Programme notes – Jean Sibelius – Symphony No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 82

Posted on October 23, 2012


Sibelius’s fifth symphony is one of the most popular large scale masterpieces of the twentieth century. It is the magnificent and elegant result of a complex compositional process ranging from 1912 to 1919 while the spring of a simple musical idea developed into a vast river of sounds. Its first version was commissioned by the Finnish government for the fiftieth birthday of the composer, who was by then a celebrated national personality. It was first performed in Helsinki on 8th December 1915, on Sibelius’s birthday. The symphony was re-written several times later on as a result of the composer’s painstaking self-criticism, a second version was presented in December 1916 by the Orchestra of Turun Soitannollinen Seura in Turku and the final version was premiered by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra on 24th November 1919, conducted by the composer.

The piece belongs to an era of intensive internal external conflicts in the composer’s life. While he was already a national hero in Finland, he underwent several operations on a throat tumour, before he could finish the final version of the piece. Also, in 1918 Sibelius and his family had to leave their home to escape Russian invasion, and took refuge in a psychiatric asylum in Helsinki where they lived in austere conditions. Perhaps to some extent as a result of these circumstances the final version of the piece abounds in contrasting emotions of anxiety and joy. According to the composer’s diary the basic musical motif was inspired by the flight of sixteen swans, that he described as “One of the great experiences of my life! God, how beautiful”. This elegant sequence of notes, which has become known as the “swan motif” seems to float over to constantly pulsating and whirling flow of the music, bringing clarity and an organising force to the whole.

Sibelius : Symphony No.5 in E flat major, Philharmonia Orchestra Ashkenazy

The first movement of the final version of the symphony has emerged from two movements existent in the previous versions, which have been radically re-written. It is essentially based on the traditional sonata form, although the musical material is organised in a more complex and modern fashion compared to nineteenth century symphonies, leaving much room for debate for musicologists. It starts with a slow exposition of the melodic motifs of the piece, which are played out in different tone colours by different instruments. In continuation the musical elements such presented will seamlessly develop into a scherzo Allegro moderato – a most joyful and heart lightening musical sequence – accelerating towards a magnificent final synthesis and clear conclusion of all the musical elements played by the full force of the orchestra.

The second movement is one of theme and variations – a multitude of melodic cells played by the oboe and strings (including playful pizzicato) on a background of shadowy brass harmonies – that take the audience through a variety subtle emotional colours.

The final movement of the symphony is one of the best regarded and most popular symphonic movements ever written. It is characterised by a rich dynamism, built on the interplay of sounds suggestive to different types of movements. There is a pulsating, whirling tremolando and rapid stepwise progression played by strings and taken on later by the woodwind instruments. The swan theme and its variations are displayed gloriously over this agitated background, creating a sensation of flying or floating above a changing landscape. Overall the intensity of the music increases throughout the movement, enhanced by the intervention of the drums, placing this elegant flight in the context of conflicting elements. But how far the dramatic tension of the music can be stretched? What can be end point of this splendid rush? The answer must be somewhere in the silences separating the mysterious last six chords of the piece.

References and interesting links:

Jean Sibelius [online] Wikipedia website. Available from: [Accessed on 23rd October 2012]
Symphony No. 5 (Sibelius) [online] Wikipedia website. Available from: [Accessed on 23rd October 2012]
Freed, R, (2005) [online]. Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82. The Kennedy Center. Available from [Accessed on 23rd October 2012]
Siren Vesa [online]. Fifth symphony op. 82 (1915-1919). Jean Sibelius Website. Available from [Accessed on 23rd October 2012]

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