Jean Sibelius

Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39

    Description by Roger Dettmer

    When, at 33, Sibelius finally composed his Symphony No. 1, he already had a portfolio of orchestral music. His harmonic vocabulary, technical apparatus, orchestral style, and thematic character (rooted in the Finnish language) were firmly in place and organized. If, as Beckmessers have carped from the beginning, the first symphony here and there echoes Tchaikovsky, so do contemporaneous works by Glazunov and Rachmaninov; Pyotr Il'yich's Pathétique Symphony was not yet six years old when Sibelius introduced his new First with the Helsinki Philharmonic on April 27, 1899.

    Melodic substance and sonorities are voluptuous in the First without bursting the corset-stays of decorum or modesty. As Finnish patriotism hardened into resistance, Sibelius became emblematic both at home and abroad. His music attracted an ever-growing and appreciative following in Great Britain and the United States (but none at all in France, Italy, or Vienna). Politics aside, Russian conductors and concertgoers liked it nearly as much -- especially the First and Second symphonies. While No. 2 is technically surer and structurally tighter, No. 1 is the more memorable melodically, and the more volatile emotionally.

    The whole first movement is unified by a theme heard at the outset, played by a single clarinet over a soft timpani roll, then without accompaniment. In one way or another, the abundance of themes in a tightly argued movement derives from this opening, most ingeniously so in an episode for staccato flutes playing in thirds over strings and harp, extensively developed later on but not reprised before two E minor chords at the end.

    Both the slow movement and the scherzo are free adaptations of three-part form (ABA). Instead of new material, the B section of the Andante develops the main theme of A and then reprises only that theme. Here more than anywhere else, the Pathétique of Pyotr Il'yich casts an occasional lugubrious shadow on isolated string and bassoon passages.

    The pounding, headlong scherzo, with an A section in C, D flat, and G major, restores the timpani to prominence. The middle part, however, is slow (Lento) and sostenuto, in E major, until a transition back to the C major song section, where the previous D flat material is reprised in G flat before an accelerating coda.

    The finale begins in E minor with the same theme that opened the symphony, here played throbbingly by violins, violas, and cellos before its fragmentary development by pairs or groups of winds. This is only the introduction, however, to a sonata-form Finale. Its main-theme group of fast-moving, folk-flavored segments -- fragments, almost -- sets up a lyrical second theme played by unison violins on the G string. Thereafter, the main-theme group is developed extensively, verging on melodrama, following which the bardic G string theme returns. It, too, is developed to a passionate climax before the ending echoes the first movement: two E minor chords -- now soft, however, rather than loud, and pizzicato rather than sostenuto.

    Parts/Movements

    1. Andante, ma non troppo - Allegro energico
    2. Andante (ma non troppo lento)
    3. Scherzo. Allegro
    4. Finale Quasi una Fantasia. Andante - Allegro molto

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2018 Decca / Deutsche Grammophon 4798418
    2017 ABC Classics
    2017 Linn Records CKD 502
    2017 Warner Classics 9029586915
    2016 Deutsche Grammophon 4830431
    2016 LSO Live LSO 0675
    2016 Deutsche Grammophon 4795553
    2015 Warner Classics 2564605317
    2015 Swedish Society Discofil SCD 1161
    2015 RCO RCO 15002
    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 Guild / Guild GMCD 2414
    2014 RCA Red Seal 88843006072
    2013 Decca 4785437
    2013 EMI Classics
    2013 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099997360
    2013 Brilliant Classics 9439
    2013 Finlandia 530101
    2013 BIS 1996
    2013 Decca 4785601
    2013 Decca
    2013 Deutsche Grammophon
    2012 Decca 4783696
    2012 Decca
    2012 Erato 2564662795
    2012 Warner Classics
    2012 Melodiya MYD 1001669
    2011 Alto / Musical Concepts 132
    2011 Decca 4782826
    2011 BIS 1933/35
    2010 Sony Classical 8869768365
    2010 ABC Classics 4763943
    2010 Naxos 8572305
    2010 Exton 279
    2010 Denon Records
    2010 Denon Records
    2010 Alto 1089
    2010 ABC Classics 4763944
    2009 Telarc Distribution 80760
    2009 Document 231058
    2009 Denon Records
    2009 EMI Classics
    2009 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099969718
    2009 LSO Live 191
    2009 Hallé 7514
    2008 Brilliant Classics 8867
    2008 LSO LSO 0601
    2008 Guild 2341
    2008 EMI Classics
    2008 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099951203
    2007 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099950075
    2007 EMI Classics
    2007 EMI Classics 3724802
    2007 EMI Music Distribution 72478
    2007 Deutsche Grammophon 000956502
    2006 Edel Classics 2342
    2006 Ondine 1075
    2006 EMI Music Distribution / Warner Classics 7243476963
    2006 Decca 000689202
    2006 BIS 1697/1700
    2005 Cala Records 541
    2005 Finlandia
    2005 Apex 4622032
    2005 Silverline Records 284203
    2005 EMI Classics
    2005 EMI Classics
    2005 Deutsche Grammophon 000531936
    2004 Deutsche Grammophon 000218302
    2004 Biddulph Recordings 062
    2004 Dutton Laboratories 1025
    2004 RCA Victor 55706
    2003 Arte Nova 49705
    2003 EMI Music Distribution 75480
    2003 Tahra 1
    2003 Deutsche Grammophon 474 353-2
    2003 Artemis Classics 1201
    2003 Erato 4602942
    2003 Sony Music Distribution 87329
    2003 Decca 000121902
    2003 Sony Music Distribution 87798
    2003 History 45515
    2002 Brilliant 6328
    2002 Sony Classical 87882
    2002 Brilliant Classics 6899
    2002 Erato 7435002
    2002 Ondine 1007
    2002 EMI Music Distribution 74858
    2002 Naxos 505179
    2001 History 205235
    2001 BIS 1286/8
    2000 EMI Music Distribution / Warner Classics 7243567299
    2000 Dutton Vocalion 1018
    2000 Urania 155
    2000 D Classics 70670
    1999 Denon Records 17033
    1998 Naxos 554102
    1998 D Classics HR703862
    1998 London 455402
    1998 Finlandia 23388
    1997 BMG 68183
    1997 Sony Classical 63260
    1997 Sony Music Distribution 63060
    1996 Finlandia 95882
    1996 Testament 1049
    1996 BIS 861
    1996 EMI Music Distribution 68960
    1996 Berlin Classics 0092672
    1996 Chandos 7054
    1995 Philips 446157
    1995 EMI Music Distribution CD-CFPSD4763
    1995 EMI Music Distribution 568643-2
    1995 Sony Music Distribution 23248
    1994 Berlin Classics 0020592
    1994 Naxos 550197
    1994 BIS 221
    1994 BIS 622
    1993 Sony Classical 52566
    1993 Naxos 504002
    1993 Sony Music Distribution SM2K-47619
    1992 Deutsche Grammophon 435351
    1992 Chandos 6559
    1992 Decca
    1991 Telarc Distribution 80246
    1991 Chandos 6555
    1991 EMI Classics / EMI Music Distribution 7542732
    1991 EMI Classics 764119-2
    1991 EMI Music Distribution 764118-2
    1991 London 430778
    1988 RCA Victor Red Seal 87765
    History 204566
    Beulah 1PD8
    Chandos 9107
    History 205239
    D Classics 703872
    Philharmonia of the Nations 44
    Deutsche Grammophon 429526
    Brilliant 6328/1
    Warner Music
    RCA 7765
    London 50374
    London 414534
    EMI Music Distribution 63152
    EMI Music Distribution 747515
    Collins Records 1093
    EMI Music Distribution 64119
    Koch 7127
    Finlandia 99963
    EMI Music Distribution 574485-2
    Vanguard 3133
    As Disc 558
    Arlecchino 113