Jean Sibelius, 1865-1957. Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 43. Completed 1902, first performance March 8, 1902, in Helsinki. Scored for 2 each flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, tympani, and strings.
Perhaps no composer is so strongly associated with nationalism as Jean Sibelius, author of the intensely patriotic Finlandia. Nor is this association undeserved, for Sibelius was deeply involved in the struggle to keep Finland free from the rule of Tsarist Russia. More than one of his works was banned by the authorities because the populace found it too inspiring. Even when he was not explicitly protesting oppression, Sibelius wrote music strongly tied to his homeland and its traditions, exemplified by works such as Kullervo, Lemminkäinen, and the ebullient Karelia suite.
Yet contrary to the assertions of some writers, nationalism did not rule the composer's life. The Second Symphony serves as an example: the major themes were developed during a stay in Italy, and several were originally conceived for a tone poem to be based on Dante's Divine Comedy. One of the most picturesque melodies is a bassoon duet that appears near the beginning of the symphony's second movement, which had been intended to represent Death's visit to Don Juan's castle. Yet the style of the symphony is so unmistakably Sibelian, so inescapably Finnish, that perhaps the critics can be forgiven for seeing it as one more expression of the indomitable nature of the tiny nation that has insisted on maintaining its identity in the face of a seemingly endless parade of would-be conquerors.
The Second Symphony was an instant success with the Finnish audience, and established Sibelius as a major composer. But listeners outside Scandinavia were less receptive, and it took some time for it to become the most popular of his symphonies. Even as late as 1940, for example, Virgil Thomson (himself a Romantically-influenced composer) called it ``vulgar, self-indulgent, and provincial beyond description.'' Self-indulgent it may be, and perhaps earthy, but it is hard to call a work provincial when it has so thoroughly captivated music lovers worldwide for nearly a century.
© 1997, Geoff Kuenning
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