Written for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Not to be reprinted without permission.
The music of Jean Sibelius is hard to categorize: it sits between the Romantic and the modern and can be nationalistic yet un-programmatic. When Sibelius composed his Second Symphony, he was already famous in Finland, and on the cusp of international success. He was already an experienced orchestral composer, having written Finlandia and a whole body of pieces inspired by Finnish folklore. But in his symphonies, he wanted to create music that worked on its own internal logic without extra-musical associations.
The Second Symphony clearly succeeds in this way, tightly composed with a compelling yet abstract trajectory. The rippling opening bars propel everything that follows, unfurling into a first movement that is inevitably called brisk or bracing. But already our description appears to be influenced by some idea of Nordic weather and sense of place. And to the Finnish public in 1902, the symphony was understood as a symbol of resistance against Tsar Nicholas II. The Finnish musicologist Ilmari Krohn heralded it as “our liberation symphony” from the Russian Empire, and to the present day the work is associated with Finnish independence. Sibelius rebuffed these claims, but he created a symphony that can be heard on both levels.
In 1900 Sibelius and his wife, Aino, were grieving for their 14-month-old daughter Kirsti, who had died in a typhoid epidemic. Then one day he received an anonymous and shockingly presumptuous letter that read: “You have been sitting at home for quite a while, Mr. Sibelius, it is high time for you to travel. You will spend the late autumn and the winter in Italy, a country where one learns cantabile, balance and harmony, plasticity and symmetry of lines, a country where everything is beautiful—even the ugly.” The letter was from Axel Carpelan, a very minor aristocrat, who convinced a wealthier friend to sponsor Sibelius’s trip.
He began to sketch what would become the Second Symphony in Florence and Rapallo, near Genoa in early 1901. At first he thought he might write a tone-poem about Don Juan, the legendary womanizer made famous by W.A. Mozart and Richard Strauss. This idea, rather uncharacteristic of Sibelius, was quickly discarded, but the image of Don Juan being confronted by Death inspired the ominous second-movement theme. He also considered a tone-poem based on Dante’s Divine Comedy, but discarded that idea as well. Sometimes the creative imagination can slip irrevocably from a narrative idea into the abstract.
Back home in Finland, Sibelius finished the piece early the following year. The Helsinki Philharmonic premiered it on March 8, 1902, and it was immediately scheduled for two repeat performances which sold out.
A Closer Listen
Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2 unfurls organically from its first measures; nearly all of its themes are related to what you hear in the first moments. The second movement begins with a timpani roll, followed by deep, lurking pizzicato. On top of this bass line, a long melody unfolds, turning into an impassioned crescendo. The Finnish conductor Robert Kajanus, who led the first recording, described it as a “broken-hearted protest against all the injustices that threaten at the present time to deprive the sun of its light and our flowers of their scent.” The scampering third movement runs right into the finale. Kajanus called it “a triumphant closure…arousing in the listener a bright mood of consolation and optimism.”