Sibelius Symphony no. 5- first movement

It is well known that Sibelius’ approach to symphonic composition was intensely organic- in his mature music everything in a given piece grows from the same little bit of musical DNA. Perhaps only Brahms is equally rigorous in his constant development of motivic cells. However, where Brahms’ motivic development is always carefully ensconced in classical forms, Sibelius takes Brahms’ approach one step farther, and makes the very musical form itself a manifestation of the development of the material.

In a work like the Fifth Symphony, Sibelius had moved away forever from the Brahmsian, or better yet Beethovenian, idea of formal closure– i.e. creating a pivotal structural crisis (moving away from the tonic for the second theme of a sonata allegro movement), exploring the ramifications of that crisis (the development) then solving it (by staying in or strengthening the tonic in the recapitulation). Sibelius’ constant evolution of thematic ideas forces him to abandon the very idea of recapitulation in the Fifth Symphony, trading closure for culmination. He said of the Fifth that it was “in a new form… the whole, if I may say so, a spirited intensification to the end.”

There is a big, simple question every conductor and analyst has to ask themselves about the Fifth Symphony, and that question is- “how many movements are there in this symphony?” Is it four? Three? Two? Hmmm. Just trying to answer that question can get you a long way towards understanding how Sibelius is approaching form and motivic development by this point in his development as a composer.

The opening is deceptively simple- a tonic chord in six-four position (as musicologist Michael Steinberg says, it just screams out “Sibelius Five!”), and a simple melody made up of alternating long and short notes (crotchets and quavers) and large and small intervals (fourths and seconds). In the third bar, he already begins to develop his ideas, giving repeated fragments of the initial melody to the flutes, oboes and clarinets while introducing two new ideas- a countermelody in the bassoons and horns mostly made of parallel thirds moving stepwise and a repeated chord progression: F- 4/2 to Eb Major, or ii7 to I. That’s all he’s going to need, and that’s all Brahms would have needed to write a symphonic first movement, but Sibelius’approach to form is much more radical.

As Sibelius repeats his primary progression over the next several bars, the woodwind fragment of the horn theme begins to evolve gradually, as it grows a little “tail” on the end. Gradually the tail becomes a new theme, but a new theme made of parallel thirds moving stepwise. The “tail” theme grows longer and longer until it becomes a full bar in length, then the music makes a notable shift to G major (a slightly weird move- C minor would have been more expected, or Bb major) and what seems like a new theme.

However, the new theme is basically an inversion of the original horn theme, instead of going up a fourth then a second as the horn did with a long-short rhythm, he goes down a fourth and then a second with a short-long rhythm. This theme, which constantly swarms around the current tonic chord by half-steps like wasps (this impression of a swarming quality is reinforced by the accompaniment in the strings) quickly grows in intensity until it abruptly shifts gears at figure D to a passage which is essentially a chorale with a melody moving stepwise in thirds, but with the strings playing slightly ahead of everyone else. Nevertheless, the key area and the contrast with the first section tell us this is probably the arrival at the second thematic area of a sonata allegro form.

Finally, we arrive at our first real fortissimo on a D7 chord- all well and good if you’ve started to think the symphony is in G major, but a more problematic harmonic region to have arrived in starting in Eb major. Over a long D pedal, Sibelius unfolds a passionate melody, all in stepwise motion in thirds, made up of a short-long-short rhythmic pattern taken from the main theme and the wasp theme. Perhaps this is his closing theme?

“Aha!” you might think, “it is a sonata allegro, and we’ve just had the exposition! Lucky us, we know where this is going!”

So you might well think indeed, but, having created a whole set of expectations, Sibelius now keeps us completely off balance for a long time to come.

At letter E we sense that a new section has begun- though the cellos and basses carry on the vamp they’ve been playing since the big D7 arrival, the trumpet now enters with the main theme much as the horn played it in the first bar. Now, however, we’re in G major instead of Eb major, and the trumpet adds a little pick-up note an octave above the original first note. Aha- we must be in the development! Within a few bars, Sibelius begins a now familiar process- he takes the main motto theme and starts to add a little tail in thirds at the end. Gradually the tail gets longer and longer. Then he brings back the wasp theme (now the swarming bugs in the strings are flying faster, 12 notes per beat instead of 9), and this time the strings’ accompaniment is even more furious than before, then the chorale theme in thirds again. Everything is in different keys, and at different levels of intensity, but everything unfolds just as it did in the exposition. Some development! Even more confusing is that this second large section ends up in E flat major, the home key. Have we skipped straight to the recap? Is this the exposition repeat? What’s going on here?!?!?!?!

Having arrived prematurely back in the tonic, Sibelius finally does what we now least expect him to do, and that is move to what seems like it must be the proper development (after all, it is the departure from the tonic that takes us to the development in sonata form). He begins this section (at letter J, for those of you following along at home), not by mixing or elaborating the themes we’ve encountered so far, but by introducing what sounds like a whole new idea, all in half-steps, staggered about in little cannons in the strings. Of course, what this really is is a further evolution of the wasp theme, which in turn, was an evolution of the main theme (the rhythm is the same as main theme, the melodic contour is same as the wasp theme, but the fourths are all gone, only half-steps remain). Quickly, the string theme melts into a curious accompanimental texture, with the cellos and violins moving chromatically in octaves, and the seconds and violas moving diatonically in thirds (sounds familiar!). Then, bit by bit, the clarinet and bassoon, then just the bassoon, build the new theme element by element, until the solo bassoon finally states a long, complex theme from beginning to end (accompanied by the swarming music in the strings, frenetic as ever). This passage is so abstract and intricate, it is potentially a conductor’s nightmare- if you haven’t analysed it, you are sure to get completely lost.

The bassoon theme does a curious thing- it leads to a big harmonic arrival in Eb. Where Beethoven or Brahms use the tonic key to signal to the listener that all is well, Sibelius seems to use it to tell us that something completely unexpected is about to happen. Normally the arrival on the tonic would tell us we’re at the recap, but it’s clear we’re nowhere near the recap, especially when the strings, playing in octaves, take up a long variation on bassoon theme, which now looks like a long variation on the canonic string theme.  This long, very intense, even anguished, melody builds and builds until we arrive at our next major fortissimo (the third so far). The first two were in G major and Eb, now we arrive somewhere completely unexpected- B major(four bars before N). Even more confusingly, he brings back not only the main theme(again in the trumpets), but that primary chord progression from bar 3, ii7 to I, only now in B major. It feels like a recapitulation, only in completely the wrong key.

Look again at the section just concluded, that we were calling the development. Note that he starts with a theme that is clearly derived from the main theme. Could not the string noodles that follow be related to the tail theme in the wind in the opening section? It seems especially likely when you consider the fact that the violas and seconds do end up moving stepwise in thirds. Look at the later part of the section, where the strings expand the long bassoon theme. Note that each phrase is answered in the horns and winds with a theme that looks very similar to the so-called closing theme, only in augmentation, and in sixths instead of thirds. Seen from a distance, it looks like instead of exposition, repeat and development, he’s simply repeated the same sequence of events three times, each time in greater complexity.

Now, as we arrive the B major fortissimo, that impression is strengthened. He’s brought back the primary progression, he’s brought back the condensed motto heard originally in the woodwind at bar 3. At letter N he brings back thedescending counter-melody in thirds, heard originally in the bassoons and horns in bar 3, and at the same time starts rebuilding his “tail theme” in the woodwinds, and then, just as the tail takes shape, and we’re sure we’re at the recap (albeit in the wrong key), he does something completely bizarre…

He changes meter! Right in the middle of a phrase.

So- have we moved into a second movement? Is this a scherzo now? What has happened???

Accept for a moment that we are in a second movement, a scherzo. Certainly, as the tempo picks up over the next several hundred bars, the impression of a scherzo just gets stronger and stronger. However, all the thematic material (lots of thirds in stepwise motion, for instance) is clearly lifted from the first movement. At letter O, the horns, violas and cellos play a direct quote of the chorale theme in the first section, which is fully stated by all the brass at letter P.

This is followed by a statement in the trombones (three f’s now, the first time in the symphony!) or nothing less than the first four melodic notes of the piece, in the home key of E flat, no less. As the movement whirls towards culmination, the trumpets play those same four notes over and over again, like a tornado, full of wild, uncontainable energy.

The genius of this opening span of music is that you never know the form of the movement until it is over. Although it fulfils the function of two symphonic movements, a sonata and a scherzo, the fact remains that it is all one unit, all derived from the same ideas, and all in E flat major.

It is quite possible to hear the whole opening section in 12/8 as something like-
Exposition- Modified Exposition Repeat- Development- Shortened Recapitulation

However, the key scheme makes clear that this is not what is at work!

Exposition (Eb)- Modified Exposition Repeat (G)- Development (Eb)- Shortened Recapitulation (B Major)

Sorry folks, you can’t have the development in the tonic and the recap in the super-dominant. It doesn’t work. It is, as they say, against the rules. Moreover, the development cannot have the same structure as the exposition and the exposition repeat. Finally, you can’t finish your recapitulation in a separate movement.

On the other hand, you could look at the whole thing as a Theme and Variations, with the whole first section as your theme, with each variation made more abstract and elaborate until you end up with the last variation being essentially an entire movement (the Scherzo). Each variation is like a great wave, which develops and grows, but ultimately it is only the last one which crashes full-speed onto the beach, back in Eb to stay, full of vigour.

Once you’ve found this skeleton, and once you understand the processes by which the ideas are evolving, you can, as a conductor, begin to get it into your head. It’s a hugely tricky thing to conduct- tons of activity within slow pulses, cross rhythms, syncopations, entrances off of beats, arrivals in the middle of bars. Your only hope is to know where you are, and where you’re going in the vast form. The only way to do this is to understand what Sibelius is doing, which, unless you’re a complete genius to begin with, means you’re going to end up understanding more about composition at the end than you did to begin with.

This great opening span looks like a sonata allegro movement and a scherzo, it looks like one enormous sonata allegro movement, it looks like a theme and variations movement. What it really is is the first movement of Sibelius Five. He has created a form that is unique, and uniquely suited, to his musical materials, a form that grows directly out of the way in which he manipulates his ideas.


c. 2006 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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4 comments on “Sibelius Symphony no. 5- first movement”

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