The Articulation of Time in the Seventh Symphony of Jean Sibelius: Toward Informed Performance

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Boyer, Maurice Christian
Ross, James E
Sibelius repeatedly maintained that tempo fluctuations in his music ought to be barely perceptible. Dealing with the subtle tempo modulations in the one-movement Seventh Symphony is thus not surprisingly one of the most challenging aspects of performing the piece. The present study addresses the matters of time and tempo from a variety of perspectives: harmony, compositional process, metronome markings. Throughout, the piece reveals itself as an organism evolving through and in time. First, we look at ways in which harmonic interruptions and sonic echoes are used to create at once continuity and discontinuity in the musical narrative. Borrowing terms from literary studies, we examine the importance of aposiopesis and stylems (a term whose use is owed to Antonin Servière) in the symphony. Each of these forms of interruption exerts a contrary force on the forward thrust of the piece that affects one's experience of time. Second, we examine Sibelius's compositional process by looking at the evolution of the piece from sketch to final form. This analysis reveals the composer stripping away cadences, strategically inserting pedal points, shifting tempo markings to avoid structural downbeats, all to achieve an elasticity and fluidity of time where the perception of tempo changes is blurred. Third, we look at Sibelius's metronome markings. While they contain helpful information, they also withhold information, particularly about the first 93 bars of the piece. We take stock of what this absence reveals about the structure of the piece and about problems in performance related to time and tempo. The ending of the piece receives separate treatment as it is particularly revelatory of Sibelius's compositional process. Here, what the composer discarded sheds light on the enigmatic but highly poetic final version of the ending of the piece. Finally, we offer in the appendix a performance history of the Seventh Symphony. The difficulty of programming this concise but epic work accounts to some measure for its lack of performance. The two tables at the end of this study are intended as a resource for conductors seeking to program this poetic work.