Sibelius 3- KW Pseudo-Rebutts KW

I have to admit that I’m surprised not even any of my friends who read this blog regularly pointed out how completely crap my recent concert announcement for the September 30 Surrey Mozart Players concert really was. I was appalled at it even as I wrote it, but gave into time restraints- better to put up a load of empty and meaningless platitudes on time, than to hold off a few days and not give people who might actually come to the concert a chance to organize themselves.

Nevertheless, I would like to apologize for this load of cliché ridden rubbish-

“Ken says-I’m really looking forward to this program…. It’s my first concert with the SMP as their official Music Director. They did a fantastically exciting Beethoven 7 last spring that I really enjoyed preparing and performing, so I’m looking forward to working with them regularly.”

And especially this one-

“Sibelius 3- what can you say? It’s a piece that will always sound fresh and full of life. I’ve often heard it called his Haydn symphony, but to me it is more Sibelius version of Beethoven 7- full of rhythmic life, drive and forward motion, and never heavy.”

It’s not that I didn’t mean these, or any of the other things I said in my brief editorial on the concert. My concern is that I didn’t offer anything really personal or thoughtful- anyone could have said those things about any pieces with any orchestra, more or less. I’m excited to be doing a concert! The orchestra is good! The music is good! Concerts are fun! You deserve better…

So, I’ve decided to offer a little more genuine commentary on the program as a form of pseudo-rebuttal to my earlier post.

Part One- How do I feel about the concert?

I am looking forward to this program, but it is quite a feeling going from being a guest conductor to the music director, and it’s not something you can really plan for. As it is, we’ve ended up with a very, very challenging first program here. Challenging for me, challenging for the players and challenging for the audience. Our last concert was the Dvorak Czech Suite, the Mozart Bassoon Concerto with the great Meyrick Alexander as soloist, and Beethoven 5. Unless something goes badly, badly wrong, that’s a concert that everyone is going to leave with a smile on their face.

Both the Nielsen and the Sibelius are substantially more technically difficult to play than either the Mozart Bassoon Concerto or Beethoven 7, and they’re also both very musically thorny and hard to pull off. Should I have started with another Mozart/Beethoven show? I hope not! I’m encouraged, because, although you can play Beethoven 7 badly and still have a success, SMP played it well and had a big success. Although it’s harder to get through Nielsen and Sibelius without a train wreck than Mozart Bassoon and Beethoven 7, nothing is harder to play at a high level than Beethoven 7. I think that if we can get past that first technical obstacle course in rehearsal, then everything will fall into place, but it will be a challenge- it is an obstacle course to be reckoned with.

Part Two- How do I feel about the pieces?

I think you already have a pretty good idea that at least two-thirds of this concert is musically tricky stuff.

Lets start with Sibelius’ Third Symphony. I love to read what composers themselves have to say about their music and about music in general, whether it’s Copland or Shostakovich or Bartok or Mahler. However, composers are not always to be trusted- sometimes they speak to get a reaction or spark a controversy, and sometimes they use language to obscure their true aims, maybe to help them curry favour with contemporaries.

I wouldn’t presume to know why he said it, and it’s possible he thought it was true when he said it, but I find Sibelius’ most famous quote about music, which he wrote as he was composing the Third Symphony, totally suspicious.

“I am particularly pleased to see it stressed that my symphonies are founded on classical symphonic form,” he wrote in 1904.

I think this sentiment obscures just what a radical composer Sibelius could be. As I wrote the other day when discussing the Fifth Symphony, Sibelius seems completely unconcerned with the core classical values of closure and symmetry. Mahler actually wrote a perfect, totally orthodox sonata-allegro movement (the first movement of his Sixth Symphony, complete with exposition repeat), something Sibelius couldn’t seem to bring himself to do. The first movement of Sibelius’ Third is very nearly an orthodox sonata-allegro movement, or at least as close as you could hope to get from Sibelius, but in the coda, instead of wrapping up the themes and ideas of the entire movement, he instead INTRODUCES A NEW THEME. Hardly classical. Not just a theme, but the most memorable tune in the symphony, which he states, then leaves, never returning to again.

The finale is even more radical and subversive. With its constant changes of tempo and mood and its references to earlier movements, it seems as though the third and final movement might be making satirical reference to the beginning of the last movement of Beethoven 9, but this neurotic and scattered approach is no mere opening gambit, it is the body of the movement. In fact, in the whole large first 6/8 section of the finale the over mood is one of confusion (hopefully not for the conductor!). There is a general sense that he works his way through a body of music twice, but in different keys and with ever changing landscapes, Near the end is a ferocious section that almost becomes a fugue, except that it refuses to act nice like a fugue. Calling it “a freely contrapuntal developmental episode” doesn’t quite get accross to the reader just how wonderful weird it is.

Just when the music seems to have painted itself into a corner it breaks out of it’s 6/8 groove into a beautiful, and very four-square tune. Interestingly, in the whole first part of the Finale he never gives us any sense of regular four-bar phrases, but once we get to the four-four it is almost all four bar phrases to the end of the piece.

One initially thinks that this is something like the last two movements of Beethoven 5- a shadowy scherzo that elides to a finale, but the scherzo never lets itself dance at all, and the finale is really only a single, huge wave of energy.  From the beginning of the 4/4 to the end of the symphony we hear only one melody, and basically only one harmonic center, and everything just repeats and evolves as the tempo gradually increases. It’s very much like the finale of Beethoven 7, but only the coda of that movement- repetition, repetition, rhythm and more rhythm, with an accelerando thrown in for good measure.

It’s pretty exciting stuff, but we have to bring it off. Audiences are used to 200 years of symphonies that come full circle, that achieve closure. Sibelius never answers any questions in this symphony, he never resolves any formal tensions or settles any musical disputes. Can a symphony end with departure?

I’ll have thoughts on the Nielsen Flute Concerto soon- as you can see, it will be a big part of my life for the next 10 days.

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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2 comments on “Sibelius 3- KW Pseudo-Rebutts KW”

  1. Kenneth Woods

    By the way-

    Subversiveness can be a classical value- no composer was ever more mischievous than Haydn. Maybe it is no coincidence that Sibelius’ most Haydn-esque work is also one of his most subversive?


  2. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Halftime show part II

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