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Sibelius: A life in 10 masterpieces

We voyage through the great Finnish composer, Sibelius’s life via his ten greatest works, as Malcolm Hayes reveals one of the 20th century’s most brilliantly original voices

Sibelius

‘The English like vogues for this and that. Now it’s Sibelius, and when they’re tired of him they’ll boost up Bruckner and Mahler.’ Frederick Delius’s remark, made in the early 1930s, turned out to be prophetic. Sibelius’s music was then at the zenith of its fame and popularity, and his status as one of the great composers seemingly beyond contradiction. Sure enough, one of those Anglo-Saxon weathervane-like swings of fashion set in with a vengeance. Three decades later, Bruckner’s and Mahler’s symphonies, relative rarities before, had become the standard box-office material they remain today. And Sibelius? His music’s situation is strange indeed.

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Top 5 Sibelius works

There is a huge recorded legacy, crowned by BIS’s monumental complete Sibelius Edition. But performances today tend to focus on a small core of works. The Second and Fifth Symphonies, with their expansive manner and rousing perorations, seem to fit the bill. The same goes for Finlandia; and the Violin Concerto’s post-Romantic virtuosity ensures its appeal to leading soloists. Yet outside specially presented Sibelius cycles, of the kind occurring during his 150th anniversary year, most of his large output remains quite hard to come across in the concert hall.

To some extent this was always so. Works like the Fourth Symphony, or the symphonic poems The Bard, Tapiola and Luonnotar, present a level of originality and imagination so searching that they still disconcert many listeners. And today’s concert programming does not generally favour the quite short forms of many Sibelius works: ‘The Swan of Tuonela’ and ‘Lemminkainen’s Return’, once familiar, have become less so. The same is true of Sibelius’s incidental music for the theatre, a genre in which his touch was peerless. He excelled also as a composer of songs and choral music, but since these set mainly Swedish and Finnish texts, they tend to be seldom heard outside the Nordic scene.

Perhaps no composer has identified so closely with the natural world, nor conveyed its changing moods and atmosphere with deeper mastery and expressive force. These qualities alone are enough to place Sibelius among the ‘greats’. Yet besides his uncanny ability to evoke the northern landscape, Sibelius also revelled in the sunlit world of the Mediterranean south, both in reality (large parts of the Second Symphony and Tapiola were composed during visits to Italy) and in his imagination: the symphonic poem The Oceanides was one of several works inspired by the mythology of ancient Greece.

Who was Sibelius?

Sibelius’s father was a doctor who died in a typhoid epidemic when ‘Janne’ was only two, leaving a pregnant widow and a mountain of debts. Maria Sibelius took her family to live with her mother, and her children grew up in a music-supporting environment. All three siblings turned out to be exceptionally talented, to judge from the large amount of chamber music composed by the teenage Sibelius for the family piano trio, with himself playing the violin, his older sister Linda as pianist, and his younger brother Christian the cello. The family could not afford to give Sibelius an upmarket Swedish-speaking education, so he went to local Finnish-speaking schools instead, with fortunate consequences for his nation’s musical future.

Arriving in Helsinki to study at the recently founded Music Institute, Sibelius at once adopted his father’s feckless spending habits: he was to struggle with debt and drinking issues for the next four decades. His dream of becoming a virtuoso violinist received a reality check through his friendship with Ferruccio Busoni, the master-pianist brought in to teach at the Institute. Realising that this level of performance would be beyond him, Sibelius began to take his composing more seriously. A year of study in Berlin, then another in Vienna, widened his creative horizons. But not even Sibelius’s teeming imagination could have envisaged the acclaim that greeted the major work that followed, when he conducted its premiere in Helsinki in 1892.

To get to the heart of this enigmatic composer, we explore his life through his ten greatest works, casting a light, too, on some of his lesser-known, but equally fine musical achievements.

Kullervo

The patriotic Sibelius abandons his career as a concert violinist and pens his first masterwork

Kullervo tells the story of the tragic hero of the Kalevala, the Finnish national folk epic, in the form of a 90-minute, five-movement ‘symphonic poem’ for two soloists, male chorus and orchestra. Both for its composer and for Finland’s musical life, everything about the work was ground-breaking. Besides its sheer scale (by far Sibelius’s largest creation), Kullervo revealed a powerfully individual creative voice. The surging symphonic command of the first of the work’s three orchestral movements was unmistakable; and the sombre narrative power of the two vocal ones had no real precedent, except perhaps in the music of Musorgsky (which Sibelius didn’t know). Kullervo also shows the influence of the austere, chant-like idiom of Finnish runic folksong, examples of which Sibelius had heard and noted down the previous year.   

In 1888 Sibelius had met Aino Järnefelt, the 17-year-old daughter of an aristocratic family who, unusually for their class, were Finnish-speaking nationalists. It had been love at first sight, and a major impulse behind Kullervo’s creation was its composer’s need to impress Aino’s formidable family. It worked; the couple were married a few weeks after the premiere, and the first of their six daughters was born the following year.

Recommended recording:

Peter Mattei (baritone) & Monica Groop (mezzo-soprano), Gentlemen of the London Symphony Chorus & London Symphony Orchestra/Colin Davis
LSO Live LSO0074

Lemminkäinen Suite

More fine, evocative music flows from the composer’s pen, yet he struggles to achieve success in his homeland

Sibelius now grappled with the problems of success: how to earn a suitable living (a difficulty tided over by part-time teaching at the Music Institute), and what to compose next. A suggestion came from his friend (and drinking-companion), the conductor Robert Kajanus: why not write a purely orchestral work? Sibelius responded with the symphonic poem En Saga (A Saga), confirming his already remarkable command of orchestral narrative and momentum. He was branching out in other musical forms too. His first unaccompanied choral work, Rakastava (The Lover) is a beautifully imagined small masterpiece. More success came with the first of his suites of incidental music: Karelia, celebrating the history and culture of the north-eastern province of Finland (today part of Russia), was written for a pageant in the town of Viipuri.

The next major statement was a four-movement symphonic suite based on the exploits of Lemminkäinen, the roistering anti-hero of the Kalevala. The premiere in April 1896 had a fraught run-up, with the orchestra rebelliously disliking the composer-conductor’s new work; and the local press, no doubt reckoning that it was time to take Sibelius down a peg, was generally unimpressed. There was dislike both of the passionate romanticism of ‘Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island’, and of the dark sound-world of ‘Lemminkäinen in Tuonela’ (the Hades of Finnish folk mythology). The audience wasn’t entirely wrong: compared to Sibelius’s masterly revisions of both works in 1939, the early versions, despite wonderful ideas and material, are more prolix and less focused.

No such problems afflicted ‘The Swan of Tuonela’, whose long-breathed cor anglais solo, slowly uncoiling against a background of muted and divided strings, remains one of Sibelius’s supreme feats of imagination. (The idea had started out as a prelude to an abandoned Kalevala-based opera, The Building of the Boat; the original score is tantalisingly lost.) ‘Lemminkäinen’s Return’ is another tour de force of Sibelian symphonic development: the entire design grows from a tiny three-note fragment first announced by bassoon, generating relentless momentum on its journey towards the exultant closing bars.

Recommended recording:

BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
Chandos CHAN20136

Symphony No. 2

Sibelius at last finds his feet with his first two symphonies and wins fame with the rousing tone poem Finlandia

Shortly after the Lemminkäinen Suite’s troubled premiere, sly doubts as to Sibelius’s local reputation were triumphantly dispelled when he conducted ‘The Swan of Tuonela’ and ‘Lemminkäinen’s Return’, minus their sibling movements, in the town of Turku. Both works were a success, and began to make their composer’s name abroad. Sibelius kept up a prolific rate of production, interspersing songs, choral settings and piano music with work on a large project that was designed, at least in part, for the export market.

His First Symphony, performed and warmly received in Helsinki in 1899, is a strong and confident engagement with the demands of the form, with the predictable influence of Tchaikovsky offset by passages truer to the composer’s own voice. This reasserted itself in the Second Symphony, premiered three years later. A masterly first movement – stitching together fragmentary themes into a central development section, then unpicking them again – is followed by the tumultuous drama of the second; this is a struggle between two thematic groups: the first, darkly inscrutable one marked ‘Death’ in Sibelius’s draft score, the radiant second one marked ‘Christus’. A busy Scherzo then broadens out and leads without a break (a device surely suggested by Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony) into the Finale, with its resounding conclusion for resplendent brass and full orchestra.

Finnish audiences immediately latched onto music of such elevated splendour as expressing the nationalist spirit that was in the air. Sibelius firmly denied any such connection; those closing pages were in fact inspired by the forest setting of the home of painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela, where he had improvised the music during a visit in 1899. He nonetheless shared Finland’s determined nationalism, which had been further energised by Russia’s imposition of its February Manifesto in the same year; this abolished Finnish political autonomy, along with free speech and right of assembly. A pageant was organised in Helsinki in response, outwardly in support of the Press Pension Fund, in reality to protest at the suppression of press freedom. Sibelius had composed a six-movement orchestral sequence for the occasion; the last of these, ‘Finland awakes’, revised and renamed Finlandia, made his name world-famous.

Recommended recording:

Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Okko Kamu
BIS BIS-2076

Kuolema

Sibelius stumbles across his first worldwide hit with Valse triste – but misses out on a potential fortune

Sibelius’s output of incidental music for the theatre had begun in 1898 with King Kristian II, a now long-forgotten historical drama by his friend Adolf Paul. In 1903 a new project came up, this time not for Helsinki’s Swedish Theatre but for its recently launched Finnish counterpart. Kuolema (Death) by Arvid Järnefelt, Sibelius’s brother-in-law, explored a mysterious world of dreamlike symbolism in the manner of Maurice Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande (also the source of Debussy’s opera).

Sibelius came up with six numbers, of which the first, marked ‘tempo di valse lente’, accompanied the opening scene. A dying and delirious woman rises from her bed to dance with an imaginary partner; his place is taken by the spectral figure of Death; she collapses, and her son wakes to find his mother dead. This little waltz, with its poignant main theme and whirling central section, was liked at the play’s premiere but caused no great stir. Sibelius was happy to arrange it as Valse triste and to sell it for a one-off fee to a local music publisher. A few years later this firm sold it on to Sibelius’s German publisher, which issued it in every kind of arrangement; and Valse triste was soon being played by salon and hotel bands across Europe.

Sibelius never quite forgave himself for having missed out on a small fortune in royalty payments. Popularity on Valse triste’s scale is an unpredictable phenomenon, but the music is nonetheless typical of its composer’s exquisite touch in small orchestral works. Always keen to arrange his theatre pieces in a stand-alone context for the concert hall, he later conflated two more items from Kuolema into ‘Scene with Cranes’, adding a pair of clarinets to the string orchestra; the result was one of his most haunting creations.

Recommended recording:

Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä
BIS BISCD915

Violin Concerto

As with so many of music’s great concertos, Sibelius’s Violin Concerto gets off to an inauspicious start

The Kuolema music was a temporary distraction from work on a larger project – a Violin Concerto suggested by Willy Burmeister, the former leader of Robert Kajanus’s orchestra (the ancestor of today’s Helsinki Philharmonic). The new work’s creation was mired in problems, among them monumental drinking sessions in Helsinki’s Kämp Hotel; at one point progress on the Concerto was interrupted by a five-day hangover. Meanwhile, Burmeister very reasonably wanted more time to learn the new work than Sibelius would allow. The Concerto was premiered early in 1904, not with Burmeister as soloist but instead a young local violin teacher, Viktor NováΩek.

Able to draw both on his own violin-playing experience and his awareness of Burmeister’s huge technique, Sibelius produced a work of fearsome technical difficulty, and reviews of the performance indicate that Nováček was out of his depth. Despite his touchiness at press criticism, Sibelius was prepared to accept that the Concerto’s less-than-successful unveiling was not entirely due to his soloist’s deficiencies. A year later, a revised version was premiered in Berlin, conducted by Richard Strauss, and with a soloist, Karl Halir, well up to the job. Even so, it took many decades for the work to become firmly established in the repertory.

Sibelius had recognised that, as with the early versions of En Saga (revised a decade later) and the Lemminkäinen Suite, the Concerto presented too much material rather than too little. Besides reducing some of the solo part’s more extreme demands, the revision process mainly involved cutting the long first movement, omitting one of its two solo cadenzas, and generally tightening and trimming the overall design. The recent resurfacing of the original version confirms that, once again, Sibelius’s instincts were right: the revised score’s gain in musical focus outweighs the loss of surplus musical material, however attractive. The work memorably fuses two main strands of its composer’s by now mature sound-world – winsome late-Romantic lyrical expression in the solo part, and the strikingly dark colouring of the orchestra, above which the violin seems to dip and soar in flight.

Recommended recording:

Lisa Batiashvili (violin), Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim
DG 4796038

String Quartet, ‘Voces Intimae’

Drinking and cancer threaten Sibelius’s life but, in the midst of trouble, he writes one of his greatest works

Adding to his pile of debts, Sibelius in 1904 took out a loan to build a family home in the lakeside village of Järvenpäa, a few miles up the railway line north of Helsinki. In his own way he was as exasperated at his city drinking sessions as Aino was, and agreed with her that it would be wiser to live out of town. Somehow he managed to finance the building of Ainola (Aino’s Home) thanks to his modest annual stipend from the Finnish government (first granted in 1897), plus his fitful earnings from composing and conducting.

Further theatre-music projects helpfully materialised, including a score of wonderful quality for the Helsinki Swedish Theatre’s staging of Maeterlinck’s Pelléas and Mélisande. Two magnificent symphonic poems, the Kalevala-inspired Pohjola’s Daughter and the nature-depicting Night Ride and Sunrise, were followed by a Third Symphony, whose leaner, more classical manner and quietly introspective poetic streak marked a new stage in Sibelius’s development.

The same thoughtful tone dominates the five-movement String Quartet in A minor, written mostly during a visit to London in 1909. A year earlier Sibelius had been diagnosed with throat cancer, probably the legacy of his years of cigar-smoking. Painful surgery in Berlin proved successful, but the experience itself and fear of a recurrence must have dominated his thoughts in the years to come. A study in spare, austere part-writing offset by passages of whirling, demonic energy, the String Quartet has an unusual five-movement design, whose expressive heart is its central Adagio di molto; in a copy of the score inscribed to one of his supporters, Axel Carpelan, Sibelius wrote above some quiet repeated chords in E minor the words ‘Voces intimae’ (Intimate Voices). To Aino he wrote: ‘It is something that induces a smile even at the moment of death.’

Recommended recording:

Tetzlaff Quartet
Avi AVI8553202

Songs

Sibelius’s composing style takes on a fresh intensity and a invention that marks him out from his peers

The years immediately after Sibelius’s cancer diagnosis were dominated by work on a Fourth Symphony. By some distance his most austere and uncompromising statement, this explores at times an almost modernist level of dissonance, while also possessing a clarity of purpose and intensity of expression remarkable even by his standards. Something of the same spareness carries over to The Bard, another remarkable symphonic poem, where the orchestral harpist’s starring role consists almost entirely of simple chords.

From his pre-Kullervo days onwards Sibelius had produced a steady flow of voice-and-piano songs, mostly setting texts in Swedish, some of them in orchestral versions also. 19th-century Finland had seen a fine vintage of lyric poets, among them Sibelius’s favourite Johan Ludvig Runeberg, but he also ventured further afield to writers such as Maurice Maeterlinck and Richard Dehmel (whose Transfigured Night had inspired Schoenberg’s string sextet). In particular, his startlingly dramatic orchestral setting of Viktor Rydberg’s Höstkväll (Autumn Evening, 1904) pointed ahead to another exercise in Sibelian originality at its most radical.

Luonnotar was completed in 1913, in response to a request from the Finnish dramatic soprano Aino Ackté, who gave the premiere that year at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester. Many in the English audience must have raised an eyebrow at this extract from the Kalevala, telling how Luonnotar, daughter of the Heavens, gave birth to the universe through an egg that fell off her knee into the sea, and broke into pieces that became the sun, moon, sky and stars. A combination of a daringly exposed and angular vocal line and spellbinding orchestral invention (including two pairs of timpani playing in dissonant semitones) marked a high point in Sibelius’s magicianship in the art of word-setting.

Recommended recording:

Soile Isokoski (soprano), Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Leif Segerstam
Ondine ODE10805

The Oceanides

A commission from the US is eventually transformed into one of the Sibelius’s most revered orchestral works

In 1913 Sibelius received a commission from a wealthy American businessman, Carl Stoeckel, who ran a summer music festival at his country estate near Norfolk, Connecticut. Eagerly looking forward to his visit, Sibelius nonetheless managed to put near-appalling creative pressure on himself while composing Rondo of the Waves, as The Oceanides was originally named. His way of evolving a new work was by ‘flying blind’: the end result would be arrived at by a hair-raising and nerve-stretching process of trial and error, during which the composer often had little or no conscious idea how his musical ideas would take shape within their larger design.

In March 1914 he completed the score of Rondo of the Waves, and sent this to Stoeckel. A few days later he suddenly set about rewriting the entire work, using much of the same material, but reordering it into an entirely different layout: the title was now The Oceanides, evoking the sea-nymphs of Greek mythology. Aino Sibelius’s diary records how, in the hours before her husband had to leave for America, he sat up all night to complete the score, while a copyist wrote out the orchestral parts as each page materialised. The visit was a great success: revelling in Stoeckel’s lavish hospitality, Sibelius savoured the superb quality of the festival orchestra and the standing ovation that greeted the premiere.

The chaotic genesis of The Oceanides had brought about yet another masterwork – its composer’s only major musical evocation of the sea, proclaiming his mesmerising skill in generating exquisite musical poetry out of fragmentary, seemingly innocuous musical ideas. The work’s culmination – a storm-surge unleashed with immense power by low trumpets and trombones beneath soaring tremolo strings – is one of the great moments in all Sibelius.

Recommended recording:

Hallé/Mark Elder
Hallé CDHLL7516

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Symphony No. 5

Despite drinking to excess again, Sibelius writes his finest symphony after making considerable revisions

The outbreak of the First World War heralded extremely difficult times: Sibelius was unable to travel abroad, and royalties from his German publishers were cut off. Since his throat operation seven years earlier he had not touched alcohol or cigars – a period which the devoted and stoical Aino later described as the happiest of her life. Frustrated by wartime isolation, Sibelius now reverted to his old drinking habits, which fortunately did not hold up progress on his Fifth Symphony.

When he conducted the new work’s premiere in his 50th birthday concert, it had four movements, with a moderately
paced opening one ending unexpectedly in mid-air; after a pause came a speedy Scherzo, in the same key (E flat) and sharing some of the same material. Although the performance went down well, Sibelius withdrew the work for revision, and conducted a new version a year later. In this he joined the two opening movements together, so that the first flowed seamlessly into the second – a masterstroke achieved through a first-movement cut, two new transitional passages, and some modest re-working along the way.

Still dissatisfied, Sibelius for the next three years worked on yet another revision, while Finland moved towards embattled independence; the attempted takeover of the country by a Russian-supported communist movement was eventually thwarted by nationalist forces. In 1919 the Fifth Symphony’s final unveiling revealed a further reworking of the two last movements. The central Andante mosso was pared down to a simplified version of itself, perhaps by too much (the original’s greater range of harmony and incident somehow seems more convincing). But Sibelius had found a superb solution the finale’s problems: trimmed by a full four minutes, the music’s alterating fast and slower material now moved purposefully towards a glowingly re-scored final peroration, with its original two final crashing chords strikingly expanded to six.

Recommended recording:

London Symphony Orchestra/Colin Davis
LSO Live LSO0537

Tapiola

Sibelius bids farewell to composing with an inventive, albeit highly poignant, orchestral flourish

Post-war Finland saw Sibelius producing two more symphonies in quick succession. The Sixth and Seventh, which had been germinating for many years, share some thematic material but are essentially very different. The quiet, poised tone of the Sixth Symphony’s four-movement design is wonderfully set up by the loveliness of its modally coloured opening for divided strings. The idea of a one-movement Sibelius symphony then seems to have been difficult even for its composer to accept: when he conducted the premiere of No. 7 in Stockholm in 1924, its title was Fantasia sinfonica, before being renamed a year later. This grandly glowing masterwork – beginning and ending in C major, with the threefold occurrence of its magnificent trombone theme cross-bracing the structure – might have seemed a final culmination of Sibelius’s life and work.

But there was something more. After the completion of the music for a Copenhagen staging of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a commission arrived from the New York Philharmonic’s conductor, Walter Damrosch. The result was Tapiola, in which Sibelius was able to fuse the two central strands of his output, symphony and symphonic poem.

On one level, this is the wildest and greatest of all his nature-evocations (Tapio is the forest god of Finnish mythology). On another, the work is an unsurpassed feat of controlled symphonic mastery. There is one key: Tapiola never truly modulates away from its modally inflected B minor. There is essentially just one theme, proceeding through a sequence of spellbinding variations. There are two tempos, one double the speed of the other, mostly alternating in succession, at times operating simultaneously. There is no true orchestration, in the traditional sense of bringing together different instrumental families: instead Sibelius presents woodwind, brass, timpani and strings in unblended, stratified blocks of sound.

The same intersection of opposites is in the musical expression also. Sibelius nowhere else depicted so powerfully the remorselessness of the forces of nature. Yet from start to finish, Tapiola also conveys an aching poignancy and sadness that seem beyond the merely personal, more in the nature of a tragic vision. With the strings’ closing B major chord sounding like no chord ever heard in music before, Tapiola’s final pages convey that this is truly the end of something. Sibelius the man was to live for another 30 years. Sibelius the composer is saying good-bye.  

Recommended recording:

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Hannu Lintu
Ondine ODE12895

This article first appeared in the February 2015 issue of BBC Music Magazine. Words by Malcolm Hayes. 

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