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Classical 101

Music of Finland's Jean Sibelius for a Change of Seasons

Sibelius and his wife, Aino, in Järvenpää (early 1940s)";s

For me, there is always something slightly mournful about the first real hints of Autumn here in Central Ohio, usually felt near the end of September.  No surprise there about the timing, but still, the change in the air is finally noticeable this season, with the grey skies and the wind making the rain feel colder than the still mild temperatures would indicate.  The kind of music I feel like listening to often changes, too.

Finnish composer Jean Sibelius said "Music begins where the possibilities of language end."  

Listening to the First Symphony of Finland's greatest composer recently, reminds me of just how much he was responding to the natural world around him through the unique sound world he created using a personal  language of melody and harmony, timbres and textures.  It's music that can still communicate strongly to listeners today.

Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, from 1899, is the beginning of a wonderful musical journey of seven symphonies in all, with the final one in 1924.  Even though Sibelius was still under the influence of Russian Romanticism and particularly the music of Peter Tchaikovsky, he also clearly begins his own First Symphony with a unique voice that for many, evokes a world of solitary nature and the far northern landscapes of Finland.

There are vast fields with geese flying overhead, deep-green forests turning brown, a setting sun, and a sense of an austere environment uninhabited by human presence--yet still supporting life.  All that is just in the first two minutes of this marvelous work!  

The mournful solo clarinet that emerges at the beginning is just a hint of what Sibelius will communicate about his inner world and the world of nature by the time of his late symphonic poem Tapiola (1926), named after the god of the forest in Finnish Mythology.

The First Symphony goes on from there in the development of its four movements in a recognizably Late-Romantic fashion.  The Second Symphony is even bigger sounding in its Romantic lushness.  It's in the three-movement Third Symphony, however, and on from there that Sibelius goes his own way, refining his sound and musical language, culminating in the single-movement Seventh Symphony.

All seven of the symphonies of Jean Sibelius are worth knowing for their personal vision and inner-directed feeling-response to life and nature expressed with a pure musical logic and sense of form very different from other late-Romantic composers such as Gustav Mahler, who wrote huge sprawling works.  Sibelius worked toward conciseness and finding the essence, but without sacrificing feeling.  

You can hear Symphony No. 1 by Jean Sibelius on the next Symphony @ 7, Thursday evening at pm on Classical 101.