Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 13, 1958, John Barnett conducting
About this Piece
If Sibelius’ first two symphonies may be broadly classified as belonging to “national romanticism,” the Third seems to evade any such categorization. It clearly is a work of transition. Most commentators have observed in it a tendency toward a kind of “classicism.” It probably is the first movement (Allegro moderato), with its clear-cut formal design and effortless grace of orchestration, that is responsible for this view. The second movement (Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto), which recycles a simple theme in the manner of a folk song, does not conflict with the impression left behind by the first. The third movement (Moderato—Allegro ma non tanto, con energia), on the other hand, does not seem to fit into this picture. It is utterly problematic in form and leaves many questions unanswered.
The first musical ideas that ended up in the Third Symphony are from a time previous to the first reference to the work in Sibelius’ correspondence in September 1904. Real work on this composition began late in 1906, and the first performance took place under the composer’s baton in Helsinki on September 25, 1907.
As revealed by the sketches, Sibelius worked on several compositions simultaneously, each being at a different phase in its development. When the most active phase of the Third Symphony was at hand, he had finished Pohjola’s Daughter and left unfinished two other projects, Luonnotar and Marjatta. It seems that there is a connection between these abandoned projects and the Third Symphony. In one instance it is explicit: the chorale-like material of the second movement stems from the Luonnotar project.
A relation to the Marjatta oratorio is more speculative, but there is reason to believe that the religious content of the oratorio is somehow reflected in the Symphony. It has been pointed out, incidentally, that the passages featuring a hymn or chorale topos are exceptionally numerous in the Third Symphony and that such passages can be found in all three movements.
Hidden programmatic reasons may also lie behind the fact that the Third Symphony has only three movements. It is not out of the question, although by no means proven, that the movements spiritually correspond to the birth, funeral, and resurrection of Christ in the Marjatta libretto. In this case, the hymn-like concluding section of the Finale could be interpreted as the expectation and hope of Christ’s resurrection and its actual happening. —Ilkka Oramo