Sibelius: Symphony No.4

Jean Sibelius 1865-1957
Symphony No. 4 op.63
I. Tempo molto moderato, quasi adagio
II. Allegro molto vivace
III. Il tempo largo
IV. Allegro

"It has nothing, absolutely nothing of the circus about it." So Sibelius characterised his fourth symphony, "a protest against the music of today". By this he meant the opulent scores that composers such as Richard Strauss and Mahler were producing in the early years of the 20th century, and his Fourth is certainly a stark contrast to that over-ripe romanticism. Its austerity led to incomprehension and even outright hostility at its early performances, and in his native Finland it quickly earned the nickname of Barkbröd ("Bark-bread"), a reference to the famines that devastated Finland in the 19th century, when people were forced to eat the bark from trees to survive. This gives a misleading impression of the work; it is in no way malnourished, but rather strips away all unnecessary decoration - it is undoubtedly sparse and austere, but it is also forceful and sinewy. The Fourth has never made its way into popular consciousness in the way its more obviously romantic and heroic successor has, but it is arguably his finest symphony, and the listener who braves its forbidding landscape will find the journey dark and challenging, certainly, but also rich and rewarding.

Its genesis came in the wake of a difficult period in Sibelius' life. Increasing success both at home and abroad, culminating in his dedication of the Third Symphony to the now almost forgotten, but then prominent composer Granville Bantock, who had done much to promote him in England, was tempered by his drinking habit, which increasingly interfered with his work. Then, in 1908, a severe blow came: troubled by throat pains, Sibelius underwent tests and was diagnosed with cancer. The tumour was successfully removed, but he lived in fear for years afterwards of the disease returning - so much so that he gave up alcohol and his other favourite vice, cigars, for nearly a decade afterwards. It was in the wake of this scare that he composed a number of works that are notable for their severity and sense of isolation, most notably the string quartet Voces Intimae and the Fourth Symphony, which he began work on in 1909 and completed in 1911. He interrupted work on it to begin a setting of Edgar Allan Poe's poem The Raven, although this was abandoned and many of the ideas recycled for the finale of the symphony, which may provide a clue to the thoughts behind the music.

The concentration is extraordinary; it is a white dwarf of a work, compact and dense. The opening declamation on cellos and basses contains the seeds of everything that follows. The first movement is a vast drift, in which hints of passion and tenderness emerge briefly from a dark, barren landscape whose horizon seems infinite.

The second movement begins in a lighter mood, a solo oboe leading an apparently carefree dance, but this soon becomes unstable, and when the tempo halves the initial mood is revealed as superficial as the music darkens before evaporating with a flick of the timpani.

Nowhere is the stark mood of the symphony more apparent than at the start of the slow movement, where a chasm opens out between the faltering flute and the wraith like cello accompaniment. Fragments of melody float in an uncertain fog, trying to coalesce; the orchestra tries to rouse itself, and almost breaks through with a cry perfectly poised between nobility and tragedy; but it cannot be sustained, and the music fades away again into darkness.

The finale begins suddenly, with an apparent determination to find some light, the addition of a glockenspiel to the orchestral texture providing a sharp brightness. The music becomes more impassioned, and strains towards light, but is snared in a trap, and eventually collapses in a calamitous climax, after which there is a retreat into shivering darkness, illuminated only by pleading figures on flute and oboe. All seems lost, but the grey, pulsing chords, reminiscent of the chorales that close Bach's Passions, that end the symphony should not be mistaken for tragedy; there is steel in them, a determination to endure. Noting the completion of the symphony in his diary on April 2, 1911, Sibelius commented: "It calls for much courage to look at life straight in the eye."

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