Jean Sibelius: Symphony No.2


In 1901, Jean Sibelius left his home country and travelled to Italy and stayed in a mountain villa near Rapallo. Baron Axel Carpelan raised funds for Sibelius to take this trip, and it was in this villa that he started work on his Second Symphony. It took Sibelius nearly a year to pen the whole symphony, which was then premiered by the Helsinki Philharmonic Society in March 1902. Sibelius conducted the first three performances of the symphony and after three sold-out performances, he began to make revisions. Sibelius confessed that his Second Symphony “is a confession of the soul”. 

Although the first handful of performances sold out, critics seemed divided on the symphony itself. Whereas the audience members enjoyed the symphony for its grandiose style, in particular the finale movement, critics questioned the stylings and what Sibelius’ message was, if any. The symphony has unofficially been dubbed as the ‘Symphony of Independence’ as many saw it as a representation of Finland’s struggle for independence. Fellow Finnish composer Sulho Ranta commented on the symphony saying:


“There is something about this music – at least for us – that leads us to ecstasy; almost like a sharman with his magic drum!”


The Music

Set into four movements, the Second Symphony is Sibelius’ longest symphony, clocking in at around 45 minutes in duration. 


Movement I 

The opening of Sibelius’ Second is perhaps the closest material that reflects the pastoral style made so famous by Beethoven. The opening three-note motif is threaded throughout the whole symphony, but in the first instance is gentle and optimistic in style. Sibelius commented on this saying:


“I admired the symphony’s severity of style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motifs.”


As the movement becomes more dramatic through Sibelius’ rich textures and unconventional harmonic language, this three-note motif returns in different guises. The exciting twists and turns of this opening movement leads to a rousing coda section that showcases this main theme in some great glory. 


Movement II

Inspiration from the story of Don Juan features in the second movement. Sat in his villa in Italy, Sibelius wrote:


“Don Juan. I was sitting in the dark in my castle when a stranger entered. I asked who he could be again and again – but there was no answer. I tried to make him laugh but he remained silent. At last the stranger began to sing – then Don Juan knew who it was. It was death.”


From this came the opening bassoon theme of the second movement. A couple of months later Sibelius returned to this movement to pen the second theme, which was entitled ‘Christus’ – perhaps reflecting the death and resurrection of this movement. This movement starts quietly and soon grows to epic proportions as the brass team up to create walls of sound. Critic Robert Kajanus commented on this movement saying:


“This movement strikes as the most broken-hearted protest against all the injustice that threatens at the present time to deprive the sun of its light and our flowers of their scent.”


The mammoth ending to the second movement is led by the brass and reflects some sort of resurrection – be it the music itself or perhaps Finland. This is then followed by a string theme that has been described as ‘ethereal’ and ‘mist-like’. Here, Sibelius divides the strings into many parts to create rich sonority.


Movement III

The restless scherzo movement is aggressive in style and is constantly moving. From buzzing sounds coming from around the orchestra at the beginning, the ‘machine-gun-like’ figures are quick and only fleeting. To balance this movement the slow trio section showcases an oboe solo accompanied by the woodwind and horns. After this the frantic scherzo section returns and segues into the epic finale. 


Movement IV

The glorious string theme bursts out as the fourth movement begins without hesitation. The longest movement of the four, but certainly the most grandiose in style, the fourth movement is colossal, regal and showcases triumphant and lyrical themes. Inspired by Romantic music, this movement has been described as “developing towards a triumphant conclusion intended to rouse in the listener a picture of lighter and confident prospects for the future.”

Each time the rich and glorious string theme rears its head in this movement it becomes thicker in texture and more epic each time. After going between quiet and loud sections, the last few minutes of the symphony brings together the famous motif plus everything that Sibelius has got to create this grandiose atmosphere. 

Triumphant brass paired with whirling strings clash as the final climax lays its foundations. A glimmer of light from tremoling strings pierces the texture before the final climax takes its form chiefly in the brass. The trumpets, horns and trombones hark the final heroic play of the motif, as the timpani boldly rolls. The symphony closes with four epic chords played by the whole orchestra. 


Final Thoughts

Jean Sibelius’ Second Symphony is an epic exploration of style. From the opening pastoral themes to the grandiose finale, this symphony certainly takes you on a wild ride!


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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You might also enjoy… Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphony No.4


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