Prelude to Sibelius' Fifth

A rarely heard early version of Sibelius's fifth symphony is preceded by an overture, the strings of which are tied by a band of visiting folk musicians.

Sibelius music speaks to us with a voice which makes me think that it comes from inner earth, wrestling its way through its crust and eventually growing as a mythical tree in our world. Maybe a kind of Yggdrasil from Nordic mythology - the tree of life. The inevitability with which the music unfolds, its larger-than-life sonority, its elusive mysticism all strengthen the idea that this music has its roots in natural laws.

Like most great music though, there are many more facets to it; it speaks to us with a deeply human voice too - and often at the same time. It also speaks to us in the language of song and dance. Where did that come from?

Ever since His Kullervo Symphony, his first large scale symphonic work and based on a Kalevala legend, did Sibelius deny that his music had any connection to Finnish folklore. His works were to be understood as abstract statements. We can imagine - and perhaps Sibelius would like us to - that his music emanated from the ground and up through him into his pen as pure inspiration coming out of the Finnish soil, thus striking a particular chord which in particular Finns could relate to as theirs. But is there more to it than that?

Some years ago when we were planning performances of his violin concerto and 5th Symphony in the 150th-birthday year 2015, I discussed with Pekka Kuusisto how we could present Sibelius’ music in a context which could give us clues to what could possibly have inspired him and what musical tracks other than classical there could have been in his mind. His folk-like tunes - did any of them resemble real folk tunes?

Pekka responded by introducing me to a crowd of Finnish folk musicians, and in particular to Timo Alakotila. Apart from being a brilliant composer, pianist and a very versatile musician performing around the world, Timo is a kind of living Encyclopedia of Finnish/Swedish folkmusic and hymns. So I started out by sending him characteristic themes and motives of the violin concerto and symphony no 5 - and to my astonishment: every musical bit I send him would turn out to have musical counterparts in non-classical music. One tune would resemble a Swedish church hymn, another a combination of two Finnish folk songs, a third a Finnish polka. This was a revelation to me! Extensive old collections form the basis of Timo’s knowledge, and all songs would be identified by a number in a particular collection.

We know that in preparation of his Kullervo Sibelius travelled in Finland to hear a variety of folk music and singing performed, and we decided on creating a sort of prelude to each of his works where we would have a group of Finnish folk musicians giving us tastes of related folk music and then the orchestra answering with what Sibelius actually wrote. The shape would be a kind of ping pong between the two worlds - not to claim that Sibelius copied the other one, but that he might have had this other music humming along inside.

What instrumentarium would the other music comprise? A characteristic instrument is the Kantele, not used for flashy harp-like arpeggios but for ostinate accompanying figures, characteristic of many inner voices in Sibelius music. Then the harmonium, the “cheap” church organ in remote areas, still representing the characteristic hymnlike element. A Kalevala story teller, typically speaking/singing short repetitive phrases in a 5-meter, with characteristic downward turns in melody. Its repetitiveness introduces the element of trance which the singer will enter and which can give us a hint of what Sibelius is trying to create when we might think another repeat in his music is one too many. Finally the folk singers, giving us everything from cow calls to lullaby’s.

Bringing all these elements together tonight, we prelude the Symphony with this jumping between the two worlds, giving us a window to what was possibly a part of Sibelius creativity. But not only that: experiencing this musical window is an inspiration to us performers as to how the folk musicians’ style can influence our approach to playing Sibelius’ music.

Sibelius was also a great revisor of his works, including of the 5th Symphony. The final and well-known version is shorter, tauter, more striking, though - knowing the original version - musically more like a torso of the original; some musical ideas appear only like fragments suddenly introduced, while in the original you can see where the ideas are coming from and how they transform during the work. Thus the original version is a work on a grander scale completely on its own, and for me it gives some inspiring clues to how Sibelius got from the more austere 4th Symphony to the final version of the often jubilant 5th. Here the first version of the 5th seems still to share some austerity, elusiveness, repetition, expanse, harshness and mysticism of the 4th - and in this way it becomes the missing link, the bridge, in Sibelius’ musical journey.

The most striking difference between the two versions is that the first version has 4 movements , the later just 3; the first two movements were later revised and combined into one grand arc, the third retained its character but was musically exchanged, and the fourth cut much shorter. Where the revision has its weight on the first movement, the original is a real “finale”-symphony.

I feel honoured tonight together with the Helsinki Philharmonic to give the first performance of the 1915 version of Sibelius’ 5th since its premiere in 1915!

Thomas Dausgaard