Program Notes

By Jason Sundram

Symphony #2 in D major, Opus 43 (1901)

Program Notes Home

Sibelius, Jean (Johan) Julius Christian (December 8, 1865–September 20, 1957)

  1. Allegretto
  2. Tempo Andante, ma rubato
  3. Vivacissimo
  4. Finale: Allegro moderato

Dedicated to Baron Axel Carpelan

In 1900, Baron Axel Carpelan wrote to Sibelius and, citing Italy’s positive effects on Tchaikovsky and Strauss, recommended that Sibelius travel there. Depressed by the death of his youngest daughter, Sibelius was helped immensely by his Italian journey. During his stay in Rapallo from February to May 1901, he was able to sketch what would become the second of his seven symphonies. Originally conceived as a four-movement orchestral fantasy, Symphony #2 was assigned a program by Sibelius’s friend, conductor Robert Kajanus.

Sibelius rejected any specific nationalistic or patriotic program assigned to his Symphony #2, although the Finnish character of the work is unquestionable. An ardent Finnish nationalist, Sibelius was a very individual composer. Although he lived well into the twentieth century, his music is not like that of Bartok or Hindemith; Sibelius was a Romanticist who composed in a late nineteenth-century style. However, following a concert of his music in Germany, Sibelius became an international figure and began to respond to currents in contemporary music. The five symphonies after Symphony #2 are marked by thinner orchestration and increased use of dissonance. However, despite his symphonic masterworks, Sibelius did not and could not speak the language of musical modernism. He published no music during the last 30 years of his life and none survives that period.

His musical aesthetic favors the sense-impressions of Symbolism and integration of thematic material, rather than tending to modernist abstraction. The Symbolist idea of tone-painting-–representing the physical world in music-–is apparently one that appealed to Sibelius. In Symphony #2, fjords, icy lakes, and cold wind are images that the listener can’t help experiencing. Kalevala, a Finnish folk-epic, had attracted Sibelius from his youth onwards. His translation of the Kalevala into music via tone-painting is, more than overt nationalism, what gives Symphony #2 its sense of local flavor. It accounts for the mystical and organic character of the music.

Premiered March 8, 1902, the symphony was an instant success. By 1940, Sibelius’s music was all the rage in America. By the time of his death in 1957, his music had all but disappeared. It was “rediscovered” in the 1970s and has remained in the repertoire until the present day.