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Jean Sibelius - En saga, Tone-Poem, Opus 9

( Originally Published 1935 )



The "Saga" of Sibelius might well be associated in the mind of the listener with some ancient Scandinavian epic. It is dark, fantastical, fate-ridden in character. Every page carries the impress of the North. Notice the curious orchestral colors. The customary kettledrums are absent. A distant roll of the bassdrum and flickering figures of the violins, divided and sub-divided among themselves, cast a mist over every-thing, a mist pierced momentarily by a flute and a flaring trumpet. A huge heavy theme lurches upward through the gloom. The music quickens, the orchestra shrieks and skirls. Later, accompanied by curious sighs of other instruments, the violins intone a monotonous barbaric dance theme. The instruments brood over these things. They rumble and growl, prophesying war. Before the final climax there is an eerie, wailing lament of muted strings, a passage once heard, never forgotten. Then the orchestra gathers itself, girds up its loins, and leaps into a dance with knives drawn—lust of battle, glory of death. It is a return in spirit to great days forever gone--when we were greater men. Yes! When I hear this music I avow a carnal desire to discard the soft fat ways of life; to set out in oilskins, or something, for somewhere, to discover at least a desperate polar bear bent on conflict! But seriously—who else writes such music today? In these pages Sibelius is the last of the heroes. The music rises to furious defiance. The end of it all is ghostly lament. A gong is used with extraordinary effect under pianissimo chords, remote from the key in which the piece opened. There is Styx-like blackness and cold; a last flicker of life in the ashes of a fire that flared for a moment in the world's Arctic night, and the indomitable rhythm of the war-dance.

Symphony No. 4, in A minor, Opus 63

I. Tempo molto moderato, quasi adagio

II. Allegro molto vivace

III. v Tempo Largo

IV. Allegro

This symphony is one of the loneliest and most original of modern compositions. The earlier Sibelius symphonies are more romantic and picturesque than the later scores and are heroic and racial in character. Sibelius was then chanting sagas of the heroic age. But with his later symphonies we are witnesses of an astonishing metamorphosis. Sibelius is no longer writing in terms of ancestral memory. He is looking deep within himself. He is thinking and speaking out loud, amid solitudes. Here in this Fourth symphony a man broods alone. Like the Demon of Poe, he curses with the curse of silence. For, paradoxical as it may sound, there is silence in this music. It is indeed an older and more tried spirit which speaks here than the northern bard and revolutionist of the earlier works—a spirit which recoils upon itself; which, other than its constant communion with nature, knows no confidant. In these pages Sibelius emerges, lonely and inicomparable one of the deepest and most concentrated musical thinkers of our epoch.

The Fourth symphony is a series of musical ideas, boiled down to their sheerest essence, and there is no factitious allure about it at all. It is pure music, of the most transparent and unadorned kind. Sibelius's orchestra, from the full, sonorous symphonic panoply of the earlier works, has become comparatively a small one. Then there is the matter of harmony and form. Whereas in earlier works Sibelius accepted the harmonic and formal systems that he found at hand, and adapted to his own use, in the Fourth symphony he sets out upon a plan wholly his own. The technical procedure of the traditional symphony is for the greater part thrown to the winds, and this with an independence which can hardly be called courage, since it is so natural to the composer. He simply speaks out loud. If we who listen do not like it, all right. He has not even thought of that. For there is no defiance, no deliberate attempt to frighten the bourgeois in this work. Sibelius is simply himself, writing with a mastery and unconventionality which grow more wonderful to me every time I hear the work. For it is an unprecedented alembication, and a style highly modern in texture, which strikes like the arrow to the heart of the musical idea.

If you ask, "What do the different movements, of this symphony mean?" the answer is music and states of the spirit not readily to be conveyed in words. The introduction of the first movement is one of the most original passages in modern music—and purest Sibelius. Then there is the capricious scherzo, with fragments of dance music, and, in the second part, a cry flung from instrument to instrument, and a sudden, abrupt end, as of a man too impatient with futilities to dwell longer upon them or incidentally to complete his scherzo according to the dictates of classic form.

The slow movement is perhaps the greatest movement of the symphony, and this movement has dramatic as well as musical design. Its effect is this: the murmuring soliloquies of various instruments; then the hint, first by the stopped horns, of the theme which will gradually unfold itself in the orchestra; the recurrence of the murmuring voices; the theme returning in proportions continually larger and grander; at last the theme, in its complete form, striding from the depths of the orchestra, rising, over great choral harmonies of the brass, to its full ture of majesty and defiance; then sinking sullenly back, while a sustained C-sharp, and laconic pluckings of the basses, speak of man's defeat under skics which have become the ceiling of his despair. Sibelius's finale is a movement of restless energy, fitful gayety, protest; as when the great call of the solo trumpet is heard, over an accompaniment of strings which undulates like the sea; as when motives clash with each other, in dissonant counterpoint; and at last the desolate end—the descending motive of the trumpet, the wail of the oboe, the answering gray chords of the strings—always softer, grayer, till the music has vanished, like a gull in a misty sky.



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