Since we’re making a six degrees of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 playlist, I’ll start numbering the degrees here. Let’s go to degree number two. Sibelius’s Symphony No. 5 could be considered one degree since it is also a fifth symphony but that would make this too easy.
We started at Beethoven, went to Tchaikovsky's Symphony No.5, and the most logical step from Tchaikovsky is Sibelius. As I believe I mentioned in the past, Sibelius’s Symphony No. 1 has been called Tchaikovsky’s Seventh because the Russian composer was so influential on the young Finnish Sibelius.
We should keep in mind that at the time Finland was a grand duchy of the Russian Empire. Finland was technically autonomous, but the Russian Tsar ruled it as a grand duke. The influence of Tchaikovsky makes a little more sense in this context.
Sibelius's Symphony No. 5
...in E-flat major, Op 82, Søndergård
By the time Sibelius wrote his Fifth Symphony he had found his own voice. Whenever I listen to Sibelius he leaves me wanting more. He opens up these incredible vistas for the briefest of moments. He says, “Here, have a taste,” and then he takes it away.
Some of the big moments feel as though they arise out of nowhere but that is because the development beneath what appears to be the main theme is so important in this music. In both the opening and closing movements of this three-movement symphony, Sibelius deceives us into focusing on his right hand while his left hand is busy creating the next piece of the ice sculpture.
The editing in this video from the BBC Proms gives us a masterful guide to what is happening in the music. Whoever the editor is, he or she understands the music. For instance, at the 29:00 mark we get a tight shot of the trumpets as they sneak in with the rising and falling pulse from earlier in the movement. The strings have been drawing our attention, but Sibelius has already turned for home once those trumpets start.
The development of this closing section is full of doubt and an aching melancholy. We feel as though we just might not make it as Sibelius holds us off as long as possible before concluding with five great strokes of the orchestra and a final “bonk.”
This is music that is underrated and under-performed. I myself find it to be one of the most satisfying of the symphonies with the number five attached. Sibelius himself deserves a greater standing in the pantheon of composers. His music can be difficult and requires that we spend the time to get to know him, but once known, he is generous.
To review, we’ve had Beethoven’s, Mahler’s, Tchaikovsky’s, and now Sibelius’s fifth symphonies. There are plenty more fifths to come. Now that I think about it, six degrees from Beethoven’s Fifth might be too easy, so maybe we’ll drop it down to five degrees of the fifth.