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Jean Sibelius (1865 - 1957)


En Saga, Op. 9

Christened Johan, known as Janne, the young Sibelius eventually adopted the French form of his name - Jean - after an uncle who was a sea captain. This uncertainty at the start of the composer's life was matched by doubt at the end of it, for from the age of 62 until his death at over 90 he published no further music. This is all the more surprising when one realizes that Sibelius founded, single-handedly, an entire national school of music which is still bearing fruit today. For today Finland leads the world in the excellence of its composers, conductors and singers - a remarkable feat for a country with such a small population.

Sibelius' greatest music is contained in the series of seven symphonies and a dozen or so tone poems which comprise his main orchestral music. The first major tone poem. En Saga, predates the first symphony, while the last tone poem, Tapiola, came shortly after the last symphony. The two tone poems have much in common, despite being separated by 35 years and most of his composing career. Both last about 20 minutes, and are wholly abstract compositions, depicting moods and feelings inspired by the Finnish landscape. Despite its title. En Saga has no story line - any epic story will do.

I had long thought En Saga an astonishingly fine work for such an early opus number, so it came as no surprise to learn that, although having first written it in 1892, Sibelius revised En Saga extensively in 1902, at the same time as writing the second symphony. This revision was major and deep - he shortened the piece by several minutes, altered several tunes and extensively changed the orchestration. Some aspects of the orchestration are very unusual - note for example the lack of timpani, the very long (but almost inaudible) cymbal rolls, and the single (but so effective) cymbal crash.

En Saga starts quietly and slowly, as fragments of various themes are hinted at. A long melody emerges from the depths of the orchestra; the tempo soon picks up and the long melody is transformed into a more optimistic incarnation. Several other themes are presented, all related to the opening material - this close relationship of all the themes is a feature of Sibelius's best music, and one of the reasons his music sounds so natural and organic, yet is also so subtle and complex. After a big climax the music relaxes and almost fades out completely. The pick-up is swift and the next fast section thrilling and dramatic. It ends with that single cymbal smash ("Let it ring" directs Sibelius) and the final section, with the keening clarinet solo fading into stillness, is as desolate as anything Sibelius ever penned.


Finlandia is probably the most well-known and popular of all Sibelius’s works. It is certainly the most political. For many centuries Finland was a province of Sweden, but in the early 19 century had been ceded to Russia, and by the latter part of the century was a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire, with a considerable amount of self determination. However in the 1890s the Russians tightened their control over Finland, and removed some of the autonomy the country had enjoyed. There was a strong backlash from all parts of society, and in 1899 the Helsinki press association presented a historical pageant celebrating the story of Finland from prehistoric to current times. Sibelius wrote incidental music to accompany the proceedings.

The final scene was called Finland awakes” and illustrated the last hundred years of the country, including its recent literature, the growing use of its own language, and its resources and technology. The music that accompanied this scene, with a little reworking the following year, is Finlandia. The message in the music is as clear as it was on the stage, illustrating the journey from the growling repression of the opening, through energetic striving for freedom, to the joyful and triumphant hymn of celebration at the end.

Karelia Suite
Intermezzo - moderato
Ballade - tempo di minuetto
Alla marcia - moderato

In 1892, the young Sibelius was married and the couple went for a honeymoon in the Finnish province of Karelia. This area on the Russian border, with its landscape of forest and lakes, is setting to many incidents in the Finnish national cycle of myths and legends known as the Kalevala. The combined influence of legend and landscape had a deep influence on Sibelius; this rapidly bore fruit in a series of compositions which established his status as a major national composer.

At this time Finland was a semi-autonomous province of Russia, but the Tsar and his government were having a hard time keeping the lid on a rising tide of nationalist feeling.

The following year (1893) Sibelius was asked to provide music for a historical pageant commemorating various incidents in Finland's history. From the set of eight or so incidental pieces he wrote, he subsequently extracted three to form a suite for concert performance.

The three movements are straightforward in design and appeal. The first, although titled Intermezzo is clearly a march, which gradually swells to a climax and then fades away; the second is a gentle reflective movement for strings and woodwind alone; and the third is an energetic march with two themes, propelled by a brisk dotted rhythm that keeps the energy levels high right to the end.

Prelude "The Tempest", Op. 109

Sibelius wrote a considerable amount of music for the theatre, most of which is now rarely played. The most well known is probably his music for Maeterlinck's play "Pelleas and Melisande", one movement of which has found popularity as the signature to BBC TV's The Sky at Night. Among other plays for which he wrote incidental music are Kuolema, which includes the famous Valse Triste, a play called Belshazzar's Feast (which is nothing to do with William Walton's splendid oratorio on the same subject) and a production of The Tempest given in the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen in 1926. The production was successful, and it moved to Helsinki the following year. The music was originally written for the unlikely forces of soloists, mixed choir, orchestra and harmonium, but was rescored for normal orchestra in the two suites Sibelius arranged soon after.

Even if you don't know Shakespeare's play it is obvious from the 5 minute span of this prelude that it opens with a violent storm at sea. The prelude is really a miniature tone-poem of extraordinary intensity, in which you can almost feel the surging seas, imagine strange distant lights, and hear the howling gusts of wind.

Suite "Pelleas & Melisande", Op. 46
1. At the Castle Gate
2. Melisande
3. A Spring in the Park
4. The Three Blind Sisters
5. Pastorale
6. Melisande at the Spinning Wheel
7. Entr'acte
8. The Death of Melisande

The plays and other writings of the symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck were very influential at the turn of the century, and none more so than his play "Pelleas and Melisande". Written in 1892, in the next 15 years it was set as an opera by Debussy, as a tone poem by Schoenberg, and both Faure and Sibelius wrote incidental music for stage productions.

The plot is typical of the symbolists; all shadowy with moods and emotions to the fore rather than any clear explanation of the action. Prince Golaud out riding one day discovers Melisande, weeping and lost in the forest, and takes her under his protection. The play charts her growing infatuation with his younger brother Pelleas, and Golaud's ensuing jealousy.

Sibelius wrote his music for a production in a Swedish translation (the official language of Finland at that time), and found it a relaxation from his other work at the time - the 3rd symphony and the violin concerto. It ran for 15 performances in Helsinki in March 1905, most of which were conducted by Sibelius himself. The concert suite he arranged from it contains 8 movements, all quite short, and of great charm.

The prelude, At the Castle Gate, with its noble horn calls, depicts the rise of the sun over the sea (making its use as the theme music to "The Sky at Night" slightly ironic). The portrait of Melisande features a cor anglais solo of a grave and haunting charm, while A Spring in the Park is carefree and relaxed. The Three Blind Sisters is a song, sung by Melisande in the play, of genuine feeling. After the light Pastorale, one can sense looming tragedy in the ominous picture of Melisande at the Spinning Wheel. The Entr'acte then leads to the final movement, depicting the Death of Melisande.

Tapiola, Op. 112

Tapiola, written in 1926, is Sibelius' last tone poem, and his last major composition. It closely follows his series of seven symphonies, and was followed by no other significant works during the last 30 years of his life. The title refers to Tapio, the Finnish God of the forests, and the score is prefixed with four lines of verse:

Wide-spread they stand, the Northland's dusky forests,
Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams;
Within them dwells the forest's mighty God
And wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.

Sibelius once claimed that Tapiola is "in strict sonata form", but that is a hard claim to substantiate, and it certainly does not sound like it. It is much closer to the highly original variation form which Beethoven developed in his late piano sonatas and string quartets. In this, instead of a tune with decorative variations, Beethoven strips the tune down to its basic underlying shape, or its harmonic progression, and this is what stays constant, while everything else - tempo, orchestration, rhythm, mood - varies round it.

In Tapiola, Sibelius takes an extreme approach never attempted by Beethoven. The whole work is based on the theme of a few notes, given in the first two bars. And all the other factors are varied only within very tight limits. There is no second theme to provide contrast, the tonality rarely strays far from B minor, the rhythmic pulse rarely strays far from a moderate four beats, and the mood never strays far from "ancient, mysterious, brooding and savage". There is an astonishing variety within this strict approach, but the result is an intensity and single-mindedness which is ultimately very scary indeed.

The music is in one seamless span, and lasts just over 15 minutes. After the shifting introduction, flickering through a variety of keys, the main theme is heard in the tonic B minor. (I would claim that the startling two bar silence is part of the theme.) In the next three sections the focus gradually shifts from strings to woodwind, becoming increasingly chromatic like wind moaning in the trees. The fourth section switches to a lighter and happier D major - the only key change in the piece, though it does not last long, and even this is not far from home. The next four sections move through an increasingly strange soundscape, at first with thin textures and curious whistling string harmonics, then more powerfully with snarling brass followed by a weird pizzicato passage for the strings in no discernible key at all. After an uneasy calmer section, a quite terrifying climax appears out of nowhere - the strings in panic-stricken chromatic scales (marked fff) and brass hammering the motto theme underneath. This seems to me "panic" in its original meaning: a great and unreasoning terror, attributed to the malevolence of the God Pan. The panic subsides as quickly as it came, and the music ends in a radiant, though hardly comforting, B major. But words don't give an adequate account of this music, which retains a puzzling yet powerful mystery. I suspect that to really understand this music would go a long way towards understanding the silence of Sibelius' last years - for after this, what else is there left to say?

Valse Triste, Op. 44

Sibelius wrote incidental music for a number of plays during his career, and in most cases his music has outlived the plays themselves. This is certainly true of the drama written by his brother-in-law Arvid Jarnefelt called "Kuolema" - though since the title means "Death" in Finnish, it is perhaps not surprising that the play didn't have a great appeal.

The Valse Triste accompanies a scene in which the principal character is at the bedside of his dying mother. She tells him that she is dreaming of her youth, and of attending a glittering ball. She is still dreaming when Death comes for her and, mistaking the hooded figure for her late husband, she begins to dance with him.

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