Symphony No. 3 (Sibelius)

Symphony No. 3
by Jean Sibelius

Sibelius in 1907 at his house Ainola, where he lived from 1904
Key C major
Catalogue Op. 52
Composed 1907 (1907)

The Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52, by Jean Sibelius is a symphony in three movements composed in 1907. Coming between the romantic intensity of Sibelius's first two symphonies and the more austere complexity of his later symphonies, it is a good-natured, triumphal, and deceptively simple-sounding piece. The symphony's first performance was given by the Helsinki Philharmonic Society, conducted by the composer, on 25 September 1907. In the same concert, his suite from the incidental music to Belshazzar's Feast, Op. 51, was also performed for the first time.

The first recording featured the Finnish conductor Robert Kajanus and the London Symphony Orchestra, for the HMV label in January 1934.


The Third symphony represents a turning point in Sibelius's symphonic output. His First and Second symphonies are grandiose Romantic and patriotic works. The Third, however, shows a distinct, almost Classical desire to contain the largest amount of musical material in the fewest possible melodic figures, harmonies, and durations. This musical economy is most apparent in the first movement, almost reminiscent of Beethoven in its clear and cleanly developed sections. A typical performance runs slightly under half an hour.


The piece is scored for an orchestra including 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (in B and A), 2 bassoons, 4 horns (in F), 2 trumpets (in B), 3 trombones, timpani, and strings.


  1. Allegro moderato (in C major)
  2. Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto (in G-sharp minor)
  3. Moderato – Allegro ma non tanto (in C major)

1. Allegro moderato

 \relative c { \clef bass \time 4/4 \tempo "Allegro moderato" r2 c16\p c c c b8 a | g r g(-. g-.) a16 a a a b8 g | a }

The symphony opens with a strident and rhythmic melody in the cellos and double basses, after the announcement of which the brass and the remaining strings enter the scene in turn. The C-F tritone, which plays such an important role in both this and the next symphony, is clearly articulated and emphasised as early as the beginning of bar 15 by a rinforzando marking.

 \relative c'' { \clef treble \time 4/4 \partial 8*1 e16\f( a | g8) b,16( a g8-.) g-. c4.( d8 | e) }

A lilting, almost folk-like flute solo gives way to a triumphant horn call over brush-like strings in the first of three major climaxes in the first movement.

 \relative c'' { \clef treble \time 4/4 g2~\f g8 fis4(\sf g8) | << { e8 d4(\sf e8) c b4(\sf c8) | g2. r4 | a'2~ a8 } \\ { r2 \times 2/3 { r4 e,-> g-> } | \times 2/3 { c-> g-> c-> } \times 2/3 { e-> c-> e-> } | a,2~ a8 } >> }

After this rush of sound, the gentle serenity of the opening is recalled by the cellos once again, but this time in a more vulnerable and sostenuto manner in the more remote key of B minor.

 \relative c' { \clef bass \time 4/4 \key g \major d1~\mp\< | d2~ d8\! cis4->(\> d8 | b4)\! r r8 cis4(\< d8 | e2.)\! d16(\> e) d-. cis-.\! | b4 }

From this point, the music gently winds down. Then, a succession of woodwind instruments recall the second cello melody over soft string scales, which repeatedly recall the opening of the movement. The tension grows and finally explodes into the opening theme, underscored by timpani, and the violins flit their way over a pulsating cushion of brass-and-woodwind chorales and offbeat pizzicatos in the cellos. The flute theme is once again recalled, and the second cello theme is finally brought to life by the entire orchestra; played in the string section, the timpani and woodwind provide rhythmic material while more brass chorales are sustained throughout the section.

The music once again winds down, but this time, before it is let go completely, a glorious flute and horn chorale lead into more recollections of past themes, which have the last word before this phenomenal movement closes in a manner that is brilliant in its simplicity: two two-chord "Amen" cadences (plagal cadences) in E minor (a chord of A minor followed by a chord of E minor), which, because there is no F in either chord, leave the F-F dichotomy (set up by the C-F tritone near the beginning of the work) unresolved;

 \relative c''' { r2 <c a c, a>2\mf | <e b e, b g e>1~\> | <e b e, b g e>4.\!\p r8 <c, a>2\pp | <e b g e>1\fermata }

this dichotomy is then finally resolved (for the time-being at least) by a single plagal cadence in C (F major, then C major).

 { \new PianoStaff << \new Staff \relative c'' { \clef treble <c f,>1\fermata\f | <c e,>\fermata\f } \new Staff \relative c' { \clef bass <a c, f,>1\fermata | <g c, c,>1\fermata } >> }

2. Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto

The opening of the second movement is a nocturne, a movement of supreme clarity and austere romantics, seemingly contradictory, but immediately accessible; the first section almost waltzes out of the pervading darkness, but, in a constrained manner, the music refuses to do so.

 \relative c'' { \clef treble \time 6/4 \key b \major \tempo "Andantino con motto, quasi allegretto" \partial 4*2 <b gis>4(\p <cis ais> | <dis b>8)[ r <dis b>] r <gis b>4~\> <gis b>8\! r << { fis( e) e( dis) } \\ { ais8 r ais r } >> | <dis b>2( <b gis>4) }

Commentators disagree over exactly what form the structure of this movement represents; however the four appearances of the theme with developmental episodes suggest a kind of rondo. After the extended introduction, a brief moment of lightness gives way to the string section taking over the theme, with woodwinds and horns providing masterful, touching comments. The music is propelled to the end by perpetual cello pizzicatos, and then the second movement ends in several string pulses where the midnight waltz grinds to a halt in which the tune is still almost recognizable.

3. Moderato

The last movement is really two movements compacted into a single finale. Sibelius described it as 'the crystallisation of chaos'. The opening contains thematic fragments from previous material and of material yet to come.

 \relative c''' { \clef treble \time 6/8 \tempo "Moderato" << { g2.~( | g4.~ g4 f8) | e( d c) b( c) \times 2/3 { d16( e d } | c8) } \\ { g2.~\fp | g~ | g4. f( | e8 } >> }

A hushed, tense scherzo breaks into a triumphant chorale (with prominent C-F tritone) which is repeated several times.

 { \new PianoStaff << \new Staff \relative c' { \clef treble <d fis,>2-> <d fis,>-> | <d fis,>8 <e c g> <e c g>2 } \new Staff \relative c { \clef bass c1~ | c4. r8 s4 } >> }

The coda brings the chorale-type theme into greater and greater expanses, until at long last the symphony concludes in a compendium of the chorale theme and a rush of string figures and woodwind scales. The cadence brings the piece to an almost abrupt halt with a single, arpeggiated C major triad in the brass. The piece is relatively short, usually lasting about 31 minutes.

References and further reading

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