Sibelius Concert - Symphony Pro Musica - November 1992

Concert to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Finnish independence

Program Notes by Robin Hillyard

Sibelius (1865-1957) is quite possibly the most underrated of all the major composers. His popularity comes and goes with the decades but he is never mentioned in the same breath as the great German composers, especially the ones beginning with B, M or S. In that sense, he shares a similar fate with three other brilliant but not universally accepted composers whom he follows in birth order: Elgar (1857), Mahler (1860) and Puccini (1862).

Jean Sibelius was born to a middle-class family in a small town less than a hundred miles North of Helsinki. As was considered proper at that time, the family spoke Swedish (Jean learned Finnish later in school) but was definitely Finnish in outlook. His father died when Jean was two and almost all influences on him after that were female. At that time, Finland was theoretically an autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire. In practice, however, the Russians were exerting more and more control over Finland.

Although not exactly a child prodigy (his first composition was at age 10 and he began violin at 14), Sibelius was nevertheless an accomplished musician, with prospects of becoming a violin virtuoso, and transferred from Helsinki University Law School to the Academy of Music when he could no longer repress the urge to devote his life to music. After graduating, he traveled to Berlin and Vienna before returning and building a house in the country where he lived for the rest of his very long life. Nature was always a strong influence on him and to many his music evokes the grandeur and wildness of the Finnish countryside very forcefully. Somewhat like Rossini, almost half of his life was not devoted to music at all as he became something of a recluse.

En Saga, op. 9 (1892)

This quite lengthy symphonic poem was one of Sibelius' first big successes, and was also one of the first in which he drew upon the great Nordic sagas for inspiration. Although the orchestration shows his mastery of composition (how many other opus 9s can you think of which are this good?), En Saga is popular mainly because it contains a number of great tunes! It begins in A minor but ends in the relatively distant key of Eb major. The beginning takes some time to develop, but soon becomes very boisterous. All sections of the orchestra get into the act, the brass having a particularly good time. After a middle section which alternates between tranquility and energy, the piece ends quietly with a hauntingly beautiful clarinet solo. There is no program as such so just relax and enjoy it.

Luonnotar, op. 70 (1913)

Given that Sibelius' mother tongue was Swedish, it is perhaps not surprising that many of his songs are in that language. Luonnotar, however, being from the great national epic, the Kalevala, is in Finnish. This song deals with the creation of the heavens: Luonnotar, a noble maiden, is fertilized by the waves of the sea. She prays to the god Ukko who sends a goldeneye duck looking for a nest site, which it chooses in Luonnotar's kneecap! When her legs shudder, the eggs fall into the water and break. Half the eggs become the earth, the other half the sky. Such is the stuff of legends.

Lemminkäinen's Return, op. 22, No. 4 (1895)

This, the fourth of the Four Legends from the Kalevala, is a brilliant orchestral piece, though somewhat overshadowed by the very popular Swan of Tuonela which is the "slow movement" of the same suite. It tells the story of Lemminkäinen's homeward journey from an island of virgins where he has found both adventure and challenge. Nevertheless, he seems to be happy to be coming home.

Thematically, the music grows out of a simple three-note motif in the 2nd bassoon into an exciting rondo ending with a display of full orchestral forces. It has been said that "he takes the tiniest drop of sound and from it draws a veritable ocean".

Violin Concerto in D minor, op. 47 (1903)

Allegretto Moderato - Adagio di Molto - Allegretto ma non tanto

Sibelius' only work in this genre is frequently overlooked when the "great" violin concertos are discussed but can justly claim its place in that lofty company. Indeed, judged as a piece of music perhaps more than as a virtuoso showcase, the very symphonic Sibelius work could quite easily outrank even the Beethoven and Brahms masterpieces. That is not to say, however, that the solo part is easy - far from it. It is more that the composer has conceived the music on a more symphonic scale by pitting the forces of the whole orchestra, even including trombones, against the solo instrument, almost like Berlioz did for the viola in Harold In Italy. In fact there are several instances of these solo versus tutti passages during the piece, all scored quite brilliantly so that the solo instrument somehow always manages to overcome the power of the orchestra, typically by virtue of its sheer beauty and lyricism.

The first movement has a plaintive, rather melancholy mood, starting in the very first measures. Starting and ending in D minor, with several other keys visited in between, the movement never leaves the minor mode. Throughout, the colors of the orchestra are dark and sombre, typified by the clarinet echoing the violin's opening statement in a relatively low register. Bassoons and oboes in the low register contribute much to the woodwind texture, while the flutes stand out only in the few passages with a more positive outlook. The low brass are used to add weight while the low strings and low-register violins sustain most of the movement. There are several cadenza-like passages for the soloist, but these are very much thematic and definitely not just virtuosic.

If we are surprised by the mood of the first movement, it is as nothing to the second. Here the composer makes that rather ironic use of the major key (Bb) which seems to be more introspective even than the minor. Again the orchestration is thick, dark and sombre and perhaps unique among slow movements of concertos. While the violin plays its sad melody on its lower strings, listen out for the bassoons and horns, playing pianissimo at the bottom of their range. What can have been going through Sibelius' mind at this point? Perhaps, having long before abandoned his dreams of being a violin soloist, he was somehow wishing to torture himself all the more. The movement continues in this powerful but stodgy mood and is, surprisingly, enormously successful and very beautiful.

Of the three movements, the third is certainly the most "normal". Admittedly, Sibelius could not resist the minor key again, but this time it alternates with the major. There is a sense of bravura almost and it feels as if jollity has triumphed over moodiness. The movement is over all too quickly and we are left with a sense of victory over a long and difficult battle. No doubt the soloist feels this more intensely than anyone!

Finlandia, op. 26, no. 7 (1899)

In contrast, Finlandia is an uplifting affirmation of faith in the Finnish people and their struggles against the imperialist Russians. It was another eighteen years before independence was won, but during those years this piece was to the Finnish something like Verdi's Va Pensiero was earlier to the Italians. In fact public performances were prohibited on the grounds that they would incite the people to further acts of rebellion. The central hymn-like theme played first in the high woodwinds and later the whole orchestra, had words added after the music was written. Don't be surprised to hear ex-patriot Finns quietly singing along at this point.


© 1992 Robin Hillyard, Symphony Pro Musica

Olipa impi ilman tyttö, Air's daughter was a virgin,
kave Luonootar korea, Fairest daughter of creation. 
ouostoi elämaätään. Long did she abide a virgin, 
Aina yksin ollessansa Dwelling ever more so lonely 
avaroilla autioilla In those far-extending deserts. 
Laskeusi lainehille After this the maid descending 
aalto impeä ajeli, Sank upon the tossing billows 
vuotta seitsemänsataa. Seven long centuries together 
Vieri impo ve'en emona Then she swam, the Water-Mother 
uipi luotehet, Southward swam and swam to North-West, 
etelät uipi kaikki ilman rannat. Swam around in all directions. 
Tuli suuri tuulen puuska, Then a sudden mighty tempest 
meren kuohuille kohotti. Drove the billows of the waters. 
Voi poloinen päiviäni, Oh how wretched is my fortune 
parempi olisi ollut Better were it I had tarried 
ilman impenä elää Virgin in the airy regions 
Oi, Ukko, Ylijumala Ukko, thou of Gods the highest 
käy tänne kutsuttaissa Hasten here for thou art needed. 
Tuli sotka, suora lintu Then a beauteous teal came flying 
lenti kaikki ilman rannat, Flew round in all directions, 
lenti luotehet, etelät, Southward flew and flew to North-West, 
ei löyä pesän sioa. Searching for a spot to rest in. 
Ei! Ei! Ei! No! No! No! 
Teenko tuulehen tupani Should I make the wind my dwelling, 
aalloillen asuinsiani. Should I rest it on the billows, 
Tuuli kaatavi, tuuli kaatavi Then the winds will overturn it, 
aalto viepi asuinsiani. Or the waves will sweep it from me. 
Niin silloin ve'en emonem Then the Mother of the Waters 
nosti polvea lainehasta From the waves her knee uplifted; 
siihen sorsa laativi Gentle there the teal alighting 
pesänsä alkoi hautoa. So she might her nest establish 
Impi tuntevi tulistuvaksi Then the maiden felt a burning 
järskytti jäsenehensä And her limbs convulsive shaking 
pesä vierähti vetehen. Rolled the eggs into the water, 
Katkieli kauppaleiksi And to splinters they were broken, 
muuttuivat munat kaunoisiksi. And to fragments they were shattered 
Munasen yläinen puoli From the cracked egg's upper fragment 
yläuseksi taivahaksi, Rose the lofty arch of heaven, 
yläpuoli valkeaista, From the white the upper fragment 
kuuksi kumottamahan Rose the moon that shines so brightly; 
mi kirjavaista tähiksi taivaalle, All that in the egg was mottled 
ne tähiksi taivaalle. Now became the stars in heaven.