Sibelius wrote to a friend: “After hearing my Third Symphony Rimsky-Korsakov shook his head and said: ‘Why don’t you do it the usual way; you will see that the audience can neither follow nor understand this’.” Such comments summarised much of the critical reaction to this symphony and also to his Fourth. Both works confounded their initial audiences. “Everything was so strange,” was how Finish critic Heikki Klemetti responded after the first performance of the Fourth and both works have remained the least performed in concert of the cycle. However, over time commentators have increasingly recognised the extraordinary strengths in both works and have identified that they are less concerned with pleasing audiences and more concerned with finding a new means of symphonic expression.

When the Third Symphony was first performed in 1907, its restraint, often referred to as ‘classical’, was deeply out of tune with the overblown romanticism/expressionism of its time. A public that had recently experienced the hysterical excesses of Strauss’ Salome were rather underwhelmed by this modest work. Very few commentators saw the piece as a new departure, but rather as a falling off of inspiration after the popular Second Symphony. In hindsight we can see that the Third is in fact the first truly ‘Sibelian’ of his symphonies and many of the innovations in harmonic language, melodic development and formal concision are in evidence here for the first time.

Sibelius, alongside many other composers from the smaller musical nations, was looking at this time to move away from the stylistic influences of the Germanic/French/Russian schools. Like Kodály and Bartók in Hungary, Janáček in Bohemia and Vaughan Williams in England, Sibelius found himself released from the shackles of the likes of Wagner and Tchaikovsky through using his native landscape, mythology and folk music as inspiration. It was in the Third Symphony that he achieved a clean break from those other dominant styles.

The symphony is in three movements, with the last movement in effect a scherzo and finale merged into one. Conservative orchestral forces produce a clarity of texture and Sibelius himself, later in life, said he preferred a small string section to emphasise the transparency of the orchestration.

The C major first movement Allegro moderato is surely one the clearest and most effective sonata form movements since Beethoven, its 20th century credentials evident in the striking modulations and the subtle use of the tritone to create tension.

The slow movement Andante con motto, quasi allegretto, in the remote key of G sharp minor, is one of Sibelius’s most beautiful achievements. The simple main theme returns four times, not varied but subtly embellished, implying a loose Rondo structure. The effect is Schubertian in its melodic grace and poise.

The Moderato final movement starts with scurrying figures and unstable harmonies leading to a climax. The wind down from this outburst sees the gradual emergence of a march-like choral theme which builds to a resplendent climax and ends abruptly but satisfyingly in a simple C major cadence. This transition from the ‘scherzo’ music to the choral is the most miraculous moment in the whole symphony and needs surefooted handling from the conductor to achieve the balance of dignity and excitement it requires. So often not achieved in performance, it can leave the listen feeling unsatisfied and could account for why the symphony hasn’t become as popular as it deserves to be.

Received opinion has been that the darkness that seeps into every note of the Fourth Symphony was directly as a result of the composer having faced death in the shape of a diagnosis of throat cancer, but the reality of its uniquely brooding atmosphere, unique both in the composers output and across the musical world, is more likely a combination of factors. Since composing the Third, Sibelius had travelled across Europe extensively, meeting a number of the leading composers of the time and becoming acquainted with the advances in musical techniques that they were introducing. These challenges to tonality and rhythmic order both fascinated and repelled him and threw him into a crisis about his own direction as a composer. It was as if the symphony was a form of therapy for the composer, a glimpse into the abyss, which in some way enable him to carry on.

The work itself, first performed in 1911, is in a traditional four movement structure, but with the first movement being slow. The extensive use of the tritone, the diabolus in musica, dominates all the movements. The first is an approximate sonata form, its chief strength being the economy of the material used and the bass heavy depth of sounds created by its orchestration. The restless character is further developed in the Allegro molto vivace second movement. Early attempts to lighten the mood are quashed by the increasing presence of the tritone and the movement eventually ends bleakly. The slow movement Largo is again an outstanding creation, but unlike the slow movement f the Third Symphony that paints an idyllic landscape, this is a portrayal of a troubled inner landscape, with only the briefest glimmer of hope at its ecstatic climax. The Allegro finale seems nearer to finding something positive to say, even with the bright addition of the glockenspiel and tubular bells, but the dark forces are not to be quelled. The final climax is nihilistic and the downtrodden coda offers no solutions.

Two symphonies then that have divided opinion, but now, seen as part of the one of the great symphonic cycles, their strength and beauty can be seen to far outweigh any once perceived weaknesses.