Showcase March-April 2014 - page 28

Program Notes
mar 27, 28, 29
Jean Sibelius
December 8, 1865, Tavastehus, Finland
September 20, 1957, Järvenpää
Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Opus 63
ibelius began work on the Symphony No. 4 in the
spring of 1910 and completed the score early in 1911.
He led the premiere in Helsinki on April 3, 1911.
a rich fund of experience
In 1910 and 1911, Sibelius had a rich fund of human
and musical experience to draw on. New people he had
met (Mahler was one), an illness he had survived, new
landscapes he had experienced, his country’s political
situation: all these went to feed his artistic fantasy. The
Fourth Symphony is a monument to a richly lived,
deeply considered and by no means easy life.
Those things ghosting about the background of this
symphony all tend to make one feel small, and so
should the Fourth as a whole. Aloneness, a sense of the
contrast between human and superhuman, the impact
of concentrated experience—these are perhaps the
images that, unbidden, lodged in Sibelius’ mind as he
conceived and began to fix the musical gestures of this
unsettling masterwork.
tempo molto moderato, quasi adagio.
He begins with a question.
Basses and cellos,
but muted, together with
bassoons sound a huge C, from which two other notes,
D and F-sharp, detach themselves. The F-sharp falls back
to E, and for a long time we hear only a rocking, back and
forth, between these two pitches. It is the kraken’s roar.
I have called it a question. These four notes—C/D/E/F-
sharp—are part of a whole-tone scale, an elusive,
ambiguous creation all of whose intervals are alike,
which therefore presents no articulation and has neither
beginning nor end. This so-called tritone interval
between the outer notes, C and F-sharp, is pungent, and
medieval theorists called it
diabolus in musica
. It is an
uncomfortable dissonance that demands resolution.
The most natural resolution is outward, to a perfect
fifth, and that is eventually accomplished in this
symphony—in the finale! For the time being, though,
we must be satisfied with gnomic adumbrations of this
possibility. We will also gradually discover that the
music heard in the first few minutes, including the solo
cello melody, provides the stuff from which all the rest
of the symphony will be drawn.
allegro molto vivace.
When this questioning, almost slow
movement finds its end, the scherzo emerges from it at
once. The tritone disturbs the calm, the dactyls in duple
meter disturb the lilt of the opening tune, and the somber
second half of the movement disturbs the architectural
and expressive set of the piece as a whole.
il tempo largo.
The third movement—and this is truly slow
music—is the symphony’s center, and here, tentatively at
first, then more openly, Sibelius sings. He allows himself
one climax, lacerating and laconic at the same time. We
might remember that when Sibelius heard the Bruckner
Fifth it had moved him to tears. Sibelius’
ends, like
his first movement, in repetitions and a question mark.
The finale emerges immediately, as the scherzo did
from the first movement. The allegro quality—in its literal
sense of “cheerful” as well as its musical one, indicating a
quick tempo—is instantly compromised by the grinding
dissonance that occurs when the second violins join the
firsts. The issue of the tritone is still very much alive.
In this finale, in striking contrast to the economy of
the first three movements, Sibelius almost overwhelms
us with a profusion of ideas. That richness sets
the coda, in which all this music is brought down
to the irreducible. It falls back from bright major to
dark minor, then disintegrates into scarcely audible
tremolandi. A flute voices an appeal, to which the oboe
makes crowing, heartless response.
Neither affirmative nor pathetic, the end,
and rigorously in tempo, is shattering in its matter-of-
factness. Sir Colin Davis, a deeply penetrating Sibelius
conductor, described this moment as “a brusque hand
that smoothes the earth over the grave.”
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons,
4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, bells and strings
Excerpted from a program note by the late
, used with permission.
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