Carnegie Hall Preview: Hilary Hahn Plays Sibelius

Carnegie Hall Preview: Hilary Hahn Plays Sibelius

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Full Program Notes:


Jean Sibelius
Born: December 8, 1865, Tavastehus, Finland
Died: September 20, 1957, Järvenpää, Finland

Symphony No. 3 in C Major, Opus 52

Of Sibelius’ seven symphonies, the Third may be the least played and least known—the composer himself referred to it as his beloved and least fortunate child. It has many subtle beauties, an indisputable strength of purpose and ideas that are developed in imaginative ways. But these are rendered less than obvious by Sibelius’ use of lean orchestral textures, air of classical restraint (in contrast to the heroic mold of the First and Second Symphonies) and economy rather than expansiveness in overall layout, as well as the absence of memorable, expansive themes.

Sibelius’ Third must have seemed quaintly anachronistic when it came out—around the same time as works like Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, Gliére’s Third, Strauss’ Salome and Scriabin’s Divine Poem, all conceived on a grand scale for oversized orchestra and filled with hyperemotional trauma.

But to Sibelius, there was something almost sacred about writing a symphony. He believed in the purity of the genre, and he believed that all symphonies since Beethoven, with the exception of those of Brahms, had been perverted into symphonic poems. “Music begins where words leave off,” he wrote. “A symphony should be music first and last...the essence of a symphony [lies in] severity of style and the profound logic that creates an inner connection among all the motifs.” As the late musicologist Michael Steinberg so deliciously said of this work, “there is no imagery and no drama for you to lose yourself in except that of the musical events themselves. This is like Haydn: you can’t do anything with it except listen to it, and it is meant for people who really listen.”

The composer conducted the premiere of his Third Symphony with the Helsinki Philharmonic on September 26, 1907.

allegro moderato: The first movement is in traditional sonata form, with two contrasting themes in the exposition, a development section and recapitulation. The opening measures bring us the first of those themes, a quiet processional in the lower strings followed a few moments later by a jaunty whistle in the woodwinds. The second theme arrives in the cellos in the key of B minor—a long, forlorn subject marked by syncopations and restless energy. The development section concerns itself almost exclusively with a rhythmic figure that formed a prominent component of the first theme—a grouping of four even 16th-notes, which Sibelius now turns into a continuous flow. The development grows inexorably in strength until it reaches a grand climax where the opening processional theme returns gloriously, now once again in the home key of C major.

andantino con moto, quasi allegretto: The rarely used key of G-sharp minor was Sibelius’ choice for the second movement, which consists of a single wistful theme of pastoral character heard in successive entries by pairs of woodwinds (flutes, clarinets) or in the violins. Two episodes interrupt the proceedings, the first a brief woodwind chorale, the second somewhat fitful in its stop-and-go movement and frequent changes of timbres. When the principal theme returns, it is now more richly and subtly colored.

moderato – allegro, ma non tanto:  The “finale” is peculiar in that it is actually two movements in one—not two separate movements connected by a bridge passage, but a single movement whose second half grows organically out of the first. The first half contains wisps and tendrils of motifs (“a flickering phantasmagoria of elusive scraps,” in the words of Jack Diether) thrown out in seemingly fragmentary form. These eventually coalesce into a broad, majestic theme with a distinctive rhythmic pattern of long-long-short-short-long, on which the symphony rides boldly to its grand, C-major conclusion.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings


Concerto in D minor for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 47

In 1902, the German violinist Willy Burmester asked Sibelius to write him a concerto. When Sibelius sent him the piano reduction of the first two movements in September 1903, Burmester was enthusiastic and suggested the premiere be given in Berlin in March 1904. But Sibelius had other ideas. Due to strained financial circumstances, he wanted the concerto performed as soon as possible, and secretly asked another violinist to give the premiere in Helsinki at an earlier date. What Sibelius got in the end was a far inferior soloist (a local teacher named Victor Nováček, who never did learn the concerto properly), a cool reception at the premiere, mostly negative reviews in the press and the justifiable resentment of Burmester.

Following the premiere, the concerto was put aside for over a year until Sibelius got around to revising it. He toned down some of the overtly virtuosic episodes, tightened the structure of the outer movements and altered the orchestration of numerous passages. The revisions amount to far more than mere window dressing, and the results are fascinating to compare with the original.

On October 19, 1905, the concerto received its premiere in the final form in Berlin, with Karl Halir as soloist and none other than Richard Strauss on the podium. Shortly afterwards, Sibelius’ friend Rosa Newmarch told him that “in fifty years’ time, your concerto will be as much a classic as those of Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky.” How right she was!

A “preference for the violin”

Sibelius’ affinity for the violin stemmed from his youth, when he aspired to become a great violinist. “My tragedy,” he wrote, “was that I wanted to be a celebrated violinist at any price. From the age of fifteen, I played my violin for ten years, practicing from morning to night. I hated pen and ink....My preference for the violin lasted quite long, and it was a very painful awakening when I had to admit that I had begun my training for the exacting career of an eminent performer too late.” His very first composition (Vattendroppar), written at the age of 8 or 9, was a piece for violin and cello. Although he left just one violin concerto, he also composed numerous short pieces for the instrument, mostly with piano.

The solo part is one of the most difficult in the entire repertory. Virtuosic passages abound, but they are welded to disciplined musical thought; there is no empty display material here. The orchestral writing bears much evidence of Sibelius’ deep interest in this medium, and serves a far greater purpose than a mere backdrop for the soloist. Dark, somber colors predominate, as is this composer’s tendency, lending an air of passionate urgency to the music. Note particularly the third theme in B-flat minor in the first movement, played by the unison violins, or the second theme of the finale, again played by the violins, with its interplay of 6/8 and 3/4 meters.

Attention to the formalities of sonata form is largely avoided in favor of originality of thought. In the first movement, there is no development section as such; instead, each of the three main themes is fully elaborated and developed upon initial presentation. A cadenza occurs at the point where a full develop ment would normally stand, followed by a recapitulation of the three themes, each of which is subjected to further expansion. In the Adagio movement, Sibelius contrasts the long, dreamy and reflective opening theme with a turbulent and darkly passionate section in the minor mode. The finale, in rondo form, calls to the fore the full technical prowess of the soloist. Energetic rhythms suggestive of the polonaise and gypsy dances offer further elements of excitement to this exuberant movement.

Instrumentation: solo violin with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings


Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Opus 39

Few first symphonies can claim the boldness, masterly symphonic thought and originality as that of Jean Sibelius. Only Brahms, Mahler and perhaps Schumann can stand next to him in this regard. Sibelius’ first essay in the genre was also his first major abstract composition, begun in April 1898 and completed early in 1899. The composer himself conducted the successful premiere in Helsinki on April 26, 1899. The symphony, the famous Finlandia, and two of the Legends met with such enthusiastic receptions that the Finnish government granted the composer a lifetime pension so that he could devote himself entirely to composition. Sibelius was not yet 36 years old.

The dark, craggy power of this work, its evocation of the magic spell of the North, the romantic melodies and its spirit of bardic sagas have stirred many writers to poetic commentary. Here is Robert Bager’s description: “The work abounds in contrasts. Herein is represented the unfettered, mercurial thinking of a young symphonist....The young composer pours great melodies into his work, melodies that sing with an exultant joy, melodies that rise and fall with tremendous intensity, and also melodies that are nostalgic and mellow and suffused with a tender pathos. There are grace and lightness in the music as it comes rushing to the creator’s pen. There are also wild, barbaric shouts, outbursts of tremendous passion, raging unbridled utterances that hurl themselves forward like the roar of giant winds.”

The Music

andante, ma non troppo – allegro energico. The symphony opens with a long, haunting melody for the solo clarinet, accompanied only by the distant rumble of timpani as a pedal point (a device Sibelius uses often). To the leading Sibelius scholar, Erik Tawaststjerna, this melody “rises in a broad arch and dips like a wounded bird in flight, before fading and disappearing in a primeval mist.” The sense of aching loneliness and bleakness imparted by this introduction is characteristically Sibelian, and is found frequently in his music. Also characteristic is the length of this theme, which seems almost to grow organically out of itself.

When the Allegro main section begins, we find still another Sibelian touch—a theme beginning in the violins with a long, sustained note, and gathering momentum toward the end in quicker notes. The theme is of ambiguous tonality, sharing qualities of E minor and its relative major, G. The theme’s coiled tension is fully released when the entire orchestra presents this idea in splendorous glory. Three more themes appear in this richly melodic exposition.

andante, ma non troppo lento. The slow movement is built largely from the initial theme—a slowly rocking, melancholic line played first by violins and cellos with mutes, which give an added tinge of greyness.

scherzo: allegro – lento, ma non troppo. The Scherzo looks back to Bruckner in its insistent pounding character, and even further back to Beethoven’s Ninth in the use of frequent melodic outbursts from the timpani. The central trio section stands in marked contrast in its idyllic mood, tonality (E major as opposed to the C-minor Scherzo), tempo (lento) and thinned-out texture.

finale (quasi una fantasia): andante – allegro molto. For the Finale, we return to the symphony’s opening gesture: that long, solo clarinet line—but played now by the entire string section (minus the basses) in a grand, heroic manner punctuated by solemn brass chords. Two strongly contrasted ideas are presented and developed: a springy, dancelike motif with syncopated rhythms, and a deeply expressive, soulful theme played first by the combined violin sections on the G string for extra warmth and sonority. The symphony builds to a monumental climax, but ends abruptly—with a strange, sudden tapering off and two pizzicato chords in the strings, just as did the first movement.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (both doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle and strings

Robert Markow

About the author

Montreal-based Robert Markow, whose program notes have appeared in Showcase for more than 15 years, is a former horn player with the Montreal Symphony who also taught at Montreal’s McGill University for many years. He is a program annotator for numerous orchestras and musical organizations in Canada, the U.S. and Asia, in addition to writing for leading music journals including Fanfare in the U.S., Opera in London and Der neue Merker in Vienna. He has led music tours to several countries and continues to travel regularly to Europe, Asia and Australia in search of musical stimulation, and to bakeries throughout the world for gustatory stimulation.