Monday, March 31, 2014

Sibelius: Symphonic Endings, part 2

There is a major division in Sibelius' symphonies between the first three and the last four. In between he met, both in person and through their music, the most important composers in the European avant-garde: Schoenberg and Stravinsky. But his reaction was not so much to jump on the bandwagon as to resist doing so. His subsequent symphonies take a new path that follows neither Schoenberg nor Stravinsky, but a unique one of his own.

Today I am going to just take a brief look at how he handles the ending of the Symphony No. 4 and talk about the others in other posts to come.

The Symphony No. 4, written in 1911, is stated to be in A minor on the title page. A long time ago I wrote a post on the beginning of this symphony because of its unusual nature, both harmonic and rhythmic. It begins with a collection of whole tones from C to F#, spanning a tritone. These notes could be from the Dorian mode on A, as well. Sibelius is always doing subtle things with tonal ambiguity. I have mentioned before that sometimes he seems to be turning traditional methods upside down. The last movement of this symphony is a case in point. He begins in A major:

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Again, there is the ambiguity of the D#, which is a tritone with the tonic A. It also gives a suggestion of the Lydian mode. Is it just me, or is there a bit of the sardonic feel of a Shostakovich theme on this first page? Jorge Luis Borges famously said that every artist creates his own predecessors, by which he meant that after an artist has created a supposedly "new" kind of expression, we start to hear it in earlier artists. Another little theme that seems to share this sardonic mood is this one in the clarinet:

Notice the "family resemblance" it has with the opening I just quoted. It also might remind you of the beginning of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue opening.

Of course the really interesting thing about beginning the last movement in A major, if it is going to end in A minor, as it does, is that it inverts the tradition, found in Beethoven and even in Sibelius' own Symphony No. 2, of achieving a triumphant finale by beginning in minor and transforming to major.

Sibelius knits together this symphony in subtle ways: one of them is by recalling the whole tone opening of the first movement with this theme in the finale:

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Where in the first movement it was like waves or layers of clouds, here the motoric rhythmic setting makes it suitable for the dynamism of a finale movement. Notice also that the whole tones are here turned into a collection of different intervals. But the whole tones are still prominent and we see them in little solos like this one for the violin:

The movement modulates to C major where we find this swirling accompaniment to the winds:

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Then it returns to A major and this throbbing accompaniment in the strings that, again, features a prominent D#:

I am focusing on the accompaniments because they give us a better sense of where we are harmonically--plus the themes are usually quite fragmentary.

There is a turn to E flat major:

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Which is, of course, a tritone from A major and the enharmonic equivalent of the D# we keep hearing. And then a chromatic shift back to A major:

Which is then reversed, but this time it takes us to A minor, and it is the tympani that confirms it:

And really, that's it. From here there are just a couple of pages that confirm A minor and end quietly:

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The movement and the whole symphony is brilliantly knitted together by many subtle connections. Notice, for example, that little violin solo that was my fourth example above. It has a little whole-tone turn starting on E flat and then the same, starting on A. This fuses together two elements that are ubiquitous in the movement.

Now let's hear a wonderful performance of the movement conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen:


Rickard Dahl said...

You keep talking of the modes here as being ambigious, maybe that's the case though. I suppose he doesn't really enforce the modes enough (which makes it ambigious). Or maybe he modulates between different modes? Well, major/minor has been the standard for so long and only in the 20th century there was a notable move towards other modes (although often only in the context of major/minor (i.e. base the work on major/minor but use modes sometimes instead of entirely basing works on modes)) so it may feel more natural to see things in terms of major/minor rather than other modes. And there's also the fact that the authentic perfect cadence was used a lot which I think is far from the only way to solidly end a piece of music.

Bryan Townsend said...

I guess my comment about ambiguity was ambiguous! All that I meant was that by using a note, such as the D#, in the key of A major, you are undermining a bit the tonic as tonic. The piece is fundamentally based on A, but sometimes it is A major and sometimes it is A minor. The D# pulls us toward either E major or Lydian on A. It is these pulls and tendencies in different directions that is typical of Sibelius' tonality. In just about every measure he is doing something that obscures the tonality a bit.