Symphony no. 4 op. 63 (1911)

Op. 63 Symphony no. 4 in A minor
1. Tempo molto moderato, quasi adagio, 2. Allegro molto vivace, 3. Il tempo largo, 4. Allegro. Completed in 1911; first performance in Helsinki on 3rd April 1911 (Orchestra of Helsinki Philharmonic Society under Jean Sibelius).

The fourth symphony was once considered to be the strangest of Sibelius's symphonies, but today it is regarded as one of the peaks of his output. It has a density of expression, a chamber music-like transparency and a mastery of counterpoint that make it one of the most impressive manifestations of modernity from the period when it was written.

Sibelius had thoughts of a change of style while he was in Berlin in 1909. These ideas were still in his mind when he joined the artist Eero Järnefelt for a trip to Koli, the emblematic "Finnish mountain" in Karelia, close to Joensuu. The landscape of Koli was for Järnefelt an endless source of inspiration, and Sibelius said that he was going to listen to the "sighing of the winds and the roar of the storms". Indeed, the composer regarded his visit to Koli as one of the greatest experiences of his life. "Plans. La Montagne," he wrote in his diary on 27th September 1909.

The following year Sibelius was again travelling in Karelia, in Vyborg and Imatra, now acting as a guide to his friend and sponsor Rosa Newmarch. Newmarch later recollected how Sibelius eagerly strained his ears to hear the pedal points in the roar of Imatra's famous rapids and in other natural sounds.

The trip also had other objectives. On his return Sibelius wanted to develop his skills in counterpoint, since, as he put it, "the harmony is largely dependent on the purely musical patterning, its polyphony." His observations contained many ideas on the need for harmonic continuity. Since the orchestra lacked the pedal of the piano, Sibelius wanted to compensate for this with even more skilful orchestration.

Yet one more natural phenomenon – a storm in the south-eastern archipelago – was needed to get the symphonic work started. In addition, in November 1910 he was preparing the symphony at the same time as he was working on music for Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven, which he had promised to Aino Ackté. The Raven was never finished, but its atmosphere and sketches had an effect on the fourth symphony.

The symphony was performed for the first time on 3rd April 1911, in Helsinki. Its tone was both modern and introspective, and it confused the audience so much that the applause was subdued. "Evasive glances, shakes of the head, embarrassed or secretly ironic smiles. Not many came to the dressing room to deliver their congratulations," Aino Sibelius recollected later. The critics, too, were at a loss. "Everything was so strange," was how Heikki Klemetti described the atmosphere. In the years that followed audiences in many parts of the world reacted the same way.

However, Sibelius remained happy with the symphony and after the first public performance he prepared it for publication. Nowadays, the fourth symphony has come to be recognised as one of the great masterpieces of the 20th century and one of Sibelius's most magnificent achievements. It was, after all, contemporary music of the utmost modernity, a work from which all traces of aesthetisation or artificiality had been eliminated.
A kind of motto for the work is the augmented fourth, or tritone, which creates tension in all the four movements of the symphony. The atmosphere of the work varies from joyfulness to austere expressionism. Every movement fades into silence. We are as far as we could be from the triumphant finales of the second and third symphonies.

Indeed, the fourth symphony often seems to shock listeners, and analysis of the work can turn into philosophising. It is as if Sibelius were directly penetrating the merciless core of life, laying it bare without offering any kind of false consolation. He himself had felt close to death a few years earlier, when a tumour had been removed from his throat in an operation.

The first movement is conceived in accordance with the broad principles of sonata form, but does not follow strict rules. Kai Maasalo has noted how Sibelius moved away from constructing ’sonata forms’. He adds that instead Sibelius “uses the idea of these forms: the contrast, variation and development of the themes – only the essential is left." This means that terms such as “main theme” and “subsidiary theme” should really be put in quotation marks.

The first movement of the symphony (Tempo molto moderato, quasi adagio) begins fortissimo, with a C-D-F sharp-E progression in the low strings and the bassoon. The same notes can be found in the first movement of the third symphony, in the order C-D-E-F sharp.

Now the tritone C-F sharp becomes even more insistent. However it is not put there in order to assault the ears of conventional listeners. The tritone is here construed as part of the whole-tone scale, and the symphonic tension of the fourth symphony is largely created by the conflict between major-minor harmony and whole-tone thinking.
As a foundation for initial motif, some of the double basses maintain C as a pedal point. Could this be a recollection of the moment when the composer was trying to pick out pedal points from the Imatra rapids? Sibelius said that the beginning of the symphony should always be played as "fate, with all sentimentality excluded".

Extract 16

The F sharp-E pendulum motion continues as the cello presents the "main theme", which reveals the key as A minor. The cello moves through the A-C-E-G notes of the minor seventh chord.

Extract 17

A canonical development leads towards C major, but the key does not become clearly established, and an angry C sharp note reminds us of the uncertainty of victory. With a pendulum movement back to F sharp we are in the key of F sharp major, in an episode which some scholars call the "subsidiary theme".

Extract 18

Soon the French horns create an open-air atmosphere. This is followed by a "Parsifal" motif in the brass. Sibelius told his son-in-law Jussi Jalas that this motif "represents fate".

Extract 19

The "main theme" and the "subsidiary theme" are developed simultaneously. This creates a remarkable atmosphere, when the high strings are sawing at their figure alone as if they had lost touch with gravity. The figure could be a recollection of a melody which Sibelius wrote for the writer and photographer I. K. Inha during his years of study, when he urged Inha to take his ideas further.

Soon Sibelius uses harmonies to give a "spattering" effect, with fragmentary motifs as at the beginning of the finale of the third symphony. Instrumental groups are handled as separate chamber orchestras. In the recapitulation-like sequence we once again encounter the idea of nature in the French horns, and the "fate motif" from the brass section.

The expressionistic fatefulness seems to turn into impressionistic ideas of nature, but the natural idyll is unstable: the double bass rumbles at the end, and a modified form of the four-note motif fades away into the distance.

The second movement (Allegro molto vivace) could not begin in a more playful way. In the oboe melody the tritone F-B takes a Lydian mode form, and at first the violins respond with pure fourths.

Extract 20

The oboe and the strings are in a dialogue, until the innocently rhythmic play of the strings occupies the stage. But soon we are taken deeper by a whirl of tones which reveals that there may be dark undercurrents beneath the playful surface.

The play of light and shadow continues until the waltz-like motif in the flutes seems to consolidate the light-hearted style. The oboe melody of the beginning and the response of the strings are repeated, but as the tempo slows down Sibelius brings some of the motifs together in an entirely new, dramatic light. The F-B interval begins to be repeated more insistently – indeed the composer told his son-in-law that it should be played downright "brutally". Erik Tawaststjerna wrote that the playful theme is "demonised", and Erkki Salmenhaara has seen the theme as being distorted in the same way as human faces are distorted in Emil Nolde's paintings. The movement disappears into nothingness with three taps on the kettle drum.

The third movement (Il tempo largo) is the slowest and most original of the movements of Sibelius's symphonies. Sibelius has an excellent theme in mind, but he only reveals it gradually, almost as a result of improvisation.

All the attempts at revelation are opened by the semiquaver motif of the woodwinds. Just as important as the revelation of the theme is the gradual clarification of the C sharp minor key.

Extract 21

The French horns are already seeking the basic thematic idea, whereupon the initial motifs become varied. The strings advance the theme a little further, but the secret is still not revealed. The semiquaver motifs in the woodwinds return, but in a new light. The strings progress in combinations of fifths, as the cellos play the main theme even more fully.

An accompaniment which progresses in thirds is formed from the motifs of the woodwinds, and now the theme gains its most extensive form. This is followed by a synthesis of everything heard previously. Now the theme appears in a form that is more pithy and dramatic than in its most extensive form. The secret has been revealed:

Extract 22

The persistent C sharp pedal point ties the themes of the finale together. Does only emptiness remain after the revelation of the secret? Perhaps not quite, since the end of the movement anticipates the introduction to the following movement.

The fourth movement (Allegro) begins as playfully as the second. It is as if the world did not yet know what had been revealed in the third movement. 

Extract 23

This introduction is followed by aphoristic motifs which Sibelius develops into something larger: as the tempo increases, the violins stretch from a tritone to a pure fifth, the glockenspiel tinkles its rejoinder, the violins respond and soon the cellos are sounding out their "affrettuoso" motif. The flutes and the oboe in E flat major, playing above the A major commotion in the strings, serve as a reminder of the fragility of the idyll. These materials fight a battle as the colours darken. In a bridge passage the tempo slows down and the French horns provide a chorale-like theme.

Extract 24

Is there any return to the lost paradise, to the age of innocence? Apparently not. The impression is reinforced if we accept the connection made by Erik Tawaststjerna, between material in the symphony and the drafts for the orchestral song, The Raven.

The elements of the original idyll gain an increasingly dark colour. In a masterly way Sibelius exhausts kinetic energy against the resistance of the material. The last page of the score is one of Sibelius's most famous. As Erik Tawaststjerna puts it, the strings lead us to "a path into nothingness". Three times the flute asks - and three times the oboe responds, cuttingly and mercilessly - yet perhaps with sympathy after all? The journey from the A major at the beginning of the movement has been long - and what is left? Only a plain A minor cadence.

"Det är synd om människorna (It is misery to be human)", was Sibelius's quotation from August Strindberg when he spoke of this symphony.

Extract 25

The struggle is over, but the end is ambiguous. It is true that Tawaststjerna associated the end with the "nevermore" atmosphere in Poe's poem The Raven. Yet at least the conductors Neeme Järvi and Osmo Vänskä have seen it as optimistic! On the other hand, Leif Segerstam has experienced it as a funeral march, a procession passing the listener and continuing into the distance.
Although the tritone motifs of the fourth symphony undermined major-minor tonality, Sibelius did not want to give it up. After completing the fourth symphony Sibelius stood on a borderland behind which lay either "madness or chaos", as he later explained to Walter Legge.
This was a border Sibelius was not ready to cross, unlike the atonalists and Arnold Schoenberg, who replaced tonality with the iron laws of the dodecaphonic technique.

This way of avoiding chaos did not suite Sibelius. The fifth symphony would be harmonically more traditional, but its form was even more masterly and concentrated.

Quotes on the fourth symphony

"The motif of the symphony is a journey to the famous mountain Koli, which rises 252 metres above the level of Lake Pielisjärvi (…) [As regards the] magnificent connection which Sibelius has previously made with our people and its national epic and which has made him so strong and great, this bond is lacking in the fourth symphony."
Bis, i.e. the critic Karl Fredrik Wasenius in Hufvudstadsbladet, 1911

"The assumptions of the pseudonymous Bis concerning the programme of my new symphony are incorrect. I guess that they have to do with the topographical report which I presented to a few friends on 1st April."
Jean Sibelius in Hufvudstadsbladet, 1911

"The future will decide whether in the melodic structure of some the themes the composer has crossed the boundary that healthy natural musicality instinctively sets for the play of intervals in a melody."
Heikki Klemetti, critic,1911

"A declaration of war against that superficiality, admiration of outward devices, empty grandiloquence and overwhelming materialism which is swallowing up modern music."
Evert Katila, critic in the newspaper Uusi Suomi, 1911

"I feel as if entirely new worlds were now opening for Sibelius as a composer of symphonies, worlds which have not been shown to others and which he, with his astonishingly highly developed sense of colour and melody, can see and describe to others."
Oskar Merikanto, critic in the newspaper Tampereen Sanomat, 1911

"We have very good reasons to call the style of the fourth symphony expressionism. This is because the line has a dominant position in the work. (…) The fourth symphony exerts a healthy influence. It involves a quiet protest against all hollow impressionism, tasteless instrumentation and low naturalism.
Erik Furuhjelm, scholar, 1916

"I am pleased that I did it, for even today I cannot find a single note in it that I could remove, nor can I find anything to add. This gives me strength and satisfaction. The fourth symphony represents a very important and great part of me. Yes, I'm glad to have written it.
Jean Sibelius in the 1940s

"Sibelius created the monumentalism of antimonumentalism. The fourth symphony is one of the most remarkable documents of the age of psychoanalysis."
Erik Tawaststjerna, scholar, 1971

"The fourth symphony in A minor op. 63 is the work in which Sibelius comes closest to expressionism. But one must hasten to add: introspective expressionism (…) It was the psychoanalytical confession of the soul of a creative subject, and it could only be done once."
Erkki Salmenhaara, scholar, 1984

"The symphony has its indisputable place among the key works of the era of ’modern’ music, along with Stravinsky's Sacre, Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, Debussy's Jeux, Scriabin’s Prometheus."
Veijo Murtomäki, music scholar, 1990

"Sibelius was living through hard times when he was writing the fourth symphony, and the anguish can certainly be heard. The music has many questions and few answers (…) We are now moving in deep waters: the music tells us that life goes on despite difficulties. We are in the hands of God. Divine power cannot be excluded."
Osmo Vänskä, conductor, 1998

"It is such a flash of genius that there is probably no other equally original, compact and well-functioning conception from that period. Such a condensed whole, and yet we are in the dimensions of space!"
Jukka-Pekka Saraste, conductor, 2002