Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63

‘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 on his 4th Symphony in 1940


When was it composed?

The fourth of Sibelius’s seven symphonies it was composed between 1909-1911.


When was it premiered?

It was first performed on 3 April 1911 in Helsinki by the Philharmonic Society with the composer conducting.


What instruments does Sibelius use?

2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, glockenspiel/tubular bells and strings.


How long does it last?

Approximately 35-40 minutes


A few things about Symphony #4

  • The period of the #4 (1909-1911) was a dark one for Sibelius: a cancerous tumour had been removed from his throat; alcohol and tobacco, his two main emotional supports, were forbidden; and creditors were constantly at the door. In the musical world he felt out of step with what was developing in Europe.  “No one, no one at all discusses me,” he complained in his diary. “I’m completely out of the picture.”  In the wider world Finland was still suffering from political unrest and the aftermath of the previous century’s famine as tensions in Europe were hurtling towards July 1914.
  • Sibelius began forming ideas for the work in the autumn of 1909. As he started working in earnest the following January he confided to his diary,  “I am intentionally burning my boats,”.  In August of 1910 he was still struggling with the development of the first movement and crossed out everything he had written and began again.
  • He continued to struggle with the piece and finished just in time for the concert in April of 1911 where the piece was greeted with puzzlement and skepticism by audience and critics. One reviewer wrote, “Posterity must decide whether the composer has overstepped the boundaries dictated by sound, natural musicianship.”  After that first performance his wife Aino observed, “Evasive glances, shakes of the head, embarrassed or secretly ironic smiles. Not many came to the dressing room to deliver their congratulations.”
  • With time it has been recognized as a great, if elusive, work. Not as frequently performed as Sibelius’s other symphonies the #4 is a major challenge for any orchestra.


The Movements

  • Unusually the piece begins with a slow (quasi adagio) movement instead of the more traditional fast opening. Then the traditional tempi of the second and third movements of a “classical” symphony are reversed: the third becomes the slow movement while the second is marked lively (vivace).|
  • Sibelius uses the Tritone (the Devil’s sound) as the core of the symphony. It begins the work and serves as its unifying element as well as a source of conflict, creating both disturbing dissonance and reassuring resolutions.


I.    Tempo molto moderato, quasi adagio in A minor/ambiguous key

The movement begins with the somber sounds of cellos, basses and bassoons voicing that tritone – the composer notes that it should be “As harsh as fate.” It is unsettling like an approaching storm.  The odd flash of sunshine bursts forth from the trumpets and trombones as a prelude to first a gentle, almost pastoral clarinet solo then later an oboe solo.  The storm threat returns but the movement ends in eerie stillness. 


II.    Allegro molto vivace in F major/ambiguous key

The oboe and strings begin the brief, almost incidental, scherzo. But the bouncy melody is constantly being interrupted by that tritone theme. The flutes and oboe try to lighten the tone but again that emerging tritone brings an unsettling mood to the movement which ends abruptly to the beat of the timpani.


III.    Il tempo largo in ambiguous key/C# minor

The longest movement and the very heart of the symphony the tritone changes character and generates music of sadness and compassion. Passages for flute, cello and bassoon at times have an almost hymn-like quality. The section resigns itself with what almost sounds like a world-weary sigh. 


IV.    Allegro in A major/ambiguous key

In contrast to the previous movements it begins jauntily with bright solo passages for the cello and viola; even the glockenspiel chimes in brightly.  Various groups of instruments attempt to keep the mood light but again the tritone breaks in to create chaos.  The symphony ends in an unsettling quiet without resolution.



Any suggestions for a preview?

Every major orchestra and conductor have faced the challenge of the #4.  Your choice of performances on video, streaming or old-fashioned CD are extensive and may depend on your own preference.  Amongst the earliest is Sir Thomas Beecham conducting his London Philharmonic in 1937 – a treasure despite its age.  Of more recent vintage Sir Simon Rattle with the City of Birmingham Orchestra has been highly regarded.


Several versions are available on YouTube amongst them a young Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Swedish Radio Orchestra.



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