The famous 1907 meeting between Jean Sibelius and Gustav Mahler in Helsinki revealed two opposing, yet equally compelling, conceptions of the symphony. Mahler insisted that “the symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” In contrast, Sibelius expressed admiration for the symphony’s “style and severity of form, as well as the profound logic creating an inner connection among all of the motives.”
On another occasion, Sibelius observed, similarly,
Music is, for me, like a beautiful mosaic which God has put together. He takes all the pieces in his hand, throws them into the world, and we have to recreate the picture from the pieces.
From the opening bars of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 in D Major, we can sense this divine mosaic taking shape. Actually, the Symphony begins, not with notes, but with four beats of silence. (The meter is 6/4). Then, a pulsating line emerges in the strings. It ascends three pitches before trailing off into another beat of silence. This motif not only launches the first movement (Allegretto) into motion, but forms the seed out of which the entire Symphony develops. Out of the initial theme spins a sunny new theme which resembles a pastoral Nordic folk dance. The music develops with a sense of organic inevitability which suggests a “profound logic.”
At one moment in the exposition, a single austere line hovers in the violins, as if to reveal a bleak, windswept Scandinavian landscape. Pizzicati bubble up as an elemental force, and icy, trembling lines run through the strings. The timpani and bassoon emerge with brooding prominence. Voices rise and fall in long, extended tones. (Notice the trumpets near the end of the exposition at 3:14). The Symphony’s vast mosaic comes into thrilling focus in the gradually quickening development section. Phillip Huscher observes that “for Sibelius, development often implies the first step in putting the music back together.”
A gloomy, desolate landscape emerges in the opening of the second movement (Tempo andante, ma rubato). A single, trudging pizzicato line wanders in the basses and celli. Soon, it is joined by a somber chant in the low woodwinds. Rugged, rhapsodic adventures lead to a majestic, yet ultimately faltering, climax. Then, suddenly, we find ourselves in a serene, shimmering new landscape. Angelic flute lines dance around a warm, nostalgic chorale in the strings. The second movement developed from an abandoned tone poem, inspired by Don Juan’s confrontation with death, which Sibelius sketched in 1901 during a stay in Italy. Later, the composer described the Symphony as “a confession of the soul,” and “a struggle between death and salvation.”
The brief third movement (Vivacissimo) hurtles forward as a volatile, shivering scherzo. The trio section brings a lamenting, pastoral statement by the oboe. When the trio returns a second time, it is not followed by a repeat of the scherzo, as we might expect. Instead, the scherzo is left behind, and a mighty bridge leads directly to the Finale (Allegro moderato).
Here, a majestic landscape unfolds before us. It’s a triumphant moment of arrival, preceded by a prolonged, tension-inducing dominant pedal tone, and celebratory fanfares in the horns and trumpets. The symphonic journey comes full circle as a three-note ascending motif rings out, mirroring the motif which opens the first movement. In the Symphony’s final moments, a hushed ostinato, made up of rising and falling scales, emerges in the low strings. Gradually, as more instruments take up the line, it grows, amassing titanic energy. With intense, ever-rising tremolo lines in the strings and a majestic statement in the brass, the ecstatic final bars grasp for an unattainable celestial goal.
Five Great Recordings
- Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43, Leif Segerstam, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra Amazon
- Susanna Mälkki and the Frankfort Radio Symphony Orchestra (concert performance recorded on May 17, 2019
- George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra
- Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra
- John Barbirolli and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Featured Image: Landscape (1905), Eero Järnefelt