The symphony is in four movements, with the third movement and the finale played attacca:

  1. Allegretto – Poco allegro – Tranquillo, ma poco a poco ravvivando il tempo all’allegro – Poco largamente – Tempo I – Poco allegro
  2. Tempo andante, ma rubato – Poco allegro – Molto largamente – Andante sostenuto – Andante con moto ed energico – Allegro – Poco largamente – Molto largamente – Andante sostenuto – Andante con moto ed energico – Andante – Pesante
  3. Vivacissimo – Lento e soave – Tempo primo – Lento e soave – (attacca)
  4. Finale: Allegro moderato – Moderato assai – Meno moderato e poco a poco ravvivando il tempo – Tempo I – Largamente e pesante – Poco largamente – Molto largamente

The duration is approximately 45 minutes.

In Finland, this popular work with its grandiose finale was connected by some with the struggle for Finland’s independence, even being popularly dubbed the “Symphony of Independence”, as it was written at a time of Russian sanctions on Finnish language and culture. Sibelius’s reaction to this has been widely debated; some claim that he had not intended any patriotic message and that the symphony was only identified by others as a nationalist composition, while others believe that he wrote the piece with an independent Finland in mind.

Tying in with Sibelius’ philosophy on the art of the symphony (he wrote that he “admired [the symphony’s] severity of style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motifs…”), the work grows almost organically out of a rising three-note motif heard at the opening of the work, which, after appearing in many guises throughout the entire symphony (and indeed forming the basis for most of the material) forms the dramatic theme of the finale. Interestingly this first theme is to be heard in a very similar passage in Rubinstein’s symphony nr. 4 from 1874. This prominent motif has the same melody, rhythm, and orchestration and is repeated in different permutations throughout Rubinstein’s symphony.