Review Summary: Jean Sibelius, renowned for producing beautiful symphonies with luxurious harmonies, colourful timbres and moving melodies, is a force to be reckoned with… but he had to start somewhere.
Sibelius waited 38 opuses before releasing his first symphony, a form which he would later be renowned for composing for. Before time of writing, Sibelius was more used to writing less ambitious forms of music that had managed to garner him moderate respect in the music community, and so this was his first time composing in the most respected and prestigious form of the western classical tradition – and whilst by no means a spectacular or ground-breaking achievement, is still a good symphony, showing early signs of the greatness he’d achieve in symphonies later on in his career.
The first movement starts with a timpani rolling quietly in the background, laying a foundation for one of the most unmemorable melodies of Sibelius’s career, seemingly attached to the beginning only to make up for time rather than adding any quality to the piece. After the rather minimalistic first minute and a half, tremolo strings decide it’s time to take over and lead the piece, making the opening seem all the more pointless and unnecessary. The movement goes on to contain some interesting call and response between parts of the orchestra, before using the orchestra as a whole unified body to crescendo into the piece’s climax – early signs of the orchestral genius Sibelius would soon become. After this climax, however, Sibelius decides to see if he can actualise another sparse build up and dramatic climax in 90 seconds, trivialising the main body of the piece and making it seem more like a string of unconnected ideas than a well-thought out, cohesive movement.
The second movement initially sees more relaxed tempos and dynamics, but eventually becomes a melodrama with the strings arguing against the brass over who can play the loudest. It feels much more like one long piece of music, with ideas growing and evolving around each other until they boil over with excitement and enthusiasm. This enthusiasm boils over into the third movement as well, and Sibelius decides to return to the string of ideas approach which results in a messy movement, drowned in bombast, that becomes quickly forgotten as the final movement gets going.
The final movement mirrors the first in the opening theme and having similar build, rounding the symphony in a way that makes the seemingly ill-thought-out opening movement appear more relevant to the symphony as a whole. Seeing the symphony at its fullest, the final movement presents thick textures, dramatic passages and a ‘big’ ending – everything that had become typical of symphony endings for several centuries.
This symphony doesn't offer anything new, unique, or special, but is in places well written and shows signs of the fantastic orchestral writer Sibelius could be – especially in the second movement. Because of this, I’d recommend it only to the Sibelius fanatic as there are plenty of better symphonies out of there, including ones from later on in Sibelius’s career.