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Life Arts

Jean Sibelius, Symphony No. 4, The Finnish Symphony about Existentialism and Psychoanalysis

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Sibelius, Symphonie Nr 4 a Moll op 63 Esa Pekka Salonen, Symphonieorchester des Schwedischen
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"I am pleased that I did it, for even today I cannot find a single note in it that I could remove, nor can I find anything to add. This gives me strength and satisfaction. The fourth symphony represents a very important and great part of me. Yes, I'm glad to have written it."

---Jean Sibelius in the 1940s

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After completing the fourth symphony Sibelius stood on a borderland behind which lay either "madness or chaos", as he later explained to his friend, Walter Legge. "A symphony is not just a composition in the ordinary sense of the word," Sibelius wrote in 1910. "It is more a confession of faith at different stages of one's life."

In his diary: "No one, no one at all discusses me. I'm completely out of the picture. I am intentionally burning my boats," and "I am holding high the banner of real art."

By spring his optimism had waned. "Again in the deepest depression," reads a diary entry of April 21.

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In a much later letter to his friend (and biographer) Rosa Newmarch about the symphony: "It stands as a protest against present-day music. It has absolutely nothing of the circus about it."

Later, when asked about the symphony, he quoted August Strindberg: "Det är synd om människorna" (One feels pity for human beings).

Noting the completion of the symphony in his diary on April 2, 1911, Sibelius commented: "It calls for much courage to look at life straight in the eye."

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Completed in 1911, with first performance in Helsinki on 3rd April 1911 (Orchestra of Helsinki Philharmonic Society conducted by Jean Sibelius).

The fourth symphony was once considered to be the strangest of Sibelius's symphonies, but today it is regarded as one of his greatest works.

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From the first moment I heard the opening notes of the cello, I have always been deeply moved by this music.

It is a statement of profound thought that goes far beyond the cinematic interpretations of gloomy northern forests and fjords and mountains and fog, all of the programmatic stereotypical geographic interpretations of much of Sibelius' works. It has a density of expression, and a mastery of counterpoint that make it one of the most impressive manifestations of modern thinking from the time of its creations. At times when I listen to this and other Sibelius compositions, that I am sitting at the feet of some great existential master lecturing from the Great Beyond, like listening to Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, T.S. Eliot, or Dmitri Shostakovich.

The 4th Symphony was written in 1910/11, a period of darkness for the composer, after undergoing an operation to remove a malignant tumor from his throat, and he was convinced that the cancer had spread. The operation also meant that for two years he had to do without his indispensable friends: alcohol and tobacco. It was further a wretched time in Sibelius's personal life, because the world was rushing towards World War I, and Finland was recovering from the prior century's famine in which Scandinavians had had to eat the bark of trees to keep from starving.

Sibelius thought deeply about changing his composition style while he was in Berlin in 1909, and this was his overall state of mind when he joined the artist Eero Järnefelt for a trip to Koli, the emblematic "Finnish mountain" in Karelia. The landscape of Koli was an endless source of inspiration, and Sibelius said that he was going to listen to the "sighing of the winds and the roar of the storms," and Sibelius composer considered his Koli visit as one of the greatest experiences of his life.

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