Symphony No. 7 in C, Op. 105

by Max Derrickson

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

Symphony No. 7 in C, Op. 105 (in one movement)

When Sibelius began sketches for his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies in 1915, he had ideas too for his Seventh.  It took nine more years to complete his Sixth, and all the while the Seventh continued to gestate as Sibelius re-imagined of the nature of a Symphony, its structure, its harmonic path, the essence of what a Symphony should or might be.  In those nine long years he was trying to rethink the form, and he was also seeking music in the world around him, a sort of Music of the Spheres, that musica universalis, first described by Pythagoras (c. 570 – 495 BC).  Sibelius wanted to capture what the Universe sounded like in its deep logic and structure.  Likewise, in natural settings, Sibelius searched to hear its order as well as its sound, once mystifying a group of musicians from the University of Helsinki by describing the harmonics of a mountain meadow.

When his Sixth was completed in 1923, Sibelius was fired to return to his Seventh, which he completed almost immediately by 1924.  It is the culmination of his symphonic career – his last Symphony, his ultimate symphonic expression.  Although he worked on an eighth Symphony, it never materialized, and he essentially put down his pen after his Seventh, save for a final few smaller, extraordinary works.

The Seventh is music and structure in rarified form, and those who love his music often claim it’s his best.  It progresses in one continuous movement, […] like the first and second movements did in his Fifth.  The Seventh brings that idea to its fruition.

The Seventh is pitched mostly in the key of C major, again, a nod to elemental-ness, but as British composer Vaughan Williams said, Sibelius makes it sound like a new key altogether.  It begins with a tap of the timpani, as a gentle knock at the door, and the strings […] In some of Sibelius’s most exquisite writing, the strings[…] This trombone theme, a simple and cathartic motive, will appear only a few times in the Symphony, and whenever it does, it acts as an omniscient elemental […].

The second section is a kind of scherzo, and introduces a lovely regal motive that […] Similarly, the final section carries on with the frenetic burbling of winds and strings, until the trombone theme emerges one again, wrestling with all that unruliness, and lengthening out the feel of the music, by elongating note values, aligning it all into a new tempo.

The final, extraordinary moments of this Symphony end with the trombones and brass arising out of a din of creative mayhem, centering on C Major, but with the strings almost shrieking on a long, brutal note of B against […] and yet Sibelius has been preparing our ears for just this moment the entire Symphony, with leading tones and migratory motives, skittering about the basic C anchor[…] Sibelius’s musica universalis.  At last, all notes are unified into that C, and when it happens, it produces a light so luminous, so all-encompassing, as to be almost […]

Copyright Max Derrickson