Symphony No. 2 in D major, op. 43
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, strings
notes by James Keays
II. Tempo andante, ma rubato
IV. Allegro moderato
First performance: March 8, 1902, Helsinki. Jean Sibelius, conductor.
The music of Jean Sibelius has been considered the very embodiment of the Finnish soul for so long that it is surprising to realize that his nationalism developed rather late in his youth. Few are aware that Sibelius was born into a Swedish-speaking family, attended his first Finnish-speaking school at age eleven, and didn't become proficient in the language until reaching manhood. It was during his later school years, however, that he developed a deep interest in the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic that would become a source of inspiration to him as a composer. From 1891 to 1925, he enjoyed worldwide popular fame not only as the musical voice of Finland, but of all Scandinavia. Critics, however, were not as kind, maintaining that his popularity was due only to the fact that he provided a “safe” alternative to the atonal Second Viennese School and other modernist styles so prominent at the time.
As a child, Sibelius demonstrated a natural ability both as a composer and a violinist. He began a serious study of the instrument with a local bandmaster at the age of fourteen and soon after was encouraged to pursue a career as a soloist. In 1885 he entered the University of Helsinki to study law. Like so many others before him, he abandoned his studies to become a musician. For the next five years he concentrated on the violin and built a repertoire of several well-known concertos, including Mendelssohn’s. In 1889, he left Finland with plans to study with Rimsky-Korsakov in St Petersburg. That plan did not develop, but he did end up in Berlin, where he continued his violin studies and, for the first time, seriously approached composition. It was in Berlin that he was exposed to new music in large doses. He heard the first performance of Richard Strauss’ Don Juan as well as the late quartets of Beethoven and works by Busoni, Goldmark, and Brahms. He even auditioned (unsuccessfully) for the Vienna Philharmonic.
Despite his love of German music, Sibelius was drawn back to his native Finland in 1891. Here he composed his first major work, a five-movement symphony of Mahlerian proportions based upon the Kalevala. Its overwhelming success assured him of a major position within Scandinavian music that he would never relinquish. In 1904, he built a small home in Järvenpää and lived there for the rest of his life. By 1925, he realized that he was severely isolated from the new music of Schönberg, Stravinsky, Bartók, and Les Six, and he made the decision to stop composing and rest on the reputation he had built with his seven symphonies, tone poems, operas, songs, and abundant chamber music works.
Sibelius’ Symphony No 2 evolved through two major revisions before reaching its final form. The first version was completed in 1915, immediately after composing a series of programmatic works. When asked if the symphony was also programmatic, Sibelius abruptly declared that it was absolutely symphonic. The wearing effects of World War I had put Sibelius in a pessimistic mood that might have led to uncertainty about his work, although in a diary entry he wrote, “In a deep well again. But I already begin dimly to see the mountain I shall surely ascend… God opens his door for a moment
and his orchestra plays the Fifth Symphony.” Despite “God’s approval,” Sibelius made extensive revisions after the first performance in December 1915. This second revision was performed in 1916. In 1919, he made extensive final revisions and conducted the definitive version at a concert in London early in 1921.