JEAN SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 82 (1915, rev. 1916, 1919)
“In a deep valley again. But I begin already dimly to see the mountain that I shall certainly ascend. God opens his door for a moment and his orchestra plays the Fifth Symphony.” So wrote Sibelius about the symphony he composed and conducted in honor of his own 50th birthday (now a national holiday in Finland). Despite struggles with health, alcoholism, finances, and political turmoil, he created this masterpiece—one of the great late-Romantic symphonies. He once described his process of composing like this: “It is as if the Almighty had thrown down the pieces of a mosaic from the floor of Heaven and told me to put them together.” When it came to the Fifth, putting the pieces together was not so easy; he assembled and reassembled them for four years as he revised the work several times. It begins mysteriously with an arching theme from the horns, underscored by timpani rolls; in the middle movement listen for a simple motif that highlights pizzicato playing from the strings; the horn theme of the finale was dubbed by Sibelius’s patron Axel Carpelan as “the incomparable swan hymn,” inspired by a breathtaking flight of swans. Sibelius noted in his diary: “Today saw 16 swans…One of the greatest impressions of my life! God, what beauty! They circled over me for a long spell. Disappeared in the solar haze like a silver ribbon.” The ending of the Fifth is surely one of the most glorious, most affirmative expressions in all of Sibelius works and one of the most astonishing: after exultant washes of sound comes a moment of silence followed by six hammered chords, each separated from the next by stunning silences, till the final one brings resolution. “Triumphal,” Sibelius wrote in his diary. And, strange to tell, at the moment of his death, a performance of this symphony was taking place in Helsinki; perhaps, as he envisioned, God’s orchestra was playing the Fifth.