Exactly 100 years have passed, new ideas have come and gone, waves of new music have crashed and receded, yet Sibelius and his church modes in 1923 seem more and more to be something we never considered: revolutionary.

Jean Sibelius (1865–1957). Symphony No. 6 (1923)

Sibelius Monument, Passio Musicae (1967), by Eila Hiltunen

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Hi everybody, I’m Kile Smith, and welcome to Fleisher Discoveries. Fleisher Discoveries is a podcast from the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in the Free Library of Philadelphia. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection. There’s a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast up every month on SoundCloud and on Spotify; search “Fleisher Discoveries” and find every one of our podcasts.

I keep an eye on anniversaries, of composers and of pieces, as I prepare each Fleisher Discoveries podcast, but for some reason I normally avoid them. I don’t know why; it’s a good hook for a show. But maybe because our podcasts stay around for a long time—you can hear every one of them on Spotify and SoundCloud—I usually avoid specific dates.

But when I came across the 100th anniversary of the Sibelius Sixth Symphony, I stopped and considered. Usually you won’t hear music by the most famous composers on Fleisher Discoveries, since we like to skirt around the edges of music and discover little-known pieces, composers, and stories. However, the Fleisher Collection being the largest lending library of orchestral performance materials in the world, it of course holds virtually the entire standard orchestral repertoire, and it’s good to be reminded of that every once in a while.

Still, Jean Sibelius has always mystified me. He turns up on all the lists of most-performed composers by orchestras—his Violin Concerto is, I’ve read, played more than any other violin concerto written in the 20th century. His symphonies turn up on programs with great frequency, although you’re more likely to hear No. 2 or No. 7 than No. 6.

And, considering that Sixth Symphony, which I was doing when I saw that it was 100 years ago, on February 19th, 1923 that Sibelius conducted the premiere in Helsinki, there’s no getting around the fact that it is just, well, a little weird. I find it absolutely delightful, but, yes, I keep coming back to the word “weird.” And I thought that even before I read Tim Page, who wrote the same thing about Sibelius in the Washington Post a few years back, that, “at his very best, he is often weird.”

But it is beautiful. It’s difficult, maybe impossible to describe, and the composer, appropriately, comes the closest to it when he once said about his Symphony No. 6, that it always reminded him “of the scent of the first snow.” Jean Sibelius is one of the great nature composers. He loved his native Finland, everything about it, the forests, the lakes, the sky, the birds, the snow.

He loved his country so much that although he, like most of the urban population, spoke Swedish as his native language (Finland was under Swedish rule for a long time before Russia then took it over), Jean Sibelius decided to learn Finnish. It was a huge undertaking, as the Finnish language is its own thing. It’s unlike any other European language except Hungarian. But as Finland in the late 1800s was swept by a wave of nationalism that would lead to its independence in 1917, Sibelius learned to speak the Finnish language, while he was composing his great patriotic pieces based on Finnish folklore, culminating in the work that would become the unofficial national anthem, Finlandia.

Aside from changing his first name Johan to the French version, Jean, Sibelius was Finnish through and through. His symphonies, though, stay away from the overt nationalism of his tone poems such as En Saga, Tapiola, Lemminkäinen Suite, and others. The symphonies really are a distillation of his musical ideas.

But in the Sixth Symphony you can still smell the snow. It’s in four movements and comes in at around 22, 25 minutes long. It is often listed as being in D minor, but it isn’t in D minor, it’s in the old church mode of D dorian. Each of the modes has a special character, and the defining taste of dorian is that, while it has most of the inflections of the minor key, it has a raised sixth—in D dorian, a B natural instead of a B flat. That one note change makes all the difference, lifting the dorian mode into another world, into another reality, into a gossamer that floats just above where you think the ground ought to be.

It begins with what might be a chorale centuries old. It spins and floats in the highest strings for such a long time, you wonder if this is the introduction—no, it can’t be an introduction, it’s going on too long, but this can’t possibly be the symphony, can it? By the time cellos come in to provide some grounding, oboes and flutes take up the cause with the violins, and up it wafts again.

The entire movement is like this; the entire symphony is like this, from the beginning Allegro molto moderato in 2/2, to the Allegretto moderato second movement in 3/4—a very nuanced waltz—to the 6/8 third movement, Poco vivace, and notice two things about this. The moderation of the first two movements, and even the third movement’s vivace is just a little, a poco: nothing in this symphony is overt. And that 6/8 meter of the third is, if anything, a marriage of the beginning 2/2 and the second movement’s 3/4.

Sibelius shows us the meaning behind what he told Mahler a symphony ought to be. When they met, they talked, naturally, about symphonies, these two great composers for that form. Sibelius said that what he loved about the symphony was its “severity of style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motifs.” Mahler countered with what has become a famous line, that, “No, a symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.”

The genius of these two men is that when I listen to Mahler I believe Mahler. But when I listen to Sibelius, and especially do I hear it in his Symphony No. 6, I believe Sibelius. Every movement sounds as if it’s just the next breath being taken. I’m always surprised when one movement ends. And then the next takes up the story as if—of course—this is what’s supposed to follow. Even the Allegro molto of the fourth and final movement, in 4/4, doesn’t seem like a finale but, magically, like a return to the first movement. And 4/4 is, after all, just like 2/2, only leaning forward, perhaps.

So let’s take the opportunity to admire, exactly one hundred years later, the scent of that first snow falling in Finland, and the exquisite lightness of the Symphony No. 6 by Jean Sibelius. On Fleisher Discoveries, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra.

[Jean Sibelius (1865–1957). Symphony No. 6 (1923)]

The Symphony No. 6 by Jean Sibelius. The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Jean Sibelius himself conducted the premiere 100 years ago this month, on February 19th, 1923, in Helsinki. You’re listening to the Fleisher Discoveries podcast, and I’m Kile Smith.

That 100th anniversary is also significant because of what was going on in music at the time. Arnold Schoenberg’s experiments in 12-tone were beginning to sweep everywhere. Richard Wagner’s influence was still huge. Igor Stravinsky, fresh off his ballet explosions of The Rite of Spring, Firebird, and Petroushka, was almost inverting himself into neoclassicism. Prokofiev was rising, Debussy had just passed, and a new generation of French composers was knocking the pins out from under narrative and drama itself. Jazz was finding a way through the rubble left by the Russian Revolution and the First World War, and through all this sorting of ideas and crashing of waves, trodding slowly and confidently through all of this was Jean Sibelius, conducting his Sixth Symphony, as unlikely and yes, weird, a symphony you’ll find, making all the noise of a first snowfall.

Sibelius was not universally lauded. Many critics treated him harshly. But as the years have passed and the ideas have sifted to the ground and the waves have receded, Sibelius and his church modes in 1923 seem more and more to be something we never considered: revolutionary. And that consideration is, to me, a discovery.

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Richard in Connecticut wrote in to say how much he enjoys all of our programs, and really enjoyed our December show with all the Christmas works, especially Rimsky-Korsakov. Thanks, Richard! Remember that all of our podcasts are available all of the time, so please check us out anytime for what we hope are the enlightening stories and wonderful pieces we uncover for every show. Stay tuned for more Fleisher Discoveries podcasts coming to you every month, right here.

And again, thanks for joining me on Fleisher Discoveries, a podcast produced by the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Every month we have a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast for you on Spotify and SoundCloud. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection, and I’m Kile Smith. Stay well and I hope to see you next time on Fleisher Discoveries.