Sibelius Conducts the Premiere of His Fourth Symphony Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Jean Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony is considered his most modern and one of his finest, yet it was the essentially conservative composer’s reaction against many modern trends.

Summary of Event

The Fourth Symphony of Jean Sibelius was not a success at its first performance in Helsinki on April 3, 1911. The work’s unrelieved austerity and uncompromising nature aroused puzzlement and even hostility there and at subsequent performances. Sibelius’s publisher, the German firm of Breitkopf and Härtel, commissioned English writer Rosa Newmarch, a friend of Sibelius, to write an explanation of the work for German audiences. Later, the work received slow and grudging recognition as one of the seminal musical compositions that—like Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (1912) and Claude Debussy’s Jeux (1913)—proclaimed that the nineteenth century was irretrievably over and a new century in music had definitely begun. Music;symphonic Symphonic music Fourth Symphony (Sibelius) [kw]Sibelius Conducts the Premiere of His Fourth Symphony (Apr. 3, 1911) [kw]Fourth Symphony, Sibelius Conducts the Premiere of His (Apr. 3, 1911) [kw]Symphony, Sibelius Conducts the Premiere of His Fourth (Apr. 3, 1911) Music;symphonic Symphonic music Fourth Symphony (Sibelius) [g]Finland;Apr. 3, 1911: Sibelius Conducts the Premiere of His Fourth Symphony[02780] [c]Music;Apr. 3, 1911: Sibelius Conducts the Premiere of His Fourth Symphony[02780] Sibelius, Jean Wegelius, Martin Newmarch, Rosa Strauss, Richard

Sibelius studied music with the composer, pianist, and conductor Martin Wegelius and made a study trip to Vienna, where he met Johannes Brahms and was particularly influenced by the music of Anton Bruckner. His musical development was slow, and he often revised his compositions after their first performances. He showed a flair for dramatic orchestral composition with soaring themes in his First Symphony First Symphony (Sibelius) (1899), a flair he retained, although with new ideas of formal structure, in his Second Symphony Second Symphony (Sibelius) (1901). These two works, along with Finlandia Finlandia (Sibelius) (1899; revised 1900; his most popular composition), his Violin Concerto Violin Concerto (Sibelius) (1903; revised 1905; Richard Strauss conducted the premiere of the revised version), and the symphonic poems based on the Finnish folk epic Kalevala Kalevala (Finnish folk epic) achieved for Sibelius an international reputation, especially in England and Germany. Sibelius had shown himself to be an inspired melodist whose orchestral works contained a cool scoring in which many saw a reflection of Finland’s subarctic scenery and climate. Others saw Sibelius as a representative of Finland’s struggle for liberation from Russian domination (Finland had been awarded to Russia at the Congress of Vienna in 1815). Sibelius himself was of Swedish descent, but he had attended a Finnish-language high school and was fluent in both languages.

Sibelius began to change his musical style with his Third Symphony Third Symphony (Sibelius) (1907), which remains one of his least appreciated works. Although he retained his reliance on melody in the work, which is almost neoclassical, he made more use of an austere scoring and a striving for organic unity than he did in his previous works. The austere tone of the Fourth Symphony, which took Sibelius nearly two years to write, may have been caused by his reflections over a potentially life-threatening illness. A tumor in his throat was at first thought to be cancerous. Several operations, and abstaining from tobacco and alcohol for a decade, led to its cure, but the future of his health and even his survival were uncertain for a few years, and he was concerned for the welfare of his wife and children.

The form of the Fourth Symphony is the conventional four-movement structure of the Ludwig van Beethoven symphony (Sibelius esteemed Beethoven above all other composers), yet there are several critical deviations from the conventional symphony within the individual movements. The first movement, in A minor, is in sonata form, but an extremely condensed and compressed variety; some of the themes are fragmentary gestures rather than soaring melodies such as Sibelius had written previously. The second movement, in F major, occupies the place of a scherzo, but its pastoral quality is overridden by a menacing coda. The slow movement, in C-sharp minor, contains near its end a soaring melody that is soon defeated. The finale, in A major, is the negation of the optimistic finale of most nineteenth century works from Beethoven onward; it is in a condensed sonata form, like the first movement, but with a particularly bleak and quiet coda in A minor in place of the triumphant conclusion that most audiences expected. There had been pessimistic finales in nineteenth century music, such as to Frédéric Chopin’s B-flat minor sonata and to Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony (the Pathétique), but none of comparable austerity until the lunar landscapes of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet of 1960.

A remarkable feature of Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony is its reliance on a basic interval and motive. The symphony is held together by the interval of the tritone (A to D-sharp) and by a motive that often consists of the notes C, D, F-sharp, and E. This motive is often transposed, altered, or permutated or serves as the skeleton of a given theme.

Jean Sibelius.

(Library of Congress)

For the orchestral player, many rhythmic intricacies in all parts require much rehearsal; it is probably the most difficult Sibelius symphony to put together and demands a conductor of consummate musicianship. Not only the austerity and bleakness of the symphony but also its difficulty have contributed to its lack of popularity and its relative infrequency of performance. The planned premiere in Vienna in 1912 had to be canceled because the members of the Vienna Philharmonic refused to perform the piece.

Sibelius wrote to Rosa Newmarch that the Fourth Symphony was “a protest against the compositions of today,” with “absolutely nothing of the circus about it.” He was reacting chiefly to the opulent and lengthy symphonies of Gustav Mahler and the later symphonic poems of Richard Strauss. The conservative symphonies of Aleksandr Glazunov and the melodious concertos of Sergei Rachmaninoff, Russia’s leading symphonists at the time, and the impressionistic works of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel may have been other works that Sibelius rejected. Certainly, his Fourth Symphony is the antithesis of the two large-scale symphonies to receive their premieres in 1911: Mahler’s Ninth and Edward Elgar’s Second.


Two immediately following major works of Sibelius retained his technique, shown in the Fourth Symphony, of composing works built up from small germ motives and a somber atmosphere: the symphonic poem The Bard Bard, The (Sibelius) (1913; revised 1914) and a symphonic poem for voice and orchestra, Luonnotar Luonnotar (Sibelius) (begun 1910 but not published until 1914), a setting of the creation legend in the Kalevala. Neither work became popular, although both are highly esteemed by lovers of Sibelius’s music.

Despite these apparent setbacks, honors flowed toward Sibelius. In 1912, he was offered a position as professor of composition at the Imperial Academy of Music in Vienna, which he declined. In 1914, he was invited to the United States, where he received the honorary degree of doctor of music from Yale University. His symphonic poem The Oceanides, Oceanides, The (Sibelius) in which he combined a composition technique of using motivic gestures rather than themes with a very lavish orchestration, received its premiere and immense acclaim at a festival in Norfolk, Connecticut.

The Fifth Symphony, Fifth Symphony (Sibelius) Sibelius’s largest work since the Fourth Symphony, was hastily composed for a concert honoring the composer’s fiftieth birthday in 1915 and then extensively revised in 1919. Although it retains an experimental character and continues many of the rhythmic difficulties of the Fourth Symphony, it belongs to a world quite different from the earlier work. If the Fourth Symphony represents ice, granite, and leaden winter clouds, the Fifth Symphony depicts forests, lakes, and summer sunlight. The bleak conclusion of the Fourth Symphony is replaced in the Fifth by an optimistic, heroic ending. The Fifth Symphony remains one of Sibelius’s most popular works.

Sibelius was somewhat isolated by World War I; he was unable to obtain royalties from his German publisher because Russia, which still occupied Finland, was an enemy country. During this period he submitted his compositions to the Wilhelm Hansen company in Copenhagen. After the end of the war, Finland became independent, and Sibelius was esteemed as a national treasure, a prominent figure of international renown, the recipient of government grants and of subsidies to enable the recording of his symphonies.

With the Sixth Symphony Sixth Symphony (Sibelius) of 1923, Sibelius set out along a new path, retaining his concept of themes growing from organic cells but adhering to the concept of key centers, which had been abandoned by Arnold Schoenberg and his school. Sibelius’s key centers, however, are treated with ambiguity: In the first movement, for example, there is constant ambiguity between the keys of D minor and F major, both with B-naturals (in the style of the old church modes) instead of B-flats. His orchestration became more sparse, returning to the austerity of the Fourth Symphony. Sibelius himself commented that instead of offering the world highly spiced cocktails (probably an allusion to the works of Strauss and Ravel), he was providing “pure cold water.”

His final symphony, the Seventh, Seventh Symphony (Sibelius) originally premiered in Stockholm in 1924 as a “symphonic fantasia”; only in the following year was it numbered as a symphony. In one movement, the entire work grows out of the germ motives stated in the introduction, but the piece does not follow traditional symphonic form except in the recurrence of themes and contrasts of tempos. The symphonic poem Tapiola Tapiola (Sibelius) of 1926, a pantheistic evocation of the Finnish forests and their spirit denizens, was to all practical purposes Sibelius’s valedictory work, except for a few minor ephemeral compositions.

Many of Sibelius’s biographers have tried to explain his thirty-year silence after Tapiola. An eighth symphony was reported to be in various stages of composition; by all accounts, Sibelius worked on it but destroyed it, and, after his death, his widow and eldest daughter insisted that it did not exist. Publishers, performers, and orchestras sought additional works from him, but they were acknowledged with tactful refusals. Explanations for his silence include a slight stroke that he suffered shortly after finishing Tapiola and alcoholism; the most likely reason is that he had said all that he had to say in his chosen musical style. He did not approve of the new musical trends in composition that arose after World War I, especially the later styles of Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, both of whom he esteemed at first but later deprecated. Béla Bartók and Ernest Bloch were the only postwar composers whom he seems to have respected.

Sibelius did attempt to write popular works in the style of his early Valse triste (1904) and thus assure himself a steady stream of royalty checks, but without success. His last datable composition was created in 1938. He was happiest living quietly in his villa at Järvenpää, north of Helsinki, where he had resided since 1904 amid his beloved forests. There death claimed him in 1957, in his ninety-second year.

Sibelius founded no school of composers, accepted few pupils, and left no legacy other than his music. The phonograph and radio, even more than concert performances, contributed to the growth of the audience for his music. After 1920, his staunchest admirers were found in England and the United States, and as late as the 1950’s foreign musicians visiting the United States were surprised at the esteem in which Sibelius was held there. With the eclipse of neoclassicism and serial composition in the 1970’s, however, new respect began to be accorded to the school of conservative symphonists of the first half of the twentieth century, including not only Sibelius but also Carl Nielsen, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Howard Hanson, and Dmitri Shostakovich. Among their works, Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony represents a unique contrast of modernism within a traditional symphonic framework, but a modernism that does not seem outdated to listeners of the early twenty-first century. Music;symphonic Symphonic music Fourth Symphony (Sibelius)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abraham, Gerald. “The Symphonies.” In The Music of Sibelius, edited by Gerald Abraham. 1947. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1975. The starting point for all subsequent analyses of the symphonies of Sibelius, even though several later students of these works have disagreed with some of Abraham’s conclusions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goss, Glenda Dawn, ed. The Sibelius Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. Collection of essays by Sibelius scholars covers a wide range of research on the composer’s work and provides biographical background information. Includes chronology, selected bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hannikainen, Ilmari. Sibelius and the Development of Finnish Music. Translated by Aulis Nopsanen. London: Hinrichsen Edition, 1948. Brief volume is chiefly useful for the background it provides on Sibelius, discussing his Finnish precursors and introducing the younger Finnish composers in Sibelius’s shadow.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">James, Burnett. The Music of Jean Sibelius. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1983. Excellent short study of Sibelius’s music for nonspecialists. Makes extensive use of Erik Tawaststjerna’s researches before their publication in English.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Harold E. Jean Sibelius. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1959. Unauthorized biography intended to provide a contrast to the glowingly eulogistic studies that had previously appeared. Presents rather simplistic analyses of Sibelius’s works.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Layton, Robert. Sibelius. 1965. Reprint. New York: Schirmer Books, 1993. Biography organized according to genres, with the symphonies discussed in chapters 5 through 7. Concluding chapter provides a fine summary of the composer’s achievement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levas, Santeri. Jean Sibelius: A Personal Portrait. Translated by Percy M. Young. 2d ed. Provoo, Finland: Werner Söderstrom Osakeyhtiö, 1986. Memoir by Sibelius’s private secretary of more than twenty of his last years presents an intimate portrait of the composer as a person. Quotes Sibelius’s often sharp observations about his musical contemporaries. Features many illustrations, including paintings by the composer’s Finnish contemporaries and neighbors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Frederick Key. Nordic Art Music: From the Middle Ages to the Third Millennium. New York: Praeger, 2002. Overview of the history of northern European music since the Middle Ages includes Sibelius among the composers discussed. Features selected bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tawaststjerna, Erik. Sibelius. Translated by Robert Layton. 2 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976-1986. Two volumes of Tawaststjerna’s monumental and definitive study have appeared in English, covering the composer’s life to 1914. Makes extensive use of the composer’s diaries and correspondence, which were not available to previous writers, and presents thorough analyses and discussions of all his major works.

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