Perhaps most apparent upon hearing the Sixth Symphony is that it is difficult to distinguish where one movement ends and the next begins.
In this regard the thirty-minute work has both a feeling of unity and of ambiguity to it. Sibelius in fact plays upon the ambiguity throughout the symphony through his use of the Dorian mode (not a major scale but not quite normal minor, either), the absence of themes in favor of undeveloped melodic wisps, and little feeling of obvious progression. The work instead has essentially a serene, ephemeral sense of stasis to it, and almost a painterly, two-dimensional use of colors rather than clear symphonic forms. Indeed, an argument could be made that the Sixth Symphony is more of a large-scale tone poem (though minus a program) than a symphony.
Whatever one calls it, the work’s first movement has the character of a quiet introduction; its second movement seems a continuation of that introduction; its third movement a very brief but more vigorous interlude; its final movement, containing the most extrovert motivic material, brings an eventual return to the serenity of the opening.
Thus, the piece ultimately has a cyclical feel to it, yet with little sense of motion en route.
Sibelius here has created a unique, utterly compelling symphonic work whose very essence is undramatic, confounding the Romantic idea of this large-scale musical form. It nevertheless sustains itself through enlivening musical interludes, which appear sometimes suddenly yet often without ceremony, but always growing out of a continuous musical fabric.
© Peter Kristian Mose