3 - 5 May '21

Tour VI
3 - 5 May '21

BBC Symphony Orchestra


Concert dates and locations


Programme Bern

When Jean Sibelius' Fourth Symphony was first performed in Helsinki in 1911, it caused a certain stir. "The piece came as a shock to the public," recalled witnesses at the time, adding that "this ascetic and austere symphony remained incomprehensible." In his diary, Jean Sibelius himself had announced a "change of style," although he added a question mark to this statement. His confrontation with modern music - Debussy, Mahler and Schönberg - that followed his Third Symphony had obviously left its mark. An autumn trip to North Karelia was the trigger for the new composition. "One of the greatest impressions of my life," Sibelius wrote after the ascent of Mount Koli, adding: "Plans". Sketches for a symphonic poem entitled "The Mountain" followed immediately, before being incorporated into the symphony. An unfinished orchestral melody based on Poe's "The Raven" also provided the new work with thematic material. Even more decisive than these extra-musical references to nature and poetry are the new compositional processes. These are what really make it possible to speak of a change of style. In his Fourth Symphony, Sibelius no longer worked with themes, but with short motives that he continuously varied and developed and with an augmented fourth interval (tritone) which characterises all the movements. He also made use of elements that break with tonality, such as tonal scales or bitonality. No wonder that this "spiritualised" music (according to Sibelius) had difficulty being accepted by its contemporaries. Today, Sibelius' "Fourth" is considered to be a remarkable example of an individual symphonic contribution on the threshold of modernity.
The Second Symphony quickly became one of Jean Sibelius' most popular compositions. With its easy-to-remember melodies, its initially pastoral and finally almost heroic character, this works seems to be a counter-proposal to the harsh and hermetic Fourth Symphony. The first and third movements owe their bright and friendly colours to Sibelius' stay in Italy in 1901, during which a large part of the symphony was written. The melancholy of the slow movement, on the other hand, could be related to the oppressive situation in Finland, which was then still under Russian rule. Finnish critics, in particular, did not hesitate to draw a parallel between the symphony's mood curve and the political situation: happy past - lamenting the present - rebellion - liberation. Before the country's independence (1917), such interpretations were frequent and up to 1945, the Second Symphony was referred to as "Finland's Fight for Freedom". But as is so often the case with Sibelius, the matter is more complicated. The composer himself admitted that he had been artistically inspired by the South and that this source of inspiration flowed into his new work: he had become "a completely different person in this beauty and warmth", he wrote during his stay in Rome. On the other hand, his private life was still full of contradictions. His growing artistic success was offset by financial worries, while the support offered by his family was overshadowed by his daughter Ruth's dangerous typhoid fever. Politically, Sibelius was, of course, an advocate of the Finnish cause, but he did not allow himself to be instrumentalised. Although all these different experiences left their mark on the Second Symphony, it is indeed an autonomous work that tells its very own story.

Programme Geneva

From the end of the 19th century onwards, Sibelius was at the forefront of the Finnish nationalist movement. His works based on Nordic mythologies earned him the appreciation of the Finnish State: the musician was awarded a lifetime grant which enabled him to compose with complete peace of mind. Sibelius put most of his creativity into his symphonic music, which he questioned throughout his career. His Fifth Symphony, commissioned by the Finnish government, originated from scattered sketches that Sibelius gathered "like mosaic pieces that God would have thrown down from heaven". A first version of the symphony, in four movements, was successfully premiered in December 1915 at a concert celebrating the composer's 50th birthday, but Sibelius was not yet satisfied. The following year, he presented a second version in which he had merged the first two movements. In a third attempt to improve the symphony, Sibelius further expanded the slow movement with variations and refined the finale. "I struggled with God," he noted in his diary in April 1919, before making his last adjustments. Sibelius himself conducted this final version at the first performance in Helsinki in October 1921. This highly original Symphony in E-flat major has since found its place in the symphonic repertoire, where it remains one of Sibelius' most famous works.
With its subtle shades, tonal ambiguities and persistent tranquillity, Sibelius's Sixth Symphony is somewhat overshadowed by other works in the Finnish composer's symphonic output. This piece competes neither with the summits of the Fifth Symphony or the freshness and tension of the Third. It does, however, have an intimacy that the English composer and conductor Constant Lambert considered to be "much more revealing of the true Sibelius, just as Beethoven's Fourth and Eighth Symphonies are more authentically Beethovenian than the popular odd-numbered symphonies." Sibelius drafted out his Sixth Symphony in 1919 and then devoted four years to it, before conducting the first performance on 19 February 1923 in Helsinki. The score includes two unusual instruments: the harp and the bass clarinet. The latter appears nowhere else in the composer's symphonic output. Sibelius' choice of D minor actually defines a D Dorian mode rather than a minor key and is a tribute to the much-admired Renaissance composer Palestrina. The first movement is characteristic of the composer's "non-thematic" style; he took some distance from the classic sonata form by omitting to introduce a second theme. The four-note descending motive serves as a "mother cell" that further influences the entire work. The symphony unfolds in a serene atmosphere until the final Allegro molto, where the work's only genuinely dramatic moment appears.
Between 1920 and 1925, Sibelius added four major works to his output: the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, the incidental music The Tempest and the tone poem Tapiola. An Eighth Symphony did not survive: the composer undoubtedly destroyed the manuscript in a moment of doubt, before retreating into silence for the last thirty years of his life, which came to an end a few months before his 92nd birthday. At its first public performance in Stockholm on 24 March 1924, Sibelius' Seventh Symphony was presented as a Fantasia Sinfonica. The work's construction in one single movement, with alternating slow and fast episodes, justified this title. The subtle transitions make it, however, impossible to delimit each of the symphony's sections. The work is based on three main ideas, which are outlined in the powerful slow introduction. Another element running throughout the work - in a very diverse and often unrecognizable manner - is the sequence of two descending (D-C) or ascending (B-C) notes. The C major is the culmination Sebelius' whole creative life. Il also sums up the composer's symphonic style, such as Mahler had already defined it in 1907 during a visit to Helsinki: "I admire Sibelius' style, as well as the severity of the form and the profoundly logical unity between all the motives.»

Programme Zurich

The growing recognition that Jean Sibelius enjoyed as Finland's national composer began in the 1890s with works such as the choral symphony "Kullervo", the symphonic poem "En Saga" and the "Lemminkäinen Suite" based on texts or in the spirit of the Kalevala epic. At that time, Finland was still under Russian rule; it was not until 1917 that the country gained its independence. When Tsar Nicholas radically curtailed the country's autonomy in 1899, there was passive resistance everywhere. Sibelius' tone poem "Finlandia" became a highly acclaimed musical accompaniment. To judge the work solely from this angle would not, however, do justice to the composer. At the same time, Sibelius wrote his First Symphony, in which individual traits and the continuation of European traditions overshadow national pathos. Echoes of composers whom the Finnish musician admired, such as Tchaikovsky (Andante), Grieg (first movement), or Bruckner (Scherzo) are undeniably perceptible. The symphony opens with a clarinet theme: which with its long breath and hesitant approach, this motif is a typical example of Sibelius' style. The opening also serves as the nucleus for virtually all of the themes of the symphony. In the Symphony op. 39, Sibelius works with the smallest motivic cells, which he continually transforms and reassembles according to his artistic motto: "A symphony must have rigour, style and logic in its structure, so as to create an inner connection between all the motifs". Or, more generally said: "Music begins where the words end."
The symphonies of Jean Sibelius allegedly reflect the personal situation of their creator, made up of crises, new departures, nationalist fervour and withdrawal. In the Third Symphony (1904-07), this relationship seems to be particularly perceptible. The work was conceived at a time when Sibelius, then 40 years old, was successful both in his homeland and abroad. The composer also benefited from this recognition in his private life. In 1904 the Sibelius family moved into a country house near Järvenpää, about an hour away from Helsinki. This is where large parts of the new work were composed. Anyone looking for traces of this biographical consolidation in the symphony will soon find them. The work is written in C major, comprises three movements, begins with a lively little dance music and generally tends towards neo-classicism rather than the pathetic late-Romantic gesture of the two previous symphonies. Is Sibelius turning his back on what has proven its worth, shunning the risk? Quite the opposite! In detail, the Third Symphony contains many new and unusual elements but presents them in a more friendly way than the other symphonies. Formally, for example, Sibelius hardly ever sticks to established guidelines. In the first movement, the contrast between development and recapitulation is overlaid by a long crescendo. The second piece is a mixture of slow movement and scherzo, while the Finale refuses to be formally constrained. Sophisticated sound treatment, use of foreign tonalities and constant metamorphoses of the raw thematic material give this music an improvised touch.

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Good to know

At the heart of British musical life since its foundation in 1930, the BBC Symphony Orchestra plays a central role in the BBC Proms. It performs around a dozen concerts at the festival each year, including the First and Last Night concerts. The BBC Symphony Orchestra also presents its own annual season at London's Barbican Centre, where it is Associate Orchestra. The ensemble has a strong commitment to 20th-century and contemporary music: recent commissions and premieres have included works by Philip Cashian, Anna Clyne, Brett Dean, George Walker and Raymond Yiu. It is also involved in innovative education work, with ongoing projects including family concerts and projects for young audiences. Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo has been Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra since 2013. The orchestra also works regularly with Semyon Bychkov, who holds the Günter Wand Conducting Chair, and Conductor Laureate Sir Andrew Davis. In July 2019, the young Finnish-Ukrainian musician Dalia Stasevska was appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

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