About this Piece
Length: c. 35 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, orchestra bells, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 7, 1937, Otto Klemperer conducting
In the years 1909-1911 the Fourth Symphony was Sibelius' first priority. But he was involved in all kinds of other activities as well. He badly needed money to pay his debts and was forced, therefore, to write piano pieces, songs, and incidental music and to review earlier pieces in order to make them ready for print; and he had to host his British mentor Rosa Newmarch, who paid a visit to Finland and stayed almost three weeks; and he had concerts to conduct in Christiania (Oslo), Gothenburg, and Riga.
As if all this was not enough, he accepted a new commission from the star soprano Aino Ackté, who had suggested a joint concert tour in Germany to be arranged by her impresario Emil Gutman, known for his setup of the historical premiere of Mahler's Eighth Symphony in Munich in September 1910. Sibelius was expected to write a new orchestral song to Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven, which he knew in Viktor Rydberg's Swedish translation.
In the autumn of 1910 Sibelius hovered between "The Raven" and the Fourth Symphony, and became more and more irritated at the former. On December 3 he wrote in his diary: "Doubts about the text. Words are always a burden in my composing. Took a look at the Kalevala and it struck me - how I have grown out of this naive poetry." Soon he realized that he had no chance to finish "The Raven" in time for the premiere in February and he backed off: "I have burned my boats and broken with the Gutman circus and Aino Ackté. I will have to take the consequences. I am putting 'The Raven' aside for the time being. Have wasted a month. My soul weeps." He deeply regretted that he had not given the Symphony time to mature.
The prospected premiere had to be postponed to April, since the Symphony was not yet ready when Sibelius embarked on a concert tour at the beginning of February. In Gothenburg he conducted the Second and Third Symphonies and Pohjola's Daughter along with some minor works in two concerts. From Gothenburg he traveled via Berlin to Riga, where he stayed eight days and conducted four concerts (one of them in Mitau). After returning home he noted in his diary: "A whole month (circa) has been taken up by the concert tour and the new small things, what a pity. Poor me!" But he braced himself, and on April 2 he could note: "The symphony is ready. Iacta alea est! It's a must! It calls for much courage to look at life straight in the eyes!!"
"The die is cast!" could refer to the beginning of the first movement (Tempo molto moderato, quasi adagio). Four notes, c-d-f-sharp-e, are cast on the table fortissimo, con sordino, and there is no return. The tritone c-f-sharp creates instability and does not allow the key to settle until the A-minor first theme is heard in the cellos. The tritone furthermore penetrates the whole work, its themes and tonal relationships, as it does in Bartók's opera Duke Bluebeard's Castle from the same year. The second movement (Allegro molto vivace) begins as a playful scherzo, full of grace and high spirits, but the second half of it (Doppio più lento) is gloomy and dramatic, even menacing with its heavy accents. The heart of the symphony is the third movement (Il tempo largo) that can be characterized as 'birth of a theme.' The final movement (Allegro) develops a conflict between two keys, A major and E-flat major, a tritone apart. In this movement, Sibelius also used material from the unfinished orchestral song "The Raven," as if he wanted to say:
And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted - nevermore!
- Dr. Ilkka Oramo is Professor of Music Theory at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki.