Sibelius: Symphony No.3

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Symphony No.3 in C major, Op.52

1. Allegro moderato
2. Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto
3. Moderato - Allegro ma non tanto

The early years of the twentieth century were a busy time for Sibelius. After years of struggle he was finally establishing his name as a composer, and conductors such as Toscanini and Henry Wood were performing his works. The English were taking to his music particularly, and so it was natural that he should be invited to visit the country by another prominent (though now half-forgotten) musician, Granville Bantock, who conducted the British première of Sibelius's First Symphony in March 1905 during the composer's stay.

England's appeal to Sibelius may not have been entirely unconnected with Bantock's generous hospitality, so lavish that Sibelius declared that he "never made the acquaintance of English coinage." While such attentions were understandably welcome and helped smooth the way for the Royal Philharmonic Society's proposal that he should bring his planned third symphony to England in 1907, there is a dark undercurrent: Sibelius had a drink problem, and such unconstrained bonhomie cannot have helped matters. His new publisher Robert Lienau's desire for more new works was an unwelcome pressure, and drove him further into the bottle. Progress on the new symphony was therefore slow, and the Society had to wait until February 1908 for its première. Bantock conducted, and Sibelius expressed his gratitude by dedicating the symphony to him. A pattern had been set, and Sibelius's subsequent career would be characterised by increasing self-doubt, struggles with alcoholism and consequent procrastination.

The Third Symphony represents a new maturity in Sibelius's style. Gone is the romanticism of the first two symphonies. In its place is a new, pared down sound, restrained in its emotions and textures. The moderately-sized orchestra that Sibelius uses could not be more in contrast to prevailing fashions in 1908 – Mahler had recently produced his Eighth Symphony, the "Symphony of a Thousand" whose extravagantly large forces were much more in tune with mainstream tastes. It is interesting to note that one of the few other composers defying fashion at this time was Schoenberg, whose Chamber Symphony is similarly a reaction against the overblown excesses of late Romantic music. Within a decade, the First World War would put an end to large orchestras (not least through the wholesale slaughter of thousands of young men who might otherwise have taken up the profession) and stripped-down neoclassicism would become the trend. Sibelius's music stands apart from these trends though. He is not interested in the ironic recycling of archaic clichés, but taking the principles of symphonic thought as the starting point for something entirely new. When Sibelius and Mahler met, around the time that the Third Symphony was being composed, their differences were encapsulated in Sibelius's declared fascination with the possibilities of creating symphonies bound together by intricate relationships between all the musical ideas and motifs, and Mahler's insistence that "the symphony must be like the world: it must embrace everything!" He did not see that Sibelius's approach could create the sense of an entire world just as effectively as his own, more diffuse structures.

The Third Symphony is in only three movements: The first movement's quietly vigorous opening opens out into bright cold sunlight, tempered by Nordic melancholy. Then a withdrawn, will o' the wisp of an intermezzo precedes a finale that starts fleet-footedly before mutating into a noble conclusion. It is often said that the way Sibelius constructs his music is by taking scraps and building up themes from them. This is precisely how the last movement of this symphony works – but it is in fact the only movement in all Sibelius's symphonies where this happens.

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