Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2
Notes by TŌN bassist Steven Brija
Tragedy and Inspiration
In the year 1900, Jean Sibelius and his wife Aïno witnessed their daughter Kirsti die of typhoid at the age of two. This only added to the composer’s already severe depression. One of his supporters, however, saw this troubled time in Sibelius’ life and raised money for the family to take a trip to Rapallo, Italy. Baron Carelan wrote to Sibelius, “You have been sitting at home for quite a while, Mr. Sibelius, it is high time for you to travel. You will spend the late autumn and the winter in Italy, a country where one learns cantabile, balance and harmony, plasticity and symmetry of lines, a country where everything is beautiful—even the ugly.” It was at this beautiful Italian mountain villa that Sibelius began work on his Second Symphony. While many composers before him had been inspired to portray the Italian landscape in music, Sibelius described his work as “the confession of the soul” and refused to give any more detail about his inspiration.
Music of Threes
The opening theme introduces a three-note rising pattern. Listen for this theme throughout the piece, it will return often. Sibelius continues to introduce small patterns and ideas throughout the first movement, with frequent moments of silence between. The second movement opens with a triple-meter walking pattern in the double basses, and later joined by a haunting melody played by the bassoons. On the back of the manuscript containing sketches for this melody, Sibelius wrote, “Don Juan. Sitting in the twilight in my castle, a guest enters. I ask many times who he is.— No answer. I make an effort to entertain him. He remains mute. Eventually he starts singing. At this time, Don Juan notices who he is—Death.” Sibelius denied any programmatic nature of the movement, but we can hear the threatening aura of Death throughout the movement.
A lively Scherzo opens the third movement, followed by a lyrical trio featuring the oboe. This theme consists of nine repeated B-flats in a row before continuing, giving the listener a glimpse of the hardship that Sibelius was enduring at this time. I imagine this is the point where he mourned the loss of his daughter in the midst of political conflict. The Scherzo returns, reminding us that danger is still present before returning to the weeping sound of the oboe once more. The Finale is introduced by a sequence of rising three-note scales at the end of the third movement. Remember the opening theme? This transition is our guide into the Finale where it becomes the prominent melodic figure. Twice the fanfare is interrupted by rolling scales in the low strings, reminding us that all is not well. The coda is introduced by a pizzicato soli in the low strings, after which the orchestra proclaims the theme once more, insisting that the symphony end with joyful passion. Perhaps a passion for his home country, or a victory for his mental health.