Composer: born December 8, 1865, Hämeenlinna, Finland; died September 20, 1957, Järvenpää, Finland
Work composed: 1914-15, rev. 1916, 1919
World premiere: Sibelius completed the first version of the Fifth Symphony just in time to conduct it for his fiftieth birthday on December 8, 1915, with the Helsinki Municipal Orchestra. A year later, Sibelius revised Op. 82 and conducted it with the same ensemble. The final version was completed in 1919; Sibelius conducted it on October 21, 1921.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings
Estimated duration: 31 minutes
“These symphonies of mine are more confessions of faith than are my other works,” wrote Jean Sibelius in 1918, while revising his Symphony No. 5 for the third time. Always his own harshest critic, Sibelius struggled to realize his original musical conception of the Symphony over a period of six difficult years.
Sibelius’ multiple attempts to write a version of the Fifth Symphony that withstood his implacable self-criticism were hampered by personal problems and global upheaval. In the years 1910-14, Sibelius struggled with the desire to be perceived by the world as a “modern” composer, but at the same time he rejected the prevailing styles established by Debussy, Mahler, and Richard Strauss. Composing, frequently difficult for Sibelius even under the best of circumstances, was made even harder by the composer’s poor health and chronic alcoholism.
From 1914-18, the chaos and brutality of WWI engulfed Europe. In 1917 Finland declared independence from Russia, which sparked additional conflict between the two countries. In 1918, an invasion of Russian soldiers into his town forced Sibelius and his family to flee to Helsinki. Later that year, Sibelius returned home and resumed his life and work, including the third revision of the Fifth Symphony, which he described as “practically composed anew.”
The reworked symphony condenses the original four movements into three – Sibelius combined the first and second movements – and features a new finale. The Tempo molto moderato is textbook Sibelius, featuring brief, fragmentary ideas that surface somewhat enigmatically from the depths of the orchestra. A short melody in the horns later coalesces into a fully developed theme. At times the instruments seem to murmur to themselves; as the music progresses, the strings and brasses declaim bold proclamations.
In the Andante mosso, pizzicato strings and staccato flutes state the primary melody, while a group of woodwinds and horns sound a counter-theme of long sustained notes. These shimmering notes become a backdrop for several variations on the staccato main theme.
On April 21, 1915, Sibelius wrote in his diary, “Today at ten to eleven I saw 16 swans. One of my greatest experiences. Lord God, that beauty!” The opening of the finale captures this rustle of wings with tremolo strings accompanying an expansive melody, also in the strings. Sibelius juxtaposed this breathless music with a majestic “swan theme” sounded first by the horns. As the symphony concludes, the swan theme becomes an exultant shout of triumph.
© Elizabeth Schwartz
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