Friday, May 23, 2014

Montage # 157 – Sibelius & Prokofiev Symphonies no. 5

As of  June 20, 2014, this montage will no longer be available on Pod-O-Matic. It can be heard or downloaded from the Internet Archive at the following address:


This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, the 75th anniversary of the start of World War II and the 70th anniversary of the Normandy invasion, so it is appropriate to reconsider two symphonies that were explored in November 2011, when we looked at the music of the First and Second World Wars.

In my World War II montage, I sampled a pair of Russian symphonies, one by Shostakovich (his Leningrad symphony) and Prokofiev’s fifth. In 1944, Prokofiev moved to a composer's colony outside Moscow in order to compose what would turn out to be the most popular of all his symphonies, both within Russia and abroad. He gave out in a statement at the time that he intended it as "a hymn to free and happy Man, to his mighty powers, his pure and noble spirit." He added "I cannot say that I deliberately chose this theme. It was born in me and clamoured for expression. The music matured within me. It filled my soul."

Both Scandinavian composers Carl Nielsen and Jean Sibelius wrote important symphonies during the 1914-18 war. Nielsen’s Inextinguishable symphony (no. 4) and his untitled no. 5, foreshadowing Prokofiev’s statements, considered the human spirit and how it emerged from the conflict. As the title of his symphony suggests, the human spirit was indeed inextinguishable in spite of the horrors of the War, and the human spirit emerges victorious in a showdown between the orchestra and kettle drums that mark the apotheosis of the fifth’s first section.

The 1910s were a decade of change for the symphonic form which had existed for over a century. Meanwhile, various landmark works in other genres had presented further radical developments. In 1909 Schönberg continued pushing for more dissonant and chromatic harmonies in his Five Pieces for Orchestra. From 1910–1913 Igor Stravinsky premiered his innovative and revolutionary ballets. Ravel and Debussy were at work developing and performing their Impressionistic music.

Though having spent nearly 30 years in the public spotlight, Jean Sibelius found his works receiving poor reviews for the first time and he was beginning to sense his own eclipse as a contending modernist. The moid-1910 saw Sibelius at a crossroads of sorts, forcing him to choose between changing his style to fill the more modern desires of audiences or continue composing as he felt best fit.

Sibelius was commissioned to write his fifth symphony by the Finnish government in honor of his 50th birthday, which had been declared a national holiday. The first version of this symphony (1915) kept his orchestral style (consonant sonorities, woodwind lines in parallel thirds, rich melodic development, etc.) while further developing his structural style. The structure was firther refined in a revised (1919) version, which is the one we hear most often.

I think you will love this music too.

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