Thursday, March 27, 2014

Sibelius: Symphonic Endings

Sibelius in 1907, at the time the Symphony No. 3 was written

The endings to Sibelius' symphonies are often as interesting as the beginnings, but they are rather harder to illustrate. Sometimes when I am listening, I notice when we are a minute or so from the end and start asking myself how he is going to get from whatever is happening to a conclusive ending. Often I am quite surprised at how he can sneak up on an ending that works well as soon as you hear it.

The ending of the Symphony No. 1 is no surprise at all as it is loud and very firmly lays out a reiterated cadence in E minor. The only thing perhaps unusual is the very last two chords, E minor in two different voicings, first mf then p:

And here is a recording of the last movement:

You have to listen carefully to hear the last chord after all the ffz!

The Symphony No. 2 is a stronger symphony with a stronger ending. The movement is about fourteen minutes long, but the ending is starting to be set up around the nine and a half minute mark with the recapitulation of this passage with the ostinato in the strings:

Click to enlarge
We first heard this two or three minutes into the movement, but in the key of F# minor. Now it is in D minor. The key of the symphony and this movement is D major, so Sibelius is setting us up for a big ending where minor is turned into major as Beethoven did in the finale of his Symphony No. 5. This ostinato is repeated over and over for three minutes as the dynamic slowly builds, Sibelius adding layer and layer of instruments until finally the piccolo is belting out the ostinato very high while the first violins have the theme. Then the music transitions to D major in the last two measures of this page:

There is a little transition and then, in a very lovely move, Sibelius has a transcendent rather than bombastic ending with a new theme (based on the first theme in the movement) that we see here, on the last page, in the oboes and trombones:

Here is a recording of the last movement. It seems to start in the middle because the last movement is joined to the third without a break.

The Symphony No. 3, composed in 1907, is a bit of a transition from the early more romantic symphonies to his later, more austere style. There are three movements and the last is a kind of a fusion between a scherzo-like first theme and a chorale. The key is C major and there is a middle section in A flat major. But the C major is strongly inflected with an F# which turns it into the Lydian mode. (The Lydian mode is the white notes from F to F--instead of a perfect fourth above the F, there is an augmented fourth to the B natural. Transposed to C, this gives us the F#.) How Sibelius ends the movement is by fusing together the three-note groups of the opening scherzo-like section (in 6/8) with the chorale section (in 2/2). This is a rhythmic fusion, let me say, where the strings are given eighth-note triplets (corresponding to the 6/8 of the scherzo) underneath the halves, quarters and eighths of the winds and brass, playing the chorale theme. Here is a passage where he starts to set up the ending. Notice the F#s:

Click to enlarge

How Sibelius creates a feeling of arrival and conclusion towards the end of the movement is through a number of means. There are traditional ones, such as a root movement from G to C in the winds and brass on the last page. But this is concealed by the fact that all the strings are already pounding away on octave Cs. He also suppresses the F# that has been ubiquitous--this takes attention away from the G and lets it revert to the C. There is also a kind of cadential trill in the woodwinds on B, but this is layered over those octave Cs so it doesn't have the usual effect. Buried within the string figuration is also an alternation between B and C. The traditional elements of a cadence are dispersed rather than coordinated. Just as important is the ongoing fusion of the two rhythmic ideas, the scherzo and the chorale. It is pretty hard to put this into words without doing a nit-picky kind of analysis. Here is the last page of the score so you can see what I am talking about:

And here is a recording of the movement:

Incidentally, there is a very famous movement in music history where a composer writes a chorale in the Lydian mode. That is the third movement of Beethoven's A minor late quartet, Op. 132. Of course the two don't sound anything alike.

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