Sibelius – Symphony No. 5 in E flat, Opus 82

by Max Derrickson

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

Symphony No. 5 in E flat, Opus 82
1-2. Tempo molto moderato—Allegro moderato
3. Andante mosso, quasi allegretto
4. Allegro molto

Johann Sibelius was, and is, regarded synonymously with the country of Finland.  As Verdi was to Italy, so Sibelius was to Finland during that country’s independence at the turn of the 20th century.  Of his musical importance, Finnish contemporary Robert Kajanus said, “…Finnish music…scarcely existed when Jean Sibelius struck his powerful chords….Finnish music’s mighty springs came bursting forth….Jean Sibelius alone showed the way.”  Born in Hameenlina in south-central Finland, Sibelius spent nearly his entire life in his homeland.  He left briefly to study in Berlin late in the 1880’s (around that time he “internationalized” his name to Jean), but returned to Finland and rarely traveled thereafter.

[. . .]

The composer was approaching 50 when he began the Symphony No. 5, hurrying to complete it for his birthday celebration in 1915.  It was received well enough, but Sibelius was a fastidious reviser of his works, and never more so than with his fifth symphony.  He revised it many times before reaching the final version of 1919.

The first movement opens in that most wonderful of Sibelius’ coloristic allusions:  the horns sounding a world awakening to a warming sunrise, and the woodwinds slowly filling the vast hills of Finland with birdsong.
[. . .]
and the indefatigable rolls of the timpani.

Without our noticing it, the first movement melts into the second.  Almost imperceptibly, the flame under the kettle has been turned up and the water starts to simmer.  But there is no real way to prepare for what will happen in the final section of this glorious movement.  The closing Presto catches your heart in your chest with its overpowering joy, uninhibited dance-like explosion, and utter gladness.

[. . .]

Of the third movement (first planned as an Adagio), Sibelius’ diary said,
[. . .]
But the final version is a tender rendering full of lightness, with its own mysteries and reveling, and perfectly balanced to follow the robust close of the second movement.

One morning on his routine walk, Sibelius witnessed 16 swans flying overhead, a sight that struck him deeply.  “One of the greatest experiences! My God, what beauty!  …Their call the same woodwind type as that of cranes, but without tremolo.  The swan-call closer to trumpet….A low refrain reminiscent of a small child crying.  Nature’s Mysticism and Life’s Angst!  The Fifth Symphony’s finale-theme:  Legato in the trumpets!”  Starting in haste, the last movement soon introduces this “swan theme,” a slow, languid, swinging melody in the brass.
[. . .]

“My heart sings, full of sadness—the shadows lengthen.” [Diary of Sibelius, 1914]