Although Sibelius’s last three symphonies were written partly in parallel, each of them is an individual with its own unique features. While the Fifth Symphony radiates with the power of nature on a cosmic scale and the Sixth Symphony glows with a gently nostalgic light, the Seventh Symphony (1924) is classical in a purebred sense, its ethos and nobility undisturbed by being cast in a decidedly unconventional single-movement form.
When Sibelius conducted the premiere of the Seventh Symphony in Stockholm in March 1924, it was titled Fantasia sinfonica. He referred to this title on a few occasions subsequently before finally adding it to his numbered symphonies. No doubt his hesitation to call the work a symphony had to do with the single-movement form. Nevertheless, the Seventh Symphony can be considered the logical culmination of his formal development in the symphonic genre. It was not that Sibelius was the first ever to write a symphony in a single movement, since both Mendelssohn and Schumann, for instance, had experimented with tying the traditional movements of a symphony together with bridges. Sibelius, though, progressed to a more thorough and more organic integration of elements.
The Seventh Symphony acquired its single-movement form as the result of an extensive gestation process. In the early stages of the work, Sibelius outlined a three-movement symphony, the finale of which he described as a “Hellenic rondo”. It is possible to discern the three-movement architecture underlying the work, because it begins as a slow movement (Adagio) and has a scherzo-like section towards the middle (Vivacissimo), and the bright finale-like section at the end (Allegro moderato), easily fits the description of a “Hellenic rondo”. However, there are bridges and transitions, dovetailed and nested sections, subsurface thematic connections and a coda bringing all the elements together that transform the end result into something that is at once genuinely pluralist and genuinely indivisible. Sibelius’s mastery in using the orchestra to facilitate continuity underlines the structural unity of the work. It is often both impossible and unnecessary to define precisely where one idea ends and another begins.
The key thematic elements in the Seventh Symphony are the ascending scale in the opening measures, the following pastoral woodwind motif and the noble trombone theme that crowns the slow opening section. The last of these is the most important, appearing three times at culminating points in the work. It is also important in the sense that it bears a motif-level relationship to the themes of both the scherzo and the “Hellenic rondo”. The third culmination marked by the trombone theme is the dramatic high point of the entire work, but the culmination continues in an intense string texture, and the tension persists until a recapitulation of the trombone theme and the pastoral motif dispels it. The resulting catharsis is both liberating and nostalgic, almost as if Sibelius already knew that this would be the end point of his symphony cycle.
Text: Kimmo Korhonen