Work: Symphony no 3 in C major, Op. 52
About This Work
Jean Sibelius' reputation rests more squarely on the shoulders of his orchestral music than does that of almost any other major composer. He is certainly one of the most important symphonic composers to emerge in the post-Beethoven era, and yet one
can make no sweeping statement in which all of his seven essays in the form are summed up concisely. While his highly individual techniques of motivic development and interconnection are present, to some degree, in the pair of popular and unabashedly lush symphonies with which he began his explorations of symphonic form, it is arguably with the Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52, that Sibelius' powers first display themselves in full regalia.
The Third Symphony is occasionally referred to as the "English" Symphony, because of Sibelius' extended trip to Britain in late 1905 which seems to have affected to some degree the outlines of the still-gestating work. Completed by 1907, it is a work whose lean textures, orchestration, and dimensions continue to be disconcerting to listeners whose familiarity with the composer comes from the thicker, more epic Second Symphony.
The Symphony commences with a vigorously rhythmic statement by the lower strings. The primary "theme" is really an assortment of related (but at this point still disconnected) motivic fragments: the opening idea in the cellos and basses, a following sprightly woodwind tune, a dotted figure in the violins, and a noble idea in triplets first asserted by the horns and woodwinds as the opening passage reaches its climax. Sibelius makes a sudden dramatic shift to B minor to begin his secondary theme material. However, this fine cello melody soon disintegrates into running sixteenth notes that derive from the sprightly woodwind tune mentioned above. Sibelius cunningly overlaps the development and recapitulation. Now, after a slightly extended presentation of the opening motivic group, the second theme is played out in E minor against a harsh, fortissimo woodwind background. Once again the running sixteenths ensue, but before they have a chance to take over completely Sibelius makes another unusual transition, this time to a noble coda.
Even more interesting is the second movement, marked Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto and set in the key of G sharp minor. The gentle, fragmented dance tune first presented, quite shyly (pianissimo dolce), by the flutes, is perfect in its blend of gracefulness and melancholy. As this theme plays out Sibelius makes effective use of a brief connecting figure in the clarinets and of an attractive cross-rhythm. The elaborated repetition of all this material winds down to a mournful G sharp minor close to prepare the way for a schizophrenic central section.
Formally speaking, the Finale is entirely unprecedented: it cannot be described as any of the standard forms, and, indeed, it seems in many ways to defy even the very principles on which those forms were originally based. This energetic movement takes some time to get moving, first running through some scherzando string passages and a brief reprise of the second movement tune before finally arriving at the steady Allegro eighth notes that will carry the rest of the movement. After a thrilling climax in A flat major, a new and robust theme emerges in the lower strings. Soon this idea comes to dominate the proceedings, and little thought is given either to any other material or, indeed, save for two brief digressions to E minor, to any triad other than C major. The motoric drive persists to the very end.
-- Blair Johnston
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