Sibelius: Symphony No. 5

For anyone looking for a metric by which to judge when you’ve truly made it in the world, look no further than the genesis of Jean Sibelius’ 5th Symphony: when you are paid by the government to produce your own birthday present, to celebrate the newly declared national holiday of your birth, you have arrived. However, popularity did little for Sibelius’ inner turmoil, or to soften the blow of the war on the horizon. He finished the first version of the piece in time for its premiere on his 50th birthday, the 8th of December 1915.

The fact that the version premiered in 1915 is was radically different than the one heard in concert halls today comes down to the fact that Sibelius had a streak of self-criticism deeper and more vicious than perhaps any other major composer. Many blame this harshness for his complete withdrawal from publicly publishing or even talking about his music for the last thirty years of his life: after his seventh symphony, he told his friends that “If I cannot write a better symphony than my Seventh, then it shall be my last.” Apparently he couldn’t; he destroyed what he had produced of an Eighth symphony in what his wife Aino described as “a great auto-da-fe” of manuscripts, which he burned in a laundry basket in the dining room.

Luckily he had not yet reached the point of total destruction at the point that he wrote the Fifth; instead, he revised it into a very different piece, condensing the four movements of the first version into three and replacing the old finale with a new one. Given what was going on in his life during the period of the revisions, it would have been understandable if Sibelius had produced a work similar in tone to his bleak, interior, and frankly upsetting Fourth symphony. Because of the First World War, Sibelius lost all of the revenue from his German publisher, Breitkopf and Härtel. Then, in 1917, the Bolsheviks took power in Russia and Finland declared long-awaited independence from Russia, kicking off a civil war. Many of his friends were killed, his brother was arrested, and his house was searched twice by the pro-Soviet Red Guard; consequently, Sibelius and his family took refuge in an insane asylum in Helsinki.

But the fifth symphony is not an expression of abject circumstances. It is, instead, a transcendence of them. Although Sibelius threw out much of the musical content of his original concept of the work, he held tight to one image, recorded in his diary in 1915: “Today at ten to eleven I saw 16 swans. One of my greatest experiences. Lord God, that beauty!” The mystical nature of the swans ties in with the other reason he was so intent on getting the symphony right: “It is as if God Almighty had thrown down pieces of a mosaic for heaven’s floor,” he said, “and asked me to find out what was the original pattern.” A sacred mandate, the swans bridging the gap between the squalidity of war on Earth and the perfection of the divine– no wonder Sibelius was so intent on leaving behind the most perfect possible version of the Fifth symphony. It stands today as one of Sibelius’ most popular symphonies, a monument to the triumph of spirit over circumstance.