Sibelius – Symphony No. 1 in E-minor, Op. 39

by Max Derrickson

Jean Sibelius     (b in Tavestehus (Hämeenlinna) Finland, December 8, 1865; d inJärvenpää,Finland, September 20, 1957)

Symphony No. 1 in E-minor, Op. 39
1. Andante ma non troppo
2. Andante ma non troppo – lento
3. Scherzo – Allegro
4. Finale – Andante

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The life of Sibelius has been subject to much discussion. Agreeable and charming in company, as well as an avid lover of cigars and drinking, Sibelius preferred isolation and was unrevealing in his intimacies. The sternness of isolation became increasingly evident throughout his works, and made them all the more extraordinary. His last composition, Tapiola, written in 1926, was a culmination of his originality in structure and sound, painting the bleakness of the northern woods in timbres of great starkness. His preoccupation with Nordic mythology and an ardent love of nature seem evident in his works.

[. . .]

The First Symphony is not programmatic, but the voice associated with it, and with Sibelius, is particularly Scandinavian. Perhaps he had cast a dye early on, or more likely, his love of the wilds ofFinlandleft an indelible mark. The opening of the first movement is a likely example with a prolonged timpani roll under a pining clarinet solo. It visualizes a cold landscape which stretches long and bleak, but as one approaches, the feeling that great mysteries will unfold is manifest.

[. . .]

The finale shows an extraordinary craft of blending structure as not to upset the musical narrative. This talent, which would become more advanced in succeeding symphonies, was commented upon by Mahler in 1907, “. . . I admired its style and severity of form, and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motifs.”

Sibelius wrote seven symphonies, all of them so different from one another that to trace predictability between is useless. He attended to each symphony in a completely different manner. The results are seven distinctly original masterpieces. After Tapiola (1926), Sibelius virtually stopped composing, and lived another 30 years without writing, dying in Jarvenpaa in 1957 at the age of 91. The reasons for this cessation are difficult to ponder, but some have pointed to alcoholism, his isolationism, and a musical world that was growing away from the tonality in which he composed.