Jean Sibelius: The Seven Symphonies

Jean Sibelius: The Seven Symphonies

Written by Ernst Müller

Copper has an exchange program with AAA (Analogue Audio Association) magazine of Switzerland (and other publications), where we share articles, including this one.


The composer Sibelius (1865 – 1857) has given his native country a firm place in the world of music. His fame began with the tone poem "Finlandia," which was performed in 1900 as Finland's contribution to the Paris World Exhibition. The composer's sense of home is reflected here. The world of Finnish legends, nature and national myths were always his sources of inspiration.

Musicologists long regarded Sibelius as an outmoded composer, even to this day, because he stuck to composing in major and minor keys at a time of upheaval. The fact that he had his own musical language has been overlooked. This article aims to provide more details by discussing his seven symphonies.

Sibelius came from a Finnish-Swedish family. He spoke Swedish at home. Finnish was his first foreign language. (Finland was part of Sweden until around 1800 and subsequently a Grand Duchy in the Russian Empire until independence in 1917.) When Sibelius was three years old, his father died. At the age of 20 he began to study music, attended the Helsinki Music Institute, and became friends with its founder Martin Wegelius. He also was a friend of the Italian pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni, who put him in touch with a group of young artists. It was here that he met the writer and representative of the "Young Finland" group, Juhani Aho, as well as the writer Arvid Järnefelt and his brother, the composer Armas Järnefelt. Their sister Aino later became his wife. They had six daughters. In 1904, the family moved into Villa Ainola in Järvenpää on Lake Tuusula, 38 kilometers from Helsinki. Several artists lived nearby.

In his life, the composer often stood in his own way. His character was complicated and brought him in jeopardy. Particularly in his younger years, an excessive lifestyle led to health and financial problems. Sibelius was equally prone to splurging and melancholy. Because of his heavy tobacco consumption, he had to have a throat tumor removed. Alcohol, a lavish lifestyle and the construction of Villa Ainola left him in debt. It was only in 1927 that he was free of debt for the first time. He completed his last composition in 1931. In the years that followed, he struggled with the composition of an Eighth Symphony, which he had promised to the conductor Serge Koussevitzky. But he burned the manuscript a few years later. He did not publish any more compositions in the last 26 years of his life. Sibelius died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Ainola in 1957 at the age of 92.



Ainola, Jean Sibelius' house in Järvenpää. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Paasikivi.


A Musical Language With Recognition Value

In musicology, the discussion arises every now and then: can Sibelius' compositional style be considered backward and outmoded? Is there anything to be gained – as the German avant-garde did – from the questionable comment by Theodor W. Adorno in 1938, who discredited Sibelius as a musical bungler who "sets up some completely inelastic and trivial tone sequences as themes" in his work? Or is it appropriate, on the other hand, to see in the composer's more "progressive" works the beginnings of the minimalist music of a Steve Reich or the finely-chiseled polyphony of a György Ligeti?

Such questions seem absurd to me. I would like to suggest a different approach: it is a fact that many music lovers who know individual works by the composer can assign them to Sibelius when they hear other works. Sibelius therefore had his own musical language with recognition value. Sibelius' music is heavy-blooded and yet healthily distinctive. It seems as if he describes the dark beauties of nature with both a harsh coloration and a calming rhythm. In 1911, Sibelius wrote: "My music has nothing, absolutely nothing of a ‘circus.’ What I have to offer is clear, cold water." Sibelius did not want to reorganize tonal structures or, like the twelve-tone composers, dissolve them into atonality; he simply wanted to explore them to their limits. He did this in his symphonies by constructing and developing them as a harmonic unity. In the first two symphonies, he did this in broad, late-Romantic sounds and in the traditional four movements. In the last symphony, he found a concentrated form in one movement. At the time of Sibelius, composers as diverse as Claude Debussy and Richard Strauss were polemical about the formulaic constraints of the symphony genre; Sibelius' symphonies are strict in form and structure.

The radical aesthetics of nature that can be heard in his works stands in contrast to the progress of civilization. The fascination of the sounds set in Nordic landscapes may associate with natural beauty, but it has an underground aura, as if one were on the edge of civilization. There is the composer's sensorium to recognize himself in mystical elements of nature and the world. For the unprejudiced listener, this may seem like gazing melancholically into vast Finnish landscapes. And that brings us to the recognition value. It is this individual sound that has brought the composer's works the respect they earned in recent decades. 

Early Recordings

The first recordings of the symphonies were made as early as the shellac era, between 1932 and 1934. Robert Kajanus (Symphonies 1, 2, 3 and 5) and Serge Koussevitzky (Symphony No. 7) made recordings with English orchestras. These can be heard on two double LPs from World Records, although they are not recommended as an introduction to the symphonies. But listeners already familiar with the symphonies will be fascinated by the brisk, even "modern" interpretation of the Third Symphony with conductor Robert Kajanus, for example.

Complete Recordings of All Symphonies

There are eight complete recordings of all the Sibelius symphonies, all from the analog era. The earliest is that by Anthony Collins with the London Symphony Orchestra. It was made in mono between 1952 and 1954 and was released as individual records on Decca. In 2015, a beautiful and luxurious album set (six 180-gram LPs) was released as a reissue (Decca 478 8497). The sound is good for the time when it was made, but there is a lack of treble, and the bass is not very prominent. Collins is a convincing performer. He takes the Third a little too quickly.



Early recordings on World Records SH191/2 and World Records SH172/4.


There are three complete recordings from the 1960s. The first is Leonard Bernstein's recording with the New York Philharmonic. The interpretations are dramatic and, where appropriate, stormy, luminous or mysterious. I have little enthusiasm for the sound, however. These recordings, released on single discs by Columbia/CBS, convey a rather superficial and not very homogeneous overall sound in which the winds are not well integrated into the overall picture.



However, the recordings by Lorin Maazel with the Vienna Philharmonic (Decca SXL) from the same period are convincing in terms of sound. The interpretations of Symphonies 1, 4 and 7 are really successful, but those of Symphonies 5 and 6 are not convincing.



We also find a very good, precise and transparent sound in the complete recording by Sir John Barbirolli with the Hallé Orchestra. The localization of the instruments is most convincing. Personally, I love these interpretations with their somber character. One weak point is the fact that the tympani are not audible enough. Critics have complained that Barbirolli takes the Second Symphony too slow. Barbirolli is at his best in Symphonies 4 to 7 (HMV SLS 799, 5 LPs).



The Seventies brought us four complete recordings: Gennady Rozhdestvensky and the Great USSR Radio Symphony Orchestra delivered appropriate and powerful interpretations (released on Melodia/Eurodisc 88 624). The sound is quite good, but somewhat shriller and less transparent than with Maazel and Barbirolli.



Just as Rozhdestvensky made Sibelius famous in the Soviet Union, Kurt Sanderling and the (East) Berlin Symphony Orchestra brought the composer some fame in the German Democratic Republic. His recordings released on the Eterna label sound quite good. Controlled emotions and striking, unrelenting interpretations characterize these highly recommendable recordings.



In the mid-1970s, Colin Davis and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Philips 6709 011, 5 LPs) presented a classical, restrained and very sophisticated interpretation of all the symphonies. I personally got to know Sibelius through these interpretations. I have heard more exciting and thrilling recordings since then. Nevertheless, favorable things must be mentioned: for example, a transparent sound, warm string tones and good dynamics.



Paavo Berglund's recordings with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra are much praised. Here the tympani finally have an appropriate place in the sound. Berglund has the advantage in the form of excellent EMI recordings! However, because the interpretations ultimately seem somewhat formal and too earthbound to me; they are not my top priority.



However, when listening to the individual symphonies, it is appropriate to broaden one's view and consider other recordings in addition to the ones discussed and to include other recordings of the respective symphonies.

Setting Priorities

Which symphonies could those listeners concentrate on who don't want to dive straight into the composer's entire symphonic work? I recommend first the Fifth (perhaps his best?), then the Second (perhaps the most beautiful?). But also, the rarely played Sixth and then the Seventh. The First is exceptionally beautiful but has the least of the composer's unmistakable tonal language. The Third (written in a time of doubt) and the " dry" Fourth are indeed exciting, but less accessible. The fact that all the vinyl discs mentioned in this article were recorded in analog format is coincidental.

Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 39 (1899)

This symphony is conceived in the classical style and still seems to be strongly indebted to Tchaikovsky. The slow movement has its own character. Elements such as longing, lamentation and pain are embedded in this work in what can be described as a lonely man's dialogue with nature.

The 1964 recording by Lorin Maazel with the Vienna Philharmonic is undisputedly well interpreted and also of audiophile quality (Decca SXL 6084). As a student, the young Maazel initially considered this to be like a second-rate Tchaikovsky. In this recording he revises his judgment. Those who prefer a more dramatic and equally convincing performance should listen to the aforementioned recording with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, although the sound here is anything but delightful. And if you want the symphony to sound more "aristocratic," listen to Colin Davis with Boston (see above). I would not include other recordings in the shortlist, such as those by Malcolm Sargent with the BBC on HMV or Eugene Ormandy with the Philadelphia (RCA), Alexander Gibson with the Scottish National Orchestra (Classics for Pleasure) and Herbert von Karajan with the Berliner Philharmoniker (EMI).



Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43 (1902)

This is the best-known and probably the most frequently found symphony on listeners’ record shelves. It is warm-hearted and impulsive. The scheme of the form is traditional, somewhat more unrestricted than in the First Symphony. Instrumentation and harmony serve to express a closeness to nature. Gripping images develop more naturally from the themes than in the First.

I put 14 recordings of the Second on my turntable. I would like to recommend five of them as the better and more interesting ones: Paul Kletzki recorded the Second with the Philharmonia Orchestra in July 1955 at Kingsway Hall in London. The producer was Walter Legge. In this very early stereo recording Kletzki chooses very brisk tempi. The sound of the recording on my Hi-Q Records Supercuts pressing is excellent. (The original stereo version was released on HMV SAX 2280.) The interpretation is dramatic, in some places stormy, which prompted one critic to complain that this was "overdone." However, the whole thing has lightness. Pierre Monteux's recording with the London Symphony Orchestra is also good in sound, with good differentiation between the instruments and sections, as well as being dramatically exciting. It has been released on RCA Living Stereo LSC-2342.



Unexpectedly for me, I count George Szell with the Netherlands’ Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra among the best five. Although the rather good sound is somewhat sharp, this recording captivates with fast tempi and a dramatic feeling with exciting changes of mood. Less dramatic but tonally transparent and with a good, fine string sound is the recording by Colin Davis with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (as a single disc on Philips 9500 141).



A mono recording by the great Sibelius interpreter who had waited in vain for 20 years for his commissioned work, the Eighth Symphony, also deserves a mention: Serge Koussevitzky recorded the Second Symphony with the BSO in November 1950. This mono recording sounds astonishingly good for its age, has impressive dynamics, and is brisk, dramatic and full of tension (Victrola RCA VIC 1186).

For various reasons, I have not included the recordings of the following conductors in my shortlist for the famous Second Symphony: John Barbirolli, Paavo Berglund, Leonard Bernstein, Anthony Collins, Lorin Maazel, André Previn, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Kurt Sanderling and Malcolm Sargent.

Symphony No. 3 in C Major, Op. 52 (1904 – 1907)

This symphony was composed after the Sibelius family moved to Järvenpää and thus into segregation. This is a consequence of his affinity for his native Finland, and his nature-oriented artistry. The symphony indicates a turning point. At just under 30 minutes, it is shorter than the first two symphonies and has more of a smooth, classical style. Here, Sibelius moves away from the romantic intensity characteristic of his earlier works. It is only in three movements and concentrates mostly on a few melodic harmonies. Sibelius proves here to be a searcher of form.

I hesitate to make recommendations for this symphony. Colin Davis on Philips is probably a very good choice. Davis presented a sensitive and well-proportioned interpretation on this 1977 recording. He has an excellent instrument at his disposal with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The Third coupled with the Sixth Symphony was available as a single disc on Philips 9500 142.

Okko Kamu with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon 2530 426, released in 1974) is worth listening to, but the playing of this orchestra does not come close to that of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Lorin Maazel (on Decca) sounds very good, but his interpretation of the Sixth Symphony (on Decca SXL 6364) does not appeal to me. Just in passing, I would like to mention that the very first recording of the Third with Robert Kajanus and the London Symphony Orchestra from June 1932 delivers perhaps the most convincing interpretation. Kajanus identified himself early with Sibelius' work and had a perfect sense of proportion (World Records SH 173/4 Mono, 2 LPs, also contains the Fifth).

Symphony No. 4 in A Minor (1910)

This symphony has an uncompromising musical language. It is a somber, austere and rather repellent work, far removed from his sometimes-romantic depiction of landscapes. It is not a feast for the ears. When asked about this work, Sibelius is said to have commented later: "to be a human being is miserable."

Who has the best empathy for this rather spartan work? Paavo Berglund offers a good listening opportunity. In his complete recording with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra for EMI, however, the slow movement lacks the great arc over the feeling of desolation of these emotional parts. His earlier recording with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, released in 1970, is altogether more optimal. Berglund does not make access to this unwieldy work easy, but he avoids any pathos and convincingly reveals its structure (Decca SXL 6431).

Lorin Maazel is also quite convincing in this symphony with the Wiener Philharmoniker and has the bonus of an excellent sound. Listen, for example, to the appropriate coolness with which he draws the first movement. Gennady Rozhdestvensky and his USSR Radio Orchestra also achieve this mystical tone in the first movement and the necessary emotional depth. However, this recording lacks the tonal transparency that we hear with Maazel or Berglund in the Decca recordings. Incidentally, Herbert von Karajan also made two remarkable recordings of this work with his Berliner Philharmoniker on Deutsche Grammophon.

Symphony No. 5 in E Flat Major, Op. 82 (1915, revised 1918)

The composition of the Fifth shows that Sibelius was wondering whether and how he could search for new means of musical expression. Should he move tentatively in the direction of the modernism that was current at the time or continue with what he felt suited best for him? After the first performance of the symphony in 1915 (in four-movement form), he revised the work several times until he published it in 1918 in the three-movement form that is still common today. He didn’t venture very far into modernism. Nevertheless, his Fifth is the most original. It is expansive, romantic, optimistic in character and has a demanding, elaborate final movement. Regarding the final version, the composer said with little clarification: "I wanted to give my symphony a different – more human – form, more earthy, more alive." In any case, it has remained one of his most popular works to this day.

John Barbirolli's recording with the Hallé Orchestra impresses with its present and transparent sound. The location of the instruments is impressive in this recording. The interpretation convinces me. In terms of sound, this recording is number one, with the limitation that the important tympani are not audible enough in terms of recording technology (as a single record on HMV ASD 2326, coupled with the Seventh Symphony).



The tympani are appropriately showcased in the recording of Colin Davis and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It has good dynamics and a nice string sound (Philips). Good sound and easily audible tympani are hallmarks of Paavo Berglund's recording with Bournemouth. But in my opinion this interpretation lacks intensity. I'm also only moderately impressed by the praised recording with Herbert von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker (DGG). There is no coherent soundscape here.

Symphony No. 6 in D Minor, Op. 104 (1918 – 1923)

As far as performances of the Sibelius symphonies are concerned, this one could be described as "the neglected one." And yet one can attest to some mastery in its tonal language. It is neither heroic nor majestic. It is even-tempered, it does not hash with effects. Lyrical soundscapes dominate.

For this symphony, I recommend first and foremost Herbert von Karajan with his Berliners. For this rural "watercolor painting," his conducting has a fine agility, and his interpretation has a depth that others lack. (DGG SLPM 139 032, with the Seventh Symphony on the B side of the record). Those who find the sound here to be too smooth may find a good alternative with Sir John Barbirolli (as a single disk on HMV ASD 2648, coupled with the Third Symphony). Lorin Maazel is not to be recommended for this symphony. There is a lack of imagination in his recording of the work. The slow movement does not convey the appropriate pallor and poignancy of summer light. Paavo Berglund seems to me to be uninspired in this work. If you like mono sound, go for Anthony Collins with the LSO (as a single disc on Decca LXT 5084).


Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Op. 105 (1924)

This symphony has majesty, in just one movement with a multi-part structure. The whole thing seems as if the composer wanted to allow a few motifs to develop autonomously. Are there any signs of a departure from major and minor tonality? In the decades that followed, Sibelius didn’t give any answer to the question of how things might continue after the Seventh.

Concerning the interpretation, the live recording by Yevgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic from February 1975 is my first choice (Melodiya CM 02859-60). Rhythmically unique, the conductor carves the score in stone with abrupt clarity. There is something irresistible about it, even if it seems to have a "curtain" in front of the orchestra. A second famous interpretation, the one in mono by Thomas Beecham with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra from 1957, is less transparent in sound and does not seem to me to be a reference. Kurt Sanderling with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra (all symphonies on the Eterna label) is definitely worth listening too and is quite good in terms of sound and interpretation. And of course, Sir John Barbirolli and Colin Davis are also a good choice for this symphony. Here, too, I will take the liberty of referring to the excellent very first historical recording: the live recording from May 1933 with Serge Koussevitzky and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, newly founded at that time (on the aforementioned World Records SH.173/4).



And More:

Sibelius' symphonic work is richly represented on vinyl. In this article I have mentioned what I consider to be the most important recordings. Despite all efforts to remain objective and descriptive, value judgments remain subjective to a certain degree. I have limited myself to the Sibelius' symphonies. If you listen to the recordings you may have in your own record shelf, you may agree with my judgment here and there, and often see things differently. You will also benefit from a bonus contained on several of the records mentioned: many of them contain symphonic tone poems by Sibelius including “Finlandia,” “The Swan of Tuonela,” “Tapiola,” “Valse Triste,” and the “Karelia Suite.” It is well worth listening to these wonderful works.


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Daniel Nyblin.

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