Third symphony op. 52 (1907)

Op. 52 Symphony no. 3 in C major:
1. Allegro moderato, 2. Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto, 3. Moderato - Allegro ma non tanto. Completed in 1907; first performance in Helsinki, 25th September 1907 (Orchestra of Helsinki Philharmonic Society under Jean Sibelius).

Sibelius's third symphony has been regarded as more classical than his previous works. The scholar Gerald Abraham has argued that the first movement bears strong comparison with the first movements of Haydn's and Mozart's symphonies. Against this background, it seems all the more remarkable that the history of its composition has turned out to be quite complicated.

Influences from Finnish folk music are discernible in the very first chords of the symphony. There were also some programmatic notions behind it. In Paris in January 1906, after a period of lively celebrations, Sibelius played three themes to the painter Oscar Parviainen. These were: Funeral March, A Prayer to God and A Great Feast. The scholar Markku Hartikainen has shown that these themes were probably connected with Jalmari Finne's libretto for the oratorio Marjatta, which Sibelius did not manage to compose despite several attempts. However, the Prayer to God theme ended up as a hymn theme within the finale of the third symphony – and it also appeared on the wall at Ainola, for the theme inspired Oscar Parviainen to produce a painting for Sibelius. 

In 1906 Sibelius completed the orchestral poem Pohjola's Daughter. The sketches for the work contain material which ended up in the third symphony. Thus, it seems that the symphony, which in itself was heard as a non-programmatic work, received - as is often the case with Sibelius - its initial stimulus from various programmatic ideas; these lost their programmatic meaning during the process of composition as the material was reworked in purely musical terms.

Sibelius conducted the first public performance on 25th September 1907. The reviews were mixed: Karl Flodin praised the work, but the Helsingin Sanomat reviewer claimed that the direct impact of the work was weaker than that of the first symphony.
Stylistically, Sibelius was now approaching notions of Neoclassical music in ways that his friend Ferruccio Busoni would write about a short time later. Sibelius's third symphony is more condensed than its predecessors. Now there are three movements instead of four, since the scherzo and the finale are combined more organically than in the second symphony.

Romanticism is replaced by functionalism, and the orchestration is lighter than before, with no tuba or harp. In his old age Sibelius was of the opinion that the third symphony need not be performed with an orchestra of more than fifty players.

From time to time the rhythm becomes as important as the melodic material. In this way Sibelius anticipated the rhythmic innovations of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

The symphony begins with a pithy main motif in the cellos and the basses. As no underpinning harmony is heard, the melody, apparently in C major, can also be regarded as a reminiscence of the Kalevala melody which Sibelius wrote down during his journey in 1892, when he set out to collect traditional poems and songs.

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In the midst of the apparently sunny C major, the music suddenly begins to wander to F sharp and B flat. Sibelius produces one of his exciting conjuring tricks when the main theme culminates in a C-D-E progression in the French horns. This continues surprisingly to F sharp, which leads us to the subsidiary theme - presented by the cellos - in B minor! After exploring mystic moods, the first movement proceeds as a flow of energetic semiquavers, while the main theme and the subsidiary theme undergo continuous metamorphosis. Sibelius himself talked about the "compelling forward movement" which holds his symphonies together.

The slow movement (Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto) was, in the composer's mind, slower than one would judge from the tempo marking. The true tempo is probably the one on the record conducted by Robert Kajanus. The movement begins as a simple folk song. The Georgian pianist Alexander Toradze has shown that there is a similar melody in the rich musical tradition of his own country.

Extract 14

The simplicity of the slow movement is deceptive: the form is so ambiguous that scholars have found in it a suite with variations, a rondo and also features of the sonata form. The theme is presented four times in different guises. The first subsidiary group contains meditative phrases from the cellos, almost sacred in tone. When the theme disappears for the second time, the progression of harmonic thirds in the woodwind anticipate the exciting world of the third movement

The third movement is harmonically the boldest of Sibelius's career up to this point. The composer himself described the movement as the "crystallisation of thought from chaos". The "chaos" at the beginning of the movement is a continuous game of motifs and tempos, where the past and the future of the symphony are present at the same time. Only the best conductors are able to communicate the sense of inevitability in the middle of the movement, when the hymn theme is gradually revealed and the chaos recedes. The hymn comes out with the tempo marking "allegro, con energia:
Extract 15

The power of the hymn increases elegantly, and without romantic exaggeration. Could this be the reason why this symphony is, along with the sixth symphony, the least often performed of Sibelius's symphonies, and the least appreciated?
Nevertheless, if the third symphony disappointed those who were expecting the pathos of the first symphony or the heroism of the second symphony, the fourth symphony would astonish the world even more.

Quotations about the third symphony

"The symphony meets all the requirements of a symphonic work of art in the modern sense, but at the same time it is internally new and revolutionary – thoroughly Sibelian."
Karl Flodin, critic, 1907

"After hearing my third symphony Rimsky-Korsakov shook his head and said: 'Why don't you do it the usual way; you will see that the audience can neither follow nor understand this.' And now I am certain that my symphonies are played more than his."
Jean Sibelius, 1940

"The third symphony was a disappointment for the audience, as everybody was expecting that it would be like the second. I mentioned this to Gustav Mahler, and he also observed that 'with each new symphony you always lose listeners who have been captivated by previous symphonies'."
Jean Sibelius, 1943

"With the third symphony he becomes more international, a 'European-Classical' composer."
Erik Tawaststjerna, scholar, 1971

"In the third symphony Sibelius has begun to continue the development of the great symphonic tradition."
Erkki Salmenhaara, scholar, 1984

"The start of the symphony gives me the image of this Swedish-speaking gentleman on a brisk morning walk."
The composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, playing the start of the symphony with one finger, at an interview in 1995

"In the third symphony Sibelius was at a crossroads. After the wild number one and the pathos of number two he discovered something new: a kind of clarity reminiscent of the Viennese classical school. Number three is not always appreciated, but I am tremendously fond of it."
Osmo Vänskä, conductor, 1998

"The third symphony has a completely new symphonic concept. Some people even think that the work the work is irritatingly rhythmical. Perhaps he was looking for an energetic British attitude to life."
Jukka-Pekka Saraste, conductor, 2002