Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method

Duration: approx. 45 Minutes
Genre: Symphony
Time of Creation: 1900–1902/1902–1903 (revised version)
World Premiere: 08 March 1902 (Helsinki) / 10 November 1903 (revised version – Stockholm)

Table of Contents

Sibelius' Symphony No. 2 in 5 Sentences

The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius wrote his Symphony No. 2 under the impression of heavy blows of fate: His daughter Kirsti had just died at the age of two, and his six-year-old daughter Ruth had fallen ill with typhoid fever. Thanks to the financial support of his patron Axel Carpelan, Sibelius was able to recuperate with his family in Italy, where large parts of Symphony No. 2 were written. Originally, Sibelius planned to write four individual orchestral pieces, but he then combined them into a symphony. Despite the difficult circumstances of its composition, the work has a heroic, optimistic undertone, which is why it has often been interpreted in political terms.

Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.

4 Highlights from Sibelius' Symphony No. 2

Highlight 1: Beginning of the first movement – three notes shape everything that follows

Sibelius builds the entire work from one motif heard at the very beginning: three ascending notes. This motif runs through the entire symphony and is varied incessantly:

Highlight 2: Middle of the second movement – "shattering protest"

In addition to the heroic final movement, the second movement in particular has repeatedly been interpreted in political terms. For Sibelius’ colleague, the Finnish composer and conductor Robert Kajanus, it was already clear shortly after the premiere: the second movement is “like a shattering protest against all the injustice”:

Highlight 3: full braking in the third movement

The third movement is fast, diffuse and fleeting – but then the hectic increase is suddenly interrupted by a point of rest. A musical full braking. A melancholy melody of the oboe follows:

Highlight 4: a heroic finale

Sibelius ends the work with the heroic final movement, but does not storm to the end, instead allowing the music to progress majestically:

3 Questions and Answers about Sibelius' Symphony No. 2

Question 1: Is Sibelius' Symphony No. 2 a political work?

Shortly after its premiere in 1902, Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 became associated with the Finnish struggle for independence from Russia. This is mainly due to the rousing last movement. However, there is no record of whether Sibelius actually intended the work to make a political statement.

Question 2: Where and when did Sibelius compose his 2nd Symphony?

Sibelius had first ideas for his 2nd Symphony already in 1899, but composed it mainly in 1901 during a stay in Italy. The work was completed in 1902.

Question 3: What was Sibelius preoccupied with while writing the 2nd Symphony?

During his stay in Italy in 1901, Sibelius was primarily preoccupied with Dante’s Divine Comedy as well as the Don Juan theme. Both themes influenced the 2nd symphony.

2 Recommended Recordings of Sibelius' Symphony No. 2

Recording 1: WDR Symphony Orchestra, Jukka-Pekka Saraste (Live, 2018)

Finnish conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste interprets his specialty repertoire here:

Recording 2: NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra, Herbert Blomstedt (Live, 2016)

I find the final movement in particular very successful in Herbert Blomstedt’s interpretation. Blomstedt has the winds play a bit more offset at the very end, thus enhancing the final effect:

1 Quote about Sibelius' Symphony No. 2

The last, hymn-like, radiant bars are almost unbearable. One has to wake up after the final chord of this dreamlike symphony of happiness.

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