Symphony No 4

Sir Colin Davis conductor

Jean Sibelius
Symphony No 4 in A minor Op 63

1. Tempo molto moderato, quasi adagio
2. Allegro molto vivace
3. Il tempo largo
4. Allegro

Sibelius began work on his Fourth Symphony in 1910, during a period of particularly intense personal crisis. Two years earlier, surgeons had removed a tumour from his throat. The operation was apparently successful, but Sibelius was understandably terrified of the cancer recurring. For a while he gave up cigars and alcohol – a severe trial of strength which led to terrible withdrawal symptoms. Entries in his diary at the time he was working on the symphony give some idea of the range of his mood swings:

‘August 16. When will I get this development [the first movement] finished? i.e. be able to concentrate my mind and have the stamina to carry it all through. I managed when I had cigars and wine, but now I have to find new ways. I must!

August 30. Inspired. The development is ready in my head. I dare say I shall have the whole movement sketched out today.

22 September. All my youth and childhood, the former with its terrible storms and after-effects. The corpses still rise to the surface. Help!! Du musst dich zusammenraffen [You must pull yourself together]. If only I could rid myself of these dark shadows. Or at least put them into some new perspective. If you can't do that, put the past behind you. You mustn't go under, there's too much on the plus side.’

Does this seem melodramatic? Not, perhaps, when read after a performance of the Fourth Symphony. And there is one line which is particularly striking: Sibelius hopes that if he can’t rid himself of his ‘dark shadows’, he might be able to ‘put them into some new perspective’.

Image: Near Ventnor – Coastal Landscape with Dark Sky by Eugène Isabey

The Fourth Symphony contains some of the most shadowy and unsettling music he ever composed, but one way of looking at its firmly minor key ending might be to conclude that darkness and despair have been faced with courage, and through the transformative power of music put into a genuinely new perspective.

The following symphony, the much more popular No 5, also has its moments of confrontation with what Sibelius called ‘life’s Angst’, and yet the outcome is far more obviously positive. Is this a sign that the direct artistic confrontation with inner gloom in Symphony No 4 had worked? It’s hard to say: Sibelius’s private struggles with his demons continued for many years. Yet for those who love and esteem the Fourth Symphony (and there are many), this music can ultimately convey hope. Thomas Hardy wrote:

‘If a way to the better there be, it entails a full look at the worst.’

It is certainly possible to read the Fourth Symphony as a spiritual document of that hard ‘way to the better’.

Whatever the listener concludes, there’s no mistaking the originality and imaginative power of this music. The need to give form to his feelings challenged Sibelius to develop new expressive means – so new in fact that some of its first audiences were shocked. In Sweden, the symphony was booed, while American critics condemned it as ‘ultra-modern’ and ‘dissonant and doleful’.

First Movement

Several great symphonies begin with an effect like a door opening on a new world, but the world on which the Fourth Symphony opens is forbiddingly sombre. Cellos, basses and bassoons, fortissimo-diminuendo, spell out the uneasy, ambiguous interval of the tritone – a step of three whole tones – which is to dominate the symphony almost until the very end. A solo cello sings sadly, then the music rises to a climax, with baleful brass and anguished violins.

Second Movement

The second theme brings temporary warmth and repose, but the solo cello returns, leading us into haunted territory. A more or less straightforward recapitulation leads to a tiny coda for timpani and strings – Sibelius’s economy of means in this symphony is masterly.

At first, the second movement – initiated by a much brighter oboe – feels like release from gloom. But gradually the shadows return, the dancing figures turn more and more uneasy while tempo and harmony grow increasingly unstable. With a sudden doubling of the tempo the music becomes stormier, yet the end is disconcertingly sudden: violins hint at the opening oboe theme, then, with three quiet drum taps, the music abruptly halts – it’s as though a precariously flickering flame has been suddenly extinguished.

Third Movement

Formally the slow third movement is the most original of the four. From a few scraps of motif on flutes, Sibelius gradually assembles a heroically striving tune – the process is rather like watching a speeded up film of a plant growing. To borrow a phrase from Vaughan Williams it could be described as ‘Variations in search of a theme’. But the scenery remains bleak, and there are moments of desperate unfulfilled longing. Ultimately, striving comes to nothing. Heroic aspiration fails, and at the end all we are left with is a kind of frozen stillness.

Fourth Movement

Then, surprisingly, strings seize on the last note of the slow movement and make it the springboard for an energetic, apparently positive finale, the mood brightened by the chiming of a glockenspiel. It is no surprise however when uneasiness begins to grow. Eventually the music builds to a desperate, grindingly dissonant climax in which tonality teeters on the brink of total disintegration.

The glockenspiel tinkles for one last time, a jagged figure on trumpets and trombones plunges downward, and a starkly elegiac coda follows. Yet the end is curiously matter-of-fact: forlorn bird-calls from flute and oboe, and finally string chords coming to rest stoically in the minor key, mezzo forte – neither loud nor soft. Anguish there may be in this music, but never sentimentality.

Note by Stephen Johnson Stephen Johnson is the author of Bruckner Remembered (Faber). He also contributes regularly to BBC Music Magazine and The Guardian, and broadcasts for BBC Radio 3 (Discovering Music), BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service.

Image: Seascape, Mera by Aoki Shigeru, 1904

Jean Sibelius

As a young boy, Sibelius made rapid progress as a violinist and composer. In 1886, he abandoned law studies at Helsinki University, enrolling at the Helsinki Conservatory and later taking lessons in Berlin and Vienna.

The young composer drew inspiration from the Finnish ancient epic, the Kalevala, a rich source of Finnish cultural identity. These sagas of the remote Karelia region greatly appealed to Sibelius, especially those concerned with the dashing youth Lemminkäinen and the bleak landscape of Tuonela, the kingdom of death – providing the literary background of his early tone-poems, beginning with the mighty choral symphony Kullervo in 1892.

The Finns swiftly adopted Sibelius and his works as symbols of national pride, particularly following the premiere of his overtly patriotic Finlandia in 1900, composed a few months after Finland's legislative rights had been taken away by Russia.

'Well, we shall see now what the new century brings with it for Finland and us Finns.'
Sibelius, New Year's Day 1900

The public in Finland recognised the idealistic young composer as a champion of national freedom, while his tuneful Finlandia was taken into the repertoire of orchestras around the world. In 1914, Sibelius visited America, composing a bold new work, The Oceanides, for the celebrated Norfolk Music Festival in Connecticut.

Although Sibelius lived to the age of 91, he effectively abandoned composition almost 30 years earlier. Heavy drinking, illness, relentless self-criticism and financial problems were among the conditions that influenced his early retirement. He was, however, honoured as a great Finnish hero long after he ceased composing, while his principal works became established as an essential part of the orchestral repertoire.

Composer profile by Andrew Stewart Andrew Stewart is a freelance music journalist and writer. He is the author of The LSO at 90, and contributes to a wide variety of specialist classical music publications.

Sir Colin Davis
LSO Principal Conductor 1995–2006
LSO President 2007–13

Sir Colin first conducted the LSO in 1959 and became Principal Conductor in 1995. He was the longest serving Principal Conductor in the LSO’s history and was at the head of the LSO family for many years. His musicianship and his humanity have been cherished by musicians and audiences alike.

Sir Colin made his debut with the LSO in 1959 at the Royal Festival Hall. In the 1960s and 70s, he conducted many of the LSO's annual series at the Royal Festival Hall, including the Jubilee Season. In 1964, Sir Colin embarked with the LSO on its first world tour, taking in New York, West Coast USA, Japan, Korea and Hong Kong. He conducted the LSO's Tippett/Berlioz Festival in 1982: their first major concert series in the newly opened Barbican. In 1993, Sir Colin and the LSO gave three complete performances of Les Troyens. In 1997, Sir Colin travelled with the LSO to New York to conduct their first Residency at the Lincoln Center, and the LSO's 'Berlioz Odyssey' throughout 1999–2000 saw Sir Colin conduct the orchestra in all of Berlioz's major works. In the 2007/08 season, he performed Berlioz and Sibelius with the LSO, and throughout 2009–11, he conducted the LSO in a landmark series of Nielsen Symphonies, conducting these works for the first time.

Sir Colin Davis recorded widely with Philips, BMG and Eratoas well as on LSO Live. Recordings for which LSO Live and Sir Colin have received awards include two Grammy awards, a Classical Brit Award and the Gramophone Award for Best Opera 2002 for Les Troyens, and the Best Opera Grammy Award in 2006 for Verdi's Falstaff. In 1995, Sir Colin won the Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal, followed by the Classic Brit Male Artist of the Year Award, and the Critics' Award, in 2002 and the Classic Brit Male Artist of the Year Award again in 2008.

Sir Colin was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1965, and received a Knighthood in 1980. He was awarded international honours by Italy, France, Germany and Finland. Sir Colin was named a Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2001. Sir Colin received The Queen’s Medal for Music in December 2009 and was awarded the Commander of the Order of Dannebrog by the Queen of Denmark in 2012.

During his career, Sir Colin conducted the BBC Scottish Orchestra, moving to Sadler's Wells Opera House in 1959. He spent 1967–71 as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, became Music Director of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in 1971, and also Principal Guest Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1972 and the London Symphony Orchestra in 1975. Sir Colin spent 1983–92 with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, was Principal Guest Conductor of the New York Philharmonic from 1998–2003 and was Honorary Conductor of the Dresden Staatskapelle from 1990. He was Principal Conductor of the LSO from 1995–2006 and became the Orchestra’s seventh President in 2007.

Sir Colin Davis was born in Weybridge, Surrey, in 1927.

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Sunday 29 March 7pm
Sibelius Symphony No 5

Janáček Sinfonietta
Sibelius Symphony No 5

Sir Simon Rattle conductor

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