In the late 1970s, William Rees-Mogg, then editor of the pre-Murdoch The Times and most noted for his spirited defence of Mick Jagger in his famous editorial “Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?”, deigned to publish three letters of mine. One expressed concern at the James Callaghan’s somewhat utilitarian understanding of tertiary education which, knowingly or unknowingly, was effectively adopted by Margaret Thatcher’s administrations during the 1980s. Another provided a critical response to a talk given by the journalist Paul Johnson to a gathering of bank credit analysts in Chicago. The latter, coincidentally, also had a significant influence on the prevailing politics on the decade to come. (Ironically, many years later, I enjoyed supper with the man when he came to the University of Essex to give the Annual Sacks Lecture on Jewish Theology and Inter-Faith Understanding.) The third letter, which was published in the bottom, right-hand corner of the Letters Page was completely different in character, politics giving way to aesthetics. In short, it simply drew readers’ attention to the contrasting approaches of two of the greatest symphonists that straddled the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. According to Gustav Mahler, “A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything”. In stark contrast, Jean Sibelius wrote, “Whereas most other modern composers are engaged in manufacturing cocktails of every hue and description, I offer the public cold spring water”.
Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony in A minor, written in 1913, may not feature the lush romanticism of his early symphonies, the kinetic athleticism of his Fifth or the organic concentration of his Seventh, but many have argued that this may well be the composer’s finest symphony.
The date of the composition is of course an ominous one, written just a few years before the outbreak of World War I. However, it’s dark and portentous quality probably also reflects more personal concerns. First, the fear of the recurrence of a cancerous tumour of his throat which was successfully treated surgically five years earlier. Secondly, his encounter with Freudian psychoanalysis, not least through his younger brother, the psychiatrist Christian Sibelius. And, thirdly, through encountering during this period several contemporary composers, including Stravinsky and Schoenberg as well as Mahler, which undoubtedly engendered some kind of crisis in his compositional work.
Interestingly, during the symphony’s composition, Sibelius decided to take time out to provide a setting of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven. The latter, however, was eventually abandoned, though some of its ideas were incorporated into the Finale. The opening movement (‘Tempo molto moderato, quasi adagio’) evokes from the very outset an authoritative mood of bleak, wintry bareness though not one completely eschewing passion or tenderness. Maybe the symphony’s early but later abandoned nickname sums it up: “Lucus a non lucendo”.
The version chosen below features Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Recorded in 1965, this account of the work was well received at the time and continues to draw admiration.
[NB The track below is offered in the lossless FLAC format which is now supported by most recent browsers and operating systems.]