Symphony No.7 in C Major, Op. 105

By Timothy Jackson, University of North Texas

Written for the concert Scandinavian Romantics, performed on May 10, 2002 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

When, on 24 March 1924, the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) mounted the stage in Stockholm to conduct the premiere of his Fantasia sinfonica No. 1, he was – unbeknownst to all present – leading the orchestra through the majestic musical terrain of his Seventh Symphony. It was not until the following year, while the manuscript was being prepared for publication, that Sibelius after much consideration finally settled on the title Symphony No.7 (in einem Satze; “in one movement”). This proved to be the final step in a complicated decade-long process of compositional work. Perhaps we can best understand the struggle to name the work in light of its genesis and unique formal construction. Sibelius began formulating the central thematic ideas for the Seventh as early as 1914 during work on the Fifth Symphony. Though he ultimately rejected them for inclusion in the Fifth, he continued to develop these thematic cells independently and by the early twenties turned to this material in earnest. The sketches for the Symphony – now preserved in the collection of the Helsinki University Library – reveal that the one movement design with which we are familiar began its life as a full-blown four-movement symphony. Only the second and fourth movements, an Adagio in C and a fast movement in G minor respectively, were worked out in any detail before Sibelius decided to fuse the separate movements into a continuous whole. The impetus for this bold compositional strategy must have arisen from Sibelius’s steadfast refusal to thoughtlessly cram his thematic material into the prescribed confines of textbook musical forms. Instead, as a letter from 1918 – written as Sibelius was formulating plans for the work – indicates, “With regard to symphonies VI and VII the plans may possibly be altered according to the development of the musical ideas. As usual I am a slave to my themes and submit to their demands.” In the end, the Seventh Symphony proves to be a fitting conclusion to Sibelius’s career as a symphonist as it carries his lifelong quest for formal and motivic compression to its logical extreme. Though he experimented with the fusion of movements in his Third and Fifth Symphonies where two of the would-be four movements are joined together, the Seventh represents a true synthesis of ideas taken from the two planned movements. Overall, the symphony loosely conforms to the three parts of sonata form with the climactic trombone theme announcing the arrivals of the exposition, development and recapitulation. This theme and the lengthy hymn-like introduction that leads into its first presentation were drawn from the original slow movement while the lively and unstable second theme of the exposition is taken from the discarded fourth movement. The alternation of slow and fast moving material does lend a sense of multiple movements to the work and, to heighten this effect, Sibelius inserted a full scherzo – based on the abandoned fourth movement – into the development section. More than anything, however, the Seventh Symphony should best be understood as a highly unified and continuous process of growth with each larger section participating in a drive towards one of the three central statements of the trombone theme. Ultimately, this process is denied resolution until the climactic final chord. Surely it was the breadth of the composition’s tonal processes and the multi-movement pacing that finally compelled Sibelius to count it among his symphonies. As such it would be his valedictory essay in the genre and one of his greatest achievements. Contrary to certain long-held beliefs about Sibelius’s music – namely, that the symphonies are absolute music, while the tone poems are programmatic – several facts suggest that many of the symphonies unfold extra-musical narratives. The Seventh Symphony is particularly problematic in this regard. On several sketch pages Sibelius labeled motives associated with the trombone theme “Aino” – his wife’s name – while several other themes are labeled “Ruth” after one of his daughters. This source material suggests that the Seventh may be read as Sibelius’s Sinfonia Domestica, where domestic drama is brought to life through the continuously evolving musical structure. Musical references to the prelude from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and to Sibelius’s own popular Valse Triste point to a tragic undercurrent to this narrative. Despite these references, the specific nature of the program remains – like the structure itself – fairly elusive. Indeed, the Seventh Symphony proves to be one of the last century’s most enigmatic musical masterpieces.