Length: c. 27 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 20, 1983, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting
In the summer of 1914, after having returned from America, where he had conducted the world premiere of his tone poem The Oceanides at the Norfolk Festival, Sibelius began to work on his Fifth Symphony. The first diary entry that refers to it is from July 25, 1914: “Got a wonderful theme!” The sudden appearance of a musical idea marked the beginning of a compositional process that, in this case, proved to be particularly difficult and took several years. The first version of the Symphony was premiered on the composer’s 50th birthday, December 8, 1915; the second version exactly a year later; and the final version on November 24, 1919.
The coming into being of the Sixth Symphony took even longer. The first sketches date from the autumn of 1914, but the work was not finished until February 1923. This means that for several years Sibelius worked on these two symphonies at the same time, and in December 1917 a third came into the picture: “I have ‘in my head’ the Symphonies VI and VII.” The Seventh Symphony, then, was completed a year after the Sixth, in March 1924.
Times were uneasy. A few days after his “wonderful theme” note in July 1914, Sibelius wrote: “War declared. Austria–Serbia.” He understood that his German publisher was no longer able to send him royalties, since Finland, as Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire, was a hostile country. With this income cut, he could not concentrate on the symphonies but was forced to write piano pieces and other casual works to support his family and to defray his debts.
The other cause responsible for the slow progress of the work was his struggle with the problem of form. While “forging” his themes (a metaphor he constantly used) he hesitated between the Lisztian concept of symphonic poem or fantasy and the symphony proper. Fantasy represented freedom of thought (“I intend to let the musical ideas and their development in my mind determine the form”), while the symphony meant subordination and loyalty to a tradition of musical thought with much more strict rules.
Both the four-movement Sixth and the one-movement Seventh Symphony were fantasies, in his mind, at some stage of their conception. From the basic material of the Sixth Symphony Sibelius, in a moment of hesitation and despair, even planned a “Concerto Lirico” for violin and orchestra.
The Fifth and Sixth Symphonies may be called twins, because they grew together as embryos. But they are not identical twins. The former is light and airy, the latter dark and gloomy, at least in the two last movements. The Fifth Symphony is based on the duality of two basic impulses, one stepwise and the other swinging, while the Sixth Symphony emerges from one basic idea only, an ascending stepwise motion in the Dorian mode on D.
The Sixth Symphony, the “Cinderella” of the series, has not reached the popularity of its predecessor, but for many connoisseurs of Sibelius’ music it is the finest. Superficially it is more traditional than the Fifth, since its four movements resemble in character and in sequence the traditional movements of a classical symphony. But the listener’s expectations are not fulfilled with regard to this, which leaves a strange feeling – as if there were something wrong to it.
There are mainly two reasons for this uneasy feeling of dissatisfaction. First, what looks like a well-ordered sequence of traditional movement types, each having a distinct character of its own, is in fact a continuum that reveals the work’s early origin as a Fantasy in the composer’s mind. The thematic material in all movements is remarkably unified and is mainly based on stepwise motion. Second, there does not seem to be any clear order in the tonal relationship between the movements and the musical material inside them. Instead, there are subtle shadings based on ambiguities as to the function of scale-degrees.
The very first impulse of the Symphony in Sibelius’ sketchbook (from late November 1914) is an ascending theme written in E-flat minor but using a C natural (instead of a C-flat) as the sixth degree of the scale, which means that it actually is in E-flat Dorian mode. The E-flat tonality reveals its origin as belonging to the material conceived for the Fifth Symphony. Transposed a semitone lower, it finally ended up in the Sixth, giving this Symphony a tonal frame of D-Dorian. This old church mode and the stepwise moving melodic lines are mainly responsible for the elegiac chiaroscuro character of the work. With its formal and tonal properties in mind, the Sixth Symphony has been called a symphony “about” the symphony, on the one hand, and the “symphony par excellence about tonality,” on the other.
— Dr. Ilkka Oramo is Professor Emeritus at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki.