Jean Sibelius
Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Op. 105

Born December 8, 1865 in Tavastehus, Finland
Died September 20, 1957 in Järvenpää, Finland

This work was first performed on March 24, 1924 at the Konsertföreningen in Stockholm, Sweden with the composer conducting. It is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings.

Jean Sibelius was an adult before he decided to concentrate on a musical career. Although he began to study piano at age nine and composition at 10, his first intention was to become a lawyer. In 1885 he enrolled in the University of Helsinki to study law. Within a year, however, he decided on music as a career and devoted the rest of his unusually long life to this pursuit. He was drawn to folklore and many of his numerous works for orchestra, stage, chamber ensembles, and voice and piano were inspired by stories from the Kalevala, the Finnish epic poem of native legends. It is puzzling that such a prolific composer abruptly abandoned his compositional career in 1927 to live in retirement, refusing to discuss his music, until his death thirty years later at the age of 91.

Although he lived well beyond the middle of 20th century, the spirit of Sibelius belonged to the nineteenth. His music reflects the two great driving forces of his public career–he was a Romantic as a composer and an intense Nationalist as a citizen. During his early years as a composer he was influenced by the styles of Tchaikovsky and Brahms. Later he developed his own characteristic style but he remained Romantic in spirit. Sibelius was the authentic voice of Finland, not only to his countrymen, but also to the world. Even his works of absolute music, like the symphonies, express a combination of pastoral moods and rare outbursts of passionate emotion that seem typical of his native land.

In 1923 Sibelius was at the height of his career but his health was not perfect. He had developed a tremor in his hands and often drank to ease the performance anxiety that plagued his appearances as a conductor. He struggled to steady his hand when composing his Seventh Symphony and often turned to medicinal alcohol prescribed by his doctor. As other annotators have mentioned, he drank so much that his wife scolded him for using “artificial inspiration” to achieve the steadiness needed to write the music. Although the ideas for the work went back as far as a decade, composition of the final version was a struggle.

Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony was his final published symphony, although he lived over 30 more years. Cast in one movement, it eschews the traditional four-movement structure used in most symphonies since the late 18th century. Despite its unique structure, it grows organically from the first few measures to become one of the most original and profound symphonic works in the repertoire.

Despite its considerable birthing pains, Sibelius was excited about the new work. He had originally planned a three-movement piece celebrating the joy of life but the movements somehow merged. Even the composer was not sure if he could call the work a symphony, so he initially described it as a Fantasia sinfonica, as it was billed at the premiere in March of 1924.

The work begins with a single timpani stroke from which rises a scale in the strings. A bucolic figure appears in the woodwinds but soon subsides, although the majority of the symphony’s thematic material is derived from that simple figure. The two initial ideas are developed and congeal into two different themes–a hymn-like figure and the magnificent trombone theme. More development occurs and all of the themes are reworked to an exquisite degree.

The tempo increases and suddenly a scherzo-like section begins. Staccato string patterns become the counterpart to more profound outbursts. The scalar pattern of the beginning returns and becomes more chromatic. Almost victorious in character and certainly authoritative, the trombone theme returns. Development continues further until the scherzo becomes shaded with darker hues.

Devastating and ponderous, the trombone theme returns but the symphony begins to calm down. Sibelius restates the famous farewell theme, heard early in the symphony as a seemingly unimportant transition after the first statement of the trombone melody. Sadness creeps in and once more the trombone and woodwind themes return as the symphony winds down. The final notes of the melody resolve into a C major chord, but only after prolonging the melodic tension until the last possible moment.