Jean Sibelius

Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op. 104

    Description by Roger Dettmer

    Sibelius completed this work in February 1923, and conducted the premiere at Helsinki on February 19 of that same year. His first reference to the work, in 1918, described it as "wild and passionate in character. Dark with pastoral contrasts. Probably in 4 movements...intensifying in a dark orchestral swell [until] the main theme is drowned." At the same time he cautioned that his plan could change -- and how it did! -- "depending on the way my musical thinking develops. I am always a slave to my themes and obey their demands." Some of that "wild character" found a home in the last version of Symphony No. 5 (1919). The Sixth, however, evolved as a virtual homage to Palestrina, the same Renaissance master honored in Hans Pfitzner's then young opera, Palestrina.

    In common with the Seventh Symphony, his incidental music for Shakespeare's The Tempest, and the tone poem Tapiola (Sibelius' last orchestral works before he quit composing altogether in 1929), the Symphony No. 6 is nature-painting uncluttered by "civilized" detritus. Even the fauna indigenous to subarctic Finland are absent, leaving only some bird-like motifs. It is the purest, most inward, in many ways most fascinating of his symphonies. For some of us it is also the most hypnotic, to be heard countless times without ever revealing all of its secrets.

    The first movement, Allegro molto moderato, nominally in D minor, more accurately can be said to inhabit the medieval D Dorian mode (that is to say, from D to D on the white keys of the piano, whereas "natural" D minor has a flatted B, and "harmonic" D minor has a sharped C). This lends the music an archaic character that nevertheless becomes passionate as it evolves, praising the presence of God and ghosts in a cathedral of sound. Sibelius shifts into C major, however, and mostly stays there until a radiantly calm coda in D Dorian, as if there had never been C major! Nicolas Slonimsky wrote of "thematic molecules" (Cecil Gray called them "cells"), played in thirds by pairs of instruments. While these may seem random on first hearing, their development integrates everything as if by alchemy.

    The second movement, Allegretto moderato serves, as in Beethoven's Eighth, in place of a slow movement, although Sibelius at one time thought of retitling it Andantino (lest conductors play it too briskly, as Georg Schnéevoigt did in the first recording in 1934). After a soft bid for attention on a drum tuned to F, flutes and bassoons play free-floating chords that resolve in G Dorian. Subtly, a 3/4 rhythmic pattern takes over as notes-per-measure increase from three to six to nine to 12. Scalar passages ascend only to fall partway back, while a saucy motif repeats itself until the ear is haunted for days after. The Poco vivace third movement is a brief scherzo in jig time (thus spoke Slonimsky). But it has no trio, no B section; thematic molecules from earlier movements are adapted, reorganized, and become boisterous right up to the end.

    In the Allegro molto finale, Sibelius completes the C major first half of the opening motif in D Dorian. This is the symphony's densest movement texturally, the closest it comes to the 1918 promise of passion (but it is never wild). Indeed, Sibelius here echoes the nature poems he wrote from the Fourth Symphony on -- as well as Tapiola to come. In structure this comes closest to a conventional sonata-rondo, yet it is never traditional or predictable. The word concludes with quiet, undecorated D Dorian chords.

    Parts/Movements

    1. Allegro molto moderato
    2. Allegretto moderato
    3. Poco vivace
    4. Allegro molto

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2019 RCA Red Seal 19075924512
    2019 RCA Red Seal G0100040237083
    2017 ABC Classics
    2017 Linn Records CKD 502
    2017 Warner Classics 9029586915
    2016 Deutsche Grammophon 4830431
    2016 LSO Live LSO 0675
    2016 BIS BIS 2006
    2015 Warner Classics 2564605317
    2015 Deutsche Grammophon B002362202
    2015 Warner Classics 2564619878
    2015 BIS BIS 2076
    2015 Sony Classical 88875026142
    2015 Warner Classics 552758
    2014 Warner Classics 2564633619
    2014 Chandos CHAN 108093
    2014 RCA Red Seal 88843006072
    2013 ICA Classics ICAC 5109
    2013 EMI Classics
    2013 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099997360
    2013 Brilliant Classics 9439
    2013 Finlandia 530101
    2013 ASO Media ASO 1004
    2012 Deutsche Grammophon 002894770055
    2012 Decca 4783696
    2012 Decca
    2012 Erato 2564662795
    2012 Warner Classics
    2012 LPO LPO 0065
    2012 Melodiya MYD 1001669
    2011 Alto / Musical Concepts 132
    2011 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099990724
    2011 Decca 468 198-2
    2011 Naxos 8572705
    2011 EMI Classics
    2011 BIS 1933/35
    2010 Sony Classical 8869768365
    2010 Deutsche Grammophon 439 982-2GGA
    2010 ABC Classics 4763943
    2010 ABC Classics 4763946
    2010 Exton 00293
    2010 Exton 293
    2009 LSO Live 191
    2009 Avie 2150
    2008 RCO Live 08005
    2008 Brilliant Classics 8867
    2008 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099951203
    2007 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099950075
    2007 EMI Classics 3724802
    2007 EMI Classics
    2007 EMI Music Distribution 72478
    2007 Deutsche Grammophon 000956502
    2006 Edel Classics 2342
    2006 Ondine 1075
    2006 Fazer / Finlandia
    2006 EMI Music Distribution / Warner Classics 7243476951
    2006 Erato
    2006 SOMM 18
    2006 Universal Classics & Jazz
    2006 Decca 000689202
    2006 BIS 1697/1700
    2005 Berlin Classics 0032552
    2005 EMI Classics
    2005 EMI Classics
    2005 Divine Art 27801
    2005 Deutsche Grammophon 000531936
    2004 LSO Live LSO0037
    2004 Silverline Classics 288263
    2004 RCA Victor 55706
    2003 Vanguard Classics 1202
    2003 Arte Nova 49705
    2003 Deutsche Grammophon 474 353-2
    2003 Erato 4602942
    2003 Ondine 1026
    2003 Erato 7491442
    2003 Sony Music Distribution 87329
    2003 Decca 000121902
    2002 Brilliant 6328
    2002 Sony Classical 87882
    2002 Brilliant Classics 6899
    2002 EMI Music Distribution 74858
    2002 Naxos 505179
    2001 EMI Music Distribution 66602
    2001 Sony Classical 89739
    2001 BIS 1286/8
    2000 EMI Music Distribution / Warner Classics 7243567299
    2000 Seraphim UK 74014
    2000 Naxos 8 554387
    1999 Deutsche Grammophon 457748
    1999 Dutton Laboratories 7033
    1998 D Classics HR703862
    1998 London 455 405-2DF2
    1997 Finlandia 0630-14951-2
    1996 London 448817
    1996 EMI Music Distribution 568646-2
    1996 BIS 864
    1996 Berlin Classics 0092812
    1996 Chandos 7054
    1995 RCA 68218
    1995 Finlandia 99962-2
    1995 Sony Music Distribution 53268
    1995 Philips 446160
    1994 Berlin Classics 0020592
    1994 Naxos 550197
    1994 BIS 622
    1993 Naxos 504002
    1993 BIS 237
    1993 Sony Music Distribution SM2K-47622
    1992 EMI Music Distribution 64027
    1992 Chandos 6559
    1992 Decca
    1991 Chandos CHAN6557
    1991 EMI Music Distribution 641212
    1991 EMI Music Distribution 764118-2
    1991 London 430778
    EMI Music Distribution 63464
    EMI Music Distribution 63321
    RCA 60157
    D Classics 703892
    Deutsche Grammophon 415108
    London 414267
    Brilliant 6328/4
    Warner Music
    Chandos 8965
    BBC Music Magazine 283
    Finlandia 99963
    EMI Music Distribution 574485-2
    Vanguard 3133