Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43 (1902)

1. Allegretto, Poco allegro
2. Andante, ma rubato
3. Vivacissimo – Lento e soave.
4. Allegro moderato – Moderato assai

Sibelius began writing his second symphony in 1901 while staying with his family in Rapallo in Italy. It was completed in 1902 in Finland, and was first performed by the Helsinki Philharmonic Society on 8 March 1902, with the composer conducting. The first performance was received with enthusiasm by the public and with great critical acclaim, one critic describing it as a symphony "the like of which we have never heard before". After the first performance, Sibelius made some revisions. The revised version was given its first performance on 10 November 1903 in Stockholm, and has remained a regular and popular item in the concert repertoire ever since.

The second symphony, more than any other work by Sibelius, has been associated with the struggle for Finnish Independence, and for a time was even referred to as the "Symphony of Independence". Sibelius however never gave it this title or referred to it as a nationalistic work. Whatever his intention, the symphony is undeniably written as a celebration of the natural beauty and splendour of the Finnish countryside. The opening of the first movement evokes a picture of little waves lapping gently on the shore of a sunlit lake, whereas the third movement, depicts the fury of the wind driving the rain before it, contrasted with sudden short moments of calm and tranquillity. Throughout the work we perceive the grandeur of the mountains, the mystery of the forests and the fearful power of nature.

Formally the symphony stands in the centre of the the European romantic tradition. The first and the last movements are in traditional "sonata" form and the third movement is a scherzo and trio following the models of Beethoven. It is also easy to detect the influence of both Tchaikovsky and Wagner in the orchestral writing. However there are many features of the work that have striking originality, including the use of ostinato (individual instrument parts that repeat obstinately) and the fragmentation of melodic ideas. A striking example of this is found in the recapitulation of the finale where a very long ostinato (just a scale of d minor moving up and down) begins on the the violas and cellos. Fragments of the melody are then played, isolated, on different orchestral instruments. Gradually more instruments join the ostinato and the melodic parts begin to join up leading finally to the movements forceful conclusion. Overall, the construction of the music has a profound logic, being derived from a very small number of simple melodic fragments which are developed with breathtaking imagination into long spans of music with lyrical beauty and drama.

Sibelius' second symphony was performed by the Portobello Orchestra on the 21st November 2015, conducted by William Church.