Op. 105 Symphony no. 7 in C major
In one movement. Completed in 1924; first performance (under the name Fantasia sinfonica) in Stockholm on 24th March 1924 (Konsertföreningen, conducted by Jean Sibelius).
Sibelius was going through difficult times in 1923-1924, when he was completing the seventh symphony. He had gone on a tour of Stockholm, Rome and Gothenburg and conducted successfully. However, before the last concert he had taken alcohol. When the concert started Sibelius thought for a moment that he was at a rehearsal and interrupted the performance. The concert went well after this, but Aino, who was sitting in the audience, was terrified. "Everything was chaos in my ears, I was in a state of mortal terror," she said later. From then on, Aino refused to attend concerts in which her husband was conducting.
Sibelius quite often took alcohol to ease his stage fright and the tremor in his hands, which was getting worse with age. Even at home in Ainola it was difficult for him to continue writing the seventh symphony without taking a few glasses to steady his hand. A prohibition law was in force in Finland at the time, and Sibelius was forced to obtain alcohol as a prescription drug.
But the seventh symphony had been slowly maturing in his head for almost ten years, ever since an adagio motif had appeared in his fifth symphony sketchbook. The motif expanded and took on a life of its own, becoming the root of the seventh symphony. In 1918 he wrote: "The seventh symphony. Joy of life and vitality mixed with appassionato. Three movements – the last of them a 'Hellenic rondo'."
But the three-movement plan changed; it was now a work in one movement, and Sibelius was ready to sacrifice his own health for it. The symphony was the result of ten years of contemplation and nothing could prevent the transfer of the masterpiece from the composer's brain onto paper.
These years were hard for Aino Sibelius too. She reached a point when she chose to write a sharp note instead of discussing the matter: "Do you really value the work you do with artificial inspiration?" she reproached him. "Even if you complete a work or two, they are nothing compared with what you could achieve."
Yet there is no "artificial inspiration" in the seventh symphony. On the contrary, its complexity, concentration and absolute mastery show us that Sibelius had weighed every detail carefully. It seems that alcohol was indeed only necessary to steady the hand of the writer, and that the work was complete in the composer's imagination.
The symphony was completed in March 1924, and Sibelius conducted the first public performance in Stockholm – without Aino, who no longer followed him to concerts. The rehearsal stage is said to have been difficult, but the concert itself went well. "A great success. There is no denying it: my new work is one of the best. Tone and ’colour’ both powerful," he could write to his wife.
At this stage the work was still called Fantasia sinfonica, but in the end Sibelius boldly decided to call the one-movement work his seventh symphony. The reviews were positive, but Sibelius expected much more: "How little they realise what I have put into my new work," he wrote.
The seventh symphony is the culmination of Sibelius's entire symphonic series. The concentration of the material leads to a unique one-movement structure. It is not just the form that is powerful; Sibelius's use of colour is also strong. The strings dominate, as they did in the sixth symphony, but a trombone theme also plays an important role. It was the visions of light in the strings that made the symphony something of a cult composition in the 1980s, among the writers of "spectral" music at Ircam in Paris.
The symphony starts with a tap from the timpani in G. The strings play notes of a scale, from A upwards, in C major (or A minor). This is followed by an exciting "shuffling" episode in the double basses. The build-up culminates in an A flat minor triad.
It is as if lava were forcing itself up towards the earth's crust. The woodwinds play a meditative motif, which ends the "introduction". This is not as separate as people thought at one time: after decades of discussion musicologists today find in it "many of the central ideas of the work," as Veijo Murtomäki has pointed out.
The motifs from the strings and woodwinds undergo further development. The adagio phase culminates in two splendid themes. First of all we hear a broad hymn in the strings.
This hymn-like sequence develops further and the atmosphere grows more excited until a sublime build-up takes us towards the important trombone theme, which is heard for the first time.
Have we ascended the Mount Olympus of Classical Antiquity? The idea is not fanciful, given what Sibelius told his son-in-law, the conductor Jussi Jalas, in the 1940s: "The entire seventh symphony has very much in common with antiquity, especially Greece. The trombones are handled like the musical instruments of antiquity."
Everything in the symphony is connected with everything else: after the trombone theme we hear, as if in passing, a theme which will later become the "farewell theme". The composer now develops these materials: the string theme, the scale motif of the opening, and figures from the trombone theme. At the same time the tempo accelerates. We realise that we are in a scherzo episode. Now playful staccato figures in the strings alternate with deeper expressions of passion. Once again we find ourselves in the world that Sibelius opened up for us at the beginning of the finale of the third symphony.
The initial scale motif is developed further and becomes more chromatic. A deep and threatening whirling episode begins to gain ground. Above it we hear the trombone theme, which has become like the voice of God – though it is unclear whether we are hearing the Saviour or the thundering of Zeus. The scherzo-like playfulness is not banished. The themes are varied and repeated until we are refreshed by a sequence which is often called a "Hellenic rondo". At first it arrives almost stealthily.
The material of the scherzo sequence changes to darker colours, and the same darkness marks the return of the rondo theme. Soon the strings are playing as if they were fighting for their lives; we have been taken back to the whirlpool of the scherzo material. At this point, even if the ideas of form are new in the history of the symphony, we can still perceive the "compelling forward movement" and the absolute logicality which Sibelius considered so important.
The scale motif raises us again towards the sublime trombone theme. However, in the strings, under the trombone theme, the ascending figure rises higher and higher, as if aiming to reach the highest possible peak of humanity.
Now comes the symphony's "farewell theme", which we heard for the first time immediately after the first trombone theme. We are reminded that it is not good for a mortal to remain too close to the summit. Melancholy and a sense of the sacred appear in the strings. Against the background of a tremolo in the strings Sibelius looks back to the trombone theme and the woodwind theme one last time. Perhaps it is death we are facing: a reminiscence of Valse triste seems to appear for a moment in the double basses.
Once again the important rotating figure D-C-B-C appears in the strings. It is only at the very last moment that the leading note B actually rises to the long-awaited C.
As the conductor Sir Simon Rattle put it: "Sibelius is so concentrated and exact (…) With Sibelius you feel that if one drop touched your skin it would burn right through the bone."
In this symphony every note is alive – there is nothing that could be added, nothing that could be removed. The tragedy of Sibelius's last decades was that after the one-movement seventh symphony he could not add anything to his symphonic cycle either.
Everything essential had apparently already been said. For decades he worked on - and perhaps even completed - the eighth symphony, which in the 1940s ended up in the fireplace of Ainola as a result of the composer's intense self-criticism.
The silence of Ainola lay ahead, but only as far as the composition of symphonies was concerned. He was still capable of composing the greatest achievements of his orchestral poems (Tapiola) and incidental music (The Tempest)
Quotes on the seventh symphony
"Despite its brevity it is the climax of his creative powers. Its music is a concentration of the essence of the best characteristics of his other symphonies."
Simon Parmet, conductor
"The seventh symphony (…) is something new and revolutionary in the history of the symphony (…) With the seventh symphony and Tapiola the era of major-minor tonality inevitably came to an end - but how magnificently!"
Veijo Murtomäki, musicologist, 1990
"The seventh forms a pair with the sixth. But it is not autobiographical. The ego is left behind, and things are seen from the point of view of humanity. The composer turns his eye away from himself towards higher powers. Number seven is sacred music. This piece, too, is very difficult to play."
Osmo Vänskä, conductor, 1998
"In number four there was already this idea of turning space upside down. In number seven it has become a predominant feature: melody without gravity, but yet existing within the fields of planets with varying masses. I think that the finest thing in it is the surging of different tonal masses in a state of weightlessness. I sometimes debated with Hämeenniemi (the composer Eero Hämeenniemi) at what stage near the end of number seven one starts to become aware of the rising line of the strings below the theme played by the brass: one suddenly just realises that it has risen from the background and really gone wild! Soon we hear the bassoon playing in a high register and the flute in a low one – and there too you have this cancelling out of gravity."
Jukka-Pekka Saraste, conductor, 2002