Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony: “Turning Space Upside Down”

It begins with a distant drumbeat in the night- a barely-audible triple-beat timpani summons. Then, a strangely amorphous scale in the brooding low strings rises out of the darkness. A vague remembrance of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde blends into a gradually-shifting kaleidoscope of veiled colors. Icy dissonance opens out into a vast, magnificent, sonic expanse.

These are the first, primal seconds of Jean Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony. Actually, we don’t perceive this piece as having a distinct beginning. Instead, it gradually seeps into our consciousness, as if already in progress. We arrive in a new place without knowing how we got there.

The Seventh was Sibelius’ final symphony. After its completion in 1924, the Finnish composer wrote only a few more works, including the symphonic poem, Tapiola, before descending into the permanent compositional silence which would last for the final thirty years of his life. In a testament to the fickle and mysterious workings of the creative Muse, Sibelius struggled unsuccessfully to write an Eighth Symphony- music which would have been premiered by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony. Returning to C major, the purest of all keys, Symphony No. 7 stands as Sibelius’ ultimate “farewell.”

In his famous conversation with Gustav Mahler in which the two composers shared their contrasting conceptions of the symphony, Sibelius reportedly said,

I admire the symphony’s style and severity of form, as well as the profound logic creating an inner connection among all of the motives.

In the Third and Fifth Symphonies, this “profound logic” led to the unorthodox fusion of two movements. The Seventh Symphony takes this a step further by unfolding as a single, continuous, twenty-two minute long movement. The adagio, scherzo, and “Hellenic rondo” of Sibelius’ original three-movement plan blend together, developing as if by an unseen hand. The musicologist James Hepokoski describes this unbroken, organic development, writing,

Its ad hoc structure emerges link-by-link from the transformational processes of the musical ideas themselves—a content-based form constantly in the process of becoming.

Perhaps the greatest composers can sense what the music wants to be, and are able to get out of the way of a larger creative Power. In a 1918 letter, Sibelius gives us this sense of the music shaping itself during the compositional process:

With regard to Symphonies Six and Seven, the plans may possibly be altered according to the development of the musical ideas. As usual I am a slave to my themes and submit to their demands.

The Seventh Symphony plays tricks on our perception of time, speed, and motion. As this 2002 statement by the Finnish conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste suggests, attempts to put the experience of this music into words often veer towards the metaphysical:

In [Symphony] number four there was already this idea of turning space upside down. In number seven it has become a predominant feature: melody without gravity, but yet existing within the fields of planets with varying masses. I think that the finest thing in it is the surging of different tonal masses in a state of weightlessness. I sometimes debated with Hämeenniemi (the composer Eero Hämeenniemi) at what stage near the end of number seven one starts to become aware of the rising line of the strings below the theme played by the brass: one suddenly just realises that it has risen from the background and really gone wild! Soon we hear the bassoon playing in a high register and the flute in a low one – and there too you have this cancelling out of gravity.

As you listen to the Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony you’ll notice a few recurring motives. One is that opening scale, which later grows into a writhing serpent. Another is the majestic trombone statement which rises at the Symphony’s snowcapped, climactic summits. The drama of this single-movement symphony runs the gamut from a noble and contemplative hymn to a scurrying, effervescent Nordic scherzo. The conductor Sir Simon Rattle has likened the final moments of the Seventh Symphony, which he calls “the most depressed C major in all of music literature” to “a scream…Something you reach on the edge of death.” Indeed, there is no outward triumph or celebration in this musical farewell. Instead, it’s an intimate benediction, filled with brief anguish, quiet lament, and then the kind of peaceful serenity which comes from letting go.

Five Great Recordings

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

5 thoughts on “Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony: “Turning Space Upside Down””

  1. Here too, Timothy; I have written an essay about the work. Please let me know if you wish me to share it with you. I have written many such.

  2. Hello, Mr. Judd –

    I’m rather dismayed that you haven’t included Herbert von Karajan’s superb Deutsche Grammophon recording from 1968. Among some circles it’s considered legendary, and I can understand why: the performance is transcendent in ways that seem almost impossible to express.

    Please have a listen:

    Thank you.

  3. I have come to see this magnicent work as a metaphor for life. The intro is the mysterious upward sliding motif which leads us to the noble challenge of living (the gorgeous string chorale — which suggests the mystical challenge of really living that lies ahead). Once we find our calling, we are ushered into doing the everyday dance. Horns and trombones usher in this dance and , as we reach toward the end, the trombones herald a retrospective look backward to a life well lived and, along with the upward sliding motif, herald the physical end. Beautifully and with terminal finality, the soul is liberated from the physical world and soars off into the aurora borealis. Paradoxes abound. In some of the mightiest moments (twice, to be exact), the bassoon, not the mightiest of voices, is asked to comment. The final ascent is given to the strings, again not the mightiest of voices. In Barbirolli’s interpretation, you hear a thwack before soul soars off. Ormandy finds almost unimaginable magnificence in the strong writing and chooses to bolster the final ascent of the strings with a discreet trumpet. Of course, all of this mystical response on my part is stimulated by Sibelius’ genius with elusive and magical power if music. As the years go by (I am now 83 years old), he seems greater and greater to me. No wonder that curmudgeon Stravinsky felt motivated to put flowers on his grave! His years of silence during the final decades of his life were richly earned! The music is so rich that it rewards any number of interpretations. My current favorites are Barbirolli, Ormandy, and Davis with Boston.


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