Concert Notes

Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1

Notes by TŌN clarinetist Zachary Gassenheimer

Finnish composer Jean Sibelius began drafting his opus 39 in 1898. The work was first envisioned as a programmatic “musical dialogue” in four movements. Each movement initially was to be representative of a different descriptive phrase. However, this idea was quickly abandoned for a more cyclical approach to composition, a method of composing in which the main material is repurposed and brought back in different ways throughout all movements. It was through this method that Sibelius masterfully assembled his First Symphony.

This piece has one of the most unique beginnings to a symphony. The listener first hears a hushed, rumbling timpani. A solo clarinet then presents a haunting melody, one that will serve as the structural foundation for almost every melody that follows. The clarinet solo concludes with a descending passage that seamlessly transitions to the powerful and lively first theme of the Allegro energico. This dramatic movement comes to a close with two pizzicato chords.

The second movement begins with a low sustain. Next, a beautiful melody in call and response is heard between the orchestra and two clarinets. This is followed by a brief moment of solo bassoon that resembles the foreboding nature of the symphony’s opening clarinet passage. The music continues to develop and finally erupts in an “orchestral storm” that then dies down, allowing the return of the main theme.

The third movement is a bombastic scherzo. It begins with pizzicati from the violins as the woodwinds lead the way for the main theme presented by the violins. The middle section of this movement eases in pace while alluding to thoughts of a peaceful nature scene. This is short lived, as the main material of this movement returns and carries the music to the movement’s end.

The final movement begins as a reimagined version of the clarinet melody that began the entire journey. This reiteration of the theme is presented with a passionate and lush orchestration of the motif that is carried by the strings. As the symphony unwinds and comes to a close, the cyclical nature of the work is present in full force as the final movement concludes just as the first one, with two pizzicato chords.