Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony

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Barber: Second Essay for Orchestra
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3
Sibelius: Symphony No. 5


Second Essay for Orchestra, Op. 17

COMPOSER: Born March 9, 1910, West Chester, PA; died January 23, 1981, New York City
WORLD PREMIERE: Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic premiered the Second Essay for Orchestra on April 16, 1942, at Carnegie Hall, on the occasion of the orchestra’s centennial celebration.
MOST RECENT OREGON SYMPHONY PERFORMANCE: January 9, 2005; Christoph Campestrini, conductor
INSTRUMENTATION: Piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tam tam, and strings

In the autumn of 1940, Samuel Barber’s uncle, composer Sydney Homer, urged his nephew to write a music drama “on the lines of [Beethoven’s] Fidelio, built on sympathy for suffering and with a voice of true eloquence.” Keenly aware of the threatening war in Europe, Homer continued, “They say insects could destroy the world if they were unchecked. Something like that is going on in civilization. Write the greatest thing you possibly can!”

The Second Essay for Orchestra, Barber’s response to Homer’s letter, combines Barber’s interest in literature with the composer’s own concerns about the war. A lover of prose and poetry throughout his life, Barber was drawn to a diverse group of writers, including Percy Shelley, James Agee, Emily Dickinson, Rainer Maria Rilke, Pablo Neruda, and James Joyce. Barber’s three Essays for Orchestra are essentially musical treatments of literary genres.

An essay, in Barber’s words (he used the Oxford English Dictionary definition), is “a composition of moderate length on any particular subject . . . more or less elaborate in style, though limited in range.” Barber’s Second Essay explores three themes, the first introduced by solo woodwinds, the second by the violas (parts of this theme suggest John Williams’ music from the blockbuster film Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), and the third, a fugue of brasses and woodwinds. Barber develops these three themes by juxtaposing fragments from each and deftly layers rich orchestral timbres, like a painter daubing one color over another.

Barber completed the Second Essay on March 15, 1942. “I have been composing very hard,” he wrote to poet Katherine Garrison Chapin, “and my music has been going so well that it seems incongruous for times such as these. But I’ve taken the attitude that it is better to continue in one’s job tutta forza [full strength] until one’s draft board decides otherwise.” About the Second Essay itself, Barber said, “Although it has no program, one perhaps hears that it was written in war-time.”

In one review of the Second Essay, a critic said of Barber, “In a short space he creates and sustains a mood . . . worked out with economy of knowledge and assurance . . . perhaps a shade too solemn, but a composer is entitled to his own thesis.” Noting Barber’s affinity for literature, another critic dubbed him the “musical American Shelley.”


Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37

Composer: Born December 16, 1770, Bonn; died March 26, 1827, Vienna
Work composed: 1796–1803. Dedicated to Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia
World premiere: April 5, 1803. Beethoven conducted from the piano at the Theater an der Wien.
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: September 30, 2013, conductor Carlos Kalmar; and pianist Jeffrey Kahane
Instrumentation: Solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
Estimated duration: 34 minutes

Ludwig van Beethoven began working on this concerto in 1796, composed most of it in 1800, and continued tinkering with it until the day of its premiere at one of his subscription concerts. The over-ambitious program actually featured three premieres: the Piano Concerto No. 3, the Symphony No. 2, and the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives. Perhaps fearing this program would not prove substantial enough, Beethoven also included his First Symphony.

Time constraints prevented Beethoven from writing down the solo part in time for the first performance. When Beethoven asked his friend Ignaz von Seyfried to turn pages for him during the concert, Seyfried had no idea how difficult this seemingly simple task would be. Seyfried recalled:

“I saw almost nothing but empty leaves; at the most on one page or the other a few Egyptian hieroglyphs wholly unintelligible to me scribbled down to serve as clues for him; for he played nearly all of the solo part from memory, since, as was so often the case, he had not had time to put it all down on paper. He gave me a secret glance whenever he was at the end of one of the invisible passages and my scarcely concealed anxiety not to miss the decisive moment amused him greatly and he laughed heartily at the jovial supper which we ate afterwards.”

With the Third Piano Concerto, Beethoven created a new stylistic framework for the genre. The Allegro con brio is structured around a short, unadorned rhythmic motif and a contrasting lyrical countermelody, which become the basis for a stormy musical dialogue between orchestra and soloist. In the Largo, Beethoven made a significant – and radical – decision regarding tonality. The key, E major, is harmonically very distant from that of C minor, an unheard-of choice in concerto writing for the time. In another departure from convention, it is the soloist who unveils the slow theme and its accompanying melody, before the orchestra. Later the soloist becomes the orchestra’s accompanist, with a stream of flowing arpeggios flowing quietly underneath the primary melody. The refrain of the Rondo: Allegro has a bouncy energy, which neatly offsets several contrasting interludes that range from tautly edgy to lyrically expansive. The two outer movements perfectly capture both the Sturm und Drang and the heroic qualities that Beethoven perceived in the key of C minor, a key he chose for many of his most significant works, including the Symphony No. 5.

Beethoven had another motivation for employing C minor in a piano concerto; by doing so, he paid homage to Mozart, specifically Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24, K. 491, also in C minor. During a rehearsal of K. 491, Beethoven remarked to the English composer J. B. Cramer, “Ah, Cramer, we shall never be able to do anything like that.” In his biography, Lewis Lockwood respectfully disagrees. “The Third breaks new ground in regions where Mozart had never traveled – in its dramatization of musical ideas, its juxtapositions of intensity with lyricism, [and] its decisive contrasts.”


Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 82

COMPOSER: Born December 8, 1865, Hämeenlinna, Finland; died September 20, 1957, Järvenpää, Finland
WORK COMPOSED: 1914–15; revised 1916 and 1919
WORLD PREMIERE: Sibelius completed the first version of his Fifth Symphony just in time to conduct it for his 50th birthday, a Finnish national holiday, on December 8, 1915, with the Helsinki Municipal Orchestra. A year later he revised and again conducted it with the same ensemble. The final version was completed in 1919; Sibelius conducted it on October 21, 1921.
MOST RECENT OREGON SYMPHONY PERFORMANCE: November 19, 2012; Hugh Wolff, conductor
INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings

“These symphonies of mine are more confessions of faith than are my other works,” wrote Jean Sibelius in 1918, while working on his third revision of his Symphony No. 5. Always his own harshest critic, Sibelius struggled to give voice to his original musical conception of this strong, complex work over a period of six difficult years.

Sibelius’ attempts to write a version of the Fifth Symphony that withstood his implacable self-criticism were hampered by personal problems and global upheaval. In the years 1910–14, Sibelius struggled with the desire to be perceived by the world as a “modern” composer, but at the same time he rejected the prevailing styles established by Debussy, Mahler, and Strauss. Composing, frequently difficult for Sibelius even under the best of circumstances, was made even harder by his ill health (he was misdiagnosed with throat cancer in 1916).

From 1914–18, the chaos and brutality of World War I engulfed Europe. In 1917, Finland also found itself at war with Russia after its declaration of independence from that country. An invasion of Russian soldiers into his town forced Sibelius and his family to flee to Helsinki in 1918. Later that year, Sibelius returned home and resumed his life and work, including his third revision of the Fifth Symphony, which he described as “practically composed anew.”

The reworked symphony condenses the original four movements into three – Sibelius combined the first and second movements – and features a new finale. The Tempo molto moderato is textbook Sibelius, featuring brief, fragmentary ideas that surface somewhat enigmatically from the depths of the orchestra. A short melody in the horns later coalesces into a fully developed theme. At times the instruments seem to murmur to themselves; as the music progresses, the strings and brasses declaim bold proclamations.

In the Andante mosso, pizzicato strings and staccato flutes state the primary melody, while a group of woodwinds and horns sound a counter-theme of long sustained notes. These shimmering notes become a backdrop for several variations on the staccato main theme.

On April 21, 1915, Sibelius wrote in his diary, “Today at ten to eleven I saw 16 swans. One of my greatest experiences. Lord God, that beauty!” The opening of the finale captures this rustle of wings with tremolo strings accompanying an expansive melody, also in the strings. Sibelius juxtaposed this breathless music with a majestic “swan theme” sounded first by the horns. As the symphony concludes, the swan theme grows into an exultant shout of triumph, perhaps a reflection of Sibelius’ mood upon completion of this epic work.

© 2018 Elizabeth Schwartz


Elizabeth Schwartz is a free-lance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, the Oregon Bach Festival, Chamber Music Northwest, and other organizations, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media. Schwartz also writes about performing arts and culture for Oregon Jewish Life Magazine.



Barber: Second Essay for Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin – St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
2-EMI Classics 86561

Marin Alsop – Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Naxos 8559134

Sibelius: Symphony No. 5
Leonard Bernstein – Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
3-Deutsche Grammophon 000218302

Herbert von Karajan – Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
2-Deutsche Grammophon Originals 457748

Sir John Barbirolli – Halle Orchestra
5-EMI/Warner Classics 8470624