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Inside the Music

Program Notes: A New Year’s Celebration

Stella Chen | © Fay Fox

The Minnesota Orchestra’s three-week festival spotlighting the music of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius begins on New Year’s Eve and Day with Music Director Osmo Vänskä leading Sibelius’ Second and Seventh symphonies. At the program’s core, American violinist Stella Chen makes her Minnesota Orchestra debut in five of Sibelius’ Humoresques for violin and orchestra.

The concerts take place at Orchestra Hall on Friday, December 31, 2021, at 8:30 p.m., and Saturday, January 1, 2022, at 2 p.m. The December 31 concert will be broadcast live on Twin Cities PBS (TPT MN Channel), with William Eddins serving as host, and will be available for online streaming and on the Orchestra’s social media channels. It will also be recorded for future broadcast on stations of YourClassical Minnesota Public Radio, including KSJN 99.5 FM in the Twin Cities.

Jean Sibelius
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Opus 105

Jean Sibelius’ final symphony, the Seventh, consists of a single movement—not as if several movements were stitched together, but as if movements unfold in alternation, or even simultaneously, with themes and motifs mingling together seamlessly. Also notable: a solo trombone delivers three noble incantations, building toward a sumptuously scored final chord.

The Seventh is Jean Sibelius’ final symphony, the culmination of a lifetime of work in the direction of concision, compression and organic unity within symphonic form. In this 20-minute work, the composer presents a seamless tapestry of motifs, all interrelated, all rigorously and logically controlled so as to create, as he expressed it, “an inner connection between all the motifs.” 

Sibelius’ Seventh is the ne plus ultra of the single-movement symphony. The composer himself was at first unsure what to call this work. At its premiere, which he conducted in Stockholm on March 24, 1924, it appeared on the program as Fantasia sinfonica. Afterwards he decided that it did indeed fulfill the requirements of symphonic design—not of symphony in the classical form of the model established by Haydn and Mozart, or even of the later works by Brahms and Tchaikovsky, but in the genre: a large-scale work striving for organic unity among its constituent parts.

Motifs seamlessly intertwined

As far back as Schubert in his Wanderer Fantasy for piano (1822), or Liszt in his Piano Sonata and Second Piano Concerto, or even as recently as Schoenberg in his First Chamber Symphony (1906), composers had been seeking ways of eliminating the formal subdivisions between movements, of telescoping several movements into one.

In his Seventh Symphony, Sibelius fused the constituent parts into a fabric totally devoid of seams, borders or divisions of any kind. It is not so much a matter of several movements stitched closely together as of several movements unfolding in alternation or at times even simultaneously.

The process is diametrically opposed to that of Gustav Mahler, whose monumental symphonies stretch out to 80, 90, even 100 minutes. Yet, interestingly enough, these two composers had great respect for each other. There is scarcely a moment of silence in the entire symphony; ideas and motifs follow one another without pause, at times overlapping, dovetailing and intertwining as well. There are really no themes one can leave the concert hall humming, yet the symphony abounds in memorable ideas and events.

The opening rap on the timpani is often regarded as a kind of “call to attention.” The ensuing scale-like passage in the strings constitutes one of the “seeds” or “germs” that will engender many of the symphony’s subsequent motivic elements. Three times throughout the symphony the solo trombone delivers a noble incantation that cuts effortlessly through the dense polyphony around it; each of these incantations is a kind of landmark on the symphony’s journey toward its final cadence in C major. The Vivacissimo is another of the memorable moments, as strings and woodwinds in turn race skittishly in every direction.

As this symphony fits no traditional mold, yet is obviously continuously active in the unfolding of musical events, the Cleveland Orchestra’s former annotator Klaus Roy suggests that the listener experience it as a “tone poem without a story or picture.” Hence, each listener must create his or her own program. Another annotator, Timothy Day, finds in its conclusion “a resolution...the dignified calm of a human spirit which has struggled and won through in a hostile environment.”

Brief, yet epic

Despite its relative brevity and the concentrated attention it demands, the Seventh Symphony exudes an epic character. Robert Simpson grandly regards it “like a great planet in orbit, its movement vast, inexorable, seemingly imperceptible to its inhabitants. [It] has both the cosmic motion of the earth and the teeming activity that is upon it; we are made to observe one or the other at the composer’s will.” For its New Year’s Eve review of 1933, the BBC played a recording of parts of this symphony while a speaker recited the experience of flying over Mount Everest.

Wind, air, movement and mountain landscapes are also evoked by Sir Donald Francis Tovey in his assessment of the symphony: “If the listener feels that unformed fragments of melody loom out of a severely discordant fog of sound, that is what he is meant to feel. If he cannot tell when or where the tempo changes, that is because Sibelius has achieved the power of moving like aircraft, with the wind or against it. An aeronaut carried with the wind has no sense of movement at all; but Sibelius’ airships are roomy enough for the passengers to dance if they like.…He moves in the air and can change his pace without breaking his movement.”

The late Michael Steinberg concluded his long and eloquent essay on Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony with a few words about the non-existent Eighth, which had been the subject of so much anticipation during Sibelius’ lifetime (he composed virtually nothing during the last 31 years of his long life) and which engendered so much speculation after his death. Steinberg fittingly puts the seal on Sibelius’ symphonic output by calling him “almost incomparably a master of final cadences.” Such will surely be most listeners’ thoughts upon hearing that sumptuously scored, final C-major chord of the Seventh.

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

Program note by Robert Markow.

Jean Sibelius
Selections from Six Humoresques for Violin and Orchestra, Opuses 87 and 89

Jean Sibelius’ Six Humoresques—of which Nos. 2 through 6 are performed at these concerts—require incredible technique from the violin soloist, and are light in mood, strong in personality and full of imagination.

Jean 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, five of which will be performed at this concert. 

A set of playful miniatures

These Humoresques are miniatures: the entire set of six spans only about 20 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.

Sibelius was pleased with the Humoresques (he said that he had found “an excellent format” for what he wanted to say in this music), and they should be enjoyed for their superb writing for violin, for Sibelius’ good melodies and for the flickering moods he creates here. This program begins with the second movement, whips along a busy rush of 16th 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

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

Jean Sibelius
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Opus 43

From an assortment of seemingly disjointed elements, Sibelius creates an imposing mosaic in his Second Symphony. One fascinating feature of the Finale is a wistful melody played over running eighth-notes, written in memory of the composer’s sister-in-law.

Sibelius’ Second Symphony is one of several of the composer’s works linked to the man to whom it is dedicated, Baron Axel Carpelan. As Erik Tawaststjerna tells us in his masterly Sibelius biography, Carpelan was considered “a hypochondriac who had done little with his life, had precious little money, and eked out a lonely bachelor existence…” When his parents opposed his plans to become a violinist, he did “the next best thing. He did all in his power to bolster the illusion of being in the midst of musical activity….In his dealings with Sibelius he showed real flair…and at his best, was a source of inspiration….” 

Carpelan first introduced himself to Sibelius in October 1900, but he had already been writing letters to the composer, full of advice, suggestions, interference, trivia, insight, gossip, hypochondriac laments and unsolicited opinions. Even before their meeting, Carpelan had commanded Sibelius to go to Italy, and his intuition was absolutely on target. In February 1901 Sibelius arrived in Rapallo, just below Genoa. Still depressed by the death from typhus of his youngest daughter, Kirsti, the year before, worried about the tough line recently taken toward Finland by Russia, inclined as always to drink and smoke too much, his marriage uneasy, the 35-year-old composer was in poor shape. But the tonic effect of Italy was extraordinary. 

“Fatally in love” with his symphony

By May, home again, he had accomplished much, particularly by way of sketching what he thought of as a four-movement orchestral fantasy: “I’ve now fallen fatally in love with [it]. I can’t tear myself away from it.” It became clear to Sibelius that he was writing neither a set of four tone poems nor an orchestral fantasy, but a real symphony. When the first performances took place—four concerts in March 1902, with Sibelius conducting the Helsinki Philharmonic—the composer’s triumph was complete.

Almost at once there appeared an article by Sibelius’ friend the conductor Robert Kajanus, who offered a political interpretation of the work that called the Andante a “broken-hearted protest against all the injustice that threatens at the present time to deprive the sun of its light and our flowers of their scent.”

Sibelius was distinctly annoyed. Nonetheless, such readings would surface again. Philip Hale’s Boston Symphony program note from 1924, for example, is full of terms like “oppression,” “patriotic feeling,” “brutal rule” and “the awakening of national feeling.”

This sort of thing had a comic pendant 16 years later when Virgil Thomson wrote that the only reason American orchestras played so much Sibelius was that Finland alone had paid her war debts.  Yet at that same time, Sibeliomania was at its zenith in America. It was soon to be intensified even more by Finland’s heroic resistance to invasion by the Soviet Union. By the time of his death in 1957, Sibelius had, most astonishingly, sunk into oblivion, to become the object of excited rediscovery toward the end of the 1970s.

Coherence and fragmentation

The Sibelius Second is now a very familiar piece, but its first audiences had never experienced music that begins and builds like this.

allegretto. At an easygoing pace, strings fairly quietly play a series of chords, 11 of them, that might be the beginning of a theme or an accompaniment in search of a theme. The 11 chords are repeated, then just the first five, twice. Now, in darker colors, the process begins again. Only this time, woodwinds and clarinets add a prettily chirping melody. Before the oboes and clarinets have gotten very far with their tune, the horns tell them they have the character all wrong, it should be soulful and slower. The woodwinds then resume their version. The strings, having first experimented to see what the woodwind tune sounds like when you play it pizzicato, upside down and very slowly, return to a basic-Finnish version of their chords; that is, only the gesture remains, the tune is gone. The horns carry on with their ruminations. And they all seem pretty much to ignore one another.

Gradually we come to feel the coherence of this music. What Sibelius wants us to perceive as most important, he positions accordingly, playing it more often or more emphatically. It is as though he had set himself the task of discovering the coherence and hierarchical placement of all these fragments. He himself put it more picturesquely when he once wrote, “It is as though the Almighty had thrown the pieces of a mosaic down from the floor of heaven and told me to put them together.” So, stones into mosaic, that is the scenario of this movement.

andante, ma rubato. A timpani roll sets the scene for the second movement. Basses alternating with cellos, both pizzicato, spell out a long line. Horns and timpani add punctuation to the bassoon melody, and quickly the heat is turned up, everything becoming louder, faster and more agitated. Antiphonal cries flung back and forth between winds and strings push the music to an almost strident climax; from there, it falls back in exhaustion from fff to ppp. When the music resumes after a long silence, the world has changed. Peace, however, is shortlived. Fragmentation overpowers coherence, and the music ends with a troubling abruptness.

vivacissimo. A version of Sibelius’ buzzing-string music sets the very quick scherzo in motion. A long silence, broken only by five drumbeats that descend from p to pppp, clears the air for the trio, an oboe melody, distinctly triste, that begins with nine repetitions of its initial note. The scherzo begins again, the trio returns; but before long a new idea—three ascending notes—insists on making itself heard, and this soon bursts forth as the principal theme of the finale.

finale: allegro moderato. This theme, simple as it is, generates powerfully thrusting forward motion. The most fascinating feature of this Finale, however, is a wistful melody played obsessively over running eighth-notes in the lower strings. This passage, Tawaststjerna learned from the composer’s widow, was written in memory of his sister-in-law, who had recently taken her own life. The issue of this obsession when it seizes the music for the second time is the renewed blaze of D major in which the symphony so triumphantly ends.

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

Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford, 1995), used with permission.