The different versions of the Fifth Symphony indicate Sibelius’s preoccupation with maintaining a Romantic classicism while simultaneously discovering (or reinventing) a progressive and alternative approach to the symphony genre.
The Symphony from a Different Sphere
After the turn of the Twentieth Century, the “Fin de siècle” of the cultural world, symphonies of the New German School had run their course and its bipartisan neighbor, the Old Viennese School, had been forced to resign (or at least remodel) its symphonic practices. Austro-German composers sought a new voice, striving to celebrate their history in a modern way. In Russia, the symphony was being experimented with in other ways. Neo-ideals of minimizing resources and reducing verbose musical textures were being prioritized (for example, Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1, the “Classical” symphony). The French practices maintained the large orchestral palette for the most part, but for them, the symphony as a genre was overused; something of the past that Austro-German and Austro-Hungarian composers have already dominated. France found a new voice for itself, one that would appear in the form of tone poems and other orchestral narratives, but the “Symphony” as a whole would find no throne in Twentieth Century France (with one possible exception being Vincent D’Indy’s Symphony No. 3, Sinfonia Brevis de Bello Gallico (“A Brief Symphony of the War in Gaul”). Although written in a traditional four-movement design, the work is indeed a WWI Symphony of national remembrance and recognition, thus the narrative influences the said design).
So where does that leave Finland, Sibelius and, in particular, his Fifth Symphony, arriving at practically the same time as all of this? Both geographically and socially, Sibelius was far removed from the dominating force of the musical West (South, in relation), and he sought to embrace that.
When Sibelius first started work on his Fifth Symphony, in 1915, the type of symphony he set out to write had already been mastered and perhaps even overused: the ethereal “open-space” introduction, accumulative harmonic tension, widely-spaced intervals within luscious and tender melodies, the final triumphant climax—these had all become the norm of the great symphonies and their ever growing orchestral forces. So why is Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony—a work that meets these standards and is relatively modest in scope, length, and size—so recognized as a pioneering masterpiece? Despite a composer’s desire to streamline their style by embracing current trends, each has a unique personal voice; Sibelius is remembered for that. In fact, it might be what he is remembered for most.
The symphony starts in a practical way—long tones (orchestral “pedals”, or rather “ciphers”) and horn calls, elements that begins almost every symphony of Mahler and Bruckner; but something is different. Sibelius hones a more controlled space, releasing a pregnant stasis, rather than progressive one. The thin textures and close harmonies make every subtle shift radiantly glisten.
One of the more obvious oddities of this piece is the final bars of the piece. The powerful and glorious theme that Sibelius presented earlier in the last movement is not matched with the expected recall. Sibelius favors an accumulative build with fragments of the main theme stretched and drawn-out. In stark juxtaposition, what follows are quick chords among potent silence, ending the work on a literal Mozartean “V-I” (which, taken out of context, is not odd or unique at all, further contributing to the mystifying mastery of this symphony). Sibelius handles a classic ending in a shrewd way. He keeps the lively undercurrent under complete control. By foregoing the “grand finale” version of the main theme, the sound never becomes saturated, leaving the delicately orchestrated material acute and lean, yet the impact and lasting impression is not compromised.
In just 3 movements, and an orchestra less than half the size than what was popular at the time, Sibelius captured the grand landscape of the major symphonies in a different way. He designed a new sphere for himself without submitting to the more radical procedures of his contemporaries. Sibelius’s musical identity within the new century was finally stable; his “modernist” persona established. Earlier works of Sibelius accumulated the Finnish composer’s puzzling layers, to be sure, but his singularity may have arrived fully focused in the form of his Fifth Symphony.
Progression of Discovery | Creating an Alternative Symphony
Sibelius revised his Fifth Symphony at least two times between the years 1915-1919. Many of the aforementioned elements that make the symphony so recognizable today—the broad opening, only 3 movements, the quick chords surrounded by silence that end the work—were very different in the first version of the symphony.
The picture above is a recording that released both the original and final versions on the same CD: Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, a conductor and orchestra that share the national identity of this masterwork and its composer. There are many astounding recordings of this work (Karajan / Berlin Philharmonic: 1965, to name just one) but if one’s priority is to find a truly native interpretation of the work (which is something, I feel, is important for Sibelius)—that is, of course, performed well—then Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra may be the best choice. Considering that, and the fact that both versions of the same symphony are on one disc, makes this a notable recording in the Sibelius 5 discography; both educational and enlightening.
Here is the original first movement, from 1915:
Here is the version we know today, from 1919:
You can purchase a digital recording of this album on iTunes or the actual CD from online classical music retailers, such as ArkivMusic.
Research / Further Study:
“Sibelius: Symphony No. 5” by James Hepokoski | Cambridge Music Handbooks | Published by Cambridge University Press, 1993
Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 82, in full score by Jean Sibelius | Published by Dover Publications, Inc., 2001 (a republication of an early authoritative edition)
Symphony No. 5 (Original And Final Versions)| Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra | Produced by BIS, 1997 (CD/Digital, 1996/2000, respectively)
Sibelius: Symphonien Nos. 5 & 7, LP (later CD digital remaster) Recording | Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic | Produced by Deutsche Grammophon, February 22-24, 1965
*This blog post is based on a post I wrote for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra to promote their upcoming performances of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, May 3-6, 2018. The NJSO owns the copyright to that original post.
*This blog post follows fair use practices (commentary, criticism, scholarship, and/or research) of copyrighted material. All writing and synthesis of ideas are my own.