Symphony No. 4 (Sibelius)

Symphony No. 4
by Jean Sibelius

Sibelius in 1913. Some commentators have felt that the tensions of the Fourth Symphony reflect the atmosphere of Europe in the period leading to the First World War
Key A minor
Catalogue Op. 63
Composed 1910 (1910)–11

The Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63, is one of seven completed symphonies composed by Jean Sibelius. Written between 1910 and 1911, it was premiered in Helsinki on 3 April 1911 by the Philharmonia Society, with Sibelius conducting.


It is scored for an orchestra including 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (in Bb and A), 2 bassoons, 4 horns (in F and E), 2 trumpets (in F and E), 3 trombones, timpani, glockenspiel or/and tubular bells, and strings.


The work comprises four movements:

I. Tempo molto moderato, quasi adagio (in A minor / ambiguous key)
II. Allegro molto vivace (in F major / ambiguous key)
III. Il tempo largo (in ambiguous key / C-sharp minor)
IV. Allegro (in A major / ambiguous key, ending in A minor)

For this work Sibelius reversed the traditional classical positions of the second and third movements, placing the slow movement as the third. He also begins the piece with a slow movement instead of the traditional fast opening movement (this is the same order as many baroque orchestral works). A typical performance lasts between 35–40 minutes.

The interval of the tritone dominates the melodic and harmonic material of the piece, but in a completely different way from how it dominates the Third Symphony. It is stated immediately, in a dark phrase for cellos, double basses and bassoons, rising C-D-F-E over a hard unison C.

 \relative c { \clef bass \tempo "Tempo molto moderato, quasi adagio" << { c,8 (d4 fis e fis8~ | fis4) e4. fis } \\ { c1~\ff | c1 } >> }

Most of the themes of the symphony involve the tritone; in the finale, much of the harmonic tension arises from a collision between the keys of A minor and E major, a tritone apart. The bitonal clash between A and E in the finale's recapitulation leads to tonal chaos in the coda, in which the rival notes C, A, E and F (that is, the interlocking tritone pairs C-F, A-E) each strive for ascendancy in a series of grinding dissonances with many clashes between major and minor thirds.

 { \new PianoStaff << \new Staff \relative c'''' { \clef treble \key a \major \time 2/2 \tempo "Allegro" r4^"glocken." a\mf b cis | b1 | R1 } \new Staff \relative c { \clef bass \time 2/2 \key a \major R1 | r4^"timp." e-.\p e-. e-. | a,1\trill } >> }

The glockenspiel pathetically attempts to hail the momentary establishment of A major; but in the end it is the insistence of C natural (the note with which the work so strikingly began) that forces the movement and the symphony to close in a desolate A minor, bereft of melody and rhythm.[1]

Many commentators have heard in the symphony evidence of struggle or despair. Harold Truscott writes, "This work ... is full of a foreboding which is probably the unconscious result of ... the sensing of an atmosphere which was to explode in 1914 into a world war."[2] Sibelius also had recently endured terrors in his personal life: in 1908, in Berlin, he had a cancerous tumour removed from his throat. Timothy Day writes that "the operation was successful, but he lived for many years in constant fear of the tumour recurring, and from 1908 to 1913 the shadow of death lay over his life."[3] Other critics have heard bleakness in the work: one early Finnish critic, Elmer Diktonius, dubbed the work the Barkbröd symphony,[4] referring to the famine in the previous century during which starving Scandinavians had had to eat bark bread to survive.

According to the biographer Erik W. Tawaststjerna, the Symphony reflects the psychoanalytical and introspective era when Sigmund Freud and Henri Bergson stressed the meaning of the unconscious,[5] and he calls the Fourth Symphony "one of the most remarkable documents of the psychoanalytical era."[6] Even Sibelius himself called his composition "a psychological symphony".[7] His brother, the psychiatrist Christian Sibelius (1869–1922), was one of the first scholars to discuss psychoanalysis in Finland.

In the year before beginning the symphony, Sibelius had met many of his contemporaries in central Europe, including Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, and others; his encounter with their music provoked a crisis in his own compositional life. He said in a letter to his friend (and biographer) Rosa Newmarch about the symphony: "It stands as a protest against present-day music. It has absolutely nothing of the circus about it." Later, when asked about the symphony, he quoted August Strindberg: "Det är synd om människorna" (One feels pity for human beings).

The symphony briefly had a nickname, "Lucus a non lucendo".[8]


  1. Lionel Pike, pp. 106–13
  2. Harold Truscott, p. 98.
  3. Timothy Day, p. 6
  4. Parmet, Simon (1962). Sävelestä sanaan: Esseitä, p. 94. Helsinki: WSOY.
  5. Tawaststjerna, Erik (1989). Jean Sibelius 3, pp. 8, 239, 265. Helsinki: Otava. ISBN 951-1-10416-0
  6. Tawaststjerna, Erik (1989). Jean Sibelius 3, p. 265.
  7. Tawaststjerna, Erik (1989). Jean Sibelius 3, p. 239.
  8. March 1, 1913 Musical Times, page 193, review of a 1913 Copenhagen performance.

References and further reading

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