When Sibelius turned fifty, the Finnish government commissioned a symphony to commemorate his birthday. That day, 8th December 1915, was declared as a national holiday. Sibelius went on to revise the symphony four years later and that version stands today.
After the path breaking and dark A Minor Fourth symphony, Sibelius faced a point of tumult in his life. Despite the sonata form deformation in the first movement which incorporates a deceptive second movement within itself in the shape of a scherzo, the symphony still stands as a successful statement till date.
The journey of Sibelius from the abyss of the A Minor to the sunshine of the E Flat Major reminds us that rather than trundling along the path of the Fourth Symphony where he pushed the key sense to the borders of atonality, Sibelius wanted to focus on how the musical thoughts developed in his mind; he wanted that to dictate the format of the symphony. Unlike the psychological Fourth, the E Flat Major Fifth does not meander into the fathomless recesses of the soul. In fact, the Fifth has more links with his impressionistic tone poem, the sea spun `Oceanides' which was written in 1914.
The symphony begins with the cold spring sunshine. Sibelius called the swinging trumpet call of the first movement, `the Swan theme'. The horns open the symphony with a motif of two superimposed fourths with the woodwinds answering in parallel thirds. The whole symphony is characterised by this kind of tension between these types of themes that move forward in a step like motion like a cosmic rhythm which is pulsating in the background. The first movement climax is one of the greatest in Sibelius' oeuvre.
Swans gave Sibelius the inspiration for the grand main theme for this E Flat Major Symphony. Sibelius had noted in his diary that he got the idea for the theme when he saw sixteen swans gliding in a pond and he was struck by their beauty.
The Second Movement he described in his diary as an earth song of misery with fortissimo and mutes. The movement opens like a single sea bird singing its forlorn song in G Major. It is like a theme with variations. The pizzicato of the strings with the parallel thirds of the flutes are pitted against each other. The key modulates later to E Flat Major. The recapitulation is almost like a reverie.
In the final movement, the Olympus swan theme comes out through the trombones. The strings rise as if they want to reach the sky. Sibelius builds up a symphonic tension here, the like of which is rarely heard as the symphony ends with the fortissimo blows.
Gennady Rozhdestvensky has given a magnificent definitive reading of this symphony with the Moscow Radio followed by Erik Tuxen/Danish State Radio and Lorin Maazel/Wiener.