One of his final major works, the Seventh is the most characteristic of the composer: his most inscrutable and ambiguous, the culmination of his tendency to compress, condense, and refine his musical thought.
In this symphony, he often starts melodies on the note above or below the key note, a tension-creating device used by composers since the 1500s to signify longing or sorrow.
Sibelius created a unique orchestral sound, partly by the way he scored the strings. Instead of the usual five parts (two violins, viola, cello, and bass), he divides them into as many as ten parts, resulting in great complexity and unexpected tonal colors.
Although the Symphony is in a single movement, it fits neither the mold of a sonata movement, nor that of a four-movement structure linked without pause. As usual, Sibelius went his own way.
Length: c. 22 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (both = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 3, 1938, Otto Klemperer conducting
"Have 'in my head' Symphonies VI and VII. As well as the revision of Symph. V." This note in Sibelius' diary on December 18, 1917 is the first explicit mention of the Seventh Symphony. The last one is from March 2, 1924: "Ready with 'Fantasia sinfonica I' in the night." It is not possible to follow the genesis of this work as closely as that of the two preceding ones, since Sibelius' diary notes drastically decrease in number in the 1920s. But as early as 1915 there is, among the sketches for the Fifth Symphony, melodic material that finally ended up in the Seventh. The process from the first sketches to the final score took at least eight years.
Sibelius first had a work of several movements in mind, but, in the summer of 1923, when the intense final phase of composition began, he had already decided that there will be one movement only. Hence the name 'Fantasia sinfonica I'. The work was premiered by that name on March 24, 1924 in Stockholm. The composer conducted the orchestra of the Concert Society, and other works in the program were the First Symphony, Op. 39 (1899/1900) and the Violin Concerto, Op. 47 (1904/05). The work's name still was the same, when he conducted it next time, on October 1 in Copenhagen, but after that performance he came to the conclusion that it was a symphony after all, in spite of its being in one movement.
The Roman ordinal I after the 'Fantasia sinfonica' points to the fact that he had at least one other work of the same kind in mind. This other work was either the symphonic poem Tapiola, Op. 112 (1926) or, possibly, Symphony No. 8, on which he worked until he burnt the manuscript, unfinished, in the 1940s.
"I intend to let the musical ideas and their development in my mind determine the form." Sibelius' diary entry from May 8, 1912 does not refer to the Seventh Symphony, but it probably describes the form of this work better than any other explanation. The very first musical idea that ended up in this work is an 'Adagio theme' of which there are many drafts in the composer's sketchbook. This theme and its variants, of which there are two slightly different families, grow so important in all three main sections (Adagio, Vivacissimo, and Allegro moderato) of the Symphony that their developments indeed determine the form. The most spectacular variant of this germinal idea is the majestic C-major trombone theme, heard for the first time after the hymn-like string polyphony of the Adagio section that Serge Koussevitzky called "Sibelius' Parsifal."
- Dr. Ilkka Oramo is Professor of Music Theory at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki.