Symphony No. 6, Op. 104

by Max Derrickson

Jean Sibelius
(Born in Tavestehus (Hämeenlinna) Finland in 1865; died in Järvenpää, Finland in 1957)

Symphony No. 6, Op. 104
1. Allegro molto moderato
2. Allegretto moderato
3. Poco vivace
4. Allegro molto

While working on his titanic Fifth Symphony (1915 – 1920), Sibelius was also thinking about its twin symphony, his Sixth.  Where his Fifth conquers, his Sixth reflects, and it is certainly more enigmatic.  Often at some point, composers begin sorting out the big questions of existence in varied ways simultaneously (for example, Beethoven wrote his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies concurrently).   Such was the case with Sibelius starting in 1914 and these existential questions would dog him the rest of his career.  While working on both Symphonies, Sibelius’s diaries often referred to his “struggle with God,” his questioning of his place in the Universe, as well as his increasing spiritual enchantment with Nature.

Sibelius was also struggling in his Sixth Symphony with his ideal of the symphonic form, and this is why, although it was begun in 1914, it took him another 9 years until 1923 to complete it.  Along the way, the Sixth nearly became a lyric violin concerto, and then a tone poem to the Moon Goddess Kuutar (Luna).   At issue for Sibelius was the use of the traditional structure of the symphony – fast, slow, fast, fast, and its traditional sonic architecture of creating tonal ambiguities to be resolved by the finale.  But Sibelius was reimaging the symphonic form altogether.  Having already professed that themes should create their own form like a growing tree, it wasn’t clear just how that should be done in a work he designated as a “Symphony.”  At the same time, he struggled with the meaning of his own existence and the supernatural meaning of the natural world that engrossed his soul.  Physically, after a long abstinence from alcohol and several difficult throat surgeries, he was now, by 1919, drinking and reveling robustly, followed by hermitting himself away in his study for days afterwards to compose.  Although he found unfathomable peace and beauty in Nature – the God he sought in nature and music, however, remained an enigma to him. 

As for structure, the Sixth takes on the four movement plan of the traditional symphony, but its thematic […] first movement is lavishly beautiful for strings alone and is largely the main motive of the work, but it essentially follows its own organic course along the movements.  It grows and matures until, when we last hear it in the finale, it’s a new creation, more vibrant than before, its harmonies […] captured the religious essence of the sacred music composer Giovanni Palestrina (1525 – 1594), whose music he had studied intensely.  In this vein, Sibelius cast his Symphony in the antique Dorian mode (a “key” that sounds when you play all the white piano keys from D to D – no sharps or flats), a Renaissance Era key.  It signals ancientness as well as timelessness – for Sibelius, this is religion and Nature embodied in sound.   “A Symphony,” Sibelius remarked, “is not just a composition in the ordinary sense of the word.  It is more a confession of faith at different stages of one’s life.”  The Sixth seems to be an […] the lone human contemplating the deep night sky. 

In contrast with the Fifth, the Sixth is bejeweled with light and purity underpinned with a very subtle threat of something menacing.  […] to dissolve the Symphony into a final quietude.  It’s a magical work that does not attempt to conquer, like his Fifth, but attempts to understand.

copyright Max Derrickson