Sibelius's Debt to Renaissance Polyphony Author(s): Lionel Pike Source: Music & Letters, Vol. 55, No. 3 (Jul., 1974), pp.
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SIBELIUS'S DEBT TO RENAISSANCE POLYPHONY
BY LIONEL PIKE
"THE error of our day has been its faith in polyphony. It has seemed as if people imagined that the whole had become better by placing nonentities on top of each other. Polyphony is, of course, a force when there is good reason for it, but for a long time it has seemed as if an illness had been raging among composers". Sibelius's own view of polyphony, as quoted here by Ekman, does not exclude him from admiring the work of Palestrinal or using polyphony should there be a good reason for it. In fact, his love of the music of Palestrina, Lassus and the English Tudor composers is almost as well known as his remark that what interested him in symphonic writing was "the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motives".2 This view did not prevent him from insisting on the importance of the aural effect of the music; he said of his sixth symphony: "You may analyse it and explain it theoretically.-You may find that there are several interesting things going on. But most people forget that it is, above all, a poem". The reference here was to analysts who saw the 'unity' of the symphony in terms of the derivation of the motifs from one melodic germ-a view that misses the real point of the work. An understanding of its nature can nevertheless give greater depth to our appreciation of the poetry. The sixth symphony is the work which commentators have most frequently said to be influenced by Renaissance polyphony, 8 and the object of this article is to explore those facets of Sibelius's writing in this work which are attributable to that influence. The features normally singled out are modality and counterpoint, but to mention these is merely to scratch the surface. Before discussing modality and counterpoint in detail, it is essential to outline the main features of the formal structure of the work. Many of the themes derive their material from a phrase of five notes rising by step in a minor scale; this phrase is first heard in its entirety on p. 2,4just after Letter A, on the first oboe; its significance is emphasized by the fact that this is the point at which the tonic of the
1 See Harold E. Johnson, 'Sibelius' (London, x959), pp. 160 foil. 2 See David Cherniavsky, 'Special Characteristics of Sibelius's Style', in Gerald Abraham, 'Sibelius; A Symposium' (London, 1952), pp. I65 foll. 3 See, for instance, Wilfred Mellers, 'Sibelius and the Modern Mind', Music Survey,i (1949), p. I80. 4 All such references are given to the miniature score published by Wilhelm Hansen, No. 3343b: I have referred to the score rather than print examples, since copies are so readily available.
symphony is first firmly stated. The scalic pattern is alluded to in descending form before this point, and the idea occurs equally frequently in rising form and inversion throughout the work. The rising and falling forms are often balanced by being used consecutively or simultaneously as 'mirror' forms of one another. The former process results in a second shape which is of importance to
the work, '
; this is also used in inversion, and
is often extended by the employment of longer stepwise motion in both directions. Of somewhat less importance is a triadic arpeggio * -which is also and its inversion; and the phrase
used in inversion, and in reversion " *. The form
possiblyalso derivesfrom it; its falling fifth is often an -element of other themes. The "profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motives" goes deeper than this: as the work progresses one becomes more and more aware that a theme which at first hearing uses one of the elements isolated above may in fact have several others worked into it, and its overall shape or harmony may be governed by yet another.5 This much is not new: it is firmly rooted in the tradition of the German symphony-in fact, very much like Beethoven's procedures from the 'Eroica' symphony onwards. What is new is the treatment of modality. There had been modal symphonies before, especially by Nationalist composers, and Beethoven's own late works were becoming increasingly influenced by the modes. There is modal music by Sibelius before the sixth symphony (the sharp fourth of the Lydian mode was much to his liking). The originality here lies in the use of modality not merely in giving harmonic or melodic piquancy but also as one of the means of unifying the work. In England, Vaughan Williams was likewise using modes as the basis of his entire technique at this time, though he was writing in a rather different way. The Dorian mode had been the most popular in the Renaissance period until major/minor tonality began to replace modality, and it has also been the most popular in 'neo-Renaissance' music of the present century. By using the Dorian mode at various different pitches throughout his symphony Sibelius introduced a powerful new unifying element. For example, the opening movement is largely in the untransposedDorian mode; the second movement is in G Dorian (I shall refer to the transpositionsof the Dorian mode by stating the Final first, as here: thus G Dorian refers to the mode transposed up a fourth from D to G), the third movement is in D
s A great deal could be written on this subject-but this discussion is concerned. 318 that is not the topic with which
6 The deception (that is, starting in the 'wrong' key) extends to rhythm; Sibelius starts with what sounds like a slow movement-in effect chords of a dotted minim's length -before beginning to use much shorter note values.
Dorian with passages in A Dorian and G Dorian, and the Finale is mostly in D Dorian. As far as I am aware, this is a unique example of the use of transposed modes to replace keys. One of the advantages of the tonal system over the modal system when the former was being adopted at the end of the sixteenth century was that the major and minor scales could be used at various pitches, and a technique of modulating between them evolved: Renaissance composers did not modulate between the same mode at different pitches, and though some pieces changed mode or used a mixture of modes, this procedure was not normal. Sibelius, in his sixth symphony, has used the customary pitch transpositions for the movements of a symphony (subdominant for the second movement, a section in the dominant in the third), but he has used a mode-the of a major or minor scale at each of these same mode-instead pitches. The composer himself makes the point quite explicitly at the opening of the second movement: rather than go straight to the new 'key' (G Dorian), he has modulated into it after starting in D Dorian, the 'key' of the first movement: the tune itself, when it enters, also begins in D Dorian. The principle of modulating to the new key after beginning in the key of a previous movement is a well-known one, and can be seen in the slow movement of Dvorak's symphony 'From the New World' and the Finale of Debussy's string quartet.6 Sibelius seems here to be demonstrating its applicability to modes as well as to tonality. Other points of interest follow from this use of modes. Two characteristics of the Dorian mode contribute to its popularity and give it its special colour; in its pure form it is a minor scale, but the sixth degree is major and the seventh minor. In Renaissance polyphony, especially the late sixteenth-century music which was being rediscovered in the first two decades of the present century, and with which Sibelius would have been most familiar, this mode was subjected to a certain amount of modification by musicaficta, the result of which was to bring it closer to the modern D minor scale. Under certain conditions B's (in the untransposed mode) were flattened, and at cadence points C was sharpened to form a 'leadingnote'. These alterations did not always take place, so there was a certain ambivalence in the music between major and minor forms of the sixth and seventh degrees of the mode. In part this ambivalence contributed to the cross-relations which are a characteristic feature of English Tudor music. Sibelius was well aware of these features, and made full use of them in his own way. The seventh degree of the Dorian mode, as already stated, can be either minor (in the pure form of the mode) or major (to form a modern 'leading-note' at cadences): in the untransposed Dorian mode, C or C#. The opening of the symphony uses the mode in
its pure form, with frequent Ct's: the violas enter with a C~ (against a D minor chord) in the fourth bar; a C# in the bass is dwelt on at p. 4, bar 5, but is surrounded by statements of the natural form of the note. At the next appearance of C# we are reminded of this, since the same chord is used (p. 5)-it is, in effect, the very 'tonal' dominant ninth (C$ in the bass with E, G and B above it)-and the point is made clear by repeating it in a crescendo. During these the brass and timpani enter with a chord of C major repetitions (using Ct, according to the pure form of the mode), and this is left sounding when the string and woodwind chords are finished. The ear hears the bass as a C$-CL progression, even though the two are for a time sounding together. Here one could demonstrate an affinity with the type of cross-relationship often found in Tallis's music, but this would be a minor point compared with the use Sibelius actually makes of the C#-Ck progression, which has been caused by his reference to the ambivalence inherent in the seventh degree of the Dorian mode. The falling semitone now assumes an important place among the unifying elements of the work. The influence is first heard on p. 8 (from bar 0oonwards), where the woodwind keep reiterating DL-C (a progression doubled at the major third above); constant repetition of the progression again helps to make the point more clearly audible. The use of the falling semitone increases in frequency on the next few pages until the B Dorian tonality on p. I I is introduced with it (C--Bt in the bass); the new cello tune itself and its accompaniment at this point both include many references to it. In the enigmatic coda of the first movement the influence is first really strongly felt; and it partly explains the rather extraordinary end of the movement. Two brass phrases on p. 23 end with Phrygian cadences (the fall of a semitone being in the bass); the divided cellos have a tremolandopassage which makes a feature of the figure, and the paragraph is rounded off by a long Eb falling to D (again doubled at the major third above) in the flutes and bassoons: this Eb-D cadence has considerable importance in the second movement, and it is announced with some force. A scalic unison passage in the Dorian mode (p. 24, bar I I) ends by inverting the semitone (F-F$), so that the following sequential passage is in F# Dorian. The tonic is reached by the use of harmonies which reiterate the falling semitone, the overall scheme of the passage being Db-C. The Eb-D cadence of the coda to the first movement assumes great importance in the second; the end of the introductory chordal passage insists on these two notes in a passage of antiphonal chords in two different combinations of woodwind and harp. Again Sibelius uses repetition to drive the point home: the idea comes again (p. 27, bars 18-21) with the Eb's repeated before falling to D, and a further occurrence, on the notes Db and C, comes at the start of p. 30, where not only is the progression repeated, but each chord of the pro320
gression consists of repeated notes. The falling semitone affects the tonality briefly; in the horns on p. 28, where the descending semitones work against the rising string scales, in the progression on p. 31, and in the coda, which many commentators find puzzling. After Letter G (p. 35, bar 9) the first two bars have rapid string chords whose common note is Eb; the following two bars use Di, then bars five and six use C: the falling semitone progression D[-C (the C#Ct of the cross-relation at the opening of the first movement) is used to introduce G major. (The significance of this will be explained later.) When G Dorian returns (p. 37) it is with the Eb-D progression continuously repeated in the bass, repetition being yet again a means of making the point clear. The string figuration of this coda seems to foreshadow, in duple rhythm, a triple-time string figuration which frequently occurs in the third movement. In the third movement the semitonal motif is not used structurally, though it has some effect on the melodic writing. In the Finale the far-reaching effects of that initial cross-relation just after the opening of the symphony are powerfully felt in the continual downward semitonal sequences of the strings (pp. 66, 70, 78 and 79). At the great climax of intensity towards the end of the movement the semitone progressions are everywhere-there is scarcely a note on pp. 78 and 79 which is not part of either a falling or a rising semitone progression, as the two forms work against each other. That the struggle has reached its height here is also clear from the appearance, during these passages, of the only fff markings in the work; it reaches its climax on the fff unison B u on p. 80. This very loud and dissonant passage exhausts its influence, and the falling semitone has no further part to play in the construction of the symphony, except in a quiet retrospective passage on the last page of the work; here D Dorian becomes C# Dorian (p. 87, first bar) for the space of a single bar before moving back by further downward semitone steps to D Dorian. The final cadence uses a Ct (in accordance with the pure form of the mode) rather than a C#. A less obvious ambivalence in this work is between Bt and Bb. The lack of a Bb in the key-signature of most of the opening movement underlines the frequency of Bt's in Sibelius's use of the mode; the final cadences of both the first and second movements are modally very pure, and much melodic material is also in the pure Dorian mode. Indeed, the rising minor scale of five notes which is one of the features which unify the symphony thematically is none other than the Dorian diapente;and most of the other motifs isolated at the beginning of this article are compatible with the diapenteand diatesseron that mode. In the second movement G Dorian requires of the ambivalence to be between ES and Eb; and the Ek (the pure sixth of the mode), when coupled with the Db (C#)-C progression mentioned above, is the clue for the modulation to G major in the coda of this movement. At Letter H (p. 37, bar 4), Et is the note
common to all the chords; it is the descent by a semitone to Eb that moves the music back into G Dorian. The final great climax of the work already alluded to can also be seen as the result of the working out of the ambivalence between the major and minor forms of the sixth. In fact the climax itself is reached on a most significant note, perhaps the most colourful of the mode, Bt (p. 80). Sibelius makes the point clear, after all the previous chromaticism, by relating the note immediately to its scale with a few flourishes in D Dorian. As with the descending semitone figure mentioned above, this very firm underlining of the major sixth of the mode exhausts its influence, and it likewise plays very little part in the few remaining pages of the work. This is clearly emphasized by the introduction of a flat into the key-signature at the end of the Finale, and the use of D Dorian with Bb and Ct. A great deal of the tension of the symphony is clearly the result of modal thinking-the working out, in twentieth-century symphonic terms, of the ambivalence of CG and C$, Bb and Bb, inherent in the late Renaissance treatment of the Dorian mode. A feature of some Renaissance music in modes which naturally contain a minor seventh is the use of the triad on that degree of the mode; the opening of Palestrina's 'Stabat Mater' is a well-known example. The sound was so much liked that it was sometimes used in modes which do not naturally have a minor seventh; the B[ chord just after the beginning of Weelkes's C Ionian 'Three virgin nymphs' is a case in point. The feature was much copied by late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century composers who sought to avoid excessive use of the dominant-tonic (with its characteristic 'leading-note') cadence which is a vital feature of German symphonic music: the flat seventh was a useful and appealing alternative for the Nationalists. Sibelius's sixth symphony has remarkably few 'leading-note'-tonic perfect cadences; he also makes use of the type of progression found at the opening of Palestrina's 'Stabat Mater'. On p. 6 of the miniature score of the sixth symphony the music first begins to move away from D Dorian; it does so by means of tonalities which progress downwards by steps of a tone (C majorBb major-Ab major). The importance of this progression is shown by the fact that it appears at the first move away from the 'tonic'. The idea is used on several other occasions (for example on p. 8, bars 3-6; p. Io, bars 4-7; and p. I2, bars 3-7, where the progression is extended), and it will not have escaped notice that a falling scale is one of the unifying features of the symphony. The progression is made an integral part of the chords which accompany the main tune of the second movement (see p. 26, flutes, bars 4-6 and o-I I, for instance), and of the main theme of the third movement (see p. 41, violins and flutes, bars 5-7; p. 43, violins, bars 1-3, and many other similar runs, mostly in the strings). It is an integral part of the opening phrase of the Finale, and it also
occurs in that movement as a series of minor triads (p. 65, bar 3page 66, bar 4) as well as major (p. 72, bar 5-page 73, bar I). The usual downward movement of this tonal progression is, in the second movement, twice balanced by upward motion (p. 28, bars 4-I I, and p. 32). In most of the symphony the avoidance of'leadingnotes' is obviously deliberate; almost the earliest to appear, it will be remembered, was immediately contradicted by a Ct, with far-reaching effects on the structure of the work. Very few occur until after the climax already discussed, near the end of the Finale. It is only after thefff B that V-I cadences with a 'leading-note' begin to appear fairly frequently; not until the last page of the work does the music revert to using minor sevenths (the Cl's in the final bars; and the two high cadences in the strings, p. 87, bars 5 and 6). The relaxed feeling of the end of the symphony is attributable to several factors: the use of largely diatonic conjunct motion, the more frequent perfect cadences, the use of the minor sixth and the absence of the influence of the falling semitone (as compared with the rest of the work). The 'leading-note' and V-I cadence are, in fact, used in the opening theme of the Finale (bar 7 of the movement), and the freshness of its sound here results from its infrequent appearance in the first three movements. The cross-relation between the C# and Cb just after the beginning of the symphony can now be seen to be one of the most influential events in the work. Sibelius's other cross-relations, though not simultaneous cross-relations, show affinities with those of Renaissance polyphony, especially that written by Englishmen; the F#'s and Ft's on p. 4, bars 8-12, and p. 62, bars 4-6, make the point very clearly. The polyphony of the work is evident at even a superficial hearing. Sibelius gives the clue to the influences on the symphony at the very outset, just as Beethoven does. The opening few bars have a type of polyphony which is clearly derived from the late Renaissance, with its multiple parts, carefully prepared and resolved suspensions, and largely stepwise movement. This foreshadows many elements in the work; the very first sound, a major third, is the forerunner of much material which appears in parallel thirds; the work contains a considerable amount of conjunct motion, especially at the end and in the themes of an ecclesiastical character of which Sibelius was always very fond. Nevertheless, the opening sounds like no other composer than Sibelius; the cold, high scoring for second violins, the reversing of weak and strong beats for dissonance and resolution (as compared with Renaissance technique), dissonant entries and parts which move in mild syncopation all add to the effect of vagueness. There are, nevertheless, many elements in the symphony which undeniably owe their existence to Renaissance contrapuntal techniques; the many uses of antiphony (even within the space of a short melody, as for example on p. 5, bars I-4), the use of many5* 323
voiced free polyphony and of imitation (two examples will make the point: p. 4, bars I5-24, and p. 30, bars 7 foll., violins and violas), of various types of canon (a canon three in one in the strings, p. Io, in which each part is thickened to a triad; a canon four in two, p. I I, bar 8; a canon by diminution, page 12, bars 2 foll.; and a canon with augmentations at two different speeds, p. 38, bars 6 foll.-and these do not exhaust the list): also the use, typical in Renaissance music, of high and low blocks of sound juxtaposed, as in the opening of the Finale; and the suspensions and resolutions (p. 5, bars I-5; p. 86, bars I3-I4). There is, however, one other element besides the canons and spacing of blocks of sound. One of the features most often praised in the work of Palestrina is the balance of vocal lines: the way in which upward and downward movement complement one another, in which a leap is normally followed by stepwise movement in the opposite direction, and in which one typical outline consists of a sharp rise at the beginning of a phrase, followed by a gradual stepwise descent. I have already remarked on the tendency in the symphony to use the five stepwise rising notes and their inversion concurrently or simultaneously, and on the similar stepwise shape which rises and falls in an arch (or its inversion); the balance of these phrases is very much akin to those of Palestrina:
1st movement,p. 4
<^ ;; J#;J-~ j----1
rj J X
1st movement, p. 5
Such a balance of lines is clearly discernible throughout the symphony, although it seems that Sibelius has kept the perfect balance in reserve for the end of the Finale, after the great climax several times alluded to above:
if7 85 hF-C~
This balance is foreshadowed by the long canonic lines (in the woodwind) in the coda of the third movement: these legato lines are rendered the more effective by being placed after a great deal of staccato writing. Thus it can be seen that some feature of each of the last three movements is foreshadowed by material contained in the coda of the preceding movement. Similarly, the end of the Finale reverts to the feeling of the opening of the first movement, thus completing the cyclical pattern of the whole work. Sibelius's sixth symphony, even without the elements discussed in this article, is a work which is extremely tightly organized thematically; the amount of influence of Renaissance music in the work does not make it any the less characteristically Sibelian, as I have already pointed out. In analysing the piece I have not forgotten the composer's warning that it is, above all, a poem. It remains for me, as for many lovers of Sibelius's music, the most appealing of the symphonies. Here there has been good reason for the use of polyphony, and it is indeed a considerable force; not because of its most obvious feature (the independent contrapuntal lines) but because of the symphonic possibilities of its modality. The quotation which opened this article was reported from the year 1936, some thirteen years after the composition of the symphony, and some such reason as the kind of working which I have described above may have been in Sibelius's mind when he made the qualification: "Polyphony is, of course, a force when there is good reason for it". One cannot help but admire the genius of a composer who takes a fossilized concept such as the Dorian mode and so thoroughly works out its latent possibilities; who sees in the ambivalence of intervals in a single scale the means of creating and maintaining tension throughout a symphonic work, and of introducing that ambivalence in a manner which at once reminds one of English Tudor music and is yet true
to his own technique, as Harold Truscott7 reminds us; who, in doing all this, unifies his work in a unique way by means of his employment of that one mode, and leads it to an intense climax (on the most colourful note of the mode), after which the energy created by the symphonic struggle between the ambivalent notes is spent and the music relaxes into a tranquil coda whose lines have a pure Renaissance-like balance.
7 Harold Truscott, 'Jean Sibelius', in 'The Symphony', ed. Robert Simpson, ii (Harmondsworth, I967), pp. 80 foll.