Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Sibelius - Symphony No. 4 In A Minor

In 1908 Jean Sibelius had a tumor removed from his throat that proved to be cancerous. For the next few years he feared a return of the cancer, which may have led to the dark music contained within the 4th Symphony.  But the dark hue of the music could just as well been influenced by another piece he was working on at the time; a setting of Edgar Allan Poe's poem The Raven in a setting for voice and orchestra (a work that never came to fruition).  Or perhaps it was the general atmosphere of the world at the time that led to the mood of the symphony. Speculations by musicologists have covered these possibilities as well as others.

Whatever caused the atmosphere of the music, there is no denying that the 4th Symphony is one of Sibelius' most puzzling works. Written in 1910-1911, it is sandwiched between the triumphant 3rd Symphony and heroic 5th Symphony and is in contrast to both.  With its sparseness in scoring and exploration of the dissonant interval of the tritone,  the symphony received scant applause at its premiere in 1911 which was conducted by the composer. The composer's wife recalled:
People avoided our eyes, shook their heads; their smiles were embarrassed, furtive, or ironic. Not many people came backstage to the artists' room to pay their respects. 
The symphony bewildered audiences for years, but is finally getting recognition as one of Sibelius' best works. It is in four movements:

I. Tempo molto moderato, quasi adagio -  Known for over 300 years as a dissonance, the tritone (a musical interval composed of three adjacent whole tones) was also known as diabolus in musica, or the devil in music because of its perceived dissonance. The name was given to it early in the Medieval era to emphasize that the interval should be avoided in music like the devil in every day life. The evil connotation of the interval was used by composers in music that attempted to depict fear, terror or the devil itself.  The French composer Camille Saint-Saëns use of the tritone to depict the devil playing its fiddle in his tone poem Danse Macabre is but one example of how it was used.  Sibelius begins the first movement with a short introduction for bass instruments that uses the tritone to create tonal ambiguity. A solo cello further confuses the tonality  until the cellos as a group state the first theme in A minor after the introduction. The tritone continues to appear throughout the movement as well as the rest of the symphony.  Short motifs float in and out making it difficult for the ear to find its way. After much ruminating, the strings slowly play a series of ascending notes E-F-Bflat-A (which contains the tritone E-Bflat) until the movement ends quietly on A

II. Allegro molto vivace -  The second movement begins as a sprightly scherzo but roughly half way through the mood turns black and the music gets extremely quiet and the movement stops.

III. Il tempo largo -  The third movement wafts across the orchestra in a nocturne of haunted night music. Sibelius referred to this symphony as "a psychological symphony" perhaps referring to this movement that represents the darkness of the mind.  The music slows to a quietly throbbing C-sharp in the violins and violas that is played across bar lines as a short motif repeats a few times until the spectre evaporates.

IV. Allegro -  As in the beginning of the second movement, the fourth movement opens in a somewhat cheerful music that is brightened by the glockenspiel. The movement begins in A major but struggles between A major and E-flat major. Not coincidentally the interval A-Eflat is a tritone. The music ends up going nowhere, and on a repeating C in the strings (the same pitch that began the symphony) the symphony hints at the home key of A minor and stops.

With all four movements ending in quiet ambiguity, virtually no memorable themes, an original harmonic scheme based on the interval of the tritone and movement structure that places a slow movement at the beginning of the symphony, it is no wonder that audiences found the work difficult and perplexing. Sibelius continued to develop his symphonic style up to his last finished symphony. Perhaps he could develop his style no further, perhaps he was written out, but whatever the reason his seventh symphony was his last, and after 1926 he did not write any more large works for the rest of his life. He died in 1957.

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