Easter 2024

03 February 2012
swans - silence of the

I love the music Sibelius, so read on knowing that this is far from unbiased.

And it's not often that one has profound conceptual experiences while sorting through email listening to public radio, but WCVE was playing a performance of Symphony No. 5 by the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by James Levine. I hadn't heard this recording before.

The Fifth is a great work, and a great place to start if you're unfamiliar with the symphonies of Jean Sibelius. (NPR agrees.)

Throughout much of my musical education Sibelius had been pigeonholed as a "nationalist" and not given his due. Fortunately, this perspective seems to be changing and I noted with great pleasure that Alex Ross devoted an entire chapter to Sibelius in his delightful The Rest Is Noise.

The Fifth is most memorable for two features of it's third and final movement. First is the introduction of the "swan song", an ostinato pattern, heard first in the horns, that is a musical recreation of one of Sibelius's experiences near his home 21 April 1915.

Just before ten-to-eleven saw sixteen swans. One of the greatest experiences in life. Oh God, what beauty: they circled over me for a long time. Disappeared into the hazy sun like a silver ribbon, which glittered from time to time. Their cries were of the same woodwind timbre as the cranes but without any tremolo. The swans are closer to trumpets, though there is an element of the sarrusophone. A low suppressed memory of a small child's cry. Nature's mystery and life's melancholy. The Fifth Symphony's final theme.

That phrases "memory of a small child's cry" and "life's melancholy" may be in reference to the death his infant daughter Kristi.

The other galvanizing element of the Symphony is its unusual ending, which, after a prolonged period of sustained modernist counterpoint leaves off with a series of chords -- six in all -- surrounded by silence.

This contrast, the rich density of the "swan song" (some have called it "movie music", but keep in mind that this is 1915 & 19, not the John Williams 1980s) leading to a hallmark Sibelian syncopated sway that abruptly leaves off is remarkable. It's a curiosity. It's a little absurd. It's possibly profound.

And this week, for the first time, listening to the Levine recording, I thought I glimpsed what he might be about here.

I sensed that the silence was not an end to the crescendo, but rather that the music became too intense for its own good, somehow. The only human thing to do with this earthbound reality was to let it go, to set it free.

The six separate chords briefly keep us anchored to this transcendent un-hearable music, that which is beyond our sphere of knowing, whatever that was for Sibelius and whatever that might be for us who hear his music now. But it's only that: a shadow of another realm, another reality.

(There are of course parallels between this concept and the music of French composer Olivier Messiaen: see birds as messengers of the Divine, music of heaven, etc.)

Also of note, Sibelius didn't have the guts to do precisely this gesture in the original 1915 version of the symphony. The strings maintain the underlying chords while the rest of the orchestra punctuates. I have to say that I find stark revision of this final gesture in the 1919 revision to be utterly profound.

Obviously the Fifth Symphony is a work of its time, but it was certainly ahead of its time. And with sympathetic ears, and trust in the goals of the composer, I found this week that this music can lift us to the very door of heaven.

". . . disappeared into the hazy sun like a silver ribbon . . ."

". . . on another shore and in a greater light . . ."

". . . Nature's mystery and life's melancholy . . ."

Listen to the Fifth.


Sibelius sucks.
That's an interesting proposal. What defense can you give of that position?

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