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Composed: 1901-1902

Length: c. 43 minutes

Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 2, 1921, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting

About this Piece

In March 1900, a couple of months before the first European concert tour of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Sibelius received a letter signed by “X.” X inquired whether Sibelius had considered writing an overture for the concert at the World’s Fair in Paris. He reminded Sibelius of Anton Rubinstein’s fantasy Rossija (Russia) written for the 1889 World’s Fair and declared: “The name of your overture should be Finlandia – shouldn’t it?” It was Mr. X, alias Baron Axel Carpelan, who invented the name of one of Sibelius’ most well-known compositions.

Later the same year Sibelius received another letter: “You have been sitting at home for quite a while, Mr. Sibelius, it is high time for you to travel. You will spend the late autumn and the winter in Italy, a country where one learns cantabile, balance and harmony, plasticity and symmetry of lines, a country where everything is beautiful – even the ugly. You remember what Italy meant for Tchaikovsky’s development and for Richard Strauss.”

Unfortunately, Baron Carpelan was penniless. He had connections, though, and he managed to find a patron who consented to supply funds for Sibelius’ stay in Italy. Sibelius with family left home in October 1900, stayed first for two months in Berlin and continued from there to Italy at the end of January 1901. He hired a mountain villa near Rapallo. Sitting there in his study a literary remembrance suddenly came to his mind: “Jean Paul says somewhere in Flegeljahre that the midday moment has something ominous to it … a kind of muteness, as if nature itself is breathlessly listening to the stealthy footsteps of something supernatural, and at that very moment one feels a greater need for company than ever.”

This image continued to haunt him and he wrote on a sheet of paper the following vision: “Don Juan. Sitting in the twilight in my castle, a guest enters. I ask many times who he is. – No answer. I make an effort to entertain him. He remains mute. Eventually he starts singing. At this time, Don Juan notices who he is – Death.” On the reverse side of the sheet he noted the date 2/19/01 and sketched the melody that became the D-minor bassoon theme of the Tempo andante, ma rubato second movement of the Second Symphony. Two months later, in Florence, he drafted a C-major theme above which he wrote the word ‘Christus.’ This theme became the second theme, in F-sharp major, of the same movement. The former may well stand for death and defeat and the latter for life and resurrection.

There is no evidence of eventual programmatic ideas related to the other movements of the Second Symphony. But immediately after its premiere on March 8, 1902, the Symphony was appropriated as an emblem of national liberation. The hard times the Grand Duchy of Finland was going through during the ‘russification program’ of Tsar Nikolai II in the years 1899-1905 spontaneously invited such an interpretation. But it was Robert Kajanus, founder and conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, who put it in words: “The Andante strikes one as the most broken-hearted protest against all the injustice that threatens at the present time to deprive the sun of its light and our flowers of their scent. … The scherzo gives a picture of frenetic preparation. Everyone piles his straw on the haystack, all fibers are strained and every second seems to last an hour. One senses in the contrasting trio section with its oboe motive in G-flat major what is at stake. The finale develops towards a triumphant conclusion intended to rouse in the listener a picture of lighter and confident prospects for the future.”

Sibelius categorically denied any such programmatic readings, claiming that his symphonies are pure absolute music. Nevertheless, there are scholars who firmly believe in the Symphony’s political connotations. The controversy, however, is not very productive, since it cannot be solved; and even if there was a secret program in the composer’s mind at the time he composed the Symphony, the reception of it as a work of art does not require any knowledge of it.

— Ilkka Oramo