Fifth symphony op. 82 (1915-1919)

Op. 82 Symphony no. 5 in E flat major

First version 1915: 1. Tempo moderato assai, 2. Allegro commodo, 3. Andante mosso, 4. Allegro commodo - Largamente molto; first performance in Helsinki on 8th December 1915 (Helsinki City Orchestra under Jean Sibelius).
Second version 1916: 1. Tempo molto moderato, 2. Andante mosso, 3. Allegro molto - Largamente assai; first performance in Turku on 8th December 1916 (Orchestra of Turun Soitannollinen Seura under Jean Sibelius).
Final version 1919: 1. Tempo molto moderato - Allegro moderato (ma poco a poco stretto), 2. Andante mosso, quasi allegretto, 3. Allegro molto; first performance in Helsinki, 24th November 1919 (Helsinki City Orchestra under Jean Sibelius).

The second and fifth symphonies compete for the title of Sibelius's most popular symphony. Both sound splendid and end in a blaze of glory.

The sovereign mastery of the fifth symphony gives no hint of the years of hard decision-making that went into it. Ideas were conceived initially, then discarded, then rewritten, then finally taken up again in a new form.

During the First World War Sibelius as a composer led his life "on two levels". His contacts with the outside world were sparse because of the war, and financial pressures forced him to produce a great number of small pieces for Finnish publishers. At the same time he was planning an entirely new kind of symphony. He would write three different versions of it before he was satisfied with the result.

Sibelius had been thinking about the fifth symphony, at least since the spring of 1912 when he was working on other pieces. In the summer of 1914, just after the outbreak of the First World War, he wrote that he had got an idea for "a lovely theme". Then in the autumn of 1914 he wrote a prophecy to his friend Axel Carpelan: "Another depth of misery. But I can already make out the mountain that I shall ascend (…) God is opening his doors for a moment, and his orchestra is playing the fifth symphony."

While Sibelius’s diary notes show that his mood during the fourth symphony was one of determination, the initial stages of the fifth symphony seemed to be filled with ecstasy. "The autumn sun is shining. Nature in its farewell colours. My heart is singing sadly – the shadows grow longer. The Adagio of my fifth symphony? That I, poor fellow that I am, can have moments of such richness!!" he wrote on 10th October 1914. And in November the sentiment grew even stronger: "I have a lovely theme. An adagio for the symphony – earth, worms and misery, fortissimo and sordinos [mutes], lots of sordinos. And the melodies are divine!!"

In another diary entry (April 1915) Sibelius wrote: "In the evening, working on the symphony. This important task which strangely enchants me. As if God the Father had thrown down pieces of a mosaic from the floor of heaven and asked me to work out the pattern." Indeed, he produced a "mosaic" of drafts during the autumn and winter of 1914. But from such an assembly of material can we know which draft belonged to which movement, or even to which work?
In addition to the symphony Sibelius was planning a violin concerto, which he also discussed with Breitkopf & Härtel. And this plan began to develop into yet another work, the sixth symphony. Themes were moved from one draft to another. Part of the first drafts for the sixth symphony finally ended up in the fifth symphony - and the second theme of the finale of the sixth symphony can first be found among the drafts for the fifth symphony!

On the 21st April Sibelius saw sixteen swans. In his diary he immediately wrote a magnificent thematic sequence, which ended up in the finale of the fifth symphony. "One of the great experiences of my life! God, how beautiful," he wrote in his diary.

Erik Tawaststjerna made an in-depth analysis of the way in which Sibelius developed the ideas in his sketchbook into his fifth symphony. Tawaststjerna divided the motifs (those that passed the self-criticism stage) into those generated by a "stepping impulse" and those generated by a "rocking impulse".

Both of these impulses are clearly present in the first version of the fifth symphony, which was performed in Helsinki on the composer's 50th birthday, 8th December 1915. It achieved enormous and immediate success. Sibelius was already a national hero, and the reception was overwhelming: the composer had to receive delegations for hours before the concert, the audience shrieked for joy during the concert, and the celebrations continued over several days and many performances.

The reception of the first version is reflected in Otto Kotilainen's review in Helsingin Sanomat. The symphony was still in four movements, and Kotilainen noted quite correctly that the second movement stood in a very close relation to the first. In the first version the first movement ends in an oddly inconclusive manner, as if it were an introduction to the second movement. Kotilainen regarded the third, slow movement as "one of the strangest andante movements ever written", describing it in terms of "simplicity, depth, beauty" (and soon Sibelius discovered that the slow movement was still too simple in this form).
According to Kotilainen the finale was like the raging of the forces of nature. In the canon at the end Kotilainen heard the "wildest dissonances" as the theme criss-crossed from one instrument to another. "True musical magic," the critic marvelled. He declared the fifth symphony to be a masterpiece.

The review shows how much the first version differed from the final version. The original version is clearly longer, and the scherzo episode at the end of the first movement is still a separate movement. In the finale of the first version there are exciting dissonant features, which look back to the fourth symphony, and which Sibelius later smoothed out. Even the famous final strokes were still ligatured to each other with the timpani. In 1995, the first version attracted international attention, when Osmo Vänskä recorded it with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. 

Sibelius was preparing the symphony for publication in January 1916, but he was not satisfied with its form. Now began the revision in which the two first movements of the symphony were joined together by means of an ingenious bridge passage – moreover, this was done in a way that revealed the connections between the movements; thus the first two movements now form an organic whole.

In the version which was completed in 1916 the slow movement was apparently – to judge by the parts of the score that have survived – an intermediate form of the versions from the years 1915 and 1919. The same applies to the finale: in this, part of the original material had been temporarily discarded and replaced with ideas which were eventually cut from the 1919 version. The precise revisions of the second (December 1916) version are not entirely clear, as the critics did not make detailed comparisons with the previous version.

The third version was the only version that Sibelius was satisfied with. The beginning was not far from its original form, but the slow movement had become a more versatile movement with rich and ambiguous variations of its theme. In the finale some loosely-connected episodes were eliminated, but the splendid largamente section of the 1915 version was restored.

On the 22nd April Sibelius wrote: The fifth symphony – mirabile, [not] to say horribile dictu: completed in its final form. Been struggling with God." Six days later he was already striking out the second and third movements! However, after one more revision of the finale the whole work was at last ready. "Now it is good," Sibelius wrote.

In the final version the symphony begins with a call from the French horns while a tremolo from the timpani opens the door to the "universe" of the symphony. Some scholars have argued that the first four notes of this call are the primordial cell to which all the important subsequent motifs can be traced.

Extract 26

In the 1915 version the first two bars with their horn call are missing: the work started from the third bar of the present version. The original orchestration was more pared-down than in the version we have now.

Extract 27

Ilmari Krohn called the continuation in the wind instruments a "warbling motif". The oboe develops this warbling into a "theme".

Extract 28

Soon the warbling extends to the whole symphonic heaven. The strings join in a kind of spring-like surge, and the wind instruments take up a rocking "secondary theme" with widely leaping intervals. The chromatic motif leading to this theme is also very important in what follows.

Extract 29

In the fourth symphony the F sharp - E pendulum motion reflected the unavoidability of fate. In the fifth symphony, the rocking motion is clearly life-giving.

After meditative horn calls we notice that we have been taken back to a recapitulation of the opening, but the key has changed and the music continues to develop. Soon the bassoon creates a dark threat, and the translucent darkness of the fourth symphony is making itself felt. But this is not music which will end in darkness. The strings gradually lead us from darkness to light, and to the victorious horn call.

And at the same time the tempo quickens to Allegro moderato. Seamlessly, we have moved to either "a sequel of the development" or to "the main episode of the scherzo" – the question is one that scholars have debated for decades. Perhaps Sibelius, being a master and innovator of symphonic form, has deliberately created an ambiguous solution, one which can be understood in at least two ways.

In the allegro moderato stage the "main episode of the scherzo" lilts joyfully in the woodwind. We hear recollections of both the "warbling" episode and the horn call which began the whole symphony. The vigorous melody on the trumpet could be regarded as the trio of a scherzo. At the same time it refers both to the horn call at the beginning of the symphony and to the rocking motion of the "swan theme", which we shall hear in the finale.

Gradually the connections between the themes are revealed – they are joined, married together in a continuously accelerating tempo. Playing at a brisk tempo the horns take the movement to a sudden conclusion. The work cannot end like this - although Sibelius briefly considered this as a way to end the symphony!

The second movement (Andante mosso, quasi allegretto) is comparable to the slow section of the third movement in that in both cases we have a beautiful melody as the main theme. This time the theme appears first as a dialogue between flutes and pizzicato strings.

Extract 30

Musicologists have not been able to agree where the theme starts and where it ends. The continuous variation of the thematic material may bring to mind the way in which ancient Finnish rune singers varied their melodies.

The theme appears first as two variations in the strings, playing in quavers. It continues with two versions that are more passionate. The boundaries between the variations are not self-evident: there is material in the central episodes which enriches the following variations and which already looks forward to the finale. The music accelerates, but the idyll does not disappear. The "swan" theme of the finale already flickers in the background for a moment.

One of the variations even very briefly recalls the darkness of the fourth symphony. The thematic material is treated wistfully in the oboe and downright romantically in the strings. The woodwinds are given the honour to finishing the movement without sentimentality. The transition to the finale is immediate.

The third movement (Allegro molto) starts with a rushing figure on the strings. If one has a good imagination one can hear a recollection of Kalevala and a reference to the start of the third symphony.

Extract 31

The woodwind theme reminds us of the horn call at the beginning of the symphony. Now the "swan theme" first appears, played alone in the French horns, then along with the song of the woodwind. It is as if this was the material that the first two movements had been aiming at.

Extract 32

As the swan theme fades away the flutes again begin to circulate the thematic material from the beginning of the finale. The swan theme returns, and the singing above it is repeated in the woodwinds and finally in the strings as well, as the tempo slows down. The effect is extremely beautiful as the melody descends and the tempo decreases.

A new build-up begins with a soft version of the swan theme, which becomes more powerful and rises higher. When the pedal point finally descends to E flat after a long delay, the "universe" is set right. We hear six imposing final explosions – perhaps the most famous symphonic closing of the 20th century!

Extract 33

The fifth symphony is a tremendous symphonic curve in which - according to the analysis of Veijo Murtomäki - "one single basic idea fertilises and penetrates the whole symphony; the movements of the fifth symphony are interlaced with the continuous development of an idea".

The fifth symphony was a relief to the public after the fourth symphony, which had been considered difficult to understand. At the same time it was a disappointment to some influential critics and scholars: they would have preferred Sibelius to continue towards the total destruction of tonality which had started with the fourth symphony.

Sibelius had stopped at this point, as there was only "madness or chaos" on the other side of this borderline. Arnold Schoenberg continued forward, but he would avoid chaos by developing a twelve-note technique which followed strict rules.
That way of avoiding chaos did not suite Sibelius. Whereas Schoenberg reconstructed the language of music but often fell back on old forms, Sibelius would now use more traditional harmonies – while renovating symphonic form. 

At this stage Sibelius's way was, on the surface, more agreeable and easier on the ear of the general public. However, new challenges were already awaiting Sibelius. During the First World War his sketchbook had been filled with material not just for the fifth, but also the sixth and seventh symphonies. They would both offer music lovers great surprises.

Quotes on the fifth symphony

"The fifth symphony was playing in my mind, when I watched the first moon walk of the astronauts on TV, and later I heard that the BBC had used exactly this music as background music for the landing on the moon. And from this my imaginary travels proceeded farther and farther away in time and place: to the birth and destruction of the planets, to the lustre of distant galaxies."
Erik Tawaststjerna, musicologist, 1978

"One can say that Sibelius's fifth symphony continues the line of the third. But in the fifth symphony everything is on a larger scale: the themes, the handling of the form, the tonal range of the orchestra, the continuous thematic process."
Erkki Salmenhaara, musicologist, 1984

"A remarkable step forward on the way towards the ideal of symphonic unity (…) With his fifth symphony Sibelius raises the genre of the symphony to an entirely new cyclic level."
Veijo Murtomäki, musicologist, 1990

"I began to understand the fifth symphony better after conducting its original version. I feel like crying at the end of that work, there is something purifying about it. It is not so much that I'm touched by the cosmic depths in that piece, but that I feel comforted and guided as a small human being."
Osmo Vänskä, conductor, 1998

"The fifth symphony is in a way more conservative, but this concerns only its harmonies, which are simpler after the modern complexity of the fourth symphony. The fifth is also to a greater extent a descendant of Wagner. The important thing now is to take a deep breath."
Jukka-Pekka Saraste, conductor, 2002