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Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Opus 43 (1902)

2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings.  Approximate performance time is forty-four minutes.

In the fall of 1900, Jean Sibelius and his family departed Finland for Italy, stopping first in Berlin.  In February 1901, they finally reached their destination—the village of Rapallo, located just south of Venice.  While in Venice, Sibelius began work on his Symphony No. 2.

In May, Sibelius and his family returned to Finland.  There, Sibelius continued to work on his Second Symphony.  In November of 1901, Sibelius informed his friend, Baron Axel Carpelan that he had almost completed the Symphony.  However, Sibelius continued to revise it, necessitating the postponement until March of the planned January 1902 premiere.

Sibelius conducted the premiere of his Second Symphony in Helsinki on March 8, 1902. It was a rousing success, and Sibelius repeated the program on March 10, 14 and 16, each time to a capacity audience.  This was a particularly tumultuous period, a time when Finland was under the grip of Russian domination.  Patriotic emotions were at a fever pitch.  Sibelius had previously composed overtly nationalistic pieces, such as Finlandia (1899), and the Finnish people were anxious to find a similar message in the new Symphony.

Throughout his life, Sibelius was consistent in his emphatic denial that the Second Symphony was based upon any such programs.  Still, it is not at all surprising that the Finnish people continued to find a personal message of hope in this fiercely dramatic (and in the end, triumphant) work by their greatest composer.  To this day, the Symphony No. 2 remains a source of inspiration and pride for the Finnish people, as well as a mainstay of the international symphonic repertoire.

The Second Symphony is in four movements.  The first (Allegretto) opens with a repeated ascending figure in the strings, based upon a three-pitch motif that will form the nucleus for several themes throughout the Symphony.  The slow-tempo second movement (Tempo, Andante, ma rubato) incorporates music Sibelius first associated with an encounter between Don Juan and Death.  The third movement is a quicksilver scherzo (Vivacissimo) and pastoral trio.  The concluding movement (Finale. Allegro moderato) follows without pause.   The Symphony’s opening three-note motif is now presented in an heroic transformation.  In the stunning climax the motif undergoes its final and most eloquent transfiguration.


Program Notes by Ken Melzter © 2019