Sixth symphony op. 104 (1923)

Op. 104 Symphony no. 6 in D minor

1. Allegro molto moderato, 2. Allegretto moderato, 3. Poco vivace, 4. Allegro molto. Completed in 1923; first performance in Helsinki on 19th February 1923 (Helsinki City Orchestra under Jean Sibelius).

The third and sixth symphonies are the least often played symphonies of Sibelius. After the heroism of the fifth symphony, the lyricism and apparent lack of drama in the sixth symphony confused the public. Yet the work was more accessible than the fourth symphony had been eleven years earlier

Around 1919-1920 Sibelius re-established his foreign contacts in a Europe which was rising from the ashes. Now he was able to give concerts in Denmark, Norway and Britain. His seven years of abstinence from alcohol were over, and he was again seen out on the town with his friends as in the days of his youth. However, after every celebration he shut himself up in his room for days on end and devoted himself to composing.

The sixth symphony thus became something of a purification rite: the Dorian mode predominates in the work; Sibelius is serving his audience spring water instead of party drinks. In the orchestration this shows itself as translucency, with bright sounds from the flutes and strings. The brass instruments, which played a major role in the fifth symphony, are now restrained, rarely disturbing the lyrical surface.

Sibelius found themes for the sixth symphony while working on the fifth, and some of the material was originally drafted for a lyrical violin concerto. Somewhat later Sibelius was for a time considering a work to be called Kuutar (Luna): thematic material from this also ended up in the sixth symphony.

The symphony was performed for the first time on 19th February 1923. The composer conducted the orchestra himself. The critics praised the "pure idyll" of the symphony, but they would clearly have wished for stronger dramatic contrasts.

Today the sixth symphony is recognised as a masterpiece. Its meaning often becomes accessible only after one has become familiar with the heroism of the second and fifth symphonies, or the profundity of the fourth and seventh symphonies.

First Movement

The first movement of the symphony (Allegro molto moderato) begins with a lyrical phrase from the strings, to which the oboe and flutes respond. This simple dialogue provides the main theme.

The notes from the opening belong to the Dorian mode, D-E-F-G-A, lacking only the notes B and C. There is a clear connection with Sibelius's trial lecture of 1896: "The oldest Finnish folk tunes are based on a tonal system which lacks the tonic and the dominant as we understand them. They also lack the finalis of the old Greek keys. There are simply five notes – D, E, F, G, A – which become additionally combined with the two notes B and C as the melody grows more expressive."
The music also has echoes of the Middle Ages or the style of the Renaissance composer, Palestrina.

Extract 34

The symphonic tension between the first movement and finale has sometimes been seen as deriving from the interaction between the Dorian D minor and C major. Sibelius was already familiar with this combination, but the church mode had never before been in such a dominating position.
The pulse of the music is doubled as the wind instruments progress in parallel thirds – a little like the "warbling motif" in the first movement of the fifth symphony. According to the composer the movement follows the principles of sonata form "entirely freely". The musicologist Erkki Salmenhaara commented that the main interest of the movement "lies in the thematic process itself, in which every motif in its turn comes forth and then solidifies into thematic significance".

The woodwinds play with the thematic material above the basic pulse, which is maintained by the violins. According to Tawaststjerna, "All the harmony is at the same time counterpoint and counterpoint is harmony. The texture is intertwined so naturally that it is barely noticeable."

When the main theme returns in the bass clarinet and the cello, the atmosphere becomes somewhat darker and more dramatic. But the pastoral atmosphere prevails until the French horn motif frightens the listener who has become accustomed to the idyll. The low string tremolos enhance the tension. The shadows grow longer – is the idyll of day turning into the darkness of night?

Second Movement

The second movement is a slow movement, with the tempo marking allegretto moderato. However, if the conductor takes the marking literally, there will be no slow movement and a contrast which enriches the work will be eliminated.

Later the composer told the conductor Simon Parmet that the tempo marking was andantino, and he fretted over the work being played too quickly on the radio. When Parmet reminded Sibelius of the tempo marking he had written, the composer wanted to change it to andantino. The correction has not been made in the published score.

In 1951 Sibelius explained the same point to his secretary. "When I wrote the sixth symphony, conductors used to conduct very slowly, sometimes quite lethargically. Consequently, I marked the tempo of the second movement as Allegretto quasi andantino. Today, when conductors mostly use quick tempos, it should really be Andante."

Yet Sibelius was again mistaken: the tempo marking is allegretto moderato and not allegretto quasi andantino.

The movement starts with an introduction from the flutes and the bassoons, in four voices. The effect is ethereal, of instruments playing in an empty space.

Extract 35

The strings complement the opening figure. Some musicologists consider this to be the main theme.

Extract 36

This marks the beginning of a continuous metamorphosis. There is no return to the opening theme, although we hear reminiscences of it. The rising figures in the strings remind us of the first movement and lead us to an enchanted forest of sound – one could almost feel a psychedelic atmosphere. Then in the Poco con moto episode the figure on the strings seems to anticipate the minimalism of the 1960s.

The enigmatic woodwind figures remind us once again of birdsong – perhaps at dusk. This music can also be analysed as a masterwork of polyphony: the same motif ultimately appears at the same time in several different densities – for example, pared down to the bass clarinet, the harp and the double bass.

Third Movement

The third movement (poco vivace) has the function of a scherzo. Does the movement start with a horse-ride? Or is this Sibelius's version of the "broken-down machines" of the 1920s, as heard in the rhythmic games of Prokofiev and the young Shostakovich?

Extract 37

Soon the main cycle is presented in the woodwinds and in the virtuoso response of the strings. If the sixth symphony was originally planned as a violin concerto, now solo skills are demanded of all the orchestral violinists.

Extract 38

The flutes quickly present another motif, then the exciting rhythm of the opening returns – but in a richer form, and according to some musicologists, with the function of a scherzo trio. Thematic material continues to be woven into the cloth until the speed of the main cycle again forces the violinists to show their skill. The alternation continues, the metamorphosis progresses. The brass instruments bring the movement decisively to an end.

Fourth Movement

The fourth movement begins with an alternation between question and response. It is often played with tender lyricism, as if a church atmosphere was intended. In spite of this the tempo marking is forte, and the tempo is a quick allegro molto. However, more subtle interpretations may be correct after all. Quite inconsistently Sibelius later told his son-in-law, the conductor Jussi Jalas, that allegro molto here means "not quickly, but calmly and poetically".

Extract 39

The development of the alternation between question and response leads to parallel thirds in the oboes, creating a sacred atmosphere. The strings react briskly to this motif, and the movement moves forward at full speed. Sibelius now leads us into another theme which is the actual main theme of the movement. Erik Tawaststjerna and Veijo Murtomäki argue that this theme, which is here revealed in its entirety for the first time, is the basic idea of the whole symphony.

Extract 40

According to Murtomäki the scale-like character of the theme indicates that the entire symphony is a work of "themes and variations", and that the true theme is made up of the Dorian scale plus a "main theme" which is separated from it. Consequently, we should not be misled by the four movements of the symphony: this work is a "monothematic whole", and the movements are variations which are closely linked to each other. The symphony would thus anticipate the one-movement seventh symphony as well as Tapiola. On the other hand, James Hepokoski has spoken of the symphony's "rotational form" – a feature which can be found in many of Sibelius's other works.

Sibelius does not get stuck in the theme which he has just revealed. It is overwhelmed by a darkening orchestral surge. The question-response alternation of the opening returns, but enriched by the drama of the middle section. This is universal music, but at the end the Finnish tone is for a moment clearer than anywhere else in the symphony.

Extract 41

Even this is revealed as a part of the question-response alternation, and the questioning once again becomes passionate. The response is calm and soothing. It is as if we had reached nightfall, and the music was trying to calm down a nervous person. In the final bars the diminuendo in the strings tells us that the mission has succeeded for a time.

Sibelius's sixth symphony is a masterpiece, though some of its dimensions remained unnoticed for decades. But in the sketches composed during the First World War there was still material for a third work. Its time would follow on very quickly after the completion of the sixth symphony.
Next in line was symphony number seven, the culmination of Sibelius's symphonic music.

Quotes on the sixth symphony

"The Cinderella of the seven symphonies."
Gerald Abraham, musicologist

"The sixth symphony always reminds me of the scent of the first snow."
Jean Sibelius, 1943

"Rage and passion (…) are utterly essential in it, but it is supported by undercurrents deep under the surface of the music."
Jean Sibelius to Simon Parmet, published in 1955

"The most Finnish of Sibelius's symphonies."
Simon Parmet, conductor

"Many people have considered it the most masterly achievement of Sibelius's symphonic art. The fourth symphony is in a way tied to the expressionistic aspirations of its era. The sixth symphony is timeless."
Erkki Salmenhaara, musicologist, 1984

"Nowadays I like his sixth symphony best. It is probably natural, as one grows older. As Sibelius so beautifully said about the sixth: 'as the shadows grow longer’…"
Joonas Kokkonen, composer, 1995

"Number six is autobiographical. An aging man feels his own incapacity. The ideals are there, but he cannot reach them."
Osmo Vänskä, conductor, 1998

"The sixth symphony (1923) is to me more like Italian plainsong than the murmur of a cold stream. It is definitely a good symphony for orchestral players, the balance almost automatically sorts itself out."
Jukka-Pekka Saraste, conductor, 2002