After hearing my third symphony Rimsky-Korsakov shook his head and said: “Why don’t you do it the usual way; you will see that the audience can neither follow nor understand this.” And now I am certain that my symphonies are played more than his.
—Sibelius to Jussi Jalas, 18th June 1940
As Gustav Mahler had in his Fourth Symphony, Jean Sibelius in his Third Symphony turned away from heady Romantic expressiveness toward the structural elegance of Mozart’s and Hadyn’s Classical mode. Complexities and conundrums abound when thinking about Sibelius’s trajectory toward this “Classical” symphonic moment. After all, his first large orchestral work, Kullervo, was inspired by and steeped in the Finnish Kalevala folklore and myths. Glenda Dawn Goss described this “first musical venture into Kalevala territory” as having
. . . burst forth after a strict diet of contrapuntal exercises, chamber works, and Lutheran discipline force-fed by Martin Wegelius and Albert Becker. Although their fundamentalist regimen probably served to hone an unruly youth’s technical skills, political, intellectual, and emotional currents fanned the creative fires in a young composer whom companions regularly described as impassioned, volcanic, fiery. No portly hairless establishment icon this, but a fiercely electric, magnificently maned Don Quixote . . . [Glenda Dawn Goss, Sibelius: A Composer’s Life and the Awakening of Finland Loc 1627]
Mahler visited Helsinki, in October of 1907—a month too late to hear Sibelius conduct the premiere of his Third Symphony—and conducted the Helsinki Philharmonic in a hefty program of Beethoven and Wagner. [Erik Tawaststjerna (ET), Sibelius, Volume II: 1904-1914 Loc 1281]. At the time of Mahler’s arrival, Sibelius was already a national hero. Helsinki shops “were full of Sibelius’s picture. A ‘Sibelius cigar’” came in boxes “adorned with ‘a good likeness of our celebrated composer.’” [ET Loc 1128] Mahler’s introduction to Sibelius’s work was nothing short of disastrous: he attended a “popular concert” of the Helsinki Philharmonic that included Sibelius’s Spring Song, with an encore of Valse triste. Mahler wrote to his wife Alma:
I heard some pieces by Sibelius, the Finnish national composer who they make a great fuss about, not only here but elsewhere in the musical world. One of the pieces was just ordinary ‘Kitsch’, spiced with certain ‘Nordic’ orchestral touches like a kind of national sauce. They are the same everywhere, these national geniuses. [ET Loc 1291; also see Jens Malte Fischer, Gustav Mahler 558]
Mahler seems to have genuinely warmed to Sibelius when he met him [ET Loc 1291-1301], but the relationship went no further. This meeting produced the often-quoted exchange in which Sibelius said of the symphonic form:
I admired its style and severity of form, and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motives. . . . Mahler’s opinion was just the opposite. “No!” he said, “The symphony must be like the world. It must be all-embracing.” [ET Loc 1301]
At the time of this exchange, Mahler had recently completed his massive Eighth Symphony (The Symphony of a Thousand), and Sibelius his Third. The exchange thus “could hardly have come at more extreme points in their careers.” [ET Loc 1329]
Sibelius later recounted that, on meeting Mahler, “I did not want him to think that I had come to see him merely to interest him in my compositions.” So, when Mahler asked Sibelius, “What would you like me to conduct of yours?” Sibelius replied “Nothing,” and that was that. [ET Loc 1301] Mahler never conducted any Sibelius works [ET Loc 1349], and doesn’t seem to have come to know any Sibelius symphonies completed during Mahler’s lifetime, which included the Third. One can only wonder what he might have thought.
Sibelius conducted the Helsinki Philharmonic in the premiere of the Third Symphony a month later, together with his recent works Pohjola’s Daughter (a symphonic poem based on a Kalevala story) and the incidental music for Belshazzar’s Feast. Critics and listeners generally favored the program-based works, though one critic, Karl Flodin, singled out the change in Sibelius’s symphonic approach for particular praise: “Sibelius is a classical master . . . . The new work meets all the requirements of a modern symphony, but at the same time it is, at a deeper level, revolutionary.” [ET Loc 1138]
In a sense, Flodin went right to the heart of the matter: the Third Symphony launched a kind of radical new classicism. However, . . . . [o]f all Sibelius’s symphonies, the Third was to be the least successful with audiences abroad . . . .[ET Loc 1138] [The] Symphony was totally out of step with the times. Its Viennese classical orchestration could hardly be at greater variance with the ethos of Mahler and Strauss. [ET Loc 1157]
A month after Mahler triumphed in St. Petersburg (though perhaps more as conductor than as composer of his Fifth Symphony [for contrasting accounts, see Goss Loc 4277 and Fischer 558]), Sibelius conducted the Third Symphony in that city for the first time. [ET Loc 1354] The premiere was not a success. Aino Sibelius was present and sat in a box with conductor Alexander Siloti’s wife.
Hardly had the applause died down than the door of their box opened to admit a well-known doctor, Botkin, who swore profusely about the new work. Mrs. Siloti, who knew that Aino spoke Russian, did her best to stem the flow of oaths but in vain! [ET Loc 1364]
The press was equally hostile:
When he does something new, he gives us bizarre combinations . . . . We have obviously said goodbye to the earlier Sibelius, who has interpreted his country’s legends so fascinatingly. [Birzhevya Viedomosti, ET Loc 1375]
The new symphony has none of the character of this previously much respected and admired composer . . . Is it really possible that he has already written himself out? [St. Petersburg Herald, ET Loc 1385]
The symphony’s reception in New York City on its U. S. premiere was no better, at least judging by a review in the New York Times:
It is hard to believe that this symphony is by the composer of the first symphony and several of the overtures and other pieces that have been heard here bearing the name of Sibelius. It is in three inconsequential movements, in none of which the composer has done more than dally with certain short phrases chiefly in the way of incessant and wearisome repetition. Nor has he lent these movements the charm of rich and interesting orchestration. . . . It is difficult to see . . . how such a meager treatment of such material can produce music claiming any real kinship with the strong and vigorous work that has made the name of Sibelius one to be reckoned with.
One young composer among the listeners at the St. Petersburg premiere, however, seemed to take the lessons of Sibelius’s new symphony to heart. This story may be apocryphal (though others may be able to locate it, I’m at a loss to find a cello solo in the Sibelius’s Third—in the Fourth, yes, but not in the Third), yet it’s too good to pass by:
The following day he submitted an orchestration exercise to his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, in which he had allotted one part to a single cello. . . .
“Why do you use a solo cello here?” he asked.
“Because at this point I do not want the effect of all the cellos playing,” Prokofiev replied.
“Oh, really! Have you ever heard solo cellos?”
“Yesterday, in the Sibelius symphony.” . . .
“God in heaven! Sibelius! Why listen to Sibelius? Isn’t the second subject of the Ruslan overture good enough for you?” [ET Loc 1375]
A story I am prepared to credit, though, is this:
Another negative influence [on Prokofiev’s Sinfonietta] as far as Myaskovsky was concerned, was Sibelius. He can be thinking only of the intriguingly taut, predominantly cheerful and concise Third Symphony, which Prokofiev had heard Sibelius conduct in a rehearsal for one of the Ziloti concerts in November 1907 and in which traces of early neo-classicism can also be detected. [David Nice, Prokofiev, From Russia to the West 1891-1935 64]
That, in any event, was then. And now? Well, I for one, endorse both the description David Nice has offered in the quoted passage, as well as that by Brian Long, who has generously permitted me to share the commentary and guideposts for listening he originally posted at GCAS, which are incorporated into the listening list below.
An interview with Simon Rattle on Sibelius, including a short discussion of the Third Symphony (at about 24:20) may be found here, with thanks to Curt Barnes for noting it (the interview is in English).
Listening List: Sibelius Symphony No. 3 in C Major, Op. 52 (1904-07)
This isn’t so hard, I promise. In return for a small period of attention (the symphony is 30 minutes long), the rewards are great—and fun. With particular thanks to Brian Long, our helmsman at the Great Composers Appreciation Society (GCAS), for his guideposts and commentary for listening to Sibelius’s Symphony No. 3. (Links to the relevant GCAS posts are indicated for each movement.)
- Allegro moderato
- Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto
- Moderato – Allegro ma non tanto
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (in B♭ and A), 2 bassoons, 4 horns (in F), 2 trumpets (in B♭), 3 trombones, timpani, strings
(Source for above information)
On Spotify: two recordings of the Third Symphony
On YouTube (Esa-Pekka Salonen/Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra)
Brian Long’s time stamps below relate to the YouTube video of the Salonen/Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra performance.
First Movement (GCAS link; 0:30 on the YouTube video)
The movement is in sonata form, which, in Prufrockian broad strokes, includes the exposition (subjects/themes are introduced), development (lots of playing around with the exposition’s subjects), and recapitulation (subjects are restated). Click here for a definition.
There is no introduction.
0:34 First subject (at the beginning of the symphony)
1:54 Second subject
3:22 Development (Brian Long’s caveat: you might argue it starts later)
6:19 Recapitulation of first subject (and what a great start to a recapitulation it is)
7:35 Recapitulation of second subject (much bigger this time round)
9:23 Coda (closing section) very much like a chorale
11:00 A spectacularly simple and primal end
Second Movement (GCAS link; 11:33 on the YouTube video)
The middle movement of Sibelius’ Third Symphony has the beautiful simplicity of a folk song. The movement has three large sections, the third of which recaps the first so that the structure is an A B A form.
11:33 Section A
12.26 (hemiola first sounds; see below for explanation)
17:14 Section B
18:46 Recap of Section A
The time of the movement is 6/4, i.e. there are six quarter notes per bar. This presents interesting possibilities. Six notes can be divided into two groups of three or three groups of two. When the two groupings alternate between bars you have what is called a hemiola. This can make a very pleasant rhythm that composers have used for centuries. The song America in West Side Story is a great example. The folk-like melody Sibelius uses in this movement has a hemiola at the end of each phrase. The first seven bars of each phrase divide the six beats of the bar into two groups of three; only the eighth bar uses three groups of two. That is what gives it a pleasant little kick along each time. The hemiola first sounds at 12.26, then at 12.48 and so on.
Third Movement (GCAS link; 20.54 on the YouTube video)
The structure of the final movement of Sibelius’ Third Symphony is particularly daring. It combines a scherzo-like first half with a broad, chorale-like second half. Sibelius once described the movement as “the crystallization of ideas from chaos.” [ET Loc 1138]
20.54 Start of movement, snippets of melodic material fly past
24.00 Reaches a very loud climax, then scherzo section almost disintegrates
25.12 New music slowly emerges from the violas, which turns out to be a warm chorale
25.31 Chorale breaks into C major. From there the movement is really a big parade or march with pulsing string writing that might almost anticipate Steve Reich or John Adams. (Prufrock’s note: Listen from at about 28:00 for that pulsing string writing.)
I think this is fantastic music. It is strong, athletic and lithe without becoming arrogant or overbearing. It has a real generosity of spirit and a wonderful expansiveness that I, for one, associate with mature Sibelius. It really is the first time Sibelius finds his own voice, the one that reappears in the finale of the Fifth Symphony and in the Seventh Symphony. If you know other Sibelius symphonies, the only thing that casts any shadow over this finale is knowing that the next symphony, the Fourth, is such a more desolate and dark work. Such is the unpredictability of genius!
Bonus Track. America from West Side Story
Credits: The quotations may be found at the sources linked in the post, together with the page number, where available, or, for a Kindle version, the location number. I could find no credit for the New York Times review quoted; the performance was by the Russian Symphony Orchestra, Vasily Safonov conducting, January 16, 1908; the review appeared the following day, on p. 9. The image of Sibelius at the head of the post may be found here. The image of Mahler (by the Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela, a friend of Sibelius’s) in the post may be found here. Of the latter, Fischer wrote:
Gallen’s portrait shows Mahler face-on, his head resting in his right hand, the glow of the fire reflected in his face and in the lenses of his glasses. It is the most impressive likeness of him after Rodin’s.” [Fischer 558]