First symphony op. 39 (1899-1900)


Op. 39 Symphony no. 1 in E minor
First version 1899: 1. Allegro, 2. Andante, 3. Scherzo, 4. Finale (quasi una fantasia); first performance in Helsinki, 26th April 1899 (Orchestra of the Helsinki Philharmonic Society under Jean Sibelius). Final version 1900: 1. Andante ma non troppo - Allegro energico, 2. Andante (ma non troppo lento), 3. Scherzo (allegro), 4. Finale (quasi una fantasia): first performance in Helsinki, 1st July 1900 (Orchestra of the Helsinki Philharmonic Society under Robert Kajanus).

Sibelius started to plan his first symphony in the spring of 1898 in Berlin. The first plan, for "a musical dialogue", included a programmatic concept. Thus, the motto for the first movement would be, "A cold, cold wind is blowing from the sea." The second movement would draw its inspiration from Heine: "The pine of the North is dreaming of the palm of the South." The third movement would be "A Winter's Tale" and the fourth movement "Jorma's heaven" – a reference to Juhani Aho's novel Panu, published in 1897. This plan was not carried out, and it seems that it did not play any part in what eventually became the first symphony. However, in the same sketch book there are enthusiastic references to Berlioz, and one of the sketches marked "Berlioz?" ended up in the finale of the first symphony.

Sibelius was putting the finishing touches to his symphony in the spring of 1899, in the midst of a politically explosive situation. The "February Manifesto" issued by the Emperor of Russia aimed to restrict the autonomy of the Grand Duchy of Finland, and Sibelius reacted with several protest compositions. The Song of the Athenians was performed for the first time on 26th April 1899, at the same concert as the first symphony, which was initially called Symphony in E minor, or Symphony in four movements.

The Song of the Athenians aroused the public to a peak of enthusiasm, but of course the critics also paid attention to the symphony. "The greatest creation that has originated from Sibelius's pen", wrote Oskar Merikanto in Päivälehti.

Sibelius himself was not entirely pleased with his symphony, the original version of which is not known. He revised the work in the spring and summer of 1900 for the European tour of the orchestra of his friend, Robert Kajanus. The atmosphere was gloomy, since the Sibeliuses' third daughter, Kirsti, had died of an illness. She was just over a year old, and Aino had become ill from mourning the loss of her child.

Nevertheless, the revision proved useful. During the tour, in the summer of 1900, the first symphony became the work with which Sibelius achieved his international breakthrough. It was acclaimed by the critics in Stockholm, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Berlin and - to a lesser extent - in Paris. The work was found to be Tchaikovskyan, but above all people heard in it the voice of a fascinating new composer: "His symphony, a work full of unrestrained strength, full of passionate vivacity and astonishing audacity is – to state the matter plainly – a remarkable work, one that steps out on new paths, or rather rushes forward like an intoxicated god," wrote Ferdinand Pfol in Hamburger Nachrichten. 

The beginning of the work is one of the most original in the history of the symphony. A solitary clarinet solo breathes a sense of desolation, which is from time to time emphasised by the distant rumbling of the timpani in the opening section, Andante, ma non troppo.

Extract 1

The orchestra steps forward in the brisk tempo of allegro energico, first with a major third G-B in the violins, then with a plunge into the main theme, which bears a remarkable resemblance to the introduction to Borodin's symphony in E flat major. One can indeed feel how the music rushes forward like an "intoxicated god" – wavering between G major and E minor.

Extract 2

The first movement truly takes hold of the listener with the richness of its motifs A melancholy motif, often referred to as a subsidiary theme, rests on a long F sharp pedal point; it is surprisingly closely related to the main theme.
This kind of solution – along with the rhapsodic development that follows the subsidiary theme - made Central European analysts think that Sibelius was merely pasting aphoristic inventions together, because he was defective in counterpoint and the control of form. However, at quite an early date scholars showed that the seemingly unconnected elements of the movement can in fact be traced to the clarinet introduction of the beginning. In his doctoral thesis Sinfoninen ykseys (Symphonic Unity) Veijo Murtomäki enthusiastically drew attention to the way in which this device "maximizes the internal thematic cohesion of the symphony". Robert Layton, an English Sibelius scholar, ventured to call the movement a "tour de force of organic symphonic thinking".

The development of the first movement shows brilliant orchestration. But one can also see how Sibelius is striving for greater formal conciseness: the end of the development is merged with the end of the repeat. The movement ends with two puzzling pizzicato chords.

The second movement (Andante) begins with a peaceful melody over a long pedal point in E flat. Now the music hovers teasingly between E flat major and C minor.

Extract 3

Sibelius begins to handle his material more and more dramatically. The bassoon motif is from the introduction to the first movement. The transition with the French horns is derived from the subsidiary theme of the first movement, and soon the flutes are warbling in a way which resembles the "bird warbling motif" of the first movement (the phrase used by Erik Tawaststjerna). In the development of these materials the composer calls up a real orchestral storm – in the middle of the slow movement! When the storm calms down, the main theme is allowed to return, and the movement falls into place.

The third movement, a scherzo, begins with pizzicatos from the violins. The timpani hammer out the main theme like a canon-shot.

Extract 4

The woodwind lead into to a violin theme which has a surprisingly dance-like character, and soon we a plunging into a fugato-like game. In the trio the horns and the flutes summon up ideas of nature in a way which bears a distant resemblance to Bruckner. With the return of the main theme the movement rolls solidly to its end.

In the finale, Quasi una Fantasia, the clarinet introduction of the first movement makes a come-back, now passionately orchestrated.

Extract 5

Only the flutes complement this "destiny theme", but the mythical primeval twilight of the first movement has turned into a musical image of a devastated landscape after a catastrophe.
The symphony has the kind of cyclical organisation found in the last symphonies of Tchaikovsky, but Sibelius is not taken prisoner by his destiny theme: on the contrary, the return of the introduction is used to enrich a brisk theme (allegro molto) and its melancholy counterpart (andante assai), which is one of Sibelius's most memorable melodies

Extract 6

Sibelius's orchestra would never play with more pathos and exuberance. At the end of the symphony the cyclic organisation is emphasised, when the questions raised by the first movement are answered and the work ends - as did the first movement - with two pizzicato chords.

The first symphony has remained popular since its first performance. It is Sibelius's magnificent and self-confident farewell to the 19th century. The 20th century brought new challenges which he was now ready to accept.

Quotations about the first symphony

"It is music of a young giant, full of a fiery love for his country and flaming defiance against its oppressors. The symphony can be seen as the celestial counterpart of Finlandia. Both works are songs of praise to the beloved native land at a time of distress."
Simon Parmet, conductor,1955

"The first symphony was mainly about getting to grips with heritage of the late romantic symphony."
Veijo Murtomäki, scholar, 1990

"The first symphony is the energetic music of a young man. The young Sibelius was no wimp; the music contains the whole wildness and rage of the man."
Osmo Vänskä, conductor 1998

"The first symphony (1899) has this tremendous, overflowing ME GODAMMIT feeling."
Jukka-Pekka Saraste, conductor, 2002