NPR: Performance Today -- Sibelius Symphonies

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Sibelius Symphonies
Composer Jean Sibelius Critic Michael Steinberg, author of The Symphony: A Listener's Guide, joins NPR's Lisa Simeone on a journey through the seven symphonies of the great Finnish composer and symphonist Jean Sibelius (left). Originally aired in August 2002.
The concert performances we'll hear feature the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, led by conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste, recorded in concert in April 200, in Vienna, Austria. Below you'll find Steinberg's commentary with excerpts from the performances, related links, and biographical information on Sibelius.

Related Links Sibelius Bio
Listen to Michael Steinberg's final thoughts on Sibelius

Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 39 (1899, rev. 1900)
Sibelius wrote his First Symphony in 1899, when he was 33 years old and already celebrated as a national hero in Finland. You can hear echoes of some of the musicians who influenced him, notably Bruckner and Tchaikovsky, and hints of the more radical approaches he would take in his later works.
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Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43 (1902)
Sibelius' reputation as a patriotic composer became so great that it began to overshadow his own musical intentions. When his Second Symphony came out, audiences insisted that it too was an expression of Finnish nationalism. The composer, however, disagreed. Michael Steinberg examines the unusual character of this symphony, its lingering restlessness leading to a triumphant finale.
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Listen to the Basic Record Library feature (Originally aired on December 16, 1999)
  • Boston Symphony Orchestra; Sir Colin Davis, conductor; Philips 446157
  • Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra; Paavo Berglund, conductor; EMI CZS 568643 2
  • Royal Philharmonic; Sir John Barbirolli, conductor; Chesky CD003

  • Symphony No. 3 in C Major, Op. 52 (1907)
    When Sibelius presented his Third Symphony for the first time in 1907, it was markedly different from his first two -- and not everyone liked it. We'll hear how he rejected the Romantic style that was so prevalent and wrote a work that was truly ahead of its time.
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    Symphony No. 4 in A Minor, Op. 63 (1911)
    When Sibelius was in his mid-40s, doctors told him that he was going to die. He believed them and, for a while, gave up drinking and smoking and tried to live a clean life. During this time, he wrote his Fourth Symphony, a dark, inward-looking piece that baffled many listeners.
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    Jean Sibelius Listen to the Basic Record Library feature
    (Originally aired on February 25, 1999)
  • Boston Symphony Orchestra; Sir Colin Davis, conductor; Philips 446157
  • New York Philharmonic; Leonard Bernstein, conductor; Sony Classical
  • Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Paavo Berglund, conductor; Finlandia 0630 14951 2

  • Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 82 (1915, rev. 1916 & 1919)
    In 1915, on his 50th birthday, Jean Sibelius conducted a brand-new symphony, his own Fifth. Michael Steinberg describes some of the imagery -- including a musical depiction of swans in flight.
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    Symphony No. 6 in d minor, Op. 104 (1923)
    Sibelius called his Sixth Symphony a "poem." Critic Michael Steinberg calls it the strangest symphony he knows -- elusive, mystifying, but deeply spiritual. Sibelius spans four centuries with this work -- you'll even hear the influence of the great 16th-century composer Giovanni Palestrina.
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    Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105 (1924)
    Sibelius' final symphony reaches toward a Romantic Era ideal of unity: a single-movement work where the composer's ideas align flawlessly with the music as it moves from tempo to tempo.
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    Related Links

  • Speculations on the Eighth Symphony

  • Sibelius Catalogue of Works compiled by Peter de Bode

  • The Sibelius Museum

  • Ainola: The Home of Jean Sibelius from Virtual Finland

  • Jean Sibelius Speaks from Virtual Finland

  • Jean Sibelius Page from Classical Net

  • A Jean Sibelius Web Site

  • Essays on Sibelius

  • Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra Web Site

  • Conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste Bio (From Virtual Finland)

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    Jean Sibelius
    Jean Sibelius
    Born 1865, Hämeenlinna, Finland; Died 1957, Järvenpää, Finland

    Born Johan Julius Christian Sibelius to Swedish parents, Sibelius became Finland's leading composer and one of its greatest national figures through the composition of such patriotic works as the Kullervo Symphony (1892) -- a cantata based on Finnish mythology -- and the tone poem Finlandia (1899). His music helped to unify and inspire a country struggling for independence from Tsarist Russia and helped to put Finland on the map.

    Sibelius' early inspiration came from his studies at the Finnish Normal School, the first Finnish-speaking (rather than Swedish or Latin) school in the country. There his imagination was sparked by Finnish mythology (Kalevala) and literature. Sibelius' main interest growing up was music; he began piano studies at age 9, and picked up the violin at age 15.

    After a year of studying law at the University of Helsinki, he decided to devote his life and career to music. While Sibelius' ambition was to become a concert violinist, Martin Wegelius, a professor and founder of the Helsinki Conservatory (now known as the Sibelius Academy), guided him in composing instrumental and chamber music. After four years at the conservatory, Sibelius went on to study in Berlin and Vienna. Upon his return to Finland in 1892, the first performance of Kullervo brought him instant fame. Later, his seven symphonies would establish him as one of the greatest symphonists of all time.