Symphony no. 7 by Jean Sibelius
So this is definitely cheating, but whatever; the man himself only made it one movement, and that’s good enough for me. There are easily identifiable “movements” in Sibelius 7, but I guess they’re just sections or something so I’m sticking with this come hell or high water.
The idea of condensing the symphony was around not all that long after the damn thing was invented in the first place. The first prominent example that leaps to mind is Beethoven 5, in which the final two movements blend together via one of the all-time great transitions in music. By 1841 Robert Schumann figured he could probably do the same thing with all the movements, and his 4th Symphony does just that (the transitions are not really all that amazing for the first three movements, it’s mostly just attacca. The bridge to the finale though is about the best minute and a half you could spend on any given day of your life). This distillation would reappear sporadically through the rest of the century, but it must have struck a chord with several major composers in the century after.
No composer ever did it better than Sibelius, though, and it isn’t particularly close. Beginning with his 3rd Symphony, he began exploring in earnest the idea of whittling the mythical beast that was the Romantic symphony, in all its exaggerated glory, to a fine point. It’s utterly fascinating to see this progression of ideas reach their culmination in the final symphony he completed. I don’t know of a ton of instances in art or really any aspect of life where you can go back and see an idea emerge so forcefully as Sibelius managed to pull off. It’s like watching The Sixth Sense a second time: “shit man, how the hell did I not see that coming?”
The symphony itself is an absolute masterpiece. It revolves around a proud motto theme in the trombones that appears in key spots in the work and takes on a different appearance each time. The first time it sort of hovers above the fray, stately and noble, something not of the same planet. The second time it returns in the thick of the frenetic scherzo and attempts to restore order, but it seems a little God of the Hebrews “I swear to Myself I’ll rain sulphur all over you motherfuckers if you don’t calm the hell down” this time, bringing some aggressive horns with it to drive the point home. It takes a while for the band to work out the kinks, but they eventually do because the final statement of the motto is much more New Testament God “Just love your neighbors and don’t worship anybody but Me and I guess we should be good” uplifting and exalted, supported by the most Sibelius! string writing you could ever hope to hear.
The symphony culminates in one of the most powerful moments in the symphonic or any other repertoire you care to think of. With the horns intoning the same theme they thunderously threw down during the second motto appearance and the strings restlessly playing a syncopated rhythm surging with energy, the entire orchestra steadily coalesces, the music intensifying with alarming rapidity until the bottom finally drops into the raddest, most searing fucking B major chord, then a blistering unison E with a crescendo and a timpani roll into…Heaven. C major string Heaven that appears like you just broke through a metaphysical cloud. The work concludes with a gorgeous hymn that reminisces on the music that was and finally comes to rest on a massive C major chord in which the strings sound the major seventh before crescendoing into the tonic like a most beautiful sigh.
I used an awful lot of religious ideas in that description, and I should make it perfectly clear that there is no such religious element present in the conception of the work at all. That underscores a halfway decent point though: you don’t have to be religious to be spiritual. Sibelius Symphony no. 7 is as spiritually profound a piece of music as there is, no less so than the B minor Mass or Bruckner 9 or Messiah or whatever other plainly religious work out there. Sibelius is in many respects thought of as the symphonic opposite of Gustav Mahler, not the least of which because of their famous conversation about the very nature of the symphony. Setting aside their compositional approaches though, Mahler is known as the great human spiritualist, the man who confronted the questions of existence as powerfully as he could, most certainly living up to the ethos that the symphony “must embrace the world.” Sibelius might cringe at the idea (or he might not, hell, I don’t know), but at least in his final completed symphony he asked many of those same questions. And he answered them too. And did it in 20 fucking minutes. I love Sibelius 7 so much, and I need it too. My life is flat out better for knowing it, and I don’t think that can be said for everything.
The video below is a phenomenal performance, in my opinion. Most things about it are wrong in the same way a lot of things that Leonard Bernstein did in the ’80’s were wrong. It’s too slow. Some of the tempo relationships are off. Everything isn’t always together. And as always Bernstein looks bloody terrible. But there’s a commitment level here that is just entirely too rare. I have no idea why. The Vienna Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein could have just as easily phoned this one in and it would have sold the classical equivalent of a kajillion units, but they sure did the complete opposite of that. This performance is a “we invented flight, cured polio, went to the moon, and have art, music, and literature inspired by something divine” slice of humanity. It is with that spirit in mind that I say: Crank that shit up.