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8.570068 - SIBELIUS: Scenes historiques I and II / King Christian II Suite
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Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)
Scènes historiques • King Christian II Suite

 

The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius was born in 1865, the son of a doctor, in a small town in the south of Finland, the language and culture of his family being Swedish. It was at school that he was to learn Finnish and acquire his first interest in the early legends of his country. His musical abilities were soon realised, although not developed early enough to suggest music as a profession until he had entered university in Helsinki as a law student. His first ambition had been to be a violinist. It later became apparent that any ability he had in this direction was outweighed by his gifts as a composer, developed first by study with Martin Wegelius, then in Berlin and, more effectively, in Vienna.

In Finland once more, Sibelius won almost immediate success in 1892 with a symphonic poem, Kullervo, based on an episode from the Finnish epic Kalevala. There followed compositions of particular national appeal that further enhanced his reputation in Helsinki. During this period he supported himself by teaching, as well as by composition and the performance of his works, but it proved difficult for him to earn enough, given, as he was, to bouts of extravagance, continuing from his days as a student. In 1896 he was voted the position of professor at the University of Helsinki, but the committee's decision was overturned in favour of Robert Kajanus, the experienced founder and conductor of the first professional orchestra in Helsinki. As consolation for his disappointment Sibelius was awarded a government stipend for ten years, and this was later changed into a pension for life. The sum involved was never sufficient to meet his gift for improvidence, inherited, perhaps, from his father, who at his death in 1868 had left his family in some difficulty.

Sibelius continued his active career as a composer until 1926, his fame increasing at home and abroad, particularly with his series of symphonies, the first in 1898 and the seventh in 1924. An eighth symphony was completed in 1929, but destroyed. The rest was silence. For the last 25 years of his life Sibelius wrote nothing, remaining isolated from and largely antipathetic to contemporary trends in music. His reputation in Britain and America remained high, although there were inevitable reactions to the excessive enthusiasm of his supporters. On the continent of Europe he failed to recapture the earlier position he had enjoyed before the war of 1914 in Germany, France and Vienna. He died in 1957 at the age of 91.

Finland, from the earlier eighteenth century, had enjoyed a measure of autonomy as a grand duchy under Russian sovereignty. Growing nationalist aspirations of the mid-nineteenth century, however, suffered a setback in 1899 when the governor-general Bobrikov issued his so-called February Manifesto, removing the legal powers of the popular assembly, and going on to dissolve the Finnish army and introduce Russian as the official language. Opposition to these measures, with a popular appeal to the Tsar rejected, found an outlet largely in passive resistance by younger Finnish nationalists. The freedom of the press was now seriously curtailed by the temporary or permanent closure of some newspapers, with consequent difficulties for journalists thus deprived of their means of livelihood. It is against this background that the first set of Scènes historiques must be seen, music written to accompany a series of patriotic tableaux in a three-day festival in Helsinki in aid of the Press Pension Fund. The composition marks the first overtly political gesture of Sibelius, with a prelude and six illustrative pieces for full orchestra, the last of which, under the title Finlandia was later separately published, to enjoy continuing popularity.

From the incidental music of 1899 Sibelius put together a concert suite of three pieces, published in 1911 as Scènes historiques I, Op. 25. The first piece, All'Overtura, was written to accompany the first tableau of pagan Finland, with the bard of the first cantos of the Kalevala, old Väinämöinen, singing of ancient memories, while the Maid of the North sits on 'the sky's collar-bone upon heaven's arch', weaving cloth of gold and of silver. The second movement, Scena, depicts the Finns in the Thirty Years War, introduced by a passage for two bassoons, accompanied by muted strings, before the drama that follows. The third movement, originally an accompaniment to the fourth tableau, set at the court of the Swedish governor, Duke Johann, in the mid-sixteenth century, has the title Festivo and makes rare use of Spanish bolero rhythm and of castanets in its evocation of court festivities.

In 1912 Sibelius added a second set of three pieces, a matching suite, Scènes historiques II, Op. 66. He based these to some extent on parts of the earlier incidental music, the original prelude, the second tableau, the conversion of the Finns to Christianity, and the fifth, the early eighteenth-century conflict between Sweden and Russia, although the connection with these tableaux seems remote. The first piece, The Chase, is fully characteristic of Sibelius, as horns are heard through the mist, followed by the wild chase, with its impelling rhythms. Love Song has its first melodic interest offered by muted and divided violas, before the strongly-felt melody, with its harp accompaniment. At the Drawbridge is introduced by accompanying plucked strings, before two flutes offer the first melodic fragment, to be answered by the clarinets. The opening Allegro moderato leads to an Andante in which the chords of the harp assume importance, as the suite moves to a close.

The incidental music for Adolf Paul's play King Christian II was completed in 1898 and, with the omission of the Fool's Song of the Spider, formed a concert suite. The play, which enjoyed considerable contemporary success, is set in the sixteenth century and deals with the love of King Christian II, ruler of Denmark, Sweden and Norway, for a Dutch commoner, Dyvecke. The girl is loved by a Danish nobleman, who, unsuccessful in his suit, poisons her, provoking the anger of the king, who has the nobleman murdered, before taking further revenge. Sibelius was able to offer the music to Breitkopf and Härtel during a visit to Germany in 1898, with the help of Adolf Paul's recommendation, the foundation of his relationship with his future publisher.

For the purposes of the concert suite Sibelius changed the order of movements, starting with the Nocturne, a love scene, with many elements characteristic of the composer's future musical language. The second movement, Elégie, the original introduction to the incidental music, is scored for strings alone. It is followed by Musette, initially scored for clarinets and bassoons and to be danced by Dyvecke in the play, but in the suite given an additional string accompaniment. Serenade is taken from the prelude to the third act of the play, with music for the court ball, and the final tempestuous Ballade reflects the anger of the king.

Keith Anderson

 


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