haydn and Mozart were doing was essentially inventing the symphony (especially Haydn). Before them there really wasn't anything of any significance in the genre. It was only because of what they established that it was even possible for Sibelius to write symphonies. I'm not claiming any kind of historical necessity, just that A comes before B. Sibelius could write with the knowledge of what Haydn did. Haydn could not write with the knowledge of what Sibelius did.

Rickard Dahl said...

Yes, you're right. I exaggerated a bit (took it too far, pretty ignorantly too). Another example could be Schoenberg's empancipation of dissonance, without Schoenberg we maybe wouldn't have the serialism etc. (not that it's a good thing most of the time). So ofc the further we go into the present day the more is considered possible and more options are available. Each important composer ofc added something to the table that wasn't there before.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes! And Sibelius added some pretty interesting and subtle things to the table.