Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5

Notes by TŌN violinist Sabrina Parry

The Composer
Born in Finland in 1865, Jean Sibelius remains one of the most notable Scandinavian composers. He attended the first Finnish-speaking school, which is where he first encountered some of the mythological aspects of Finland’s culture. It’s from these that he drew much inspiration for his tone poems. Sibelius first began to study law in Helsinki, but soon abandoned it to become a violinist and focus solely on music. His composition career primarily began when he left to study in Berlin and Vienna.

The Fifth for his 50th
It was after WWI that Sibelius wrote his final three symphonies, beginning with the Fifth. The work was commissioned by his country to commemorate his own birthday, after being named a national holiday. He himself conducted the premiere on his 50th birthday, but he seemingly wasn’t satisfied; he went on to revise it into two versions over five years. In 1914 he wrote, “I should like to compare the symphony to a river. It is born from various rivulets that seek each other, and in this way the river proceeds wide and powerful toward the sea.” As a listener, it’s not difficult to find relationships between the motifs and nature, as Sibelius intended.

The Music
The first movement was at first split into two separate movements; it was in Sibelius’ revisions that he found a way to bridge them together to create one epic movement. This symphony’s middle movement gives the audience a sort of deconstructed, rotational look at the theme that he uses in the concluding movement, based on swans. When we get to the final movement, we decisively hear the notable motif that Sibelius named The Swan Hymn. “Today at ten to eleven I saw sixteen swans,” he wrote in his diary in 1915. “One of my greatest experiences! Lord God, what beauty! They circled over me for a long time. Disappeared into the solar haze like a gleaming silver ribbon.”

Flocks of Birds
I personally find so much joy in pieces inspired by nature, especially living in such a vast and stunning environment in the Hudson Valley. Particularly as seasons are changing, and leaves are falling, one might see flocks of birds traveling in beautiful swirling motions. I urge you to close your eyes just for a moment, and imagine what perhaps Sibelius drew his melodies from.