Program Notes: Vänskä Conducts Sibelius

Program Notes: Vänskä Conducts Sibelius

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Jean Sibelius

The connection between the Minnesota Orchestra and Jean Sibelius, explained.

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

Karelia Suite, Opus 11

Karelia is the area that runs along the border between Finland and Russia, and over the past millennium it has been fought over and controlled at different times by Finland, Russia and Sweden. After the fighting between Finns and Russians during World War II, most of Karelia was ceded to the Soviet Union, and the ethnic Finnish population was forcibly removed to Finland. Today most of Karelia is one of the ex-Soviet republics, but at the end of the 19th century it was an important part of Finland and one of the centers of Finnish nationalism.

Early in 1893, Jean Sibelius, then 27 years old, received a commission from the student association in Viipuri for music that was to be performed at a festival that fall. Viipuri was then the second-largest city in Finland (though today it is in Russia and is known by its Swedish name, Vyborg). Sibelius’ music was to accompany a series of tableaux depicting important moments in Karelia’s history, and the festival that autumn became the occasion for a nationalistic rally by the Viipuri students.

Sibelius worked on this music over the summer of 1893, composing an overture and eight individual movements. He conducted the premiere in Viipuri on November 13, 1893, when the score was performed as incidental music, played during and in between the individual tableaux. Sibelius subsequently drew out several of these movements to make an orchestral suite. Those movements varied, and the Karelia Suite did not reach the form we know today until 1899.

an early success

The Karelia Suite, consisting of three brief movements, was among Sibelius’ first successes as a composer, and it has remained one of his most popular scores. The opening Intermezzo accompanied a tableau that depicted a moment during the winter of 1333 when the Lithuanian duke Narimont collected tax tributes in the Käkisalmi district. The beginning of this movement sounds like Bruckner: over a quiet rustle of string sound, four horns sound the shape of the fanfare-call that will run through this movement, which is essentially a long crescendo and decrescendo. That fanfare is first heard in the distance, grows louder, passes by in all its buoyant swagger and fades into the distance. There is some glorious orchestral writing here, with brass calls ringing out over busy string figures, all of it underpinned by an accompaniment of bass drum and tambourine.

The Ballade accompanied a scene that took place in the Viipuri castle in 1446, when the nobleman Karl Knutsson Bonde was entertained by a court singer. In the original incidental music, a baritone soloist sang a ballad to the words of the old Swedish folksong The Dance in the Flowering Grove, but for the orchestral suite Sibelius transferred his vocal line to English horn. A clarinet duet outlines the opening theme of this movement, and this leads to a full-throated string chorale. Following the English horn solo, the music concludes with a quick reprise of the opening material.

The Alla marcia depicted the conquest of Käkisalmi by the Swedish general Pontus De la Gardie in 1580. At the premiere, the opening section of the movement was accompanied by a fireworks display, recalling De la Gardie’s military victory. Sibelius adapted the second half of the movement, a march, for the orchestral suite. That march gets off to a comfortable start, full of dotted rhythms, then builds steadily to the grand, heroic conclusion.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, triangle and strings

Lake Repovesi in the Karelia region of Finland

A view of Lake Repovesi in the Karelia region.


Pohjola’s Daughter, Opus 49

In 1906 Sibelius took time off from composing his Third Symphony to write an entirely different work. For his inspiration, the composer turned—as he so often did— to the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic. The Kalevala was the work of Finnish philologist Elias Linnrott, who compiled his text from ancient verses, songs, and folk-tales and eventually expanded them to an epic poem of about 23,000 lines. The Kalevala tells of the adventures of three sons of Kalevala, the mythic land of heroes: Ilmarinen, the magic smith; Lemminkainen, gallant but reckless; and Väinämöinen, the wise enchanter and singing musician.

Sibelius turned specifically to an episode in the life of Väinämöinen. Returning home in his sledge from the northlands (known as Pohjola), Väinämöinen hears a strange sound above him, and—glancing upward—he sees a beautiful maiden sitting on a rainbow, weaving a tapestry of gold. He asks her to come down from her rainbow and join him in his sledge, but she will have none of it, celebrating her freedom and denouncing the vassal state of women who bind themselves to a man. But Väinämöinen persists, and the coquettish young woman leads him on, setting magic tasks that he must accomplish. Väinämöinen succeeds at all these, and then she gives him a final hurdle: from the shattered fragments of her spindle and shuttle, he must carve out a boat that will sail by itself. The old magician sets to work and is making good progress when disaster strikes—his axe slips, and he wounds himself in the leg. That wound bleeds for days, and only the intercession of a mysterious old man stops the flow of blood. Sadder but wiser, Väinämöinen concludes that the maiden on the rainbow may not be for him after all, and he resumes his journey philosophically.

Sibelius wrote Pohjola’s Daughter during the era of Strauss’ great tone poems, and Sibelius knew Strauss and admired those works. Strauss once bragged that he could set a glass of beer to music, but Sibelius was not interested in that sort of precise musical scene-painting. Listeners should regard Pohjola’s Daughter as a work inspired generally by this epic tale rather than as the attempt to depict it literally—Sibelius himself referred to it not as a tone poem but as a “symphonic fantasia.” It is, of course, tempting to make out a depiction of Väinämöinen in the brooding cello solo at the beginning or to sense the maiden on her rainbow in the alluring episode that follows. But all this must remain speculation, as Sibelius is interested more in atmosphere and mood than in dramatic detail. Pohjola’s Daughter rises to several massive climaxes, then falls away to an ambiguous, nearly-silent final note from the deep strings. Having flirted with and pursued a mysterious woman, Väinämöinen accepts what fate has dealt him and continues his journey homeward.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, harp and strings


The Oceanides, Opus 73

Sibelius’ The Oceanides got its start in an unusual way and in an unusual place. In 1913 the music festival in Norfolk, Connecticut, commissioned a new work from Sibelius, and Carl Stoeckel, director of the festival and a patron of the arts, asked the composer for a choral work. Sibelius accepted the commission, but as he worked, his plans evolved, and the choral work became instead an orchestral tone poem. Sibelius began this music in Berlin in 1913 and completed it in Finland early the next year. He came to the United States and conducted the premiere in Norfolk on June 4, 1914.

Carl and Ellen Stoeckel, dedicatees of The Oceanides

Carl and Ellen Stoeckel, dedicatees of The Oceanides, with canine companions.

evocative "ocean music"

The Oceanides is the only Sibelius tone poem not based on a Nordic subject. Instead, Sibelius turned to Greek myth and composed a ten-minute work called The Oceanides. In Greek mythology, Oceanus was the river that flows around the world and is the source of all things. Oceanus married Tethys, and they had 3,000 sons, who became the earth’s rivers, and 3,000 daughters, who became the sea nymphs, or oceanides. And so this piece may be thought of as “ocean music,” but it offers neither scene-painting nor story-telling, and listeners should be careful not to search for either of those. Like Debussy, who had written his own “ocean music” nine years earlier, Sibelius approaches his subject obliquely. In La Mer, Debussy set out not to describe the ocean but to make us feel the way we do in its presence. Sibelius sets out not to paint a musical portrait of sea nymphs but instead to suggest something of their character. It may be tempting to make out a portrait of the ocean in the rocking rhythms and splashes of color in The Oceanides, but this music remains elusive, evocative rather than descriptive.

Sibelius’ working title was Rondo of the Waves, and that suggests its structure. It is not based on themes that develop symphonically, but rather presents a series of short motifs that return in different forms across the span of this music. The tempo remains slow throughout, and the music moves from the rocking sound of the beginning through more rhythmic ideas and finally on to a great climax. This subsides, and The Oceanides falls away to its quiet conclusion.

Sibelius’ visit to America in 1914 was a great success. He was greeted enthusiastically everywhere he went, and Yale University awarded him an honorary degree. Carl Stoeckel and his wife, to whom Sibelius dedicated The Oceanides, were generous hosts, and the composer considered making a return visit to the United States. World War I—which began two months later— made that impossible. After the war, the Eastman School offered its directorship to Sibelius, but he declined that offer, and his trip to Connecticut in 1914 would be his only visit to America.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 timpani, glockenspiel, triangle, 2 harps and strings


Six Humoresques for Violin and Orchestra

Sibelius wrote his Six Humoresques for Violin and Orchestra in 1917 when he was 52 years old and had recently completed his Fifth Symphony. “Humoresque” is a term without a precise musical definition. It does not mean “humorous,” but refers to a piece that can be playful or capricious and is usually set at a quick tempo.

Sibelius trained as a violinist and became quite a proficient one, and he retained his affection for the instrument, writing a magnificent Violin Concerto and a number of smaller pieces for the violin. His understanding of the instrument can be felt in the graceful (and often very difficult!) writing for violin in the Six Humoresques.

These six pieces are miniatures: the entire set spans only about twenty minutes, and Sibelius accompanies the violin with a very small orchestra. That orchestra calls for pairs of woodwinds, two horns, timpani and strings, but Sibelius uses all these forces only in the first movement; thereafter, he uses only parts of that orchestra, so the accompaniment in these pieces can be quite minimal. Paul Cherkassy gave the first performance of the Six Humoresques on November 24, 1919, in a concert conducted by Sibelius in Helsinki.

The Six Humoresques do not need detailed description. Sibelius himself was pleased with them (he said that he had found “an excellent format” for what he wanted to say in this music), and the Six Humoresques should be enjoyed for their superb writing for violin, for Sibelius’ good melodies and for the flickering moods he creates here. The opening Commodo (“comfortable”) sets the tone, while the second movement whips along a busy rush of sixteenth-notes before vanishing like smoke. The next two movements are gentler: Sibelius casts the third as a gavotte and accompanies the soloist only with strings, while in the fourth the solo violin sings its long line above muted strings. The fifth movement, also marked Commodo, features a jauntily-syncopated main theme, and Sibelius rounds off the set with a final movement marked Allegro, full of sudden shifts of tempo and mood.

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


Tapiola, Opus 112

One of Sibelius’ most powerful and original compositions, Tapiola was also his last major work. Sibelius composed it during the summer of 1926, then lapsed into the silence that marked the final 30 years of his life. But Tapiola is a masterpiece, a magnificent conclusion to Sibelius’ career as a composer.

In Finnish mythology, Tapio was the god or spirit of the vast forests of the north. With his wife Mielikki, Tapio presided over those forests, inhabiting the woodlands, protecting animals, and receiving the prayers of hunters. The title Tapiola has generally been understood to mean “the realm of Tapio,” and in the score Sibelius prefaced the music with these four lines:

Widespread 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.

Tapiola is not a musical depiction of “the realm of Tapio”—it is not scene-painting—but is instead a powerful evocation of the mystery, magic, beauty and strength of those deep forests. The concentration of this music is remarkable: the entire piece grows out of its opening two measures, and that opening is simplicity itself: the timpani sounds a stark call to order, and strings stamp out a powerful chorale-like statement. This is the fundamental gesture of Tapiola, and over the next 20 minutes it will be repeated, fragmented, elongated and concentrated. It will move between sections of the orchestra, colored differently and heard at different speeds at the same time. Sometimes this theme builds up to moments of overwhelming tension, sometimes it sings, sometimes it dances, sometimes it turns playful. Sibelius was 61 when he wrote Tapiola, he had completed all seven of his symphonies, and now, at the end of his composing career, he wrote with the hand of a master.

endlessly ingenious

Everyone who hears Tapiola feels that this is evocative music, and it is easy to seem to sense the darkness and mystery of the deep forests, to “feel” snow whipping past, to detect the “wood-sprites” flitting about in the darkness. The English musicologist Donald Francis Tovey offers audiences the best possible approach to Tapiola: just “listen to it.” Don’t search for musical structures here (there are none), and don’t search for precise musical scene-painting (there is none). Instead, listen for Sibelius’ endlessly ingenious expansion of that opening figure, the many shades of color he creates, his sudden evolutions of mood and atmosphere. Some listeners have made out a gradual building-up to a great storm, with pine forests pitching in the snow and wind, but that must remain speculation, and it is a tribute to Sibelius’ writing that different listeners can sense so many different things here before the music fades into a mysterious silence fully worthy of the vast woodlands whose spirit it set out to evoke.

Tapiola was commissioned by the American conductor Walter Damrosch, who led the premiere with the New York Philharmonic Society on December 26, 1926. It was one of the few premieres of his music that Sibelius did not hear or conduct himself. When he wrote Tapiola, Sibelius had no idea that it would be his final major work. He was not ready to give up composing, and he did go on to write a few small pieces. He apparently made some progress on what would have been his Eighth Symphony, though that work—if it ever existed— vanished completely. But following these efforts, Sibelius lapsed into the silence that would span 30 years, until his death at almost 92 in 1957.

But in its beauty, concentration, and evocative power, Tapiola makes a fitting and magnificent conclusion to his career as a composer.

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings

Jean Sibelius at the piano in his home, Ainola in the early 1940s

Jean Sibelius at the piano in his home, Ainola, in the early 1940s.

Eric Bromberger

About the Author

After earning a Ph.D. in American Literature from UCLA, Eric Bromberger was teaching at San Diego State University when, taking up another of his passions, the violin, he joined the La Jolla Symphony Orchestra. Soon he was also writing its program notes, which drew enough attention from presenters and performers that he quit his day job to devote himself to music. Now, in addition to writing for the Minnesota Orchestra and giving pre-concert lectures for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he is annotator for such organizations as the Kennedy Center’s Washington Performing Arts, Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, University of Chicago Presents, San Francisco Performances and the San Diego Symphony. He and his wife Pat love chamber music, and this summer they’re playing in an orchestra that will tour Spain.