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FastNotes

  • Sibelius achieves an indelibly vivid sound in his First Symphony with standard instruments (no contrabassoon, English horn, or bass clarinet, and very little piccolo); his only ‘extravagances’ are timpani, tuba, and harp.
  • The First Symphony is in four movements, in “normal” order. Sibelius now fully accepted the legacy of Beethoven and Bruckner, but there is also a lot of Tchaikovsky and a touch of Borodin in this piece.
  • The Symphony’s opening also functions structurally, laying out three building blocks for the entire work: the clarinet’s theme, the basis of several later themes; the timpani’s droning, foreshadowing extensive use of pedal point; and the intense undercurrent of energy - this is music wound tight, always on the verge of exploding.

Composed: 1899-1900
Length: c. 40 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (both = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, triangle), harp, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 27, 1925, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting

While the present work in E minor is the first of Sibelius’ numbered symphonies, it was preceded in his oeuvre by Kullervo (1892), a vast cantata-symphony employing vocal soloists, male chorus, and a large orchestra. All those remarks about “youthful self-indulgence” that were once employed to describe the yearning E-minor Symphony are more appropriately applied to Kullervo, as we have come to realize as a consequence of greater familiarity with the once greatly undervalued earlier work. In comparison to Kullervo, the canonic First Symphony is a relatively spare creation, in construction at any rate – notwithstanding its heart-on-sleeve emotionalism.

With the appearance of the E-minor Symphony (the composer-led premiere took place in Helsinki on April 26, 1899) it became clear that the 35-year-old Sibelius had in the seven years separating it from Kullervo learned to order his materials without a corresponding loss in vitality. And by 1899 he had behind him a collection of tautly dramatic, masterful tone poems – En Saga and the Lemminkäinen legends, the latter, like Kullervo, illustrating episodes from the Kalevala, Finland’s national epic.

The First is in the traditional four movements of the Romantic symphony and indicates an affection for Tchaikovskian melos, with touches elsewhere of the more robust, nationalistic style of Alexander Borodin – when it is not being wholly itself. And that self is asserted at the outset: the long, brooding clarinet solo sounds like no one but the fabulous Finn, and leads without obvious transition into the boldly dramatic opening theme. The slow movement and the cymbals-infected finale are where Tchaikovsky is most apparent, but the third movement is a singular and thrilling creation, quite on a level with the hammering scherzos of Bruckner.

Although the First Symphony was well-received at its debut, it was another work on the program that aroused the greatest enthusiasm: a now-forgotten choral piece called Song of the Athenians that sent a nationalist message as clear to its audience as the chorus “Va, pensiero” did to those attending the premiere of the young Verdi’s Nabucco in Austrian-occupied Lombardy a half-century earlier. Sibelius’ work represented a protest against Tsar Nicholas II’s recent curtailing of constitutional rights in Finland, a putatively autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire, which was becoming increasingly restive under the harsh rule of its Russian governors.

Withal, the symphony made its mark at home and brought the composer’s name to the attention of the world when it was performed during the Helsinki Orchestra’s first international tour shortly after the Finnish premiere. The E-minor Symphony was heard – in each instance under the composer’s direction – in Stockholm, Christiania (as Oslo was then called), Hamburg, Amsterdam, and at the 1900 Paris World Exhibition.

Herbert Glass has written for many publications in the U.S. and abroad and was for 15 years an editor-annotator for the Salzburg Festival.