No two Sibelius symphonies are alike, in character or in form, and each takes a new symphonic route from that of its predecessor. Cast in a single span lasting little more than 20 minutes, Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony is a miracle of compression and defies conventional analysis. As the great British music critic Ernest Newman succinctly put it in 1932, it has “no first and second, no egg and no chicken, in the matter of the idea and the form: each just is the other”.

Jean Sibelius in 1923
Jean Sibelius in 1923
It has a beginning and an end, but both are unconventional, the beginning rising in a C major scale from a quiet timpani rumble and almost immediately drifting off elsewhere, the end bringing a barely reached resolution that feels both inevitable and hard-won. The essence of the symphony, then, is of struggle, not so much a journey from darkness to light (conductor Colin Davis – ever the morbid pessimist – commented, “The last bar is like closing the coffin lid,”), as a search for the way out of a labyrinth. And it is a labyrinth of Sibelius’ intricate own making that expresses abstract emotions through miraculous musical processes.

Take, for instance, the work’s tonal shape. Although ostensibly in C major, much of the symphony after its first main climax seems to be an evasion of the ‘home’ note of C: it rarely falls on a strong beat and themes and motifs that feature it seem constantly to be trying to drag the music away from it by resolving on the notes either side. Three times an unchanging solo trombone surges out of the texture in an endeavour to assert the key, but only on its final attempt does resolution come, and is even then diverted away again before its last, desperate assertion: relief and fear expressed in the same notes.

Sibelius wasn’t the first composer to attempt a single-movement symphony. Schoenberg, in his First Chamber Symphony of 1906, for instance, had combined all four traditional movements in a continuous, interconnected whole in a manner ultimately derived from Liszt’s B minor Piano Sonata, but those ‘movements’ are all perceptible as entities in themselves. Sibelius’ genius was to combine all these elements – exposition, scherzo, slow movement, finale – into a single span of music such that it has no formal divisions: the music is in a constant state of metamorphosis from the first note to the last. While individual passages may have the character of a scherzo or of a slow movement, it is impossible to say that this is ‘the Scherzo’ or that ‘the Adagio’. Although it has its requisite focus points of climax and of repose, the overriding perception of its form is of continual fluidity, which gives it a sense of symphonic tension unique in the repertoire.

Osmo Vänskä © Greg Helgeson
Osmo Vänskä
© Greg Helgeson
Apart from that trombone tune – “like Sarastro in The Magic Flute,” remarked conductor Osmo Vänskä, “it is always the same” – there are no real ‘themes’ as such. The music seems to progress by osmosis, one motif giving life to the next, though perhaps one can see everything ultimately deriving from that opening C major scale – and outwardly even a gigantic perfect cadence from its opening timpani G to its final C. Given the work’s novelty, it is perhaps no surprise to find that Sibelius originally gave it the title Fantasia sinfonica, as if at first he couldn’t conceive of it taking its place as part of his numbered symphonic canon.

Sibelius began work on the symphony before the Fifth had even reached its final form in 1919, and in parallel with the Sixth, which was premiered early in 1923 and has the preceding opus number. Manuscript sources suggest it took as many as seven years from conception to its première in Stockholm in March 1924. Which makes it an exact contemporary of some very different works – Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin, Puccini’s uncompleted Turandot and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue also date from 1924.

Since the time of Haydn, the symphony had been the central focus of many a composer’s artistic life. But it no longer had the same hold and many of those who persisted – Sibelius, Mahler and Nielsen among them of this generation –  succeeded by taking it in new directions. Moreover, Sibelius paired the abstract symphony with equal success in a medium that might seem its exact opposite, the pictorial tone poem. Indeed, after finishing the Seventh Symphony, he wrote just two more works, both of them some of the most viscerally illustrative music he created: the symphonic poem Tapiola and incidental music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Then, nothing. For another decade or so, Sibelius fought to commit an eighth symphony to paper, but perhaps because the Seventh is such a work of perfection that he didn’t feel he could improve upon, he never allowed any of it to see the light of day. The rest of his time on earth was lived in secluded retirement. He died in 1957, over three decades after the completion of the Seventh, leaving this miracle of a work as the summation of his life’s achievement as a symphonist.