Second symphony op. 43 (1902)

Op. 43 Symphony no. 2 in D major
First version 1902: 1. Allegretto moderato, 2. Tempo andante, ma rubato, 3. Vivacissimo, 4. Allegro moderato: first performance in Helsinki, 8th March 1902 (Orchestra of the Helsinki Philharmonic Society under Jean Sibelius). Final version 19031. Allegretto, 2. Tempo andante, ma rubato, 3. Vivacissimo, 4. Allegro moderato: first performance in Stockholm, 10th November 1903 (conducted by Armas Järnefelt).

The second symphony is the most popular and most frequently recorded of Sibelius's symphonies. It is more skilfully orchestrated than the first symphony. The ideas of form are more mature and the violent Slavic gloom is replaced by a more classical touch and by the light of the Mediterranean.
The heroic and optimistic first and final movements of the symphony were exactly what the Finnish public needed in 1902, during a period of Russian oppression. The first public performance consolidated Sibelius's fame as a national hero. Soon the symphony was also triumphantly acclaimed abroad.

There are many stories about the stages in which this popular work was composed. Sibelius is known to have improvised one of the themes for the finale during the christening of the son of the painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela, in Ruovesi in the summer of 1899.
On the other hand, the publisher "Bis" (Karl Fredrik Wasenius) recollected how Sibelius invented some of the motifs of the second symphony in his (Bis's) study. Sibelius had been persuaded to consider the talent shown by a seven-year-old girl, Irene Eneri, in a small piece she had composed, Caprice Orientale. However, after staring at the notes for a while he started to improvise. "Now I've got the thing that I've been waiting for weeks! Now it came!" he exclaimed, and according to Wasenius, he improvised motifs
for the first movement of the second symphony.

At any rate, we know for certain that Sibelius was sketching a motif which ended up in the slow movement while he was in Rapallo, Italy, in February 1901. In his sketches he associated it with the encounter between Don Juan (the protagonist of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni ) and Death. Another sketch is titled Christus. This theme end also ended up in the slow movement of the symphony.

Nevertheless, it took more than a year before the work was completed, and by this stage the initial programmatic concepts had receded. 8. The triumphant first public performance, which according to Oscar Merikanto "exceeded even the highest expectations", took place on 8th March 1902.

The first movement begins with a gentle song for the strings in D major. Whereas in the first symphony important thematic materials could be heard, embryonically, in the clarinet introduction, in the second symphony it is the very first chords with their rising three-note progression that form a kind of motif for the whole symphony.

Extract 7

The movement proceeds in an interesting manner after an alternation between the wind instruments and the French horns. Scholars have found it hard to distinguish an unambiguous second subject such as one would find in sonata form. The introductory sequence consists of aphoristic fragments whose connections Sibelius gradually reveals. Veijo Murtomäki has emphasised that the unity of the material "has in fact been created as something discovered by Sibelius during the process of composition – so that in the final work it is only a question of gradually showing and revealing this unity to the listener."

During the development the theme that ended on a falling fifth returns in various guises. The thematic material of the beginning is given a dramatic manifestation, and finally the musical motifs of the movement are presented in a grand, masterly synthesis. Despite moments of threat, the movement ends with the pastoral idyll of the opening.

The second movement (andante, ma rubato) begins with a long pizzicato sequence from the cellos and the double basses, a feature that astonished contemporaries. Then the first main theme of the movement is heard on the bassoon, as threatening as the figure of Death in the castle of Don Juan/Don Giovanni:

Extract 8

The sense of anxiety increases. Although the symphony is not overtly programmatic, one can imagine Don Juan's desperate arguments and death's inevitable answers. However, the theme that was introduced by the bassoon now has its counterpart in an ethereal and peaceful "Christ theme" which has been prepared for by the recent dramatic struggle.

Extract 9

This marks the beginning of a struggle and continuous metamorphosis of the two main themes. In a way it is also a fight between death and salvation – a conflict that cannot be finally settled in a person's lifetime. The game is ended with two pizzicato strokes, exactly as in the first and last movements of the first symphony.

The start of the scherzo (vivacissimo) of the second symphony is at least as wild as the corresponding movement of the first symphony.

Extract 10

The flute presents a surprisingly peaceful theme, now accompanied by figures from the strings. The tempo slows for the arrival of a tender trio. The oboe actually repeats the same note nine times, an effect that has been known to make listeners weep with emotion over the years:

Extract 11

Sibelius repeats the various phrases of the scherzo. A rising three-tone motif (now G flat - A flat - B flat) builds a highly effective bridge to connect the scherzo with the finale.

The main theme of the finale (Allegro moderato) shows Sibelius in his most heroic mood. As in the first movement, the rising three-tone motif returns with the strings playing in D major, but instead of the woodwind instruments, we now hear a reply from the trumpets.

Extract 12

In the subsidiary theme, the threats of the second movement surface again. The oboe introduces a motif, which according to Aino Sibelius, was written in memory of her sister Elli Järnefelt, who had committed suicide. Sibelius now introduces to the music a sense of the sacred, which recedes when the symphonic current once again starts to flow more rapidly. At this stage Sibelius seems to have become almost too attached to his motifs, and it requires an inspired conductor to avoid a sense that the movement could do with condensation. But the composer knows what he is doing. The Sibelius scholar Erkki Salmenhaara has, with good reason, pointed out the thrilling effect achieved when the "rising three-tone motif" finally – for the first time in the symphony - proceeds to the fourth note.

The second symphony will always be the "best" symphony for those who have fallen in love with its memorable melodies and heroic character. The work is a highly functional synthesis of classical luminosity and romantic feeling. However, Sibelius was about to disappoint those listeners who expected the third symphony to be something similar. He was moving towards greater concentration and conciseness, both in form and in orchestration.

Quotes about the second symphony

"The effect of the andante is that of the most crushing protest against all the injustice which today threatens to take light from the sun (…) [The scherzo] depicts hurried preparation (…) [The finale] culminates in a triumphant closure which is capable of arousing in the listener a bright mood of consolation and optimism."
Robert Kajanus, conductor, 1902

"An absolute masterpiece, one of the few symphonic creations of our time that point in the same direction as the symphonies of Beethoven."
Karl Flodin, critic, 1903

"Its stage is the present time; its hero is Sibelius himself… the second symphony marks a definitive liberation of the personality from the chains of objectivity.
Erik Furuhjelm, scholar, 1916

"The second symphony is a song of praise for summer and the joy of life."
Simon Parmet, conductor, 1955

"I find this work vulgar, self-indulgent and provincial beyond any description."

Virgil Thomson, critic and composer

"The second symphony is a great romantic symphony. It no longer displays the archaic Slavic flavour of the first symphony; the ideal is Central European. The symphony is closer to Brahms than Tchaikovsky."
Erkki Salmenhaara, scholar, 1984

"In comparison with the first symphony, the second symphony already shows a dignified man of the world looking into the horizon. We have moved from Slavism to Central Europe. Still, from time to time I also see images of Karelian grandmothers practising their witchcraft."
Jukka-Pekka Saraste, conductor, 2002

"The second symphony is connected with our nation's fight for independence, but it is also about the struggle, crisis and turning-point in the life of an individual. This is what makes it so touching."
Osmo Vänskä, conductor, 1998

"I am familiar with the melodies of this symphony. For example in the finale there is a theme which could be in a work by Tchaikovsky. However, the form gives you a great deal to think about; when I first encountered it there were many surprises in the score.
Valeri Gergiev, conductor, 2001