On Sibelius's Fourth Symphony, modernism, instability, Futurama, and World War I

Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony thematizes and brings to the fore a single musical concept, and does so in a number of ways that are almost too numerous to perceive in any single listening.  (But, tangentially: if this even make sense to talk about, one’s ability to appreciate it on multiple levels might be one of few things that could reasonably be posited as a defining characteristic of “greatness” in an artwork.)  There are different ways of thinking and perceiving this concept I have in mind, and it’s so broad that one word seems inadequate to describe it.  What occurs to me as a provisional one is “instability.”  “But isn’t it,” you probably already think, “hopelessly banal and/or yawningly commonplace to suggest that instability is part of a piece of tonal music???”  Your internal objection might go further: “Tonality itself presupposes instability… an instability that gives way to resolution -- a dialectial tension, perhaps, between stability and instability in which stability always wins (or at least that what the works tell us).”  My claim, in response to your well-thought-out objection, is that there’s something different here.  Instability in Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony is uniquely used: a way of structuring all levels of the symphony, from the most global concepts to the most sensuous particulars.  It’s not just a chord or a phrase that’s part of a journey, something that merely gives way to a tonic triad that either affirms the social order or the primacy of the composer/listener’s subjectivity.  Fundamentally contradictorily, the structure of this symphony is built upon a notion that undermines structures.

Most pitch-prominently, the symphony makes obsessive use of a particularly, famously unstable musical interval: the so-called “tritone,” also known as an augmented fourth or a diminished fifth (indeed, maybe that there are different ways of naming the interval might be taken as a sign of its instability).  The foregrounded, almost heavy-handed use of the tritone has far-reaching implications.  Considered one way, the tritone is a half-step away from being (or, perhaps, we hear it as trying to be) a perfect 5th, one of the most fundamentally familiar and consonant intervals in music (located, as it is, in lowest parts of the harmonic series); put another way, it makes us expect a more consonant interval, but it is not itself one.  And considered differently, it is also the precise midpoint of the octave.  This means the following things: a note a tritone away from another is the farthest possible distance from the pitch whence it came.  More music-theoretically, the key of which it is the root is on opposite side of the so-called “circle of fifths” (the basis for key relations in tonal music) thus also the most distant tonal-harmonically.

The use of the tritone, while the most traditionally clear structural instability in the Fourth Symphony, seems to spawn other ones or at least go hand in hand with them.  N0 less pervasive is the use of syncopated rhythms.  For instance, the symphony’s opening motif, featuring the tritone as an outer limit, is made up of quarter notes that are written such that all but one is an offbeat.  Sometimes syncopations are used such that they sound like they are deliberately fighting with strong beats, as in the some of desperate-sounding string moments in the last movement.  Other times they are used on their own to create a sense of uncertain, undefined, uncentered rhythm, as in the lonely, high violin music in the middle of the first movement.  Other times they are used to create rhythmic dissonance with superimposed meters, as in the end of the 3rd movement, where an implied triple time signature creates a disconcerting effect against the prevailing (notated) 4/4.  

Finally, the unstable characteristics of the basic building blocks of the piece have ramifications on the formal and large-scale-structural levels.  The first movement is a sonata form (the expected, conventional form, used only recently by Sibelius in his Third Symphony in a cookie-cutter manner) only if your heart is really set on it.  The second movement should be an ABA, like most well-behaved scherzos are; but the second A section never arrives, and the movement retreats hastily with its tail between its legs.  The fourth movement reverses the (much) more typical minor-to-major trajectory; beginning in a celebratory but you-can’t-be-serious A major that eventually collapses the movement to a stern A minor – “pure cold water,” to quote Sibelius from a different context.

A few comments on the individual movements themselves:

As hinted, the first is formally uncertain and vague, though it invites a comparison with sonata form: after an initial muddy explosion in the low instruments, introducing the tritone motif, three identifiable parts ensue.  There is long series of opening gestures; there is a nervous middle/development section with tremolo strings and hopeless woodwind commentary; there is a sort-of recapitulation of many of the opening gestures.  Other than this, though, one is hard pressed to place the boundaries on sections that sonata form so often explicitly invites.  Melodies attempt to get underway; the opening cello solo, for instances, can’t really figure out its direction or internal structure.  Cutting brass chords portend something important that never arrives.  Subsequent fragmented horn fanfares refer to the memory of when tonal music was truly believable (wait, when was that?).  The solo clarinet and oboe reflect navel-gazingly on their own sadness.

The second movement, while tentative, seems to begin more hopefully.  The melody is almost cheerful, straightforwardly diatonic (one of my students related it to the scherzo of Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony, a rich intertextual relationship indeed).  The introduction of the sharpened 4th scale degree (B natural here in the key of F major), though, catches the ear as sounding like a wrong note; it re-introduces the tritone motif, which quickly commandeers the melodic character, though the texture remains light and scherzando.  A major character and tempo change (and an expressive descending woodwind melody – motivically related to what has come before it) seems to start what we normally think of as the trio section of a scherzo.  This one, though, is tempestuous and troubled.  Harmonic stasis breeds restlessness, and blaring horns make their discontent known.  The movement collapses unceremoniously and ends with a whimper, completely deformed and mangled, unable to complete what was set up to be a straightforward three-part structure.

The slow movement alternates between two musical-instrumental worlds and affective states.  The first is heard right from the opening, and it is a reminiscence of two different elements of the first movement – uncertain, searching, nearly energyless woodwind solos; combined with snakey melodic motions that involve the tritone interval (the opening flute solo strong resembling a subdued version of the of symphony’s very beginning, the contour only slightly changed).  This is contrasted with a different theme, one perpetually in a state of “becoming” rather than of “being” – first a hint in a noble-sounding horn quartet, then an elaboration by the cellos, then attempt by the full string section, all of which leads to a shattering, grief-stricken, wailing, garment-rending climax.  This secondary theme has finally found itself.  But the snarling trombone bass motion is a tritone, and it undermines the cathartic cadence by placing the tonic chord in first inversion rather than root position, refusing to give a sense of satisfaction.  The instability inherent in the tonal system, which so often gives way to a sense of affirmation and security, here leads only to a sense of anti-climax.  In short, this symphony can’t even get its melodrama right.

The Finale is suddenly, contextlessly, laughably in A major; but something is obviously not right from the beginning – there are wrong notes every few bars.  The most audibly obvious is the sharpened fourth scale degree that was heard in the second movement: in this case D#, the tritone away from A.  It works on not only local, but global levels: the key of E-flat major (D# major spelled grammatically) serves as the secondary tonality of the movement, a constant threat; when the recapitulation appears in that key it feels exhilaratingly alien.  Glockenspiel and chimes insist on an inane, juvenile cadential gesture of such simple-mindedness that it comes across as self-deceptive and naive.  The symphony’s gnarly, over-grown, wheezing climax comes as different tonalities and metrical hierarchies struggle for primacy in a cacophonous mess of musical detritus.  Left over from this are a few completely bewildered woodwind solos and a string section of increasingly little confidence.  The only certainty we are given is one of the very strangest endings of a symphonic work: utterly unremarkable diatonic string chords that confirm the key of A minor with no room for doubt, but with hardly any perceptible affect.  It certainly is not happy; neither, though, is it clearly sad.  It is simply mezzo-forte.  The achievement of a stable triad means nothing and neither affirms nor denies.  It existence is mere convention, a pure signifier without a signified, asking someone how their day was without actually wanting to know.  There perhaps so that everyone knows the piece is over and that they can go home now.

For some reason, this ending reminds me of the race of Neutral People from the animated TV show Futurama.  Their planet’s motto is “Live Free or Don’t.”  The Neutral President says “All I know is my gut says maybe.”  When faced with possible destruction: “If I don’t survive, tell my wife ‘hello’.”

Or, let us now recall that the symphony was finished in 1911.  Perhaps it is one of Sibelius’s many attempts to rescue and re-assert some possibility of tonality into a European world whose increasing fascination with an alienated modernism in art (of which Schoenberg’s atonality is a clear musical manifestation) was a reflection of a society headed irrevocably towards a cataclysmic war (1914-1918) that would forever alter the wolrd in previously unimaginable ways.  Calling this symphony “prophetic” might be too strong.  But it is certainly “symptomatic” of a very basic culture issues that our society today still deals with so much as a matter of course that we may not even notice them.